From Plant Blindness to Plant Horror.
The Uncanny Agency of Vegetal Life

Text by Marco Malvestio

I write these words sitting in my home office. This room is furnished with a desk and a chair, an armchair, a library, a kennel for my cat, and a plant. This plant is a Zamioculcas zamiifolia – a small apartment plant that is quite resilient and requires relatively little care. In short, it is the perfect kind of plant to discreetly brighten up a working environment. I know and understand as I write these words that this Zamioculcas zamiifolia is alive, just as my cat and I are. Yet, I fail to actually perceive it as such; I know intellectually that I share the room with a vegetal form of life, but my awareness of it is severely limited. In my everyday experience, this plant is no more alive than my desk or the books that are piled on top of it.

In the words of biologists James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler, I am a victim of plant blindness. This expression was initially coined in 1999 as part of a campaign to increase public understanding of plants, due to the underrepresentation of the vegetal world in the teaching of introductory biology courses. Despite forming ‘the basis of most animal habitats and all life on earth’,1 and despite accounting for the majority of the planet’s biomass, plants are mostly overlooked both in academic studies and in everyday perception.

But what is plant blindness? Wandersee and Schussler define it as (a) the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s environment; (b) the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs; (c) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms that belong to the Plant Kingdom; and (d) the misguided anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals and thus, as unworthy of consideration.2

The ‘complications’ of this condition involve the misconception that plants are ‘merely the backdrop for animal life’; the inability to see or pay attention to plants in everyday life, and the tendency to overlook their importance in it, including but not limited to their central role in the biochemical carbon cycle; the misunderstanding of the living necessities of plants; the failure to distinguish the fact that plants live on different timescale to us; unfamiliarity with plants from one’s geographical region; a lack of understanding of the processes of vegetal life; ‘being insensitive to the aesthetic qualities of plants and their structures – especially with respect to their adaptation, coevolution, color, dispersal, diversity, growth, pattern, reproduction, scent, size, sounds, spacing, strength, symmetry, tactility, taste and texture’.3 

Bellis perennis

There is little doubt that this blindness, together with the more general tendency of our species to undervalue non-human agency, is at the basis of the peril and damage that the vegetal world is undergoing in the Anthropocene, ranging from the desynchronization of plants’ periods of florescence and insects’ period of pollination to increasing plant extinction. Plants are a constant presence in our lives (indeed, they make the survival of the human species possible), and yet our knowledge and awareness of them are limited. Plants are alive in ways that elude our common understanding of what life actually is: their structure, their ways of feeding, and their reproduction are so distant from our own that we often fail to perceive them as living beings.

The condition of plant blindness and the importance of plants in horror and science fiction are closely intertwined, and they depend on plants’ intrinsic uncanniness, which manifests itself both in our everyday life and on a cultural level. Plants are alive, yes, but their kind of life is radically different from our own and this makes it difficult for us to properly perceive it – a difficulty that is enhanced by the fact that most of us now live in metropolitan areas that offer little opportunity to explore the vegetal world. The body of plants is so different from our own that we can barely recognize it as a living being as opposed to an object. Plant bodies are divided into organs, but they have a modular structure, meaning that their essential functions are distributed throughout the plant, unlike in animals; they lack a head and eyes, which is to say, the features that we tend to recognize as central in life.

Similarly, plants live on a temporal scale that is radically different from our own, both in the sense that they might live far longer than most animals (it has been determined that some trees have been alive for thousands of years) and in the sense that their reactions to the environment and their movements are very slow.

As animals, we tend to associate life with movement: if we cannot visualize the movement of a creature, we cannot perceive it as alive. This zoocentric perspective, however, is the result of a failure to perceive plant movement. Plants do not change place like animals and they do not migrate, but they do react to their environment and to stimuli.

These are not mechanical reactions, but behavioural responses, as proven by scientific experiments in the last two centuries: plants move towards sources of light, towards water and nutrients, and react to external threats by producing chemicals to counter them and alerting other plants of the same kind. These actions, however, are too slow to be immediately perceived by our senses, which leads us to consider plants immobile.

Of course, the idea that plants are capable of movements and reactions to the environment (that they do not simply ‘happen’ in an environment) gives rise to the (not uncontroversial) notion of plant intelligence, which has been popularized in science writing for a general audience.4  And yet, as Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari note, the very idea of a plant intelligence (an intelligence in the absence of a central nervous system) highlights the difficulties that vegetal life poses to our understanding of plants.5 What is ‘intelligence’ if not a word meant to suggest anthropomorphic capabilities? Our very notion of intelligence is structured on animal, not vegetal, life; as Meeker and Szabari underline, advocates of plant intelligence ‘are arguably attempting, with the notion of plant intelligence, to move plants “closer” to us – to recreate them as human surrogates […]. But the notion of an intelligent plant also exerts pressure in the other direction, on the idea of intellection or consciousness itself as a defining human or animal characteristic’.6 Their perceived immobility has gained plants a negative reputation in our culture. Ever since Aristotle, our cultural structures have tended to relegate them to the bottom of the hierarchies of life.

