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'Eco-Horror': Green Panic on the Silver Screen?

While The Happening may not be happening for NPR film critic Bob Mondello, the movie is another example of what appears to be a cinematic trend: eco-horror.

The Happening's central environmental catastrophe puts it in the company of other recent pictures — think Sunshine, or The Day After Tomorrow.

In the next year or so, we can expect to see Avatar, directed by James Cameron, and remakes of The Swarm and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Of course, movies with environmental themes are nothing new. Back in the '70s — another era defined by an oil crisis and discussions of alternative energy — movie audiences entertained themselves with disaster movies (Earthquake) and creature features (Prophecy, Frogs).

What makes today's eco-horrors different is that the entire planet is seen as vengeful and malevolent towards its human inhabitants. Film scholar Kendall Phillips compares this crop of films to an old genre favorite: haunted-house movies in which the house becomes a kind of character.

"They're just expanding that so literally; the ecosphere plays that kind of menacing role," Phillips says. "Somehow, the planet has grown tired of us. We've overstayed our welcome."

Happening director M. Night Shyamalan jokes that the quintessential horror film for our time might turn out to be a documentary: An Inconvenient Truth.

Another director of environmental horror films, Larry Fessenden, says he hopes people will see his movies as cautionary tales.

"We don't want to wake up in horrible super storms," Fessenden says. "We don't want to have wars over the last drop of water. We don't want our shores inundated with environmental refugees. We don't want to live in a horror film. We want to go to them at the movies — and come out, and have a sweet and beautiful life."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.