This is the third in a series of columns on Food and Horror that I’m writing for Ana and Thea over at The Book Smugglers. It first appeared on their site a couple of months ago.
It’s the problem of the other gullet. The not-ours gullet, the one that comes with giant teeth that also aren’t ours. You’ve seen the worst of them, no doubt: those jagged-edged pictures of great white triangles, the fossils from Megalodon that cover a palm.
In comparison, our teeth aren’t all that great. Let’s be realistic here: when it comes to food and horror, size matters. It it’s not the size of the teeth themselves, it’s size of the jaw… or the size it can be, having unhinged itself and gaping-ready to engulf the next victim.
We can’t do any of that. Our jaws remain stubbornly tethered; our teeth are small and have a multitude of purposes. Canines for carnivorism, molars for vegetation. Even pulled out of the gum with the roots exposed, they’re not something that reeks of threat. They don’t drip with poison. They don’t regrow but once – there’s no conveyor belt constantly pushing forward new teeth because the old ones got wrenched out with biting on bone.
We don’t have a carnivore’s mouth.
There are other things that do.
Sharks, Tyrannosuarus, salt-water crocodiles…
A few years back I was on internship in Sydney, gone to write science news articles for Cosmos. I spent my off-time sightseeing, and in one museum was preserved, behind glass, a stuffed saltie. It was 7 meters long. Believe me, it was: I paced it out. (From the back, so it wouldn’t see me coming. Even dead, I didn’t trust that thing.)
I gazed at that monster for a very long time, and as I watched it I could practically feel myself being booted a few rungs down the food chain. Had it come to life, in some grotesque parody of every mummy film ever made, I would have run for mine. Had I met something like that in the water, I would have been dead.
There’s not a lot you can do against a predator like that. I’m thinking here of the 2007 case of a Taiwanese vet who got his arm bitten off while examining a crocodile. (For loss of appetite, if you can believe it). Keepers tried to distract the animal from eating the arm. Bullets were fired at its head. They bounced off.
They bounced off. This is the type of creature the term “apex predator” was coined for. We like to think that’s us.
In horror, it’s never us.
The most apt term for this kind of horror – the one that deals with alligators in the New York sewer system, with flesh-eating insects and raptors conspiring to rip you to shreds, with the need for bigger boats and black water – is natural horror. Horror come from nature, that is – the thing we so often insulate ourselves from, carefully cordoned off in national parks and places of interest.
In fairness, the horror isn’t only natural. There’s a supernatural subgenre, where, for instance, werewolves feast on your poor quivering flesh and vamps come through the window at night to drink and gorge and make sure you understand exactly what side of the predator-prey equation you’re actually on.
The most important thing about this type of creature horror is, I think, how very thoroughly it subverts all our expectations. I’m not talking about the expectations of horror consumers here: confronted with a cast of characters in a creature horror story, we know that most of them will be dead before credits, and that they’ll be eaten in a number of increasingly gory ways. I’m talking about the expectations we have based on our relationship with nature.
Naturally this relationship will be different for everyone. A London stockbroker who barely leaves the city mile will have very different natural relationships than a Japanese fisherwoman or a San bushman. I tend to think there’s less romanticism about nature the closer you are to it but I also think that humanity in general has three primary routes of relating to nature, and these are all emphasised or subverted in natural horror.
The first is the desire to organise, to classify. One common motivator throughout culture or setting is the desire to learn, to increase in knowledge and information. We can’t do this without relating an object – or subject – to everything about it. (This is a canine; it’s sharp and used for tearing. This is a molar; it’s flat and used for grinding. What do these teeth tell you about the animal that has them?)
We do this with all the time with animals. My personal organisation system tends to the scientific, the Linnaean. If, in a free-associating exercise someone says to me “saltwater crocodile” my first thought isn’t evil man-eating beast from the pits of hell (Australia), it’s reptile. It’s reptile, then crocodilian, then evil man-eating beast and so forth. And even as I say the last I don’t think of it as a true classification. I’m aware that instinctive emotion is over-ruling the logic behind my organisational impulse.
(It works the other way as well. Once, after a late night viewing of Jaws, I was in that sort of half-asleep state, the one where your feet jerk away from the side of the bed in case of sharks. I was awake enough to know I was on a bed, not a boat, and no shark was going to breach the carpet and start chomping, but still. I was jerking. And then I was dreaming, and I was on a boat and, like Quint, my legs were halfway down the chewing, churning mouth of a great white. In the dream I was shrieking and shrieking and beating the shark around the head with a boathook, aiming for its eyes, trying to make it let go. It was what I was shrieking that was the funny thing. Still half-awake, my mostly-rational mind, the one that knew this was all a dream and that I wasn’t really fighting for my life, was screaming at the top of its lungs: Don’t hurt it, don’t hurt it! Not in the eye, Octavia, it’s an endangered species!!!
