Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021): Folk Horror as Climate Change Warning

by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth is a complex and enigmatic film that has left many viewers scratching their heads. Viewed carefully, though, the film delivers a strong, if subtle, warning about the importance of recognising the reality of climate change and of taking action to oppose it. This message is much needed, making this film a potentially important intervention. After all, human beings have shown a remarkable ability to ignore the overwhelming barrage of scientific evidence that climate change is real and poses an exceedingly dangerous threat to the very survival of the human race. In the Earth suggests that the folk horror genre, which tends to come pre-loaded with an essential respect for nature, can be an effective medium for the delivery of a warning about climate change that potentially overcomes both the pitfalls of more overt climate-warning films and the notorious resistance of audiences to such messages. At the same time, In the Earth is itself a complex, multigeneric work that potentially gains in the ability to get a grip on a problem as large and multi-faceted as climate change by coming at the problem from a variety of different narrative directions.

In pursuing this project, In the Earth becomes an excellent example of recent attempts to re-invigorate the folk horror genre, largely by mixing in elements from different genres. For one thing, the film begins in the midst of a pandemic (not, apparently, Covid-19, but obviously relevant to it[1]), which connects it to the genre of contagion films and gives it some immediate relevance, while also helping to set up one aspect of the film’s environmentalism, which hints at a revenge-of-nature element due to humanity’s failure to show sufficient respect for the natural world. As in classic British folk horror films such as The Wicker Man (1973), In the Earth features modern characters who travel into a realm in which they appear to be threatened by ancient, possibly supernatural forces. In this case, however, those forces might not be supernatural at all, as the film draws important energies from the genre of science fiction, suggesting that the forces might be quite natural in origin. Meanwhile, the journey into the woods itself here is as important as the destination, giving the film a sort of Heart of Darkness vibe, with a possible mad scientist playing the role of the Kurtz character. In addition, the protagonists traveling on this journey are dogged by a dangerous attacker in the woods, giving the film something of the character of a slasher film or even a rural horror film. Finally, the film tosses in elements of body horror as well, contributing to the overall air of menace that pervades the film.

In the Earth and Heart of Darkness

In many ways, In the Earth has the shape of an almost archetypal narrative—the voyage into the primal wilderness in search of some fundamental truth. In British literature, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) is the best-known version of this narrative, and In the Earth has much in common with Conrad’s novella. Conrad’s protagonist Charlie Marlow travels to Africa, arriving in what is obviously meant to be the Belgian Congo, described (not exactly accurately) as a dense, primal jungle. It is also a troubled environment which seems to be blighted by an unspecified disease, adding to Marlow’s sense of unease. His company’s Outer Station is in a state of ruin, furthering this sense, but Marlow eventually reaches the Central Station, from which he departs for the Inner Station, where the mysterious Kurtz, once the company’s most effective agent in the ivory trade, has now gone off the grid. On the way, Marlow becomes fascinated by Kurtz, an ultra-civilised European who just might, in a classic degeneration narrative, have descended into cannibalism and devil worship due to his exposure to the ‘savage’ (Conrad uses the word more than twenty times to describe Africa and Africans) African environment. When Marlow finally reaches the Inner Station, he finds Kurtz ill and near death, and the book hints that Kurtz has discovered dark truths that sheltered Londoners, living their protected lives with a policeman always just around the corner, could never understand.

Amid an environment of menace that is also exacerbated by the presence of disease, the protagonists of In the Earth, scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) and a park ranger named Alma (Ellora Torchia) also venture into a mysterious forest, departing from a lodge that serves aas the film’s central Station, in search of an ‘agent’ who has gone incommunicado—in this case scientist Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who has been studying the forest. Moreover, we find that Wendle seems to have fallen under the influence of potential dark forces within the forest—and she does, like Kurtz, wind up dead.

In the Earth certainly updates and improves on the problematic racial and gender politics of Heart of Darkness. However, given the numerous parallels between the narratives of the two works, it is not surprising that there are also important thematic resonances between the two. The most obvious of these has to do with the notion that our modern scientific society might not understand certain fundamental truths about both human beings and the natural world, an aspect of In the Earth that is perhaps clarified by reading it through the better-known novella. On the other hand, the reverse is true as well. Reading Heart of Darkness through the much later In the Earth potentially converts Conrad’s novella into a sort of proto-environmentalist work that goes beyond its surface (racist) warnings about the potential contaminating effects of contacts with ‘primitive’ Africans to suggest that modern Western rationalist society ignores certain truths about the natural world at its own peril (and potential horror).

