Horror, Isolation, and the English Countryside
Men (2022) is the latest instalment from director Alex Garland, known for his two previous films Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018). While the latter two were well received, already considered modern classics for the sci-fi genre, Men has struggled to keep up with mixed reviews and average ratings. While I can understand people’s uncertainty about the film, there were some undeniably brilliant things about it, not least the score and the masterful way Garland kept the tension taut throughout the entire thing.
There’s a lot I could say about Men and why I consider it a good film — the themes of toxic masculinity and trauma passed down through generations, the imagery (as bizarre as it is at times) that Garland uses to illustrate those points, and the clear influence of Paganism within the film, particularly the mythology of the Green Man. The layers of Men run deep and thus the film has a lot to say, not just on ancient beliefs of the natural cycles of birth and death, but on how those cycles stagnate, with effects that persist into modern society and relationships.
And while all of that is very interesting, there are plenty of articles, essays and even forums out there that will no doubt discuss such aspects of the film far better than I ever could. What really fascinated me about Men, and what I want to write about here, was its broad use of isolation as a horror trope, and the fact that that isolation comes in the form of the beautiful English countryside.
Isolation as a horror concept is not a new thing. In fact, it’s perhaps one of the oldest concepts to have been explored in horror, and certainly one of the most popular. Consider some of the most basic settings you’re likely to see in horror films, ghost stories and urban legends, and you’ll realise they all involve isolation to some degree — the haunted house sitting alone on the hill, friends camping alone in the woods, the lone traveller in an unfamiliar hotel, the solitary planet far out in space, the sole worker doing overtime at the office building that sits dark and empty after operating hours.
It’s not hard to see why isolation is so widely used in horror either. Being alone is something we all fear, on a physical level but particularly on an emotional level. We are, after all, social creatures. We have an innate need to be around other people, to communicate, to socialise, and simply spend time outside of our own heads. Even those who profess to dislike people would find it difficult to be cut off from them completely. I don’t need to quote statistics for all of us to know that to go without human contact of any kind would be destructive to our mental, emotional and even physical well-being. At its core, socialisation is survival, and the fear of total isolation is a primal one.
Even so, some might wonder why Garland chose the English countryside specifically as his setting for Men — an environment that is more beautiful, more peaceful than it is foreboding. Most people might say that rural England brings to mind images of The Shire from The Lord of the Rings, happy weekends away during childhood, picnics and chocolate-box villages. Perhaps as someone who was raised in a more rural part of England my opinion is more than a little biased, but it’s hard to think of a single negative thing relative to the countryside, except, maybe, for the mud.
However, when you look at it through a different lens it can take on a whole new dimension. Think back to the example of the campers alone in the woods, unfamiliar noises issuing from the pitch black that surrounds them. Sure, everything’s scarier at night, but even in the light of day there’s something inherently scary about the countryside. That’s not to say that it isn’t beautiful because it undeniably is, but even in the light of day, the idea of getting lost in such an environment is frightening. The country is vast, much of it untouched and wild and home to all manner of things that may or may not belong there.
While England is small enough to mean you’re never too far from civilisation, even the little villages that dot the landscape can be isolating, especially for those who have only ever known the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. Tiny English villages can seem almost frightful in their silence and stillness, and when it’s framed the way it’s framed in Men, it turns the corner from frightful straight into hellish.
The list of films that utilise isolation as part of their horror is extensive. Some notable examples include Friday the 13th (1980) — quite literally the definition of the campers alone in the woods trope — The Hills Have Eyes(1977), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Others (2001). While the isolation itself of the characters in these films isn’t the main focus of the horror, it is the vehicle through which the horror drives in on. The campers are murdered in Friday the 13th because they’re alone at Camp Crystal Lake, and similarly the cannibals attack the family in The Hills Have Eyes because they’re abandoned in the middle of nowhere. The family’s seclusion in The Others only helps their delusion, and there’s surely no keener sense of isolation than being alone in space, as in Alien.