As Michael Marder argues, ‘if animals have suffered marginalization throughout the history of Western thought, then non-human, non-animal living beings, such as plants, have populated the margin of the margin, the zone of absolute obscurity undetectable on the radars of our conceptualities’.

The perceived immobility of plants, together with the long-lasting mystery of their reproduction, made them a destabilizing element in the taxonomies of being, relegated to the margins or the bottom in order not to disrupt anthropocentrism.

Yet, the overlooking of plants betrays a sense of uneasiness in relation to the vegetal world. Plants are simultaneously not entirely alive, because they are not perceived to be moving, and excessively alive, because they tend to grow as much as available resources allow. Such monstrous growth is even much scarier because it is seen as purposeless: plants do not have perceivable aims, children to take care of, homes to defend; ‘the vegetal soul does not attain to any higher capacities other than those of endless nourishment and propagation’.7 Such growth, Marder continues, has ‘always been unspeakably terrifying for philosophers, who in one way or another have busied themselves with, on the one hand, establishing the ‘proper limits’ for desire, reason, life, or action, and, on the other, with setting up conceptual police authorities to safeguard these limits against potential transgressors’.8

Alocasia zebrina: leaf detail

Precisely because of this uncanniness, plants make a disturbing return in speculative fiction – in narratives, in other words, that can use imaginative means to dramatize vegetal life and agency. Horror and weird fiction, from Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’ to H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’ and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, employs the intrinsic uncanniness of plants and their marginal position in taxonomies of being to reflect on the terrifying potential of non-human agency. Similarly, science fiction is often populated with wondrous plants and vegetables, either in the form of monsters (such as John Wyndham’s eponymous triffids or the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or in the form of creatures full of possibilities that humans have yet to properly understand (as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest or James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar).

The idea of plant horror as a distinctive feature of speculative fiction has been theorized by Dawn Keetley, who draws on the features of vegetal life that we have delineated so far, that is, the perception of both alienness and similarity that underlies our relationship with plants.

As Keetley writes, ‘plant horror marks humans’ dread of the “wildness” of vegetal nature – its untameability, its pointless excess, its uncontrollable growth. Plants embody an inscrutable silence, an implacable strangeness, which human culture has, from the beginning, set out to tame’.9

The sense of horror that plants so easily generate in speculative fiction depends, according to Keetley, on six characteristics10:

1) ‘Plants embody an absolute alterity’ – an alterity that is often utterly indifferent to us, that does not perceive us as special, and that thus creates a crisis in relation to our anthropocentric prejudices;

2) ‘Plants lurk in our blindspot’, meaning that they force us to see something that we (blind as we are to the vegetal world) are not used to perceiving;

3) ‘Plants menace with their wild, purposeless growth’ – and, in fact, a recurrent feature of plant horror is the sudden, unstoppable, growth of the vegetal world when it is not properly tamed and dominated by humans;

4) ‘The human harbors an uncanny constitutive vegetal’. Plants are alien to us, yes, but we also perceive that we belong to a continuum; that there is something that animals and plants share. This understanding further complicates our perception of our position in the world, which is based on the constant undervaluing of ‘lesser’ life forms.

5) ‘Plants will get their revenge’. Of course, the monstrous return of the repressed is one of the basic constituents of horror. The idea that plants (domesticated, tamed, exploited, repressed, destroyed) could strike back is just a dramatic rendition of the uncanniness that characterizes our everyday relationship with the vegetal world.

6) ‘Plant horror marks an absolute rupture of the known’. As mentioned, we do not perceive plants’ life as such and it is based on premises and scales that are completely different from our own. Representing plant horror means facing the unknown.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 890656.

Image credits
- Header: Zamioculcas zamiifolia, Xing Fu Wu
- Bellis perennis, CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Helge Busch-Paulick, Wikipedia Commons
- Alocasia zebrina,  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States / Forest
Starr and Kim Starr
, Wikipedia Commons

1 James H. Wandersee and Elisabeth E. Schussler, ‘Preventing Plant Blindness’, The American Biology Teacher, 61/2 (1999), pp. 82-86, p. 86.

2 Wandersee and Schussler, pp. 82-84.

3 Wandersee and Schussler, p. 84.

4 See, for instance, Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola, Verde brillante. Sensibilità e intelligenza del mondo vegetale (Florence: Giunti, 2015).

5 Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari, Radical Botany. Plants and Speculative Fiction (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), p. 10.

6Meeker and Szabari, p. 10.

7 Michael Marder, Plant Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetable Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 25.

8 Marder, pp. 107-108.

9 Keetley Dawn, ‘Introduction. Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?’, in Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga (eds), Plant Horror. Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 1-30, p. 1

10 Keetley, pp. 6-22.


Essential references 


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