Colonization is the act of settling amongst and establishing control over the indigenous inhabitants of an area. The age of exploration gave way to the age of colonization. As Western civilizations expanded across the globe, finding resources was easier to reap by utilizing the indigenous groups of each locale. Though colonization happened prior, this age was marked by European nations moving to locations within the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, both for short-term exploitation of natural resources and long-term empire building. The idea was that these lands, always previously inhabited by indigenous populations, were regarded as “terra nullius,” Latin for “nobody’s land.” This papal decree stated that lands not civilized, not using Western agricultural processes, were therefore unaltered by man, thus making them uninhabited, despite the presence of indigenous populations. This system left the globe in the thralls of supremacist rule as white Europeans took what they wanted and damned the rest.
Postcolonialist critique, a critical examination of the aftermath of colonialism, has become a popular academic topic in the last half-century. The current project sustains that we critically rethink both the history and the agency of the people subjugated under colonialism. This becomes an interesting lens through which to read horror films. In horror, we typically see indigenous peoples as the villain, enacting crude and physical violence on unfortunate people that wander too far into a strange and “unsettled” land. This caricature is a remnant of the colonial project in which western people were charged to subjugate and rule over those who were too uncivilized to rule themselves. These distortions become blatantly prevalent in the exploitation subgenre. Films like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or The Green Inferno (2015) are perfect examples of indigenous exploitation films, as they revolve around cannibalistic and paganistic tribes that kill documentarians or activists that function as “white saviors” within the film, trying to “help” a people that “doesn’t know any better.” It’s easy to draw a line from colonial critique to Italian cannibal exploitation films, but for the sake of this series, I’d like to focus on a number of recent films that function as a critique in themselves.
For this 4-part series, I will examine a number of horror films through the lens of postcolonialism, specifically films that revolve around interlopers in a land they don’t truly understand, and the warning of what can happen when expansion is forced upon these places. Through analysis of specific films, we begin to see a critique of colonialist endeavors that are doomed from the beginning. These lands are old, have lasted the tests of time, and have the ability to resist the colonization efforts, as they’ve resisted countless times before. I will make the case that by threading each of these films through the ideals of Manifest Destiny (the idea that the United States/Western expansion was both divinely justified and inevitable), they reinforce this reading of indigenous and ecological resistance. By subverting the typical hero and villain roles in these films, we begin to see a new horror film, one where colonization is villainous, and the acts of resistance are what we truly want to succeed.
The Mayan people were first encountered during the many expeditions Spain sent to the region. As time went on, Spanish explorers began landing along the Yucatan Peninsula. An extensive indigenous empire, the Mayans encompassed a wide region of what is now Central America. As Spanish conquistadors like Hernan Cortes and Pedro de Alvarado moved through the region, they took cities and slaves, demanding large amounts of gold that couldn’t be sustained, and abandoned the cities for new conquests soon after. It took almost two centuries for the Mayan empire to completely fall in the face of colonization. Even after their fall, the resistance to colonial authority and Christianization ensured that pieces of the Mayan culture survived. The large number of remotely located villages within the empire meant that they could continue their way of life largely uninterrupted. Their traditions, language, and beliefs still remain even to this day.
This is the area we open to in The Ruins (2008), where a group of white vacationers has descended on the Yucatan, looking for exciting and exotic experiences. The normal tourist destinations don’t interest them, and in talking to another group of white travelers, they settle on a Mayan archaeological dig out in the jungle. They refuse to heed any of the warnings by the taxi driver, who offers to take them somewhere else. It isn’t until it’s too late that they realize how doomed they are.
The carnivorous vines themselves act as a physical representation of Manifest Destiny and colonization. We don’t know where the vine comes from, but we know that it consumes everything it touches. Using the definition of colonization, which is the act of settling amongst and establishing control over the indigenous inhabitants of an area, we see the vines have established control over the ruins. The film doesn’t go as far as to say that this is what wiped out the Mayan civilization, but it can be assumed from the vines overtaking the temple in the establishing shot of the ruin that this was a factor in this specific area’s demise.
Indigenous groups differ from western groups when it comes to ecological matters, namely in the difference between horticulture and agriculture. Horticulture is the practice of cultivating and maintaining an environment in which you live alongside the plants, whereas agriculture is the practice of raising crops for consumption. One is based on thriving with, while the other seeks to thrive because of. Due to this background in horticulture, the Mayans would have struck an uneasy truce with the vines instead of attempting their outright destruction. The Mayan settlement in this area provided the vines a food source, and it eventually overtook them as a civilization. The descended Mayan villagers speak to this fact, as they have surrounded the ruins with a circle, seemingly salt and ash, due to the constant burning they have established to keep the vines at bay. This also recalls the practice of “salting the earth,” an ancient folkloric ritual in which a city destroyed by conquest was purified and cursed against any who would hope to resettle it. The descendants deprived the vines of a food source (other than what strayed too close to the ruins) and took the task of protecting the greater world around them from the plant, hence the hostility and armed resistance to the vacationers. The vines, as a physical representation of colonization, have been placed on a dead, cursed land as a hostage, not unlike a reservation. In this reading, we see the colonizing force quarantined, cut off from resources that would allow its continued expansion and consumption of all it finds. This act of resistance by the Mayan village saved countless lives until the vacationers arrived.
