What’s great fiction without a great enemy? Some of the greatest enemies in novels, television, and film are monsters, who come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. While these may be slobbering aliens from the cold depths of space or everyday people twisted into horrifying beasts, sometimes the most frightening monster is the one we encounter in everyday life: nature.
While crime may be an everyday danger that we face on a consistent basis, the motives that drive many to commit criminal actions are understandable, making criminal characters into relatable people, not monsters. Nature, on the other hand, is wild, uncontrollable, and often beyond our comprehension, even with today’s advances in scientific understanding. In short, it can make a great monster, creating overwhelming and unbeatable odds for the protagonists who are thrust into its destructive path, or bring it on themselves.
When nature becomes a monster, characters are able to face challenges that are unlike those posed by any other type of enemy and audiences are forced to confront real world ideas and their own responsibilities in life. When done right, this idea can result in some of fiction’s most challenging narratives. Of course, it’s also resulted in some of film, television, and novels’ most clichéd ideas, as well.
For more on monsters, visit my post “Modern Fears, Ancient Mysteries, and Monsters.”
The Enemy All Around Us
Whether we like it or not, the world’s ecosystem is delicately balanced. Giant storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and more pose real dangers every year. Nearly every place on earth faces unique dangers created simply by the world’s ecological system. Fiction takes these concepts and then mega-sizes them! Because everything bigger is better, obviously.
The recipe is simple. Take a real natural disaster, make it bigger, put it in a place where it wouldn’t normally happen, and then throw in some added spice, like flying sharks! It’s just removed enough to stay in the category of entertainment, but it’s close enough to reality that the dangers are actually frightening. Most importantly, nature gone wrong is a far bigger threat than what a single person can fight against, or even the most well equipped legions. A natural disaster cannot be persuaded, threatened, or reasoned with. Either you are in the way or you are not, it makes no difference to the disaster coming right at you.
While natural disaster movies may not be everyone’s favorite genre, they can pose a visceral thrill for those willing to go along for the ride. If a creator is willing to give the characters at the center of the tale some real personality, rather than just have them be cardboard cutouts ready to be tossed around by an incoming tornado/earthquake/typhoon, then the stakes can truly be high. Interesting mortal characters at the center of an inescapable disaster make us fear for their safety and put us in their place.
Of course, many creators are simply drawn to the idea of disaster movies for the sake of special effects and spectacle on a grand scale. To a degree, that’s what audiences go to see as well. Being able to face these earth-shattering natural disasters from the comfort of a theater seat or couch is a way of coping with what really happens every year. Whether that is healthy or not is up to you, but it’s most certainly a motivation.
If there were other planets that we could easily colonize, then maybe natural disasters wouldn’t seem so terrifying. Sadly, interstellar travel, warp drive, and teleportation has been put on the backburner by the governments of the world. So here we are, stuck on old Planet Earth. At times, it can seem like nature itself has its own motivation. Most of the time, it’s trying to kick humanity off the planet. With nowhere else to go, we are forced to grapple with the very thing that is also keeping us alive.
Nature Starts Thinking
While giant catastrophes may present inescapable dangers that consumes whole cities, animals run amok offer a similar yet possibly more terrifying threat. These stories surrounding a single deadly predator, or small pack, that turns its instincts on humans encapsulate the fear that we have of being prey, instead of the alpha predators that we are. The notion of becoming lower on the food chain and being turned into food strikes a primal fear that was surely instilled in man’s earliest days. We scrapped and scraped along with far less protection and little barrier between us and some of the world’s deadliest creatures, putting real fear into humanity.
Today, we fancy ourselves far beyond the reach of deadly predators. So when a story comes along that captures this type of fear, or a real incident that becomes covered in news around the globe, that piece of primal fear is tapped into once again. Jaws, in both film and book form, is possibly the greatest encapsulation of this type of monster. A humongous great white shark begins hunting off the coast of peaceful Amity Island, picking off helpless humans one by one while bureaucratic authorities shrug off the threat in favor of profit. The combination of an ultimate predator, a town like any other, and the unexplored mysteries of the ocean made Jaws a sensation that continues to send ripples through modern man’s fears. It’s also a classic, combining horror, blockbuster spectacle, and human emotion into a marvelous story.
Any real creature that poses true danger to a human is enough to base a terrifying story on. The more claws and sharper teeth that it has, the better. Strip away our common defenses and surroundings, or give alpha predators are greater advantage than ever before, and man becomes little more than prey, struggling against impending doom. And no one wants to be something else’s prey.
Bringing It On Ourselves
Whether you believe in global warming or not, or whether humanity’s incessant pollution and scientific tampering has had an effect on the planet, it has produced some fantastic ideas in fiction. This concept’s strength are best personified in two classic series that have stuck with audiences for decades, self perpetuating additional entries on the strength of the original’s ideas.
The fears of nuclear war tie directly into the creation of Godzilla, both in the concept itself and the fictional origins of the creature. Whatever the origin is given for The King of the Monsters, it is the tampering of man and an imbalance in the world that leads to Godzilla rising from the watery depths. His goals? Balance and punishment. Whether he is blasting a more dangerous kaiju or making man pay for his destruction, Godzilla is awakened to represent the Earth’s mighty rage. Because of the simple and mysterious origin, Godzilla has been reshaped time and time again, fitting new fears for new decades and taking on both heroic and villainous roles. For more on the history of Godzilla and his titanic role in fiction, go to “Godzilla, Kaiju, and Decades of Human Fears.”
In Jurassic Park, hubris, greed, and naiveté lead talented scientists to bring back dinosaurs for the sake of an amusement park’s creation. What Richard Hammond and a crew of scientist don’t realize is that they cannot control nature, and choosing to bring back ancient beasts has put them far out of their depth. Only chaos scientist Dr. Ian Malcolm understands that “Life finds a way.” When it does, it means that anyone unlucky enough to be around is faced with a life and death struggle that no one has ever been forced to survive.
Rather than implant a completely fictional character like Godzilla into concepts of real world fears, author Michael Crichton chose to expose the true threats of nature. Dinosaurs have been extinct for millennia and Jurassic Park shows humans why they should be thankful. Choosing to supersede the choices made by nature is what gets humans into serious trouble during the story. It’s this mixture of both fear and reverence for nature that makes the story simultaneously terrifying and beautiful, with humans given a glimpse at what their role truly is in the larger history of the world.
While these challenges may frighten audiences, they also teach a valuable lesson. One centered on understanding our place in the world, both as part of something bigger than ourselves and as something that has true power over the future of nature.
What should we do with that power? Here’s a hint, don’t bring back the dinosaurs.