Be(ware) the Swallowing Nature Bites Back: FROGS and the Ecophobic White Imagination

The fusion of absurdist ecohorror with Southern Gothic.

By Lea Anderson · @leaeanderson · July 27, 2021, 6:39 PM EDT
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Swallowed by nature in FROGS (1972)

As far as devouring Others go, shark films- the cornerstone of the ecohorror subgenre and a legitimate subgenre unto themselves- exhibit some of the most literal renderings of The Swallowing to regularly appear. We celebrated Shark Week earlier this month at FANGORIA by looking at films like The Reef, 47 Meters Down, Deep Blue Sea, The Shallows, and Orca, none of which may have existed without their progenitor in Jaws. Both Steph Cannon and Blu Gilliand recognize the impact of Spielberg’s ’75 classic not just on the genre, but the degree to which it shifted how folks relate to natural bodies of water in general. As Cannon describes, the film’s blockbuster success ravaged waterside communities the year of its release, taking a choice bite from local economies largely dependent on summer tourism—just as seen in the movie. While these economies eventually bounced back, the real catastrophe was the film’s impact on sharks themselves.

Ecologically speaking, the shark subgenre has fueled an intense antagonism and resultant lack of public care toward the hundreds of distinct species increasingly threatened as a direct result of human consumption. A combination of overfishing, inadequate management by commercial fisheries, and changing temperatures due to climate change all imperil these species who determine the overall health of biodiversity through the several oceanic ecosystems they inhabit. Solid arguments can and have been made for reading these films structurally as slashers, in which the shark acts as a stand-in for the masked killer of your choice. Alternatively, psychoanalytic feminist readings approach them as vagina dentata metaphors a la Teeth. In either case, these films unilaterally anthropomorphize these animals (who, as is often noted, demonstrate no actual affinity for human flesh) by projecting human notions of villainy, evil, and vengeance to them. Consider the tagline for 1977’s Orca:

“Orca—the killer whale, is one of the most intelligent creatures in the universe. He hunts in packs like a wolf. Incredibly, he is the only animal other than man who kills for revenge. He has one mate, and if she is harmed by man, he will hunt down that person with a relentless, terrible vengeance—across seas, across time, across all obstacles.”

It’s true that orcas are the definitive oceanic apex predator. Ample evidence exists of transient pods’ propensity to successfully hunt larger shark species, but they also have complex familial structures (matriarchal, of course), distinct languages, and cultural legacies they pass on generationally. Like humans, they can be driven mad by conditions of captivity (which is to say, carceral conditions; conditions of enslavement) and mourn their dead- sometimes for extended periods of time- just as we and many other animal species do. But vengeance, particularly of the toxic masculine sort, is a strictly human endeavor. The form of narrative projection demonstrated in films like Orca and Jaws exemplifies what Simon C. Estok refers to as ecophobia or the ecophobic imagination which regards the natural world as a monstrous, devouring, antagonistic entity to be dominated into submission.

Estok views ecophobia as inherent to both eco-horror and the ecogothic; that the ecogothic arises from and thereby reflects the ecophobic imagination. At its core, this is simply another way of articulating the white colonial imagination which perceives Black and Indigenous people as strictly dehumanized; equates femininity with natural resources, predestined for endless extraction; associates the impoverished with infesting vermin and the disabled as subhuman. In “Theorising the EcoGothic,” Estok cites Dawn Keetley (editor of Horror Homeroom) and Matthew W. Sivils’ Ecogothic in Nineteenth Century American Literature to recognize “the intersections between racism and ecophobia, ethnocentrism and ecophobia, and sexism and ecophobia” (though I’d include ecophobia’s intersections with classism and ableism to this statement as well); how “humanity’s abuses against the land and its denizens, human and non-human alike, have spawned a culture obsessed with a natural world both monstrous and monstrously wronged.”

Echoed in this anxiety and obsession are those imaginings of apocalyptic race wars, manifestations of the fear of retribution that propels much of the white imagination’s compulsive need to demonize Black and Indigenous people; an anxiety dually reflected in the ecohorror concept, “nature bites back,” which continues the tradition of casting various elements of the natural world as manifestations of The Swallowing. It is demonstrated in literally countless films, including King Kong, Them!, The Birds, Piranha, Anaconda, Graveyard Shift, The Thing, Tarantula, Bats, The Fog, Lake Placid, The Ruins, Blood Feast (otherwise known as Night of 1000 Cats), Tremors, Little Shop of Horrors, and the list goes on and on. Many of these feature animals historically coded to align an amoral Blackness and/or Indigeneity with an amoral natural element that threatens the stability of human (read: white) sovereignty. We see this illustrated in King Kong, The Birds, The Black Cat, Anaconda, amongst others.

