Climate change can hit extremely close to home. Worse yet, it can literally bring the stuff of nightmares into our homes. In Houston, survivors of Hurricane Harvey had to contend with raw sewage and fire ant flotillas. When the levees broke in New Orleans after Katrina, the floodwaters hurled a 200 foot-long barge into a residential neighborhood, where it pulverized houses. And in Crawl, the new horror movie from Alexandre Aja and producer Sam Raimi, a Florida woman (Kaya Scodelario) and her injured dad (Barry Pepper) are trapped in a submerged, hurricane-battered house that’s promptly invaded by giant alligators.
Aside from being the average Floridian’s nightmare (every week seems to deliver a new video of an alligator sauntering through the burbs), Crawl is a pulpy blast. It’s part slasher flick, part home invasion thriller, and its alligator theme offers a much-needed reprieve from the shark movies that Hollywood seems to crank out like soft-serve every summer. But the ironic thing about Crawl is that the alligators are almost upstaged by the far bigger and nastier threat: that of impending ecological collapse.
"There is something about the world we live in, the disasters coming more and more often, not only in the U.S. but everywhere in the world," Aja told Thrillist during an interview about the film. "Sometimes the floodwater brings the 60 million-year-old neighbors back into our place."
The setup of Crawl is built on climate change—the whole nasty affair begins with a Category 5 decimating the Florida coast. Even the film’s marketing campaign seems designed to provoke climate anxiety in viewers who remember disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The governor, who we see urging families to “get out” during a press conference in the trailer, looks kind of like former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who made a similar plea to NOLA residents before the storm. And the posters for Crawl are adorned with the ominous tagline, “They were here first,” a nod to mankind’s anxiety that the natural world—which we’ve long-abused—will exact bloody revenge.
Throughout the film, characters make dread-inducing mentions of the local levees, which they fear will break as the flooding worsens. Before the gators show up in force, a swamp boat full of adolescent looters prowls the flooded suburb (we see them dragging an ATM out of an abandoned gas station), bringing to mind the time Chris Kyle, of American Sniper fame, told a since-disputed story about shooting looters from the top of the New Orleans superdome. Their presence in the film’s first act—and their ultimate fate as gator bait—speaks to the classist and often racist climate disaster anxieties (and fantasies) that Crawl is tapping into.
So here’s the question: could Crawl catalyze a new wave of horror films about climate change?
Despite the amount of collective headspace that climate change occupies, today’s studios are only just beginning to touch the issue. Paul Schrader’s recent First Reformed gave us a haunting look at the intersection of faith and climate grief, but it wasn’t a horror film in the traditional sense. The scariest climate change-driven horror flick in recent memory is probably Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter (2006), an underseen blood chiller about malevolent ghosts that are released from an Arctic oil reserve by a team of drillers. Barry Levinson’s The Bay (2012) is another respectable (and utterly disgusting) climate nightmare in which industrial chicken shit dumpage in the Chesapeake Bay causes waterborne isopod parasites to grow and devour people from the inside out.
As Fessenden sees it, the topic has enormous potential for shaping the horror genre.
“It was very important to me to take these old beloved horror tropes like Frankenstein, Dracula, or the shape-shifting creature and look at them in the modern era,” Fessenden, who also tackled climate ruination in Wendigo and No Telling, told VICE. “What I’ve found most sad and frustrating about humanity is its complete lack of attention to the awesome power of the natural world and this narcissism that drives human activity with no regard for the bigger picture.”
Not long ago, environmentalism did play a role in moving the genre forward. It was the early 1970s, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had become a New York Times bestseller, and Americans were reckoning with the way that pesticides were decimating plants and animals. “There was this idea that we’ve wrought all this damage upon the natural world and that one day, the natural world is going to turn on us,” Dr. Andrew Scahill, an assistant professor of film studies at the University of Colorado Denver, told VICE by phone. “And this anxiety had a strong influence on an emerging subgenre of horror that I like to call the “Nature’s Revenge” film.”
The Nature’s Revenge film, as Scahill describes it, was essentially the grandparent of Crawl, typically featuring A-listers getting clawed and pawed to death by juiced-up animals. There was 1977’s Empire Of The Ants, in which Golden Globe winner and London theatre veteran Joan Collins went hand-to-antennae with supersized toxic waste-fed ants. That same year, audiences gobbled up Day Of Animals, an admirably batshit genre entry where manmade aerosols burn a hole in the ozone layer, inducing psychosis in mountain lions, grizzly bears, hawks, mice, and even dogs. Naturally, the berserker critters attack a group of hikers, led by a pre- Naked Gun Leslie Nielsen.
But the most famous Nature’s Revenge movie, by far, is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Unleashing a man-eating shark upon the bourgeois beachgoers of Martha’s Vineyard was a subtler nod to the conflict between man and nature. But it ruined the beach for millions of would-be swimmers, and it paved the road for climate change-driven horror movies like Crawl, where the alligators don’t stay in the swamp.
Climate change is a merging of worlds—ours and the natural one—and Crawl presents a new nightmare that this “merger” poses: that one day, nature will break into our homes and kill us.
“The idea of [Crawl] has a lot in common with the classic slasher movie,” Scahill said. “Not just because it’s a home invasion narrative, but because of the generational theme at play. Look at a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was made during the Vietnam era, and it was about young idealistic adults on a road trip who just become meat for the grinder. This theme of young people paying for the mistakes of their parents is something you’ll see in Friday The 13th or Nightmare On Elm Street as well. And in Crawl, the ‘mistake’ happens to be climate change.”
For Millennial and Gen Z audiences, Crawl might resonate as a subtle yet biting indictment of their parents’ failure to stop climate change from metastasizing. And yet, there’s also something a bit off-kilter about the film’s premise. The gators, while shiver-inducing, aren’t the problem that Crawl makes them out to be. The actual climate antagonists—fossil fuel companies, the Republican Party, and rich people—might not be swimming into our houses and munching on our ribcages. But they’re profiting from the harvest of fossil fuels and fighting legislation that would provide a just transition to a carbon-neutral economy (such as AOC and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal.) Crawl doesn’t even try to allude to these forces, which is strange and disappointing given the film’s consciousness of how climate change shapes our nightmares.
Still, there’s something to be said for any movie that dares to inject climate change into multiplex horror—which usually offers apolitical blood-soaked escapism that’s as easy to brush off as the popcorn that accumulates on your pants. Even if we don’t directly see them, we’re reminded that the true climate change villains are out there, waiting beyond the air-conditioned cineplex. If Crawl’s gators are capable of sending us home in a puddle of anxiety, imagine how we’ll react when a film about the real climate monsters lumbers into theaters. That will happen, and it can’t come soon enough.