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Mushrooms, mould and killer plants: the best horror isn't animal, it's vegetable

Return to the earth

Ever since I witnessed a little red-and-blue plumber-man tumble into the gnashing jaws of a Piranha Plant, I knew vegetables weren’t to be trusted. I see my suspicion of all things green and floral as a natural, even instinctual thing. We ourselves aren’t vegetable, and differences so often motivate our deepest fears. The vegetal realm is entirely inaccessible to us, its behaviour strange and habitats dark. From the carnivorous Venus flytrap to the bleeding tooth fungus, from plants that smell like rotting corpses to one's that trap prey and dissolve them with digestive fluids, it’s an unknown, often dangerous world, and one that overlaps closely with our own. And it makes for a compelling game.

In film, killer greenery has been going through a bit of a renaissance. In Alex Garland’s Annihilation (an adaptation of the first novel in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy), four women enter a strange, shimmery forest and come face to face with various weird plants. One of the most powerful images from the film is found in the basin of an emptied concrete swimming pool. Pinned to the wall is a corpse of a previous expedition member, their body turned inside out and extended by some sort of monstrous fungal growth.

Mushrooms – those are the ones you really can’t trust. In Ben Wheatley’s recent sci-fi horror film In The Earth there exists a giant Wood Wide Web – a connected ecosystem based on a real thing, which in In The Earth's specific, fictional case is a web of psychoactive mushrooms that have been slowly evolving into a peculiar kind of alien intelligence. Even more visually spectacular is this year’s South African horror film Gaia – all close-ups of fluttering shroom gills and reproductive spores wafting oppressively in the jungle atmosphere. Gaia plays with the same concept of a massive mycorrhizal, or fungus-root, network. What if something as malicious as it is intelligent was silently evolving in our forgotten forests, biding its time in the shadows of the undergrowth and plotting revenge for all the terrible things we’ve done to our – their – planet?

Of course, video games are just as obsessed with these flavours of vegetal horror. Whimsical time-loop game Outer Wilds is intermittently horrific, introducing us to the mysterious system-wide entity known as the Dark Bramble. While it’s more of a gnarled, woody thing than a mushroom, it seems to grow, infect and work symbiotically just like fungi, turning a planet inside out like it was the doomed body of one of Annihilation’s expeditionists, as well as connecting multiple spaces through a mesmerising fourth dimension. What makes all of these underground superorganisms so horrifying is their vastness. They are so big that they could very well be considered hyperobjects – things too large in temporal and spatial dimension to ever be accurately abstracted or understood by us. How can we ever hope to understand such chaotic systems?

"There’s an innate alieness to vegetation. Forests are ancient, prehistoric, and have long been the go-to game environment for mysterious and mystical explorations."

While mycorrhizal networks throw up questions around where individual entities begin and end, and therefore throw into question our own individuality (living symbiotically with various bacteria etc.), there’s also an innate alieness to vegetation. Forests are ancient, prehistoric, and have long been the go-to game environment for mysterious and mystical explorations; Gaia, for example, makes much of the fact that we first evolved out from Earth’s dense jungles. Recent games like Kena: Bridge Of Spirits lean into tropes of corrupted nature, filling its forest glades with pulsating, purple pollutants that must be defeated in order to cleanse the area. While Kena’s vegetal depiction cleaves a little too closely to simplistic memes around Earth’s healing, and its Kodama-like companions are more twee than spookily indifferent (as they are in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke) weird horror game Dap offers a much more frightening rendition of strange forest spirits and their natural ecologies.

Dap’s Pikmin-like entities are profoundly odd. Always with an anxious possibility for corruption, and so never settling into any mould of wholesomeness. Its forest is equally bizarre, a thoroughly alien landscape where plant-life continually jitters and writhes with vitality, like coral reefs when hit with powerful currents. In fact, underwater vegetation, as seen vividly in games like Subnautica, and hinted at under the surface in Sunless Sea, or continually held at arm’s reach beneath a digital interface in In Other Waters, are often astonishing places brimming with aberrant weirdness.

Dap - A small, all white character stands in a dark blue creepy forest with a group of identical small while characters following behind them.

While some of the very best video game environments involve strange vegetation – barely a month goes by without me thinking of the mushroomed-choked biomes of Morrowind – more often than not, it’s horrific, vegetal creatures we’re obsessed with. The Dark Souls series has more than its fair share. The Darkroot areas are some of the strangest locales, home to grinning cats, hulking hydras and moths, and a dog with a sword. The area’s Demonic Foliage are a great vegetal addition – swirling plumes of dried plants and moss, they stumble out of the undergrowth in surprise attacks. There are also the Mushroom People – perhaps the oddest creatures in the series, owing to the fact that unlike the majority of things in Dark Souls, they’re more of a neutral forest creature than true enemy. Add to this the infamous Bed of Chaos, a sprawling bramble monstrosity that’s both the easiest boss in the game, and its most infuriating.

Of course we can’t talk about plant-based monsters without mentioning The Last Of Us, even though it's technically illegal to mention on a PC site. Much has been made of its novel zombie: humans infected by deadly fungal spores and hollowed out by cordyceps brain infection. Like the Wood Wide Web, cordyceps is a real, observable phenomenon. In nature, this specific parasitic fungi infects insects, highjacking their bodies before killing them with its blooming, reproductive fruits. It was only a matter of time before we speculatively created a type of shroom that could do the same damage to us.

In all honesty, The Last Of Us’ clicking mushroom-zombies were always a little too loud for my tastes. In contrast, one of my favourite details from the sequel is found in the old abandoned theater. It’s a wall. A ridiculously lavish wall, rivalling the game’s obsession over minute details like rope physics and the precise ways in which glass can be broken.As you pass the wall you can hear it gently writhing, the damp, mouldy surface slowly festering away. It’s an easy thing to miss, but that’s what makes it great. A quiet, mouldy perversion on the periphery of the game, growing, spreading, away from all the noise of the zombies and the endlessly warring factions.

The mould is also one of my favourite things about Control. The Hiss is, like zombies, comparatively loud and obnoxious, chanting in your ear whilst blitzing you with violently red beams of light. But it’s the mould in the basement I’m worried about. There are, similar to The Last Of Us, mould-infected zombies, and even a boss mould – a huge, tentacled thing known as Mold-1, but I think, somewhat ironically, these kinds of individualised, even centralised, figures are poor ways of dealing with our fears around fungi’s otherness.

Too often there is some unified entity, a fungal face, to tie the horror together. Resident Evil’s Miranda; the Thorian you meet and speak to on planet Feros in Mass Effect. But networks of mushrooms, mould and plants have no face. They are abjectly other, existing outside our usual, human “models of time, space, scale and species.” While games continue to wrestle with concepts of monstrous vegetation, giving voice to many of the insecurities we have in regards to our planet’s current ecological state and our precarious place in it, as of yet not many have tackled the alien otherness of mushrooms head-on. The most frightening thing about vegetables remains the fact that we may never understand them.

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