Such is the strength of organisation, of classification. Even when your legs are being eaten off there’s an angel on your shoulder and its name is David Attenborough.)
The point is: I have a system.
It’s not the only system. We’ve all got one. Try the salt-water croc exercise on someone along the north coast of Australia and their first response might be don’t swim in the river rather than reptile. It’s a geographical classification (safe river/unsafe river) and a situational one. Try the same question on an Australian Aboriginal person and the automatic response might be mythological.
We cut the world up into pieces, is what I’m saying. The type of blade we use to do the cutting isn’t particularly relevant here. It’s the mental structure we build to reflect the world around us that’s the issue.
Horror upends structure. It makes a total mess of organisation. It primes for a different response, and through narrative it pushes and pushes until, through the experience of horror, that system of organisation is thoroughly (if temporarily) subverted. It changes our relationship with nature – or at least what we perceive that relationship to be.
There can’t be a crocodile in Lake Placid. It’s too far north, too cold. It’s Maine. A crocodile living there goes against all the information collected so far. It goes against everything we know.
Giant anacondas don’t exist. They’ve been confused with other species, eyewitness accounts are unreliable, and if they ever were there they’re extinct now.
Great whites don’t behave that way. There’s no sign of it… probably gone back to deep waters, there’s no silence along the coast, no stillness to indicate a shark that size is still about.
It’s no accident that authority figures are often found at the beginning of killer creature stories. They’re there to tell you why-not. It’s practically an invitation for the monster to come to dinner, and of course it does. The paradigm gets shifted and we have to re-orient our perception of what we expect from the natural world.
In practical terms: if a horror film like Rogue or Black Water wants to scare me, to make me jump and watch through my fingers, it’s got to interrupt that mental connection of mine, the one that when exposed to saltwater crocodile spits out reptile. It’s got to bypass reptile and go straight to danger, get the hell out. It’s got to immerse me enough in fear for the characters that my organisational system is disrupted, swapping Linnaean certainty for the squeaky terror of the mammalian brain (it’s behind you!), the brain that survived in large part due to scuttling and blind terror under the feet of dinosaurs, due to the ability to run and hide and slide under the notice of the things that would make it dinner.
That’s the first step in creature horror, in remaking the horror consumer into something conscious – even by proxy – of its ability to be consumed. It’s the dislocation of normal that’s the worst. You can classify rats as pests and set out traps. You can make them friends, give them a name and slot them onto the safe list, the one reserved for pets, but if the rats start swarming, boiling up the stairs and chewing down the attic door to get to your warm beating body, Willard, then the neat little categories you’ve made for them mean nothing at all.
If you want to eat someone in horror, first you set them adrift in their universe.
Then you look at their ability to exploit things.
That’s the second means that humans have to engage with the natural universe. There’s organisational, the mental perspective, and then there’s the tangible counterpoint: the ability to manipulate. Every capable human from every society does this. Whether they make shelter out of bricks or snow or yak-hide, whether they build tools from bone or stone or petrochemicals, the manipulative principle is fundamental to the species.
It’s a principle that helps to reinforce the organisational, even. If you classify yourself, for instance, as a hunter-gatherer, then pretty much by definition there are things to be hunted and gathered, and tools to help you do so. A spear reinforces your identity as a hunter, an identity predicated on the organisational idea that you are a creature that hunts.
Until you’re not.
The ability to manipulate the natural environment and its inhabitants gives a sense of control. More than a sense, actually – it can give our species a legitimate, verifiable control over our natural surroundings and how they affect us. This control is necessarily limited – it’s one thing to experiment on mako sharks, as in Deep Blue Sea, making them more intelligent and monitoring their progress; it’s quite another to keep them contained and harmless – but the control is there, and it helps to reinforce a sense of order.
Until it doesn’t.
It’s extraordinary how easily, as a species, we designate areas as safe, like the seaside resort town of Amity in Jaws. In the minds of the summer flux of tourists, the lifeblood of the little town, Amity is categorised as holiday, as leisure and relaxation (in much the same way as Rogue and Black Water tourists treat their environments – it no coincidence that authority figures in creature horror are often supplemented with tourists, with people so disengaged from the natural world that they even package up and sell the experience of it, as if the ability to package makes it safe to do so).
Go to any beach like Amity and you’ll see the environment manipulated to match the belief. Lifeguard towers on the beaches, buoys and flags… as if sharks care about flags. As if swimming between them will keep you safe from those ever-replenishing teeth.