The White Savior(s)
The film functions as a critique of the standard white savior trope we see too often in film and literature. As mentioned before with indigenous exploitation films, the white savior seeks to bring reason and western culture to a people they deem inferior and barbaric. They don’t understand the danger that the place presents, yet believe they know better than the local people because they come from western civilization embodied by culture, humanity, and wealth. Under the ideals of Manifest Destiny, the white savior believes in the unrivaled virtue of the American people and their institutions.
Annie Windholz sums it up as “an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. Throughout the white savior’s journey, they themselves are centered: they are often portrayed as messianic and tend to ‘learn something’ about themselves in the process of rescuing others. This trope is commonly seen in movies and literature in Western society and is reinforced by our own educational system, media, movements, the religious and nonprofit sector in America as well as our foreign policy views toward the rest of the world.” *
The vacationers function as another inversion, this time bumbling white saviors, but not to indigenous peoples, but instead to the indigenous land itself. Their drive to escape a place they were too arrogant to avoid will end up spreading the vine outside of the reservation the Mayan descendants created around it. It might not make it far at first, but it will take root eventually, depending on where Amy reaches in her escape. It will spread its seeds across every inch she runs through the jungle. It will grow and devour everything it comes in contact with. The vines’ mission mirrors Manifest Destiny through its forced assimilation of environments to its purposes. Manifest Destiny, as mentioned previously, was the belief that United States expansion was both justified and inevitable. On the flip side of this, the vines’ expansion is inevitable, due to the arrogance and ignorance of the vacationers’ intrusions.
As part of the remnants of colonialism, our commodification of other cultures and the “vacationization” of cultural sites across the globe are both at play here as well. From the appropriation of indigenous symbols on clothing in gift shops to the destruction of cultural landmarks, natural landscapes, and biomes at national parks, travel has a number of adverse effects on a destination. The vacationers in the film doom themselves early on because they are not satiated by the tourist options presented to them. They underestimate the dangers the locals warn them about, they know nothing of the culture they are intruding on, and due to this arrogance, they doom themselves. They believe the vines’ actions defy scientific possibility, therefore, simply because they have never seen it before, it must be impossible. They believe their western medicine has the ability to cure it, but some things are too strong to be cured as we’ve seen with countless diseases throughout human history.
The vines themselves are not a disease yet can function as a metaphor for the infectious diseases that have acted as a natural culling process for humankind since the first sapiens walked the Earth. Throughout human evolution and each revolution of human society, disease has emerged to humble us, reminding us that we only inhabit this planet, not control it. History echoes with examples of this, from typhoid fever to the Black Plague, SARS, HIV, and most recently, COVID-19. During the explorations of the Americas, Columbus, Cortes, and countless others brought diseases with them into indigenous populations, some purposefully. These indigenous peoples had no biological resistance to diseases like smallpox, which then ran rampant through the areas and decimated entire civilizations. Anthropologists have postured that humanity has always fought with disease, but their relative location “limited the pathogens that were potential disease agents.’’ ** As humans began to spread from the savanna zones to other reaches of the globe, they began to encounter new pathogens that had previously existed in a zoonotic relationship, infecting non-human animals for their host. As with major diseases over the eras, zoonotic diseases ultimately end up infecting humans as well, through insect bites, contamination of food, and animal-caused wounds. If we think of the vines as operating like a zoonotic disease, they most likely sustained themselves on animals until they encountered humans during migrations into Central America. Each phase of human progress becomes “not only an obstacle but also a challenge to be overcome” ** for the vines. Like any mutation of a pathogenic disease, the vines adapt to their new prey in order to infect and sustain themselves. By mimicking the sounds of cell phones and voices, they turn the group away from each other and send them into the tendrils of the vines. This mimicry recalls the co-opting of other cultures for the benefit of the colonizer. The Mayan villagers again find a way to live alongside the ‘disease’ by effectively quarantining it. They know it has no cure, they know it spreads to everything it touches, so they isolate it by taking it out of the ecosystem. They starve it, even going as far as killing a child who came into contact with it when Amy throws a clump of vines at him, again recalling the purposeful infection of indigenous peoples by colonists.
Through this reading, The Ruins becomes not a body horror but instead an allegory of indigenous resistance to colonization. The vines themselves can be quarantined, excised from the land, or even destroyed. However, to do so will take the effort of all, not simply the villagers. Just like efforts of decolonization across our world, there are no passive roles to play. 🩸
* Windholz, A. (2020, July 29). Unpacking white saviorism. Retrieved March 06, 2021, from https://anniewindholz.medium.com/unpacking-white-saviorism-7d7b659dcbb3
** Armelagos, G. J., Barnes, K. C., & Lin, J. (2014). Disease in human evolution: The reemergence of infectious disease in the third epidemiological transition. AnthroNotes : National Museum of Natural History Bulletin for Teachers, 18(3), 1. doi:10.5479/10088/22354
Jordan Gerdes is an author and educator based in Houston, TX. His writing has repeatedly upset his teachers and professors, typically by applying academic analysis of history and literature to horror media. When he isn’t teaching, writing, or devouring Stephen King novels, he can be found spending time with his wife and dogs outdoors.
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