Colonization is the act of settling amongst and establishing control over the indigenous inhabitants of an area. The age of exploration gave way to the age of colonization, as Western civilizations expanded across the globe, finding resources were easier to reap by utilizing the indigenous groups of each locale. Though colonization happened prior, this age was marked by European nations moving to locations within the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, both for short term exploitation of natural resources and long term empire building. The idea was that these lands, always previously inhabited by indigneous populations, were regarded as “terra nullius”, Latin for “empty land”. This decree stated that lands not using modern agricultural processes were therefore unaltered by man, thus making them uninhabited, despite the presence of indigenous populations. This system left the globe in the thralls of supremacist rule, as white Europeans took what they wanted and damned the rest. Critique of colonization has become a popular academic topic in the last half century, and becomes an interesting lens in which to read horror films. We typically see indigenous peoples in horror as the villain, enacting crude and physical violence on unfortunate people that wander too far into a strange land. Films like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or The Green Inferno (2015) are perfect examples of indigenous exploitation films, as they revolve around cannibalistic and paganistic tribes that kill documentarians or activists that function as “white saviors” within the film, trying to “help” a people that “doesn’t know any better.” It’s easy to draw a line from colonial critique to Italian cannibal exploitation films, but for the sake of this column, I’d like to focus on a number of recent films that function as a critique in themselves.
For my first column series, I want to examine a number of horror films through the lens of colonization, specifically films that revolve around interlopers in a land they don’t truly understand, and the warning of what can happen when expansion is forced upon unforgiving places. Through analysis of specific films, starting with The Ruins (2008), we begin to see a critique of colonialist endeavours that are doomed from the beginning. These lands are old, they have lasted the tests of time, and they have the ability to resist the colonization efforts. I will make the case that through each of these films, by threading them through the ideals of Manifest Destiny (that United States expansion was both divinely justified and inevitable), they reinforce this reading of indigenous and ecological resistance. By subverting the typical hero and villain roles in these films, we begin to see a new horror film, one where the colonizers are the villains and the acts of resistance are what we truly want to succeed.
The Ruins (2008) revolves around two American couples (Amy & Jeff /Eric & Stacey) vacationing in Mexico. Through a chance encounter at a resort, they make friends with two tourists (Mathias & Dimitri) who are in the country looking for Mathias’ brother. The last known location was an archaeological dig in the jungle, centered around a Mayan ruin. They pay a local taxi for a ride to the ruins, and while the driver mentions that the place is “no good”, he eventually takes them anyway. Upon arriving, they approach the temple ruins and are confronted by a group of armed Mayan descendants, speaking an indigenous language. When Amy steps on the vines surrounding the temple, the villagers become angered. Dimitri attempts to calm the situation down and is shot in the head. The rest of the group retreats to the top of the pyramid structure. Amy and Jeff attempt to plead for help from the villagers that surround the pyramid and in frustration, Amy throws a clump of vines at them, hitting a small boy. The villagers then shoot the boy in the head. It becomes clear that the vines are what the villagers fear, not the temple or the intrusions by the foreign vacationers.
As the morning comes, Stacey awakes to see that vines have begun to creep into an open wound on her leg, as well as have wrapped themselves around Mathias’ legs and begun to devour the flesh from them. They hear the cell phone again, and send Stacey and Amy down to look for it. They find the body of one of the archaeologists, and watch as the vines mimic the ringing of a cell phone to draw them closer. Once Amy touches a flower, the vines lash out and attack and the two barely escape in time.
Through a series of events, the vines find ways to whittle the group down, both physically and mentally. Jeff, a studying doctor, amputates Mathias’ legs in an effort to save him. The vines crawl into Mathias’ throat and suffocate him. The following day, Stacey discovers the vine tendrils have made their way under her skin, moving freely. Jeff begins to extract them piece by piece, and she begins to claim that there are more in her body. She wants to cut more out and the group tries to dissuade her, but when she takes a drink, they watch one worm it’s way across her forehead. As the group tries to sleep in the remains of the tent, Stacey wakes up and proceeds to cut large pieces of her flesh in an attempt to rid herself of the vines within her body. As the group tries to stop her, she lashes out and accidentally stabs Eric, killing him. She collapses in Amy’s arms, begging for death, as tendrils of the vines whip in and out of her wounds. Jeff kills her to stop her suffering. Jeff and Amy remain, and devise a plan. As Jeff makes a scene, Amy escapes. The villagers shoot Jeff, first with arrows and then with a pistol, as Amy escapes through the jungle. She reaches the Jeep just as the villagers come out of the jungle, and she escapes, presumably to town. We are shown a view of her face, with flickers of vines, showing that she is indeed carrying the vines within her as well.