In the Earth and the New Folk Horror

Most early reviewers of In the Earth have identified it as a work of folk horror—and rightly so, even though it departs in significant ways from the foundational British folk horror films from the late 1960s and the 1970s, beginning with Witchfinder General (1968) and extending through The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man. The term ‘folk horror’ was first used to describe The Blood on Satan’s Claw (by its own director), though The Wicker Man is frequently seen as the pinnacle of the genre in its classic phase. Adam Scovell (2017), in his book-length study of folk horror, characterises the genre through the four narrative elements of what he calls the ‘folk horror chain’: an emphasis on landscape, isolation from the modern world, a ‘skewed’ belief system (in comparison with prevailing modern beliefs), and an often violent and sometimes supernatural culminating event that he refers to as the ‘happening/summoning’ (pp. 17–18). Scovell, however, is here presenting a fairly narrow and specific description of the classic (and mostly British) type of folk horror film. Other films through the years have deviated in various ways from this basic pattern, but what is special about the recent wave of British folk horror films is that they deviate so strongly from the classic folk horror film. For example, in American director David Bruckner’s British-produced The Ritual (2017), British hikers encounter supernatural danger in the woods of Sweden, broadening the kinds of folk culture that are encompassed by British folk horror[2]. Meanwhile, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) combines many of the elements of folk horror with an alien invasion narrative and a climate change narrative, while Garland’s Men (2022) is a postmodern work that employs the tropes of folk horror to set up certain expectations, then undermines those expectations by suggesting that the dangers posed to women by patriarchal forces in the ancient world are still very much present in the modern world.

Wheatley’s films have lower budgets and lower profiles than do Garland’s, but they might be the best example of the new directions being taken by British folk horror. Prior to In the Earth, Wheatley had made such unusual folk horror films as Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), both of which contain strong folk horror elements, while mixing in material from other genres as well. Kill List, for example, begins essentially as a crime drama as two British army veterans turn to work as hit men, using the skills they learned in the military to earn much more than they otherwise could amid the struggling British economy. However, as they go about their rounds, they encounter stranger and stranger circumstances that eventually lead them to a murderous human sacrifice cult that seems to be headquartered on the estate of a member of Parliament. This encounter leads to disastrous results for the hit men, including a particularly shocking ending. In this case, we don’t actually learn very much about the details of the practices of the cult, as Wheatley lets us use our imaginations, presumably based on what we have seen in previous folk horror films involving cults. Kill List is a beautifully made film that drew extremely enthusiastic reviews, both for its visual texture and for its social commentary.

A Field in England is one of Wheatley’s strangest films, a period piece set during the English Civil War and thus looking back to Witchfinder General. It’s a chaotic setting (there is a reason why one of the best-known studies of that civil war is entitled The World Turned Upside Down[3])that Wheatley uses primarily for atmosphere, without really interrogating the issues behind the war. The film also creates atmosphere through its black-and-white cinematography, though it minimises the use of the kinds of sets (it is literally set primarily in a field) and costumes (the characters are mostly dressed in rags) that are typical of period dramas. There is very little real engagement with the historical setting, except for the indication that this was a time when the world was still infused with magic and alchemy—though it leaves open the question of how much of the magic is real and how much is merely hallucinated due to the psychedelic mushrooms found in the field. Meanwhile, despite the mostly dark subject matter, A Field in England contains a surprising amount of humor (including slapstick violence), to the point that it sometimes feels like something from Monty Python.

Given Wheatley’s background in the genre, it is not surprising that In the Earth immediately registered as folk horror for so many early viewers, though the film is far too complex to fit easily into any category. The film certainly contains most of the basic features of folk horror, focusing on modern characters who wander into a remote rural environment, discovering potential signs of an ancient magic that becomes a dangerous threat to them. Early in the film, Martin is introduced to ‘Parnag Fegg,’ a sort of local folk legend who is supposed to be ‘the spirit’ of the woods he is about to enter. Parnag Fegg immediately takes on sinister intonations when this figure is featured in rather strange picture that, as Martin notes, has ‘all sorts of bad things going on’ in it. Alma explains to Martin that the story of the rather frightening looking Parnag Fegg is useful because it prevents local children from wandering off into the woods, something that is considered desirable because several children from a nearby village went missing in the 1970s. But she also suggests that the woods have a special feel to them and that it makes sense to imagine an entity such as Parnag Fegg to give that feeling a ‘face.’ At this point, then, the film seems to be taking a turn into folk horror, setting up the expectation that Alma and Martin might be about to meet up with something quite ominous when they go deep into those woods, an expectation that is reinforced further when we learn details such as the fact that there is no phone reception inside the woods. To top it off, one of the scientists at the lodge notes to Martin that ‘people get a bit funny in the woods sometimes,’ and rightly so, given that it is a ‘hostile environment.’ All of this seems like a setup for classic folk horror, but the function of the film as a pandemic film as well as a science fiction film seriously complicates any straightforward reading of the film as folk horror or as relying in any simple way on a cultural clash between ancient tradition and modern rationalism, as is typical of folk horror.

