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Funerals, The Devil, and Poison Ivy (Mythology of Horror Films)

Swamp Thing (copyright © Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Growing up in East Texas, I was afraid of exactly two things—funerals and poison ivy. I occasionally had nightmares about having to attend the local rituals of the dearly departed. To be fair, many of the customs in our particular area of the county, which sometimes included a bereaved relative pulling a loved one’s body from the coffin in a final act of embrace, could border on the macabre. Equally frightening to me were the little green plants called poison ivy that seemed to surround our home like multiplying monsters, growing stronger with every effort aimed at their destruction. My friends and I called poison ivy the devil’s weeds. It was a symbol of what seemed, at the time, to be eternal suffering and pain.

In The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Campbell, as he often masterfully does in other texts, compares the likenesses and development of various mythological images throughout history. Though his foliage is never mentioned, one particular idea Campbell unpacks is associated with the Christian image of the Devil – a staple of horror films. 

Poseidon’s trident (which in India is Śiva’s) became thus the Devil’s popular pitchfork; Poseidon’s great bull, sire of the Minotaur (In India, Shiva’s bull Nandi) gave the Devil his cloven foot and horns; the very name, Hades, of the god of the underworld became a designation of that inferno which Heinrich Zimmer once described wittily as ‘Mr. Lucifer’s luxury skyscraper apartment-hotel for lifers, plunged top downward in the abyss’; and the creative life-fire of the netherworld displayed in Persephone’s torch, became a reeking furnace of sin. (Creative Mythology, 21)

As Campbell tells us here, though they morph and transform, images of evil continue to appear in our narratives.

Specifically, mythological images of evil continue to find their way into the darker avenues of our expressed consciousness through horror films and speculative fiction, a safe playground for us to work with these ideas. In more recent cinematic manifestations, there has been a reassociation of evil imagery with nature, as has been the case at various other points throughout history. The Green Man of the Roman and Celtic traditions is a popular example of a mythic figure connected to nature’s expression of vegetation, and is one that we see variations of in modern horror narratives. The figure’s green, coarse hair and barbaric nature is currently on display in the television adaptation of DC Comics’ Swamp Thing, an anthropomorphized creature composed of vegetable matter. The stories in Swamp Thing are often dark and horror-themed. While the green protagonist is seen by some as the personification of evil, similarly to how Campbell mentions the mythological devil has been viewed, he is actually a much more nuanced and complex figure, protecting the ancient environment he inhabits, though it is often an undesirable place filled with death.

Campbell tells us in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine that “In the Celtic World, the mythology of the Mother Goddess was dominant.” He connects the feminine image in Celtic mythology to the natural world of the fairy hills, stating that “The fairies are the inhabiting nature powers, and the reason they are so fascinating and enchanting is that their nature and your unconscious nature, your deep nature, are the same.” (Goddesses, 230)  Campbell’s insights begin to offer a possible explanation for the connection between death, flowers, and the mythological motifs that frequently appear in horror films. 

In the speculative fictional world of comics and television, Poison Ivy is a dark character and mythical figure of the feminine, associated with plants. While often known only as an enemy of Batman, in one storyline she received her superpowers and personae while assisting her botany professor with the theft of an Egyptian artifact containing ancient herbs. Poison Ivy is identified by Swamp Thing as having an “elemental mystical component.” He begins to occasionally call her the 'May Queen' giving reference to the psychological image used by other modern horror narratives and discussed in last week’s article.

My fears of funerals and poison ivy may well have been on multiple levels of consciousness. Death was certainly an existential fear, even at an early age. However, fears about poison ivy stretched beyond sheer inconvenience and certainly mirrored the fears of the feminine handed to me by the culture I was surrounded by, which often sought to suffocate the great feminine much in the way that poison ivy suffocated the flowers in our backyard. Living in Los Angeles, I don’t often run into poison ivy anymore. The fears I once held both existential and unconscious likely remain with me on some level, but they accompany me as passengers and no longer as navigators in my journey. 

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