Is Prey scary? On a scale of one to The Exorcist, no. There aren’t any heart-thumping jump cuts, the fake blood is pretty basic (and probably strawberry flavored), and the Predator that terrorizes the main characters looks more like an ‘80s action figure than a legitimate scream.
But Prey—the origin story to the famous Predator series, set in 1719 and stars Amber Midthunder as Nanu, a budding Comanche warrior—is also terrifying. That’s because while it may involve an invisible alien with an insatiable need to stab things, its bigger villains are a reckless band of French trappers who desecrate the land, disrespect its ecosystem, and use violence as their only shared language. Of course, the arc of the Hollywood universe bends toward revenge, and after her tribe is attacked, Nanu vanquishes all the bad guys—people and UFOs alike. But when the credits finally roll, two things are clear: 1) Amber Midthunder is going to be a massive and well-deserved star. 2) The real monster of Prey isn’t the Predator. It’s colonialism.
Prey is the latest film entry into the emerging genre of eco-horror. As defined by the Center for Cinema and Media Studies, eco-horror “presents scenarios in which the environment itself horrifically strikes back at humanity, punishing our abuse of the [natural] world.”
You’ve definitely seen it before. Classic examples of eco-horror include Jurassic Park (“man creates dinosaur, dinosaur eats man…”) and M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. But something is different with this new crop of eco-horror films, because rather than turn a monster into a metaphor for the environment, the environment itself is what often fights back against human bad behavior. You can see it in Jordan Peele’s Nope, where monkeys and horses lash out against their human keepers before the galaxy itself takes a bloody swing. (Los Angeles Times critic Jen Yamato called it “the fatal mistake of underestimating a creature that's too dangerous to wrangle.”)
Nope includes bigger themes like the exploitation of hustle culture and the erasure of Black excellence. But just like in Prey, its people and planetary struggles are linked. Other thoughtful entries into the genre include They / Them, in which LGBTQ+ bigots are silenced with the help of a labyrinthine forest, and the upcoming Don’t Worry Darling, which (at least in the trailer!) uses the untamed wildness of the California desert to echo the uncontainable spirit of its trapped protagonist, played by Florence Pugh.
Of course, eco-horror themes can go off the rails, and turn the natural world into a literal threat. That’s often true of shark movies, which cast the natural ocean predator into a marine serial killer for shock value. Sometimes it’s funny—hello, Sharknado and its 2022 successor, Sharkula, which is a movie that someone actually made (with real money!!!) about shark vampires. But sometimes, it’s rotten. Take The Raquin, a 2022 slasher that switches psycho killers for Great Whites and perpetuates the myth that (regular, non-vampire) sharks are out for human blood, and must be destroyed at all costs. Depicting all sharks as rabid and dangerous onscreen leads to violence against them in real life—and since the species is crucial to ocean health worldwide, that’s a massive mistake. Also, let’s be real: Much like our high school soccer crush, sharks are deeply uninterested in us at all, and barely acknowledge we exist unless seriously provoked or confused.
Speaking of high school crushes, let’s add one more film to the eco-horror boom of 2022: Bodies Bodies Bodies. It stars Amandla Stenberg and Pete Davidson, and asks the vital cultural question, “What happens if Euphoria combines with Not Another Teen Movie?” The plot centers on a clique of tech savvy post-teens who lose internet access during a hurricane party and devolve into (very funny, surprisingly nuanced) violent idiots. And while themes of tech dependence and social media narcissism are the main issues here, Bodies Bodies Bodies takes place during a natural disaster, and an early scene shows the camera-friendly crew toasting the storm’s thunderous arrival as if Migos just opened Coachella. When the hurricane wipes out power, visibility, digital access, and even the roads, it becomes clear that disconnection from nature is as much of a fatal flaw for these TikTokers as a body count that rivals their follower count.
Studies show horror movies help us cope with uncertainty and anxiety in real life. (Researchers from the University of Chicago even found that those who watched thrillers were “more resilient” during the first few months of the pandemic.) Can this new wave of eco-horror films transform those with climate anxiety into people who feel empowered to act on behalf of the planet? The verdict is still out… but if you’re interested in feeling more engaged and less helpless when it comes to personal and planetary health, we’ve got a newsletter you should see. 😉