In the Earth as Pandemic Film

In the Earth begins with an enigmatic shot of someone breaking up rocks into sharp pieces with a sledgehammer. The man breaking the rocks is then shown planting the pieces in the ground, almost like seeds, raising the possibility that some sort of ritual or occult activity is involved. Attentive viewers will understand this sequence later, but at this point we have no idea what it means: this is a film filled with puzzles and viewers need to be alert to try to understand what they are seeing. The scene then shifts to a lone figure (who will turn out to be Martin) trudging along an unpaved country road with full hiking gear, then arriving at Gantalow Lodge, stopping at a sign identifying the lodge and warning that the public are not allowed to enter this area and that the lodge has been requisitioned by the government for use as a research facility. Other parts of the sign give instructions for stopping the spread of germs and note that entry can only be granted by the ‘chief medical advisor.’ Another part of the sign indicates that masks need to be worn past the point of the sign. For a film released in 2021, the suggestions that some sort of pandemic (or at least a medical crisis of some sort) are unmistakable.

The notion that the world of the film is in the midst of a pandemic is then reinforced as the new arrival walks past another sign indicating a ‘Disinfection point’ and is greeted by someone in full hazard gear who sprays him down with some sort of disinfectant. He is then cleared to enter the facility, where the other scientists working there are all wearing surgical masks. The area has been closed for nearly a year, they tell him, because of the ‘crisis.’ They put Martin through a rigorous series of tests to ensure that he is not infected with whatever disease they are guarding against, which is apparently quite serious, given that we also learn, ominously, that the contagion has already brought death to the local village. We will also learn that Martin himself has been in isolation for four months, suggesting that the contagion must be quite serious.

Cleared to proceed from this point, Martin then heads into the woods, accompanied by Alma, who is to guide him to another facility deep in the woods (this film’s Inner Station), where Wendle has been conducting research into ways of making crops grow more efficiently. In particular, she has been studying the phenomenon of mycorrhizae, or symbiotic associations between plants and fungi, which are suspected to be especially rich in these particular woods[4]. Unfortunately, Wendle has stopped communicating with the outside world, and Martin (her former close colleague and—the film hints—her former lover) has agreed to go into the woods to try to find Wendle and learn the status of her work.

Meanwhile, Martin checks out clear of the contagion, but we also learn that he has recently had ringworm, which no one seems to regard as significant, but the conventions of horror film suggest that this fact is likely to be significant indeed, especially as we already know Wendle is studying fungi. Does Martin’s ringworm have anything to do with the pandemic? Does it have anything to do with Wendle’s research? Once Alma and Martin depart the lodge and head into the woods, the pandemic aspect of the film recedes into the background, though it occasionally resurfaces. We later learn, as Alma and Martin are being held captive by a crazy old man in the woods, that Martin’s parents died of the pandemic ‘in the city,’ and that many people have fled the city seeking safety, some of them coming to these woods, but then becoming sacrifices to the entity that rules the woods, presumably that same Parnag Fegg.

In the Earth as Rural Horror

As Martin and Alma set forth into the woods, the film has already done a great deal to establish a sense of dread as they move deeper and deeper into the woods and away from the protections of the ‘policeman around the corner’ that characterises modern civilization. Initially, though, the hike into the woods seems like a rather pleasant outing, with Martin and Alma getting along well. The first day and night of their journey are uneventful. On the second day, Martin begins to struggle, apparently because he is out of shape from lack of exercise during quarantine—though we are left to wonder whether it might be from something more sinister, as when we also learn that the hikers are now already into the area of the woods encompassed by the mycorrhizal network being studied by Wendle. Then, to add another ominous touch, they discover an abandoned campsite, with a booklet left there that is apparently about witches. There are also toys at the site, suggesting that the now-missing campers had been a family. Then, everything changes during Martin and Alma’s second night of sleeping in the woods. First, Martin discovers that he has what appears to be a fresh outbreak of his ringworm. In the middle of the night, a hard rain begins to fall; then someone suddenly attacks the tents in which Martin and Alma are sleeping, beating them through their tents and wrecking the campsite. Left unconscious, they awake the next morning to find their radio smashed up and their shoes missing.

