NeMLA23: “An End to the Anthropocene”: Climate Change and Psychedelic Horror

If fungi seem to be everywhere right now, that’s not just a result of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Fungi and their psychedelic possibilities have been all over horror for ages. Contemporary writers like Jeff Vandermeer, M.R. Carey, Alicia Whitely, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia have used the third kingdom for allegorical ends, turning the hallucinatory and transpersonal potentialities of fungi into critiques of settler colonialism, imperialism, and misogyny. Today, I’m going to discuss two films that use fungi’s psychedelic possibilities to respond to the terrors of the Capitalocene, Gaia and In the Earth. Both released in 2021 by Neon, these two psychedelic horror films have strikingly similar narratives: an outsider encounters people living in the wilderness who worship a fungus as a sort of consciousness of the Earth fighting against the coming climate collapse.

Poster for Ben Wheatley's psychedelic horror film, In the Earth.
In the Earth (2021)
Poster for psychedelic horror film Gaia (2021)
Gaia (2021)

The use of fungi recalls what anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing says of mushrooms. Their “willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes,” Tsing explains, “allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home” (3). In these films, however, fungi aren’t important because they can survive neoliberal ruin but because they act as a counterpower to capitalism itself. Fungi’s terrors are inseparable from its powers of appropriation. These films explore the uncanniness of fungi’s different ways of eating: the saprotrophic, which decomposes what it consumes; the parasitic, which lives off its hosts; and the mycorrhizal, which creates networks in symbiosis with other plants to exchange nutrients and aid ecological communication. The fungi of Gaia and In the Earth do a bit of everything, allowing fungi’s multiform powers of appropriation to make it resonate with capitalism. What cinches the allegory is that fungi is a diffuse networked system of appropriation. With their masses of hyphae, fungi elude description as individual organisms. What we see are the fruiting bodies of larger, more diffuse networks hidden in the soil that not only seem to have their own form of consciousness, but that can bring humanity into that consciousness through psychedelic experience. Both films rely on this conceit and use elements of psychedelic filmmaking to emphasize the permeability of human and nonhuman consciousness. The result is a pair of films that try to convey the terrors of climate change from the Earth’s perspective.

For that reason, these films force us to confront ecofascism, what Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier concisely defined as “[emphasizing] the supremacy of the ‘Earth’ over people; [evoking] ‘feelings’ and intuition at the expense of reason; and [upholding] a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism” (11). The far-right has long had what Sam Moore and Alex Roberts call “an ambivalence toward capitalism” (11). This ambivalence allows far-right ecologism to decry neoliberalism and environmental destruction on the one hand, and to treat climate change’s catastrophic effects on the global south as “racialized ineptitude” (42) on the other. To escape the impasses of the Capitalocene, far-right ecological thought seeks its solutions in ideas of Earth supremacy and naturalized hierarchies based in racialization.

Gaia makes these stakes clear almost immediately. From South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer, the film presents its fungus as part of a reimagining of James Lovelock and Lynn Margolis’s “Gaia hypothesis,” the idea that “life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favorable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms” (Lovelock 254-55). Bouwer’s film asks what would happen if the Earth realized that the best way to do this was to eliminate humanity? This desire is shared by two back-to-the-land Afrikaaners, Barend and his son Stefan. Barend preaches a form of Earth-supremacy. The fungus will cleanse the world of humanity, he says, and “bring an end to the Anthropocene.” Barend’s eco-fascism seems implicitly allied to white supremacy, if only because he opposes the film’s two people of color, rangers sent to monitor the forest. One of them is quickly killed by the fungus, but the other, Gabi, seeks refuge in his cabin after one of his traps stabs her in the foot. Not only does Barend reject South African modernity, he also tries to hide his conversations from Gabi by speaking Afrikaans with his son. This doesn’t work, but the meaning is clear, and that’s before we see that his fungus worship has a lot to do with blood and soil. The fungus ties them to the Earth with its blood. When a fungus-headed creatures attacks, Gabi winds up coated in spore-tainted blood and the fungus begins to colonize her dreams and her arms. Barend and Stefan ward off this control by offering prayers and sacrifices to the fungus in return for mushrooms that cure them of this infection. Stefan steals one for Gabi, which clears her skin but not her mind, and Barend thus decides to initiate her into his cult with another of the fungus’s offerings, a psychedelic mushroom. Her trip begins pleasantly enough. She melts into and out of the earth and has a sexual encounter with Stefan before the vision turns dark. Barend fucks the earth and Stefan appears with an arrow through his head. Later, Barend tells her he’s had the same vision. The fungus wants him to sacrifice Stefan. More blood for the soil.

