- From the Century of the Pods to the Century of the Plants: Plant Horror, Politics, and Vegetal Ontology
Who Is (Still) Afraid of the Pods?
If, as Slavoj Žižek claims, films teach us what and how to desire,1 the plant horror genre seems to show us what happens when desire disappears. Jack Finney’s serial Body Snatchers, first published in Collier’s magazine in 1954, tells the tale of alien seedpods that take over a small Californian town by duplicating its citizens one by one and replacing them with unfeeling, conformist pod people. While the short story went through multiple editions and was undeniably popular in its own right, it is perhaps best known now for having inspired the two classic films that have come to define plant horror, both titled Invasion of the Body Snatchers (released in 1956 and 1978).2 In these film versions of the narrative, we participate in the dramatic loss of the world of human experience—through the eyes of those who escape initial transformation into humanoid alien vegetables—even as, visually, everything remains the same. Rewatched today, the films continue to confront us with the opposite of what we expect from cinema: instead of a space where our [End Page 32] projected desires appear, we witness desire’s end as the takeover by the pods brings about the demise of human need and feeling.
In their pitting of sympathetic humans against rapacious and invading pod people, the Invasion films have long been read as speaking primarily to their audience’s paranoia, including the anti-Soviet fears of Cold War–era McCarthyism, anxieties generated by the U.S. government’s use of atomic power, and concerns about the creeping standardization and proliferating bureaucracy that are among the privileged symptoms of modernity.3 With their emphasis on monstrously vegetal life-forms, these films show some affinities with the creature feature, particularly in their reflections on the intrinsic power of cinema to give us access to modes of being that threaten and overwhelm our own. The two best-known versions of Invasion can also be understood as especially compelling entries in the plant horror category—a genre that includes twentieth-century works such as The Thing from Another World (1951), featuring a vampiric carrot; Day of the Triffids (1962), with its carnivorous plants bent on consuming blinded humans; and Swamp Thing (1982), in addition to twenty-first-century variants The Ruins (2008) and The Happening (2008).4 While all of these films exploit the particular anxieties of the moments in which they appear—from Cold War anticommunism to worries over ecological disaster—the potential of their serial plant monsters (be they pods or people) is not fully exhausted in the projection of various real or imagined fears onto the vegetable’s monstrous nature. Indeed, the prospect of vegetal transformation, as envisioned by plant horror films, is not just terrifying but is also fascinating and, on occasion, alluring, as the persistence of the theme indicates.5 The extinction of human desire within the otherworldly need of the plant holds its own visceral and spectacular appeal. What accounts for the attraction of the monstrous yet visually compelling plant? As we will argue here, if the Invasion films deserve our attention today, it is not so much through the era-specific fears that they address but instead in the way in which they make use of the figure of the plant to invoke a form of being that is both emotionless and productive, both shapeless and full of lively forms, both ancient and well suited to navigating the crises that modernity appears to carry in its wake. Plants that devour humans allow us to imagine the demise of humanity itself as not just terrible but pleasurable.
As Michael Marder has recently argued, from the inception of Western metaphysics, plants have been defined as defective and incomplete beings. In their position as “lower” life-forms, plants are subject to being manipulated and consumed by humans who accordingly impose their own goals on them (by cultivating them as [End Page 33] food, decoration, shelter, and commodities, among other things); in a modern...