AIP’s criminally underseen 1972 gem, Frogs, is, in plot summary, not dissimilar to many of the above films. Featuring the menacing tagline, “First the pond—then the world!” what makes this film unique is its treatment: how it bends the “nature bites back” concept to create a near-seamless fusion of absurdist ecohorror with Southern Gothic that functions as a clear critique and condemnation of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Filmed at Wesley House, a plantation-style mansion that sits on Tucker Bayou off the Choctawhatchee Bay in Florida’s panhandle, its opening shots feature photographer, Pinkett Smith (Sam Elliott) canoeing through the bayou, capturing images of various reptiles. Gradually, the cameras’ gaze (both Smith’s and the film’s) shifts to evidence of litter, pollution, and toxic contaminates. As he paddles out into the bay, the film cuts between Smith and shots of siblings, Clint (Adam Roarke) and Karen Crockett (Joan Van Ark), whose reckless, irreverent motorboating capsizes his canoe. The juxtaposition is one of deep characterization. The Crocketts are loud, destructive, lacking in care and consideration.

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When they insist on bringing him back to their family’s antebellum-esque estate for dry clothes and a meal, he’s first introduced to patriarch, Jason Crockett (Ray Milland), who greets him with a scowl and lecture about the sanctity of private property. Here, we learn Smith freelances for an ecology magazine and is working on a spread about pollution. By contrast, the Crocketts speak of the local flora and fauna with open disdain- particularly the frogs- and have no qualms about spraying poison pesticides to kill them. With the persistent din of croaking and ribbiting in the background, Smith is shuffled inside the mansion and introduced to several generations of Crocketts, each battier than the last, right up until we meet Clint and Karen’s cousin, Kenneth (Nicholas Cortland), and his fiancé, Bella (Judy Pace), a gorgeous Black model.

In research, I often find the definitions of “Southern Gothic” tend to shift based on the racial identity of the definer in question. While nostalgic romance is quintessential to gothic traditions, there is a great schism in the particular types of nostalgia the American South can inspire, which also happen to be in direct conflict with one another. One version allows white people to dress up, drink tea, and pretend that plantation life wasn’t, in actuality, a scene of grotesque violence. By contrast, as Leila Taylor notes in Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, Black traditions (particularly those of Black women) approach Southern Gothic as “a deglamorization of the antebellum Dixie.” Frogs is interesting as a project because it is framed as the former to accomplish the ends of the latter.

Smith may be the film’s protagonist, but Bella is its voice of reason, bringing grace, levity, and humor to every scene she’s involved with, particularly in how she manages her deranged soon-to-be in-laws. Kenneth’s mother (Hollis Irving), for instance, possesses a fondness for taxidermized monarchs, and when Kenneth inquires ironically about whether it’s “weird” for an adult woman to chase butterflies, Bella first defends her right to do so, then offers the cool conclusion, “Me myself, I just never had the energy to run after anything.”

What we see of their relational dynamic suggests a certain amount of mocking clarity about the family at large. Joking together about Jason’s extraordinary unlikability and fascistic approach to running the household, she muses how “he treats me nice enough,” a statement loaded with hundreds of years of violent history. At the time of the film’s release, interracial marriage had only been legal for about five years and was met with profound stigma. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in a more likely rendition of this same story, she might not have been allowed to cross the threshold of the front door at all. “You know what,” Kenneth says, “nobody ever invites guests for Fourth of July—and I bring you. A girl. And worse, a sexy model.” Laughing, she qualifies, “and that ain’t all either.” His arm around her, he declares with confidence, “But would Jason ever admit we shook him up? Neeever.”

The white imagination of the slave-owning South associated Blackness, essentially, with pollution; a contaminating force in need of management, lest it overcome civilized society. This pathology was particularly true within familial structures, common as it was for slaves and slaveowners of all genders to be direct relations. A free Black woman legally entering an old white Southern family by marriage would be, to a great many minds, a horrific prospect—something both Bella and Kenneth demonstrate a keen awareness of.

Meanwhile, the chorus of croaks carries on, outmatched only by the family’s many complaints. At lunch, they interrogate Smith about how to get rid of the frogs, who they claim keep them awake at night. One cousin considers whether to pour oil in the water, which Smith sensibly refutes. “With all our technology and all my money, we still can’t get rid of these frogs,” Jason laments. His perspective reflects the general arrogance of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy as anthropocentric systems. Rather than recognizing themselves as having encroached on the frogs’ habitat by building a house on the bay, they view the frogs as the intruding menace. It is Jason Crockett and his progeny’s belief that the world is simply the backdrop of their lives, rather than that their lives take place in the world.