As Alma and Martin hike onward without shoes, he suddenly steps on something sharp, receiving a nasty gash on the bottom of his left foot. One can step on sharp things in the woods, of course, but it will ultimately become quite clear that the sharp thing he stepped on was one of the bits of stone that we saw being planted in the ground at the very beginning of the film. This leads to their meeting an old man in the woods. The man, who identifies himself as Zach (Reece Shearsmith), has been living in the woods, where he has established an extensive illegal homestead. He seems wary of Alma and Martin, and they are clearly wary of him, though he at first seems to want to be helpful, given Martin’s condition. Once they get to his shelter, however, the film quickly morphs into what seems to be a sort of rural horror, with a touch of body horror. Martin’s wounded foot supplies the latter, with Zach insisting on sewing up the gash, then later insisting, in a horrifying sequence, on chopping off two of Martin’s toes with a hatchet after infection sets in.

The interior of Zach’s shelter, with lots of red colouring and bits of odd detritus scattered about, clearly enhances the sense of menace. The status of Martin and Alma as Zach’s prisoners is eventually made overt, as Zach seems increasingly dangerous and deranged, with suggestions that he was probably the one who did in the family whose abandoned camp Martin and Alma had found earlier. He drugs Martin and Alma and poses them for weird, ritualistic photos while they are unconscious. An inserted cut back to the picture of Parnag Fegg at the lodge clearly suggests that Zach’s behavior is related to this local legend, though it is entirely unclear whether some real supernatural forces might be in play or whether Zach is merely unhinged.

In either case, everything at this point suggests that Zach is moving toward a ritual sacrifice of the two protagonists, making their attempts to escape seem quite urgent. Meanwhile, he fills them in on what he sees as his function in the woods, which is to support the spirit of the woods, who is now revealed apparently to be former necromancer who had been hounded and driven into the woods millennia ago by ignorant and uncomprehending locals. When the humans pursued him into the woods, he had disappeared, leaving behind only an ancient standing stone—an iconic folk horror image if there ever was one. Zach claims that the necromancer (presumably Parnag Fegg, though Zach does not say so) had been ‘inducted into the stone, transferred into the ancient matter of the forest.’

In the Earth as Science Fiction

By this time, folk horror and rural horror have been generously intermixed in this film. Of course, these two genres overlap significantly, so it is no big surprise to find the two of these combined as they are in this film. However, In the Earth adds a more innovative element by veering well into science fictional territory. During their captivity, Alma and Martin learn that Zach knows Wendle but that he and she have fundamental disagreements about how to communicate with ‘the thing in the woods,’ with Wendle preferring science and Zach preferring art and ritual, which he assures his captives are also preferred by the ‘thing.’ This tension between science and magic provides some of the most important energies of this film, though the film also significantly interrogates the boundary between the two. In describing the process of photography to Alma and Martin, Zach nicely sets up the confrontation between science and magic that is so central to the remainder of the film when he suggests that this process is very much like magic, but then adds (echoing, intentionally or not, the famous dictum of Arthur C. Clarke), ‘so’s all technology, when you don’t know how it works.’

Almost exactly midway through the film, Alma and Martin finally effect their escape from Zach, with Martin stumbling over the disemboweled body of one of Zach’s former victims in the process, adding another dose of body horror and further increasing the general atmosphere of menace that pervades the entire film. Alma is shot down with an arrow, and Martin is chased through the woods in a sort of surreal scene marked by flashing strobes and strange noises that make the atmosphere even more threatening, especially when the strobes illuminate an axe-bearing Zach, lurching along in what now seems to be all-out slasher mode. Eventually, though, the escape is successful (though Alma and Zach are now both significantly wounded), and the two protagonists finally manage to make their way to Wendle’s camp, presumably now entering the world of science. Wendle is also attempting to study and communicate with the thing in the woods, but her ‘Parnag Fegg’ is the mycorrhizal network that connects the trees of the forest into a sort of giant intelligence.