Using the lens of colonization, the reading of this film inverts itself. The true villain of this film isn’t the carnivorous vines, but rather the expansion of humans into a territory they don’t understand and that doesn’t belong to them. Using the definition of colonization, that is the act of settling amongst and establishing control over the indigenous inhabitants of an area, we see that the first act was the settling of the area by the Mayan civilization. Now this isn’t to refer to an indigenous people as colonizers, because that would be inaccurate and distorted, but for the sake of this film, I wish to argue that the Mayan settlement was an act of violence to the land, specifically the indigenous species of plant. The film doesn’t go as far as to say that this is what wiped out the Mayan civilization, but it can be assumed from the vines overtaking the temple in the establishing shot of the ruins. The settlement of the Mayans in this area provided the indigenous plant a food source, and it eventually overtook them as a civilization. The descended Mayan villagers speak to this fact, as they have surrounded the ruins with a circle, seemingly sand and ash, due to the constant burning they have established to keep the vines at bay. The descendants deprived them of a food source, and took to the task of protecting the greater world around them from the plant, hence the hostility and armed resistance to the vacationers. This is the second act of violence against the indigenous plant, as it existed prior to humankind and has been placed on a dead land as a hostage, not unlike a reservation.
The vacationers refuse to heed of the warning of the taxi driver and the villagers , giving us a plot that plays with the trope of the white savior. As mentioned before with indigenous exploitation films, the white savior seeks to bring reason and western culture to a people they deem inferior and barbaric. They don’t understand the danger that the place presents, yet believe they know better than the local people, because they come from a western civilization, embodied by culture, humanity, and wealth. Under the ideals of Manifest Destiny, the white savior believes in the unrivaled virtue of American people and their institutions. They believe the vines actions defy scientific possibility, simply because they have never seen it before, therefore it must be impossible. They believe their western medicine has the ability to cure it, but some things are too strong to be cured, like we’ve seen with countless diseases over human history.
The Once and Future King
The vines themselves are not a disease, yet can function as a metaphor for the infectious diseases that have acted as a natural culling process for humankind since the first sapiens walked the Earth. Throughout human evolution and each revolution of human society, disease has emerged to humble us, reminding us that we only inhabit this planet, not control it. History echoes with examples of this, from typhoid fever, to the Black Plague, SARS, HIV, and most recently COVID-19. In a paper for the National Museum of Natural History, Geroges Armelagos, Kathleen C Barnes, and James Lin postured that humanity has always fought with disease, but their relative location “limited the pathogens that were potential disease agents” ((Armelagos, Barnes, & Lin, 2014). As humans began to spread from the savanna zones to other reaches of the globe, they began to encounter new pathogens that had previously existed in a zoonotic relationship, infecting non human animals for their host. As with major diseases over the eras, zoonotic diseases ultimately end up infecting humans as well, through insect bites, contamination of food, and animal caused wounds. If we think of the vines as a zoonotic disease, they most likely sustained themselves on animals until they encountered humans during migrations into Central America. Each phase of human progress becomes “not only an obstacle but also a challenge to be overcome” (Armelagos, Barnes, & Lin, 2014) for the vines. Like any mutation of a pathogenic disease, the vines adapt to their new prey, mimicking the sounds of cell phones and voices, turning the group away from each other and sending them into the arms of the dominant species, asserting their rightful place as the indigneous species.
The White Savior(s)
The film functions as a critique of the standard white savior trope we see too often in film. Annie Windholz sums it up as “an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. Throughout the white savior’s journey they themselves are centered: they are often portrayed as messianic and tend to “learn something” about themselves in the process of rescuing others.This trope in commonly seen in movies and literature in Western society, and is reinforced by our own educational system, media, movements, religious and nonprofit sector in America as well as our foreign policy views toward the rest of the world” (Windholz, 2017). The vacationers function as another inversion, this time bumbling white saviors, but not to indigenous peoples, instead to the indigenous land itself. Their drive to escape a place they were too arrogant to avoid will end up spreading the vine outside of the reservation that the Mayan descendants created around it. It might not make it far at first, but it will take root eventually, depending on where Amy reaches. It will spread its seeds across every inch she runs through the jungle. It will flourish, and grow, foot by foot until it regains its natural and rightful environment. The vine will use traits of manifest destiny in its mission to survive, through assimilation into new environments, biomes, or areas. Manifest Destiny, as mentioned previously, was the belief that United States expansion was both justified and inevitable. On the flip side of this, the vines’ expansion is both justified and inevitable, due to arrogance and ignorance by the vacationers’ intrusions.
As a Penan elder (indigenous group in Borneo) once said, “The land is sacred; it belongs to the countless numbers who are dead, the few who are living, and the multitudes of those yet to be born” (Davis, 2011). Through this reading, The Ruins becomes not a body horror, but instead an allegory of indigenous land resistance itself, as the vines refuse to be held in captivity, and know that one day, it will return to its inevitable and natural place in the ecosystem, as there are multitudes waiting to take root.
Armelagos, G. J., Barnes, K. C., & Lin, J. (2014). Disease in human evolution: The reemergence of infectious disease in the third epidemiological transition. AnthroNotes : National Museum of Natural History Bulletin for Teachers, 18(3), 1. doi:10.5479/10088/22354
Davis, W. (2011, September 15). The penan: Community in the rainforest. Retrieved March 06, 2021, from https://www.context.org/iclib/ic29/davis/
Windholz, A. (2020, July 29). Unpacking white saviorism. Retrieved March 06, 2021, from https://anniewindholz.medium.com/unpacking-white-saviorism-7d7b659dcbb3
About Jordan Gerdes
Jordan Gerdes is an educator and author in Central Oregon. When he’s not devouring horror media or writing, he is spending time with his wife and dogs. You can find him online at @jordangwrites or at jordangwrites.medium.com