Shortly thereafter, Smith is sent to find a missing worker, Grover, and discovers the man’s corpse, covered in snakes, frogs, partially subsumed by the swamp.

It’s night before he returns, and the family gathers in a den of sorts. Elsewhere, Bella pours a drink for herself and slips one to Maybelle (Mae Mercer), Crockett’s cook, and housekeeper. The point has already been made that Maybelle and her husband, Charles (Lance Taylor Sr.), who works as his butler, have been with the Crocketts since “the beginning,” implying that they’re the descendants of slaves. As they sip their drinks, Bella reveals that they in fact share the same name. “I thought so,” Maybelle says knowingly, and the two laugh together. Before Bella can leave, Maybelle makes sure to tell her there’s “always hot coffee and a friendly conversation in the kitchen” if she “needs it.” Bella thanks her with genuine appreciation and, in what’s left unsaid, a current of sarcasm regarding the obnoxiousness of the homeowners flows freely.

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Both dark-skinned, both named Maybelle, the two women are mirrors to one another: Maybelle performing the only acceptable role for Black women naturalized by people like the Crocketts, and Bella; living, breathing evidence of who Maybelle could be if given the freedom and opportunity. No antagonism exists between them, and the warmth and care they demonstrate toward one another disrupts the rigid social hierarchies of the household, throwing them in stark contrast to the petty cruelty of the white people around them.

In the next room, Bella dances awkwardly with Clint while Kenneth and Clint’s wife, Jenny (Lynn Borden) watch on. Jealous, the white woman sneers, “That’s an unusual dress, Bella. Did you make it?” “No, I didn’t make it,” Bella corrects. “I designed it.” Clint declares he thinks the dress “fantastic,” to which Jenny replies, “We are talking about the dress aren’t we?” before segueing to complain about the frogs once again. “That noise is driving me insane! Won’t they ever stop?” The juxtaposition of her snide comments toward Bella with her frustration about the frogs fuses ecophobic anxieties with white supremacist ones. Like the frogs, Bella is perceived by certain family members as an invading presence, even if an air of politeness is always maintained under the guise of “southern hospitality.”

When Karen, offended at her grandfather’s callousness proclaims, “Oh Grandpa…you make us sound like the ugly rich,” he bellows, “we are the ugly rich!” A sentiment with which Kenneth’s mother agrees: “We’re entitled to be ugly, Karen. God knows we pay enough taxes.” The Crocketts are unilaterally terrible, but none so terrible as Jason Crockett himself, who decides a body in his backyard shouldn’t disrupt his birthday party. After all, “man is master of the world,” and everything he says is law.

Meanwhile, the outside has begun to make its way inside, and one body becomes two, becomes three, and so on. Despite his most obstinate efforts, Jason Crockett’s birthday does not go as planned.

I often think of Frogs as a spiritual predecessor to The People Under the Stairs. Both films showcase Black folks infiltrating demented white households that stand in as metaphors for America as a whole. It is, for instance, far from incidental that Crockett’s birthday falls on the Fourth of July. They also both use absurdism as a tool of social criticism, and while no one dons a full-body latex suit in Frogs, many of the kill scenes in this movie are so preposterous, you can’t help but laugh. It’s also worth noting that, despite its title, none of said deaths are actually committed by frogs. Spiders, butterflies, seagulls, snakes, gators, and even a couple of Argentine tegu lizards all make appearances, and even as they represent the literal manifestation of The Swallowing, for the most part, it’s the humans’ own ineptitude that leads to their demise.

This brings us back to the question of ecophobia and its enmeshment with white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. While I generally agree with the sentiments offered by Keetley, Sivils, and Estok regarding “humanity’s abuses,” there is a specificity subsumed within the word “humanity” as a generalization. “Man vs. Nature” is a conflict created by white European cultures, and while ecophobia may be inherent to the ecogothic of these imaginations, that’s not necessarily the case for cultures with lexicons that relate to the natural world as a familial extension of ourselves. Just as Southern Gothic can be delineated along lines of race with regard to the romanticizing or deglamorizing of the antebellum South, so too can the ecogothic.

Even if the animals in Frogs appear as The Swallowing, they are no more the villain than Bella is. That title is reserved exclusively for the Jason Crocketts of the world.