Much of the second half of the film seems designed to blur the boundary between science and magic and to suggest that the versions of Parnag Fegg envisioned separately by Wendle and Zach are really just two different ways of comprehending the same phenomenon. In addition, there are a number of signs that Wendle might be just as batty in her own way as Zach is in his. And, of course, there is the fact, which we eventually learn, that Zach is Wendle’s former husband—something that seems to come as a great surprise to Martin. Meanwhile, the dialogue between science and magic that is so central to this film is enhanced by the fact that Wendle’s encampment seems almost like a more orderly mirror image of Zach’s ramshackle setup. Wendle even mirrors Zach’s action by immediately setting to work on Martin’s poor left foot. In this case, she decides that, given the damage already done by Zach, the foot needs to be cauterised immediately, so Martin undergoes still another excruciating procedure.

Wendle reveals that her attempts to gain an understanding of the mycorrizhal network through conventional scientific monitoring had come to naught. Then, the film takes a sudden turn when she announces that she began to make progress after she discovered the standing stone in the woods and realised that it was the key to accessing the network—but only after she discovered an old book (dated 1640) containing an English translation of Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of the Witches’), which contains information she was able to use as a sort of key to ‘translating’ the forest. Among other things, Wendle notes that ‘Parnag Fegg’ translates to ‘heartfelt prayer and God’s light,’ which has somehow led her to deduce that Parnag Fegg is not an entity in the usual sense, but a ‘process’ that might allow communication with the network beneath the forest. Then, however, she proceeds continually to refer to this process as if it were a ‘creature,’ presumably because our language and habitual modes of thought are designed to think in such terms, whereas this particular phenomenon is almost impossible to grasp within our tendency toward reification and self-other thinking.

As Wendle continues to describe the turn toward folk magic in her research, we learn that she recruited Zach to help with the new direction in her research because her conventional scientific colleagues would never be able to understand what she was doing. Meanwhile, Martin is in for still more torture when Wendle sets to work on poor his arm, which Zach has ‘marked’ in a way that will supposedly help Parnag Fegg to ‘locate’ Martin. As Wendle digs into Martin’s arm, she discovers that Zach seems to have planted some sort of ‘animal gut’ inside, accompanied by a small, fished-shaped metal talisman. When Martin realises that the scars Zach made on his arm seem to match the writing on the standing stone, Wendle matter-of-factly announces that ‘it’s pattern making. Zach is trying to make meaning where there is none’—as part of his attempt to ‘communicate with nature through art and worship.’ For her part, Wendle is still trying to communicate with nature via technology; she has set up an elaborate network of devices through which she can produce various sounds and flashes of light, hoping to find a combination that puts her in touch with the mycorrhizal intelligence of the woods.

The markings on Martin’s arm, incidentally, seem to have been made in exactly the spot where he already had that ringworm outbreak, teasing us with the possibility that this fungal growth might give Martin a special ability to communicate with the mycorrhizal network on his own. Indeed, while poking around in Martin’s arm, Wendle announces that he has ‘very special flesh,’ suggesting that he might be some sort of chosen one elected to establish contact between humans and the woods. Meanwhile, she later announces that she believes Martin was ‘called’ to the forest via messages delivered through the ringworm: she and Zach both also had ringworm before feeling drawn to the forest. Wendle, meanwhile, is still seeking to contact with Parnag Fegg by combining ritual with science, though she suggests that her work with Zach had led him ‘too far’ into the rituals in the ancient book, apparently driving him insane and causing him to decamp to the next valley to pursue Parnag Fegg on his own.

For her part, Wendle has concluded that the mycorrhizal network is centered at the standing stone, emanating from there to ‘regulate’ at least 30 square miles of forest—and perhaps extending through all of England. Meanwhile, she seems more and more to have descended into mad scientist territory as her behavior and demeanor both seem more and more erratic. She expresses shock that Martin and Alma still want to get back to civilization as soon as possible, rather than staying there with her to try to talk to the forest. When Alma tries to leave, though, she is disabled by sounds that apparently emanate from the woods, amplified by Wendle’s equipment. ‘Everything seems to just keep us here,’ Alma remarks, and Wendle agrees: ‘The forest is acting to contain us,’ she says. Then, the camp is suddenly surrounded by a mysterious mist, which Wendle identifies as a potentially toxic ‘suspension of mushroom spores and water droplets’ that makes it dangerous to leave the camp.

