Several years ago, a newspaper published a brief item, dateline Bangkok, concerning a dwarf named Od, who allegedly was swallowed by a hippopotamus. The clipping, which still can be seen on the Internet, recounts how Od was performing his circus act, when he accidentally bounced sideways, dropping into the yawning hippo's gigantic mouth. People reportedly applauded wildly, believing this was part of Od's act. Meanwhile, the hippo's gag mechanism kicked into action and down the old hatch went the hapless dwarf (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/freakish/hippoeatsdwarf.asp). Wikipedia claims this is only an urban legend… a hoax.
Hoax or not, the story has always struck me as a metaphor for what's happening all around us, right under our noses. The hippo is to me a metaphor for Mother Nature, snapping back, after all the abuse we humans have piled onto her… all the pollution, the over-population, the pesticides and poisons. Here are some examples.
In Colorado earlier this month, a seven-year-old girl contracted bubonic plague – the Black Death that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages – on a Colorado camping trip. (As an aside, I wonder what Colorado did to deserve the forest fires, shootings, and now this.)
Meanwhile, a flesh-eating virus has popped up in parts of the U.S. as distant from each other as Michigan and Georgia this summer. We all watched in horror as the pretty Georgia grad student Aimee Copeland lost her limbs to the disease.
From 2003 through 2008, hospital infections doubled. Ebola virus has reared it highly contagious, usually deadly head in Africa again. And we are all bracing for whatever this winter's flu season will bring us. The 1919 Spanish flu killed millions worldwide (including two of my dad's little sisters).
Does all this predict that what goes around come around?
The younger generation's current fascination with vampires and zombies suggests that something instinctual in the primal parts of their brains knows the answer to that question is "yes."
Or maybe they're just bored. Search me.
What is certain is that nature has a way of bringing things back into balance. The best example is the lemming. As with Od and the hippo, Wikipedia says that lemming suicide is an urban legend. "Lemmings became the subject of a popular misconception that they commit mass suicide when they migrate. Actually, it is not a mass suicide, but the result of their migratory behavior. Driven by strong biological urges, some species of lemmings may migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit. This fact, combined with the unexplained fluctuations in the population of Norwegian lemmings, gave rise to the misconception" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemming).
Suicide or just unsafe swimming, lemming behavior, like Od and the hippo, is a good enough metaphor for my money. One way or the other, when any species grows too numerous and puts too much pressure on its environs, Mother Nature culls the species back down to size. We think that because we think we can outsmart our Big Momma.
I'm not so sure anymore.
Horror movies play off our fears: fear of death, fear of getting old or injured. They also play off wider, more topical fears; for example, the horror movie business in America experienced a huge upswing after 9/11. Another resurgence of the genre occurred in 2005 in the wake of the London Underground bombings and Hurricane Katrina. So no, I don't think kids (and adults) are watching horror movies because they're bored. Even though we might not understand exactly why we connect with horror movies, it's undeniable that they tap into some scared part of us that we can't confront head-on.
I have a friend who has for years been telling me that the Zombie Apocalypse is drawing nigh, and based on the rise in popularity of zombies over the last several years (zombie movies in particular, but also zombies in general), I think she may be right – or at least not alone in her fears. There are tons of feasible reasons for the upsurge in zombie love, but one definite possibility hinges on an old trope: man versus nature.
The swine flu may not literally turn you into a zombie, but the panic surrounding the virus in recent years is enough to prove that a fear of contagious disease is strong in the back of all our minds. The same goes for the West Nile virus; and don't even get me started on flesh-eating bacteria, which my dad has already noted is cropping up too often for comfort on the news lately (if there is a disease more visually linked with zombies than that, I don't want to know about it). Oh yeah, and there's also the impending doom of antibiotic-resistant infections. These diseases make us fear not only nature, but often one another as well. One might say it's the stuff of horror movies.
So it's no wonder we go to the movies for catharsis – but to what end? We may be constantly trying to cleanse ourselves of these fears, but the threats themselves aren't going away. Our mistreatment of nature will have consequences, but only time will tell if that includes a real Zombie Apocalypse.