During the first week of December, 1978, the covers of Time and Newsweek featured horrific images that would haunt me over the ensuing
year. Both magazines bore the headline
“Cult of Death” superimposed over masses of dead, decaying bodies, victims of
the catastrophe at Jonestown, Guyana.
Under the direction of their leader, Jim Jones, 909 members of the cult
organization calling itself the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project were
persuaded to commit “revolutionary suicide” by ritually drinking a sweetly-flavored
poisonous mixture in a senseless act of coerced self-destruction that spawned
the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” At
the age of thirteen, I couldn’t really fathom this event, nor did I know where
Guyana was, but I was deeply impacted by those horrific magazine covers. I would only begin to make some kind of sense
of these events by watching the horror movies that were released during what Newsweek would call “Hollywood’s Scary
By that summer I had already become a fairly seasoned
watcher of horror films. More than mere
thrills and escapism, however, horror movies had come to serve as a reflection
of the toxic environments around me. My
understanding of the world was shaped by violent and disturbing images, not
only in theaters but also on television and in magazines, thanks to the news
media’s increasing tendency to capitalize on the graphic shock value of current
events. I suppose that after televising
Viet Nam, nothing was taboo, and there was certainly a political significance to
a nation’s being asked by its reporters and photographers to bear witness to
what its military was being ordered to do overseas. But there’s no denying that
images of massed dead bodies displayed on the family coffee table could have a
dramatic, even traumatic, effect, especially on children and adolescents.
The poster advertising John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy featured a grotesque image of a
monstrous fetal creature wrapped in its placenta, an image I responded to like
all such images in the media environment of the 70s: with equal
parts fascination and horror. After seeing
the film, however, I discovered that horror could help me to make social and
political, as well as emotional and imaginative, sense of the era’s disturbing
events. Several months earlier, on March
28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania experienced the
worst meltdown in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry, releasing
radioactive material into the environment and alerting America to the
catastrophic risks courted by the industry.
Less than two weeks before Prophecy
hit theaters, on June 3 the exploratory oil well Ixtoc 1 blew and began
spilling vast quantities of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, in a summer-long
disaster that would later be disturbingly reenacted in 2010, stage-directed by
Frankenheimer wanted to create an environmentally-conscious horror film that
would raise the ethical stakes of popcorn fare.
While it can hardly be said that he succeeded in this goal—the director
has blamed his own alcoholism at the time, as well as production issues, for the
film’s relative failure—it did succeed in presenting images and settings that
managed to distill, at least for one young filmgoer, the toxic environments of
Dr. Robert Verne (Robert Foxworth) and his wife Maggie
(Talia Shire) leave their urban life for the Maine woods, in order to carry out
an investigation for the Environmental Protection Agency. A native tribe has accused a local logging
mill of dumping pollutants into the Androscoggin River, pollutants that are
poisoning their land and people. Verne
and Maggie find themselves trapped between the interests of Native Americans
and those of loggers, but gradually become advocates for the local tribe and
its environment once they begin to see the monstrous mutations spawned by the
mercury that the mill has been releasing into the environment. Trouts the size of sharks, giant demented
raccoons, and tadpoles the size of overweight bullfrogs are just a few of the
initial signs that something weird is going on.
Like the three-eyed fish that jumps from the river beneath Burns’
nuclear plant in The Simpsons
opening, these creatures are more a part of radiation lore than of mercury
And it’s precisely the indeterminate, hybrid nature of the
creatures that stalk, wiggle, and hop through horror movies that allows them
such a broad range of reference. Those
who don’t get horror movies would cite the implausibility of such monsters as
undermining the film’s environmental message.
But the indeterminacy of this kind of horror imagery
actually multiplies meanings rather than negating them. It matters that the creature of Mary
Shelley’s Frankenstein is created
from the dead as well as the living, from humans as well as animals. In his hybridity, the creature embodies a
plethora of anxieties induced by the rise of scientific culture in the early
nineteenth century, when the novel was first published, including concerns over
the use of human corpses in anatomical research, the use of live animals in
laboratory experiments, and the use of animal-incubated antitoxins in
vaccines. While it would be rather a
stretch to compare Mary Shelley’s classic novel with John Frankenheimer’s
not-so-classic film, the latter does partake of this rich tradition of the
monstrous that is horror’s enduring legacy.
As a thirteen-year-old, I was captivated by these creatures,
and horrified by the most dramatic of the film’s monsters, a giant mutant she-bear
that the natives regard as an avatar of their totemic nature spirit,
Katahdin. But I was even more affected
by Katahdin’s grotesque cub, which Maggie tries to rescue, in a harrowing
sequence that remains one of the film’s most effective moments. Early in the film we learn that Maggie is
pregnant, a fact that she keeps secret from her husband until she discovers
that the fish they been eating from the river have been poisoned by the same
substances that have produced Katahdin and its brood. She knows her own child will suffer the same fate,
and consequently regards the mutant cub they find with a displaced motherly
affection. As she swims through the
river, carrying it in one of her arms, the cub grows terrified as it hears its
biological mother howling in the narrowing distance of pursuit, and begins
biting and tearing at Maggie’s throat.
She drowns the cub, as she will presumably abort the mutant fetus growing
This scene stayed with me for several months after seeing
the film, for reasons I couldn’t quite place, until one weekend, bored during a
visit to my grandmother’s, I pulled out a collection of award-winning
photographs from Life magazine that
had I had often perused before. There I
came upon an image that had long horrified and moved me, and the connection
between it and the scene from Frankenheimer’s movie instantly clicked. The image was taken by W. Eugene Smith as
part of an expose on the mercury poisoning caused by the Chisso corporation in
Minamata, Japan. It showed a mother
tenderly bathing her adult child; the young man’s limbs are bent and twisted at
unnatural angles and his face is distorted in an agonized grimace, the result
of mercury exposure. In this grotesque
pieta, the mother supports him gently in the tub, and gazes upon him with a
look of steadfast love. The image was
taken in December, 1971, a fitting emblem for the decade to follow.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.
5 thoughts on “OUR SCARY SUMMER: PROPHECY and the Toxic Environments of 1979”
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Thank you, LB: it was a peculiar time, that only looks more peculiar as time passes.
Very much enjoyed this piece. We were around the same age and point of horror movie experience when this came out. I remember that summer so vividly. Your focus on the socio-political environment is brilliant.