This echo of The Mist (2007) is then followed by an echo of The Wicker Man when a creepy-looking humanoid figure made of sticks (a sort of small-scale wicker man) appears just outside Wendle’s camp; it seems that the realm of folk magic is beginning to intrude on the scientific camp. Alma interprets the figure as a sign from Zach that he is still lurking and might attack at any moment, suggesting that it is urgent that someone try to get out and go for help. She dons a hazmat suit and then heads into the mist, with a rope tied to her waist so Martin can retrieve her should the mist render her unconscious, even through her suit. As Alma slowly moves forward, things go all psychedelic, and she falls to the ground screaming in terror, as if her brain is receiving signals from the mist that are simply too powerful to process. Martin and Wendle are able to retrieve her, but she is badly shaken, babbling incoherently. They now seem more trapped than ever, while the mist meanwhile slowly moves toward the camp, threatening to engulf them all.

In response to this crisis, Wendle decides to ignore the rationalist pleas of Alma and instead to follow the advice of Zach (who appears at the camp with a message) in attempting to communicate with the ‘creature.’ In classic Frankensteinian mad-scientist mode, she declares, ‘We are at the forefront of human discovery. Don’t you think we should endeavor to speak to this creature, regardless of the cost?’ Meanwhile, despite her extensive array of high-tech equipment, Wendle concludes that the best way to communicate with ‘it’ is to enact a ritual at the standing stone, as described in her ancient book. She manages to get Martin (accompanied by a still skeptical Alma) to go to the standing stone and drink a nasty-tasting mushroom concoction that she has prepared from a recipe in the book, which will presumably open Martin to communication with the thing in the woods. While Wendle monitors things electronically from back at the camp, Martin collapses into semi-consciousness. Meanwhile, Zach approaches, tripping the electronic system; he slugs Alma when she goes to check out the intrusion, then goes to Martin and announces that the ritual actually requires Martin’s sacrificial death so that Zach can communicate with Parnag Fegg. In a final druggy sequence marked by the strobe lights and strange electronic sounds from Wendle’s equipment, with the addition of more psychedelics, the film reaches its climax. A recovered Alma kills off Zach with a metal spike to the eye, and Wendle apparently ends up dead as well, thanking Parnag Fegg for accepting her as a sacrifice as she dies. The ending is then ambiguous, but the film seems to imply that Wendle’s death completes the ritual and allows Alma now to understand the message of Parnag Fegg. She awakens a still groggy Martin and tells him, with an enigmatic knowingness, ‘Let me guide you out of the woods.’ Whether she will also take some sort of message from Parnag Fegg with her out of the woods remains a matter of conjecture.

In the Earth as Climate Fiction

Just what enlightenment Alma might have received from the woods is left unstated in the film. In the end, though, this message must surely pertain to the climate crisis that currently threatens humanity, much in the same way that the characters in this film are threatened by a vaguely defined and poorly understood force that nevertheless poses a very real danger to them. As she prepares for the final ritual, Wendle tries to argue that the thing in the woods can be reasoned with. ‘This is the same as any other creature,’ she proclaims. ‘It’s worried about its environment, food, shelter.’ Assuming that the ‘thing’ can be taken as a sort of allegorical embodiment of nature itself, it is thus responding to the threat that has been posed to its very existence by human activity.

Viewed in this way, In the Earth becomes a sort of revenge-of-nature film whose ultimate message is that we continue to ignore what nature is telling us about the damage we are doing to it at our own peril. This message is an important one, perhaps the most important one that any film could deliver in the 2020s, as human-induced climate change nears a tipping point. Granted, In the Earth does not explicitly identify climate change as its central topic, nor need it. The gravity of the problem of climate change is now beyond serious question and can be taken as an important part of the background of any cultural work produced in this day and age, whether the work itself openly addresses climate change[5]. Meanwhile, in the case of this particular film, the climate change message is reinforced by the pandemic motif, which suddenly now seems quite motivated by the bulk of the film, rather than serving as a sort of tacked-on beginning to make the film seem more relevant in the era of Covid. In short, the pandemic of the film now becomes another manifestation of nature’s attempt to strike back against humans in self-defense—by extension delivering the message that we should perhaps take the Covid-19 pandemic itself as an indication that our planet is becoming increasingly inhospitable to humans and that we need to begin to take stronger actions to try to heal the planet after centuries of indiscriminate exploitation of it.