Gabi will thwart Stefan’s sacrifice by giving it Barend instead. The film briefly gestures toward a pluralist happy state of nature with Gabi and Stefan living together in the woods, but the fungus quickly brings this phase to an end. With Barend gone, they can’t ward off infection and Gabi is quickly overcome, her body consumed by the fungus. Stefan then leaves the forest and  falls back into his father’s apocalyptic project. In the film’s coda, he wanders through an unnamed city dressed like the Unabomber and leaving a trail of spores in his wake. The final image, a half-finished burger slowly enveloped by mold, suggests the Earth’s revenge to be inseparable from love.

Gaia wants us to see these ecofascist ideas critically, but its use of gender hierarchies undermines this critique. Early in the film, Barend insists that infection turns humans into the violent mushroom-headed creatures that roam the forest. However, the film’s two women escape this fate to become part of the landscape: Gabi quite literally becomes nature, absorbed into the forest floor. Stefan’s mother, long dead by the events of the film, has been similarly absorbed. As literary critics know, the alignment of the feminine and the land is a persistent trope of colonial and imperial literature. That’s because it runs through capitalism itself. As Claudia von Werlhof writes, in capitalism, women are “the only people on earth who always under all circumstances count as ‘nature’” (“On the Concept of Nature” 103). The film hammers the point home in its opening and closing sequences when the frame literally turns the world upside down. [SLIDE 5] A God’s-eye shot of the forest canopy captured from a great height reduces foliage to the texture of lichen before the camera slowly tips over, placing the lichen-forest canopy above and the blue sky below. This inverted image then dissolves into a drone shot inside the forest canopy as the camera glides over a riverbed, splitting into a distorted mirrored image above and a clear image below. When the drone approaches a canoe, we see Gabi, and the inversion ends as the camera passes overhead. [SLIDE 6] The film’s closing images reframe this inversion to suggest that what we’ve seen—Gabi’s story—is the real inversion. The conclusion returns us to what the film suggests is nature’s proper domination, absorbing Gabi into the landscape. As she expires, the camera returns to the God’s-eye shot, this time of her body completely colonized by fungi before dissolving to the opening God’s-eye view of the forest canopy.

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) uses many of the same elements to surprisingly different ends. Dr. Wendel, a scientist studying the forest’s mycorrhizal network, has been lost in a UK forest, and Martin, a friend and colleague, heads into the woods to find her, guided by a ranger name Alma. One way to distinguish the two films is that Gaia exists in a world prior to COVID. The characters of In the Earth mask, test, and sterilize. When Martin approaches the ranger station at the beginning of the film, it isn’t clear where filming precautions end and fiction begins. Throughout, characters discuss the need to maintain a “sterile” environment. The people most fearful of contamination, though, aren’t Martin or Alma, both played by people of color, but the film’s deranged white researchers-cum-pagan-forest-worshippers. For Wendel and her ex-husband, Zach, fears of contamination camouflage their descent into madness.

