The Jungle is the symbolic opposite of the desert and the tundra. The Jungle environment is a stand in for confusion, the loss of civilization, wildness, overabundance, hardship, danger, fear, threat, and powerlessness. The colors associated with jungle environments in movies are greens, black, and red. The kind of horror stories that take place in the jungle often embody all these themes. In fact, many movies that take place in the jungle involve many elements of horror, even if they’re not actually horror movies.
The jungle is the opposite of the desert/Arctic, in that it has an overabundance of life, and most of that life is indifferent to ours. So dropping human beings into such an environment automatically makes it horrific, with the jungle itself as an external threat. Jungle movies that contain both internal and external threats are kind of rare, because often just the backdrop of the jungle itself is enough of a threat to human life that it makes the movie horrifying.
In the 2017 movie Jungle, starring Daniel Radcliffe, there is no more threat needed than the act of simply attempting to survive while in the jungle, with no food, no tools, and no resources, or skills. The movie is based on the true story of Yossi, an Israeli traveler who gets stranded, alone, in the Amazon, after a series of misadventures with friends. After several days of trying to get food and make shelter, Yossi is rescued by one of his friends. The movie is filmed much like a horror movie, except the killer is the environment, as Yossi and his companions encounter one challenge after another, from sickness and wounds, to river rapids and hunger.
In the 1972 movie, Aguirre the Wrath of God, directed by Werner Herzog, the horror comes not just from the environment, but also internal, as it comes from the weaknesses of other people. In 1560, a group of Conquistadors get lost in the Amazon, while searching for the fabled City of Gold, El Dorado. One by one, they succumb to the dangers of river rafting, sickness, hunger, angry natives, and their own perfidy, until their cruel leader is finally left alone to die in his madness. The soldiers were not only ill prepared for the rigors of survival in the jungle, but were brought low by their own greed, selfishness, and cruelty.
Writers don’t really need to add more to make the environment more threatening to increase the horror, but writers will occasionally drop in another external threat, such as in the most famous of these types of film, the 1987 Predator, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger, and a small, heavily armed, paramilitary rescue team, encounter a hostile alien in Central America, The alien possesses advanced weaponry and, one by one, stalks and kills them, until only Arnold’s character is left to outsmart it. The soldiers deal with multiple external threats that make watching the movie especially harrowing. They don’t just have to survive the dangers of the jungle, but the hostile insurgents they came to fight, and the alien, all while attempting to rescue a government official.
Alien beings are not the only threats form Outside however. Sometimes the threats are humans, or animals. Since the beginning of cinema, the deep, dark jungles of Africa, and South America have been shown to be the place where White explorers fear to tread, largely because of cannibals. The most recent one of these is Eli Roth’s 2013 Green Inferno, in which a cast of white plane crash survivors are set upon by a tribe of hungry natives.
The Green Inferno received negative reviews, not just for its gore, but for the tired racist concept of Indigenous people as inherently bloodthirsty and cannibalistic, predators lying in wait for white tourists, or travelers, to happen by, so they can torture and kill them. Among these films were a series of exploitation films, by Italian directors from the 80s, like 1980s Cannibal Holocaust, 1981s Eaten Alive, and Cannibal Ferox, that were devoted to the topic of white people being eaten by natives in jungle environments.
The Ruins, which was released in 2008, follows much the same plot, at least on the surface, when a group of backpackers in the Amazon, are attacked by the Indigenous tribe of that area, after they stumble across a forbidden site. The cannibal narrative is overturned, however, as the natives aren’t simply out to kill tourists, but are keeping them trapped in the jungle, to save the rest of the world from the sentient carnivorous plants the travelers have become infected with.
There is always an element of racism involved in such movies, as the natives, often people of color, are depicted as hostile, primitive, and cannibalistic, and whatever religions they practice are also demonized. The local natives in such films are often shown to jabbering hysterically in foreign languages, ignorant, uneducated, and not in charge of their own fates. The pagan religions they practice are associated with the jungle landscape, and represent the wild outer reaches of civilization, where human beings can survive, but not without the assistance of unknowable animal or eldritch gods, who are depicted as greedy, bloodthirsty, and requiring ritual sacrifices of animals and people, or involving arcane and mysterious rites of appeasement, as in the 1987 film The Believers, where a man is terrorized and cursed by the members of a Santeria cult, after he stumbles across a plot to sacrifice his son to a pagan god, to prevent World War 3.
In film after film, South and Central American religions like Voodoo and Santeria are associated with cults, jungle tribes, primitivism, a lack of education, gullibility, zombies, and Satanism. In fact, the term Witch Doctor comes directly from such movies, differentiating itself from the European witch model, by combining pagan religious rituals with medical and scientific experiments, as in the 1988 The Serpent and the Rainbow, supposedly based on the true story of Wade Davis, where a medical doctor, gets zombified by the local Witch Doctor, while researching the zombie myth. With rare exceptions, the only time Black people (or Indigenous peoples) appear in such films is when they’re the villains.
When attractive looking White people, (because let’s be honest, urban Black people are not traveling to the jungle for any reason, and we never star in these films as the victims), are not being eaten by humans in the jungle, they are being chased and eaten by the many dangerously large animals that live there. Every year since America’s environmental awakening in the 70s, Hollywood has produced a host of movies nature’s revenge movies, involving people being chased by giant snakes (Anaconda 1997), giant bears (Grizzly 1976), giant crocodiles (Primeval 2007) or giant pigs, (Razorback 1984) as a punishment for their hubris in believing they could conquer such an environment, or for not paying proper respect to it.
The premise of “Lost World” films is often based on revenge for the hubris of white colonizers, where there is some part of the world that is so unexplored, or uninhabitable, that it is still available for exploration and/or exploitation by white men, which nature duly rebukes for their trouble. The latest movie featuring a lost world plot is the 2017 Kong: Skull Island, wherein a group of military specialists get stranded on an unknown jungle island during the Vietnam War. They encounter the titular ape, and get picked off, one by one, by a menagerie of dangerously massive animals like spiders, pterosaurs, and to make the setup complete, horrific underground monsters.
But the most famous of these giant animal movies, upon which the new version is based, is the 1933 King Kong, in which an intrepid group of explorers get stranded on a jungle island that’s been lost in time. They get hunted by everything from hostile tribesmen, to dinosaurs, to the actual ape himself. The Jurassic Park franchise of the mid-90s, is just a scientific way to upgrade the Lost World myth to the modern world, with humans being hunted through dark jungles, by ancient creatures, while still addressing the same issues of economic exploitation. The dinosaurs are a scientific version of King King, (only without the elements of racism that mar the original film.)
The jungle is where human beings go to kill or be killed. That’s its only purpose. There’s no compromising with it, anything can be imagined in such a place, and a person can only exist in there on its terms, which makes movies set in jungles the most exciting and terrifying adventures to have.