At the same time, the very urgency of the environmentalist message of In the Earth raises the question of why it does not deliver this message more clearly and directly. To this question, we think there are two distinctly different answers. First of all, the fact that so much interpretive work is required to extract the message of In the Earth can be taken as an acknowledgement of just how complex the topic of climate change really is, involving as it does a vast network of interrelated phenomena (of which the mycorrhizal network in the film can be taken as a sort of microcosm). It is simply not possible to represent such a complex phenomenon in a simple and straightforward way, at least not without greatly oversimplifying it.

Granted, initial reviewers of In the Earth did not generally seem to interpret it as a climate change film, suggesting that it might be too complex and indirect in the delivery of its message about climate. Indeed, Benjamin Lee’s (2021) lukewarm review of In the Earth called the film ‘overly convoluted,’and a number of other reviewers seemed to agree. Meanwhile, in what is actually a rather positive review, Matt Zoller Seitz (2021) suggests that any message contained in In the Earth is obscured by the film’s virtual assault on its audience, declaring, ‘Where the film fails as a substantive statement about this or that or the other thing, it succeeds as a visceral exercise in audience torment.’ We would argue, however, that the film’s sometimes unpleasant sounds and visuals enhance its warnings about climate change, a topic that should definitely not be rendered in ways that are soothing and comfortable. And, if all those flashing strobes and jarring electronic sounds alienate audiences, we would suggest that it is an alienation that is akin to the famous estrangement effect of Bertolt Brecht, asking audiences to step back and wonder why they are being subjected to such things. Meanwhile, the ‘convoluted’ nature of the film also demands analysis, while being very much in tune with the complexity of climate change as a topic.

Relevant here is the now-popular critical concept of the ‘hyperobject,’ as put forth by Timothy Morton to describe a phenomenon that is so complex and widely distributed as to make direct and comprehensive description almost impossible. Morton introduced this term in his 2010 book The Ecological Thought, the title of which already indicates the central role of ecology in Morton’s thinking. Morton subsequently developed the notion further, focusing on climate change in much of his work on hyperobjects. In particular, his 2013 book Hyperobjects concentrates on the notion of climate changeas a hyperobject, and In the Earth seems to treat climate change in much the same way, approaching it obliquely and from multiple directions in an effort to attempt to get a handle on this extremely complex problem. If nothing else, perhaps most of all, the very ambiguity and complexity of this film suggest that nature itself is stranger and more complex than we realise and that humans are naïve to believe that they can fully understand, dominate, and control nature.

In this sense, one might also note the way Wendle, within the film, criticises Zach’s drive to fit natural phenomena into patterns and narratives via his religious-artistic vision—though the film also makes it clear that discerning such patterns is precisely what she does via science. Both Zach and Wendle, in short, are attempting to impose their visions of order on a nature that does not necessarily conform to them. From this point of view, it is significant that Alma receives the message from nature, because she is the character who is best able to understand nature as it is, rather than as it appears from her scientific or religious-artistic point of view. In short, it gives the message, in Wheatley’s words, to ‘someone who isn’t a narrative-maker’ (Bitel, 2021: p. 76). Wheatley leaves his own narrative strange and ambiguous in an attempt to respect the complexity of nature and to avoid simplifying it through imposing a narrative with a neat resolution. As Anton Bitel (2021) puts it (in an article that is partly an interview with Wheatley), ‘In the Earth is a reflexive exercise in storytelling and mythopoeia that constantly questions the very narratives from which it is constructed’ (p. 76).

There is also a rhetorical aspect to the treatment of climate change in the film that arises from the notorious difficulty of galvanising people, corporations, and governments to take the kind of dramatic action that is needed to fight climate change. Part of this failure to take strong action against climate change comes from the fact that large and powerful corporations are profiting immensely from activities that make climate change worse. Part of it comes from kneejerk ideological blindness—fed by the rhetoric of certain right-wing politicians—that envisions efforts to oppose climate change and to protect the environment in general as somehow being part of a left-wing plot to take away our freedoms[6]. And, finally, there is the problem that climate change poses such an overwhelming threat that it is simply unpleasant to think about. As a character in Ian McEwan’s 2010 novel Solar explains, the widespread failure to take climate change seriously has occurred partly because to take it seriously ‘would be to think about it all the time. Everything else shrank before it. And so, like everyone she knew, she could not take it seriously, not entirely. Daily life would not permit it’ (191).

