Maybe you’re contemplating watching Jaws this Halloween season—or perhaps not-watching it, after seeing the New York Times Magazine feature on a rise in shark attacks off the New England coast. “Fear on Cape Cod as Sharks Hunt Again,” reads the title, in all caps, bright red text.
Or, maybe you’re wondering why the NYT Magazine article rings with the kind of pulse-racing terror one would recognize in that Steven Spielberg 1975 classic—especially when a research article published in Nature this January finds that, “since 1970, the global abundance of oceanic sharks and rays has declined by 71%.”
Is the threat of extinction less scary than a shark attack?
This spooky season has us thinking about narratives of ecohorror: What are their (mis)uses? What can they offer the study of the environment?
Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles’s edited collection Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene (2021) introduces ecohorror as a capacious mode of narrative and media forms that responds to our “ecohorrific times” (1). Ecohorror, the editors argue, “may be the dominant mode in which we talk to ourselves about the global climate crisis and the real-life ecological horrors of our current Anthropocenic moment” (3). Though it initially seems that the dominant effect of ecohorror is paralysis, Fear and Nature insists that “ecohorror might be productive,” for example, revealing cultural anxieties, highlighting atrocities, or investigating how eco-victims and villains are constructed. The collected essays read an array of recognizable horror artists—Edgar Allan Poe, Junji Ito, Guillermo del Toro—and cover a range of pertinent environmental topics—extinction, factory farms, pollution—to ultimately compile a rather trick-or-treat basket of offerings that readers might enjoy perusing this spooky season.
A standout essay, for example, is Marisol Cortez’s “From the Bedroom to the Bathroom: Stephen King’s Scatology and the Emergence of an Urban Environmental Gothic.” In the essay, Cortez forces us to look at the bathroom, now “the most Gothic space in the house … where the structuring oppositions of capitalist modernity (public/private, outer/inner, culture/nature) both meet and diverge” (154). Cortez recalls that, “[u]ntil the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, most of the United States released its partially treated sewage into waterways … in large part because the meaning of the shit as something to get rid of is embedded in the technologies designed to allow us not to think about shit (or waterways)” (158). Focusing on Stephen King’s novels Dreamcatcher and It, the textual analysis brings us back to the body and back to the infrastructures that have enabled the abjection of our bodies and their excretions. King’s language of waste and waterways allows Cortez to examine both systems that link bodies to ecosystems and also ecophobic logics that discourage awareness of “what gets flushed, by industries and individuals both, as well as where it ends up and whom it impacts” (170).
In the spirit of Tidwell and Soles’s collection, we suggest leaning into the ghostly, spooky season with an ecohorror read of your own. Below are a few of our suggestions.
Ecohorror We’re Reading this Spooky Season:
THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN, Marlon James (2009) – recommendation by Sophie Moore
Subversive women struggle against dehumanizing forces in Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women. On a sugar plantation in late-18th century Jamaica, the enslaved "Night Women" are plotting a revolt. The novel's young main character, Lilith, comes into her powers as she tests the boundaries of the world she was born into and the womens' struggle for freedom.
DUNE, Frank Herbert (1965) – recommendation by John Crum
Frank Herbert’s Dune is back in the news thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s impressive rendering of the novel’s first half on film. The chill minimalism Villeneuve employs to distill this epic for the screen sent me back to the original novel's ornate, cosmic psychedelia. Herbert’s tale of a teen messiah with supernatural powers destined to unite the galaxy is something frighteningly resonant with our own season of uncertainty. The scariest thing in Dune is bigger than galactic politics, sand worms, or spice—it’s the idea that the destiny of the universe is the work of a secret project hurtling towards a fiery climax, and that the hero choosing to seize his full, omnipotent power might unleash something terrifying, unpredictable, and beyond anyone’s control.
FEVER DREAM, Samanta Schweblin (2014; English trans. by Megan McDowell, 2017) – recommendation from Joseph Campana
Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream (originally Distancia de Rescate) delivers atmospheric and ambiguous contagion. The reading experience will have you on the edge of your seat, unraveling a mystery contained wholly within claustrophobic, continuous dialogue. Distancia de Rescate has recently been adapted by Netflix, and Rice ENST has just released an interview with Schweblin, the first Planet Now! in Spanish. You can watch the Planet Now! / Planeta herido: una conversación with Gisela Heffes and Schweblin here: https://enst.rice.edu/event-videos.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, Shirley Jackson (1959) – recommendation by Rebecca Earles
A classic of the horror genre, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has inspired many film versions and an equally creepy Netflix series—although the film adaptations are very different from the book. One of my favorite aspects of the novel is Jackson's use of environment as a reflection of mood and characters' mental well being. The location of Hill House—its isolation, desolation, claustrophobia, and other-worldliness—are directly tied to the story in beautiful and haunting passages.
MEXICAN GOTHIC, Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2020) – recommendation by Kelly McKisson
Come for the gothic intrigue; stay for the mysterious fungus. Set in 1950s Mexico, Moreno-Garcia’s novel features a gothic mansion in the countryside, a chic and sleuthing heroine, a haunting love story, an ancient perhaps-magical patriarch, and an unstable family fortune tied to a now-obsolete mining empire. Spooky and smart, this novel foregrounds ecohorror elements often submerged in our favorite Gothic novels: colonial violence, extraction, eugenics, and ecological injustice.
REFUSING DEATH: IMMIGRANT WOMEN AND THE FIGHT FOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IN L.A., Nadia Y. Kim (2021) – recommendation from Weston Twardowski
There’s not much scarier than petroleum infrastructures in the 21st century. The port-industrial belt of South Bay Los Angeles and Long Beach—home to the largest urban oil field in the U.S.—not only supports the refining of millions of barrels of oil, storing crude oil, tar sand and asphalt, it also produces monstrous amounts of pollution. The refineries, ports, and freeways construct a space that is toxic to its predominantly immigrant communities, with some of the highest-recorded cancer risks and largest asthma populations in the country. In Refusing Death, Nadia Y. Kim tells the stories of a grassroots environmental justice movement led by Asian and Latinx immigrant women fighting against environmental pollution, surveillance and deportation, and political marginalization.
ROSEWATER, Tade Thompson (2016) – recommendation from Kevin MacDonnell
If you’re searching for extraterrestrials this Halloween, you might look to Tade Thompson’s Rosewater. Part alien invasion, cyberpunk, murder mystery, and love story, this genre blending speculative fiction delivers an enthralling reading experience on the level of plot and aesthetics. Set mid-invasion in Nigeria, readers follow our detective figure, Agent Kaaro, who uses his psychic abilities to investigate a set of myserious deaths. The novel is followed by two sequels, so at least you don’t have to fear reaching the last page…
 C. J. Chivers, “Fear on Cape Cod as Sharks Hunt Again,” The New York Times Magazine, 20 October 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/10/20/magazine/sharks-cape-cod.html.
 Fear and Nature: Ecohorror Studies in the Anthropocene, edited by Christy Tidwell and Carter Soles, 2021, was published by Penn State University Press in the AnthropoScene SLSA Book Series. You might also check out Tidwell’s guest edited collection (with Bridgette Barclay) on “Creature Features and the Environment” in Science Fiction Film and Television 14, no. 3 (2021).