Men’s protagonist, Harper, chooses the isolation of the countryside as a way to heal from her husband’s death. It isn’t something she’s forced or trapped into — at least not to begin with — but such is the case for the majority of the films mentioned above too. The fact that characters choose isolation believing they’ll be safe and turn out not to be could, in fact, be considered scarier than someone forced into that situation. As an example, Saw(2004) is certainly a frightening film in its own right, particularly for the characters waking up, alone, and hooked up to a trap — but the horror in that isn’t hidden. It’s evident that finding yourself alone in an abandoned building, wired up to a device that will rip your lungs out in 30 seconds, is terrifying, and thus a layer of fear is actually removed.
In the first half hour of the film, Men keeps us, and Harper, wrapped up in a false sense of security with the beauty and peace of the village. We know something is coming, but we don’t know what, or when. So when the tension is heightened in the scene beneath the bridge, when a stranger rises into view and gives chase, it’s completely unexpected and horrifying. Suddenly, this once-safe, stunning village has become anything but, and the isolation of such a place is quickly realised. What once made the village appealing to Harper has now become her reason to want to run.
And of course, Harper is isolated not only physically, but also emotionally, from the group of men occupying the village who are clearly not on her wavelength. We see this first through the awkwardness of Geoffrey, then through the tasteless remarks made by the vicar, and through the hostility of almost every person in the village’s pub. I won’t go into this in too much detail because I don’t intend on exploring the theme of toxic masculinity that runs so strongly through Men — suffice to say that Harper’s isolation in the village is multi-dimensional, and being emotionally cut-off can be, and often is, far worse than physical seclusion.
And that, more than anything, is what we fear about isolation. The physical disconnect between us and other people is hard in its own way, but it’s the emotional solitude that does the real damage. After all, a week alone can be made ten times easier through phone calls or texts with our loved ones. We see this in Men with Harper’s frequent FaceTime calls to her best friend, Riley. Her sense of isolation is lessened by contact with Riley and when we see this contact also removed later in the film, that isolation becomes absolute and made all the more scary because her only emotional lifeline is suddenly out of reach.
Losing those emotional lifelines, being forgotten or ignored or isolated, are fears that perhaps the majority of people can relate to. And here, I want to come back to the English countryside to suggest that such a setting is very much intertwined with those fears, particularly for any generations younger than Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980). With the ease of access to university education and the seemingly endless opportunities promised by the bigger cities, more and more young people flock to urban areas and away from the quieter parts of the country. While there will certainly be exceptions, generally, city life is very much a young person’s game.
In cities, while people can be, and undoubtedly are, in many real-life cases, emotionally isolated from others, there’s far less danger of such a thing. The high-density populations of cities themselves speak truth to that statement. You’re more likely to meet new people and discover new things simply because the opportunities are more abundant. For the more rural areas of the country however, particularly very remote ones as in the setting of Men, the populations are thinned out. Life is quieter, slower, less exciting for many younger people. There’s a reason we think of the populations of villages as made up mostly of the elderly, who’ve fled there from the madness of cities to retire in peace.
No doubt younger people enjoy the country to varying degrees, but a sentiment I felt after moving to university has often been echoed by many others of my age group and younger — that they could never bear to move back home, back to a quieter, maybe even duller life. That is, I believe, those fears of isolation expressed in one simple statement. The very idea of small towns and villages, the places many of us were raised and later left behind, brings to mind a certain kind of horror — the horror of being isolated from your friend group, from the prospects and fun of the city, from life itself. In short, the horror of isolation.
And as in Men, total isolation is something that creeps up on you slowly. One day, you find it’s too far to go anywhere else without driving. The next, you discover that nobody else in the village speaks any semblance of your language. Eventually, your friends take longer and longer to reply and you drift. Suddenly, you’re on your own, and your isolation runs deep enough to scare you. The silence of the village is deafening. The stillness, so total that the trees hardly move, makes you uneasy. There are monsters that such stillness and silence give power to in the English countryside, and they all start in your head.