Given these difficulties, it is perhaps no surprise that filmmakers have had little success in their efforts to convince their audiences to face the urgent threat posed by climate change. Many films that have addressed the problem of climate change—Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) can be taken as the prototype—have tended to do so via a disaster film format that delivers a visual representation of climate change via the depiction of spectacular, violent weather events, which are then typically battled against by the efforts of heroic individual protagonists. The problem of this format, of course, is that it makes fighting climate change into a matter of popular entertainment of a kind that modern audiences, surrounded by the society of the spectacle in their day-to-day lives, are conditioned to enjoy but not to take very seriously. One could argue, in fact, that, far from fighting climate change, such films simply exploit climate change for entertainment effect, producing a kind of climate change porn.

Other filmmakers, recognising the difficulty of representing something like climate change directly, have attempted to approach it indirectly by using a stand-in that is an object,rather than a hyperobject, and can thus be more easily understood—not to mention more easily represented in visuals. The most recent example of this strategy is Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021), which substitutes a huge, planet-killing asteroid for climate change as a lethal threat to the people of earth[7]. This film lacks the spectacular visual effects of The Day After Tomorrow, but it provides its own form of spectacle by employing an A-list Hollywood cast headlined by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, and Cate Blanchett, among others. None of their characters take anything like heroic actions, but one could argue that this spectacular casting is distracting and actually diverts attention from the serious matter at hand. Meanwhile, the film satirises the failure to deal effectively with climate change with such broad comedy that it is also unlikely to alert anyone to the seriousness of the danger posed by climate change, even apart from the literalist argument that climate change is obviously not similar to a giant asteroid as a threat to humanity.

The strategy employed by Wheatley in In the Earth can be read as an attempt to avoid the pitfalls encountered by films such as Don’t Look Up and The Day After Tomorrow, though the avoidance of spectacle and celebrity casting is in this case partly a matter of budget. The complex, multigeneric nature of In the Earth suggests the multifaceted nature of the problem of climate change. ‘Nature’ is effectively dramatised in this film via the mycorrhizal network, the very mysteriousness of which avoids spectacle and indicates the difficulty of representing climate change, though the forest that the network connects does provide an effective visual representation that audiences can understand. Meanwhile, the protagonists of In the Earth, however sympathetic, are not particularly heroic. Rather than taking strong, heroic action to fight against nature, they survive by learning to listen to and respect nature. Whether Alma will somehow bring an effective message about climate change back to the world of the film is a matter left for speculation at the end of In the Earth, but at least the filmdoes its part to help deliver that message.


Bitel, A. (2021) ‘I wanted to make something that fits the moment.’ Sight and Sound, 31 (6), 74­–76.

Bould, M. (2021) The Anthropocene Unconscious: Climate Catastrophe Culture. London, Verso.

Hill, C. (2021) The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. Originally published 1972, London, Penguin.

Lee, Benjamin (2021) In the Earth review—Ben Wheatley’s patchy pandemic folk horror. The Guardian, Accessed 8 October 2022.

McEwan, I. (2010) Solar. New York, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Morton, T. (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Powers, R. (2018) The Overstory. New York, W. W. Norton.

Scovell, A. (2017) Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Liverpool, Auteur-Liverpool University Press.

Seitz, M. Z. (2021) ‘In the Earth.’, Accessed 8 October 2022.

Wohlleben, P. (2015) The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. Translated by J. Billinghurst (2016). Vancouver, BC, Greystone Books.


[1] Bitel (2021) discusses the impact on the film of the fact that In the Earth was written and filmed during the period of Covid restrictions (p. 74).

[2] Of course, the most prominent use of Swedish folk culture in recent folk horror occurs in Ari Aster’s 2019 American film Midsommar.

[3] See Hill (2021).

[4] The concept that mycorrhizal networks provide communication systems among the trees of a forest is scientifically well-established, though the extent to which these networks can function as a sort of brain governing the forest is not as clear. Such networks, though, have been featured prominently in such fictional works as Richard Powers’ The Overstory (2018); they have also been brought to popular attention in such nonfiction works as Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015).

[5] Compare here Mark Bould’s spirited argument that the fiction of our time is permeated with the topic of climate change, even when that fiction is not ‘immediately and explicitly about climate change’ (Bould, 2021, p. 14).

[6] Wheatley tells Bitel (2021) that his critique of pattern-making in In the Earth came out of current events during the time he was conceiving of the film: ‘It came out of drowning in all the Trump stuff, watching American politics and British politics, and thinking about the erosion of fact, and this weaponizing of narrative’ (pp. 74­–75).

[7] This film is further linked to In the Earth by the fact that, given its timing, many also saw the asteroid (opposed by the inept attempts of the U.S. government to do something about it) as a stand-in for Covid.