The manipulative is a wide-ranging means of engagement. It’s careless and careful, positive and exploitative and utterly fucking dreadful. It’s factory farming (come back from the flipside when humans are the ones being farmed, as in Soylent Green or Daybreakers). It’s nuclear waste, creatures turned mutant from radiation and out to get their own back. It’s engineered viruses that turn people into flesh-eating zombies. It’s tools to make monsters, and tools to keep monsters away.
We put a lot of faith in tools. They’re the high point of the manipulative principle, the things that allow us to crack open our own abilities, to exploit the world around us. We’re so used to them that when they fail it’s as if the ground’s fallen out beneath us.
Remember that Taiwanese vet? Imagine you’re him. Hoping to get your arm back from the crocodile that’s taken it before it’s eaten, or too mangled for reattachment. And someone shoots a gun at the croc and the bullets bounce back.
Now wouldn’t you feel just a bit let down? What’s the point of a gun, if not to successfully shoot things?
Without tools – or without adequate tools – we’re vulnerable. It’s one thing to dive in shark-infested tropical waters, as that poor unfortunate couple did in Open Water, but there’s a place of safety on the boat, that built construct that’s taken them safely out onto the reef and can take them safely off it again. When it sails merrily away, however, and they’re forgotten in the water with nothing to keep them afloat but their own tasty body fat, it’s immediately clear how inadequate the two of them are in the water, how incapable they are of ensuring their own survival.
If you want to eat someone in horror, first you set them adrift in their universe. Then you compromise their tools; their ability to make tools.
You level them down on the food chain, in other words. You remind them that, for all their accomplishments as individuals, as the representation of the most advanced species on the planet, when those accomplishments are taken away they’re nothing but a not-very-fast conglomeration of poorly protected meat.
Once you’ve done that, you drop them into a relationship. Not with one of their fellow victims, no. That’s not the primary relationship in a creature horror. The primary relationship is between the creature and the person (or people) it wants to eat. This overshadows everything else, and in doing so it subverts the final means that people have of engaging with the natural world: through their experiences of immensity.
Everyone’s done it, in every culture. They’ve looked up at the sky and felt small, looked at the world around them and felt dwarfed. There’s just so much of it. And especially for people living today, that awareness is supplemented by that of other species (the millions we share a planet with) and of our own (the billions we share a planet with). It becomes easy to think of things in aggregate.
Objectively, we know we’re part of the food web.
That knowledge becomes rather more immediate, however, when you’re being hunted by something that wants to eat you. The natural world narrows very quickly then. It becomes very personal. Natural immensity essentially stops existing, and everything is pared down to that one essential relationship. Nothing else counts. It barely exists. What good are billions of stars or three hundred thousand different types of beetle when you’re crouching in a mangrove forest scanning the water below your tree for movement? How can you really be terrified by a sense of the cosmic unknowable when a fin surfaces in front of your face? (You know what that fin means.) How can you feel any sense of awe at the immensity of space when an alien’s acid blood is eating through the hull?
You can’t, that’s how.
That’s what being food does to you. It makes you small. It cuts you off, first from what you think, then from what you can do. Then it starts to cut off the natural world itself, because there’s only so much stage set necessary for a sticky end, only so much blood that can possibly be spilled.
If you want to look at just how crucial organisation, manipulation and immensity are in creature horror, look no further than creatures of the supernatural. Look, for example, at vampires. No, not the sparkly ones. This isn’t that kind of horror.
I’m talking about the horror vampires. The ones who are meant to be frightening, who feed because they’re monsters and that’s what monsters do, and they don’t feel even the slightest bit bad about it.
Now, look at how characters respond to these vampires.
They respond with abstract thought. They respond with tools. Those tools are so glorified they essentially become fetish objects: the stake, the garlic, holy water. The cross. Oh, the cross. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
In a brief aside, though, there’s a difference between character reaction in natural and supernatural creature horror. It’s subtle and often inconsistent, but it’s there. In creature horror, when it’s the snake or the shark or the raptors that are after you, the typical fetish tool of other genres, the gun, is only moderately useful. More often than not it has little effect, or it jams or runs out of bullets at the crucial moment. Natural creature horror reduces the human to the mammal: characters must run and hide, must realise the uselessness of their tools, their new position on the food chain. Sometimes they come back with bigger tools, with better weapons (“We need a bigger boat”), but for the majority of the story they are reduced to mobile meat. With a natural predator, they tend to react as natural prey. There’s abstract thought and tools, yes, but these aren’t emphasised the way they are during supernatural horror.
In classic vampire stories, the tool is the whole point. It’s the linchpin of the story, and the characters know nearly from the get-go what they need to survive. What they need are the reminders of their pre-horror state.