Like Gaia, then, In the Earth is about ecofascism, here keyed to the rise of the far right in Britain. Wendel and Zach’s isolation in the woods has led them to become entranced by folklore about a forest necromancer, Parnag Fegg. Neither Alma nor Martin take the story seriously. Rangers have children draw Fegg before they go on hikes, Alma explains, so they’re too scared to wander off. Wendel, however, has come to believe Fegg is a personification of the forest’s mycorrhizal mat after she discovers its densest area lies under a Celtic standing stone. Her research hopes to discover how to communicate with the fungus, and she’s brought an array of light and sound equipment to do so. When her experiments fail, she turn to folk religion with Zach’s help. Together, they’ve decided the answer must be human sacrifice. And look, here come Martin and Alma. Taken as a whole, the racial division of the cast, the demands for sterility, and the turn to folk religion and human sacrifice suggest another ecofascist story, this one about an imagined return-to-origins and purity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr Wendel conducts her research for “the Fashdale Institute.”

Unlike Gaia, In the Earth is more circumspect about what it means to communicate with the nonhuman. Here the psychedelic also offers the possibility of communication between humanity and nature, but the people most committed to it are deranged. [SLIDE 10] Zach relies on trippy images, patternmaking, and offerings. Wendel, who pretends for much of the film not to accept Zach’s paganism, tells Martin, “Zach is trying to make meaning where there isn’t any.” Wendel is pulling Martin’s leg here, but the film does undercuts Zach’s beliefs. Nothing in its psychedelia supports ecofascist appeals to feelings and intuitions about nature. Instead, we see Zach wander aimlessly through the forest, claiming to feel its presence, but never knowing what it’s saying. At one point, overcome by fungal spores, he wanders in a hallucinatory daze and asks, “What do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want. Just tell me.” The film suggests the question is meaningless or unknowable. Wendel approaches communication along more scientific lines, but she is equally deluded. She uses the vibrations of the trees to produce feedback loops and trigger flashing lights in her attempts to communicate. The results are the sort of hallucinatory effects typical of psychedelic film: strobing lights, tracers, and tricks of persistence of vision. Wendel’s reasoning for these displays is no different than Zach’s. The forest network “wants to talk,” she says. “Nature is one giant system… This is the way to communicate with it.” Both Wendel and Zach believe climate change is so pressing that the forest must want to talk with us, if only to protect itself.

What In the Earth suggests here is that a capitalism increasingly deranged by climate change will intensify its violent repressions along racialized lines and it’s going to follow the divisions of existing imperial power. As the film shows, people of color are the first to suffer. Zach systematically tortures Martin, at one point chopping off his toes with an axe. When Martin escapes to the supposed safety of Wendel’s camp, she repeats Zach’s torture, cauterizing Martin’s wound with a heated iron. Both justify what they do as expressions of care. There’s never enough time to get Martin to a hospital. This is the only way. That’s bullshit, of course. When Zach attacks Alma late in the film, she drives a tent spike into his eye. He futzes with it for a moment then demands she take him to hospital. She doesn’t, obviously, but the point here is that suffering is for other people, and the benefits of science and technology for white environmentalists.[i]

Wheatley’s film lets us see something about eco-fascism, capitalism, and climate change that Gaia doesn’t: capitalism won’t spin off into reckless incoherence as climate change continues. It will keep pushing forward in its drive to accumulate value, even if it finds fewer and fewer commodity frontiers to exploit. Wendel’s research is a case in point. She wants to learn how to communicate with the mycorrhizal network to increase crop yields. The idea shows us one path capitalism is likely to take as the collapse of the biosphere closes resource frontiers. When capitalism can no longer rob nature, it will try to reimagine it as a recalcitrant workforce. Wendel’s research is the first step in what capitalism hopes will be a mere labor dispute with the Earth. After all, labor discipline and scientific and technological innovations have reclaimed productivity before. Why not again? What In the Earth adroitly shows is that these negotiations won’t work. They will, however, encourage the far-right’s murderous back-to-the-land fantasies of a purified nature, and it is the horrors of a supercharged ecofascism that psychedelic horror suggests to be the real terror of the Capitalocene.

[i] This scene also seems a play on Matthew 7:3 “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”