Remember: everyone has a system. Everyone has a way that they organise the universe, and presented with something supernatural, that organisation disintegrates. Can this really be happening? the characters ask. Do vampires actually exist? Are they going to eat us? Oh my God! They’re going to eat us!
The role of the vampire is to reduce the human to meat.
The role of the cross is to allow the human to say I am not meat.
How does it do this? It does it in three ways.
First, the cross is a tool. There are precious few tool-users in the animal kingdom, and humans are the tool-makers par excellence. It comes from having big brains and an opposable thumb, from being able to manipulate matter, but it is also delineation. It’s that organisational impetus again: human are on the list of tool-users. They are not on the list of not-tool-users, and it’s widely accepted that being on the former gives a genuine claim to a certain level of superiority.
If you have a cross when you’re facing down a vampire, you’re more than prey, because tool-users are predators too – and thus the individual universe begins to right itself. Identity stops shifting, relationships settle back. If you hold up a cross to a genetically-engineered mako shark it will still eat you, because the natural world isn’t shuffled back into position by supernatural intrusion. If you hold it up to a vampire with mako teeth, though, you’ve got a chance.
Why is this?
It’s the organisational principle again, the one the manipulated object supports. Beating off a vampire with a cross is an obvious relic of Christian mythology – and that mythology has at its base the idea that humans are different from all other animals. It’s abstract thought: the ability to form links and religions and philosophies, to think beyond being red in tooth and claw. You think tool-users make a short list? Take a look at what’s on that one.
There’s us and then there are the rest of them – all of them – and the dividing line is harsh. Humans are superior, the only ones with an understanding of good and evil. Vampires don’t have that. They are purely evil, and so they stay moral inferiors. They might be stronger, they might be faster. They might be able to change shape, but on an underpinning, irrevocable level they lie beneath on the hierarchy of creatures inhabiting God’s earth.
This doesn’t work in natural horror, which tends to owe more to science and science fiction than to fantasy. A Jurassic Park T. rex with a clear opportunity for lunch isn’t going to pass up a tasty human morsel, because the natural world has no sense of moral or religious authority. It’s Darwinism all the way, the survival of the fittest. It’s the fundamental, individual relationship between a single predator and a single prey animal, the shrinking immensity of the universe to one life and the ending of that life.
In the supernatural, fantasy-based horror universe, the predator-prey relationship is never so isolated. The cross works because immensity exists, because there’s something to back up the idea that humans do stand apart, that they are not just meat, not just warm little packages for those who fly or slink or stalk about them, looking for a way in. The human relationship with immensity then overwhelms that with a single predator and that predator is subsequently diminished.
Except when it isn’t.
Horror, always a genre for exacting prices, has one for this. If a character wants to take advantage of being superior they have to really believe that they are. That’s an ever more difficult thing to do as science shines a light in shadowed places and we wake from long dark dreams to rationalism. I’m an atheist, myself. If a vampire jumped out at me and by a truly remarkable chance there was a cross to hand… well. I’ve seen Fright Night (the original, that is, not the remake). I know how well a cross you don’t believe in works, and the answer is not at all. I’ve seen 30 Days of Night, too. “Please, God,” weeps Kirsten, face to face with the worst of the lot, the head vampire Marlow. “God?” he says, looking up and then down again, shaking his head. “No God.”
Without belief, nothing works. Without belief, you really are just meat.
(I think you can guess what happened to Kirsten.)
I wrote a vampire horror story myself once, on this very topic: the power of symbols, the power of belief. It was really more about symbols than it was vampires. “Cuckoo” was published in a fairly obscure print mag and promptly sank from sight, but it did what I wanted it to. It layered mythologies over each other, Christian and pagan, Scandinavian and Transylvanian and Maori in the gum fields of 19th century New Zealand, and when the main character faced down the vampire, it was with weapons from a belief system not her own. She made them her own, however, through metaphor, through analogy, through the mutability of symbols.
She kept her universe organised about her, expressed that organisation through tool use, and through both accessed a wider universe, one built from ideologies not her own.
Meat doesn’t do that. She survived because she could do it when the vampire couldn’t. My sister laughed when she read it. “Only you would beat vampires by looking down on them,” she said. But fuck it, we are social animals. We understand power relationships and hierarchy. So do vamps.
There was a price to her winning, of course. In horror you never get away scot-free. But you can get away. You can avoid being eaten, if only you know what you are, where you are. If you know whether you’re an animal or not.
Sometimes being an animal will save you. Sometimes it won’t. That’s horror. It degrades unsteadily. It cuts down position and perception and the ability to find a place to stand upon, the stability of the world before. Before you were meat.