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The Bay (2013): Horror Ecological Mockumentary & Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay

Ghouls discuss the eco-horror mockumentary, The Bay, that will scare you into caring about the environment. Gabe talks about how the film is 80% true and based on ecological disaster facts, making it significantly more terrifying. Kat discusses what's really happening in the Chesapeake Bay, why you should be afraid of flesh-eating bacteria, and how to help the environment.

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Media from this week's episode:

The Bay (2012)

Chaos breaks out in a small Maryland town after an ecological disaster occurs.

Director: Barry Levinson


The Bay: Horror Mockumentary That'll Turn You Into a Conservationalist

by Gabe Castro

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.


The Bay is pure terror and it’s one of the best found footage horror films, in my humble opinion, because its feels very real in ways that found footage often doesn’t but it’s also 80% real facts. The film is a collection of various footage from news, to personal video recorders. It primarily focuses on the retelling of the fateful 4th of July by former reporter, Donna (played by Kether Donohue). Years later, she’s breaking her silence and thanks to the helpful wiki-leaks adjacent gov-leaks site, footage that had been covered up is now available to the public. Devil’s Pass also tried to use a wiki-leaks-esque site to explain their footage but unlike most found footage films, the Bay features a natural and believable eclectic mix of footage and stories. We don’t follow just one Marylander but rather spend our time with Claridge as a whole. We get to see government agencies, hospital workers, young girls, oceanographers, teens in love, neighbors, news teams, everyone. The film pieces together the events of the day sequentially and also blends in past footage from the oceanographers who warned the governing parties of the dangers long before the terror. We start with a cute and quaint small, waterside town with Miss Crustacean pageants, crab eating contests, and the promise of fireworks. Not soon after the Independence Day festivities begin, we hear the Governor and former vacuum-salesman, bawk at rumors that the water is unsafe. He revels in the booming poultry industry and touts the power of their water purifier. The story takes place over only a span of a day, the end of which results in the death of 700 out of their 1600 Claridge citizens.

**SPOILER ALERT for the Bay**

You may wonder, “how could something so awful just happen overnight?!” And of course, it didn’t. The film informs us pretty quickly about the death of two oceanographers - their deaths were deemed sharks attacks despite them having suffered peculiar injuries (seemingly having been eaten from the inside out). We learn that the oceanographers had been inspecting the water and the levels of toxicity. They were growing concerned about the toxic soup in the bay that was having an effect on marine life. Throughout the film, we watch these two uncover increasingly more horrifying finds in the ocean. Their footage is followed by a title card explaining that they reached out to the appropriate office each time and that there is no evidence they were ever responded to by those offices. They discover that the isopods have evolved because of the high volume of excrement from the poultry farms which had become incredibly toxic due to a variety of steroids and other chemicals (aimed to grow chickens faster) that expedited the evolution process. This evolved monstrous isopod then kills millions of fish and causes 40% of the bay to become lifeless.

Something I found super interesting and what added to the horror of the film is that the director, Barry Levinson was originally going to make a documentary about pollution and the crisis in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. However, he found out there were other productions happening under the same topic so he was like, hmm let’s do this in a different genre! You know Ghouls love it when a creator seeks to scare you into caring about issues.

Found Footage:

I found some interesting film facts in an article on Wired, The Bay Spikes Cellphone Footage With Environmental Horror by Angela Watercutter. Levinson used more than 20 kinds of digital cameras and cellphones. And because a lot of the film involves victims and first responders chronicling their experiences with the isopods, Levinson estimates about one-third of the flick was shot by The Bay’s largely unknown actors.

This was one of my favorite parts of the film. As a lover of found footage, if a film can effectively convince me this is found footage and not footage pretending to be found, I will wholeheartedly suspend disbelief and enjoy the film. The Bay, features a wide range of media access such as security camera footage, news footage, personal facetimes, and more. And while, in reality, it’s really uncomfortable to imagine all of your content (personal or otherwise) being accessed by an online file share service (regardless of benevolence), it’s not too far from how the real world works. The cloud is not inaccessible. (If you want to learn more about our government's surveillance of its citizens - check out our episode on Surveillance!).

In an interview on Huffpost titled, Barry Levinson's 'The Bay' Is A Fictional Horror Movie Meant To Save The Real Chesapeake, Director Levinson explained their excitement over the potential of our surveilled world and how it’ll change the way we understand, react, and feel about natural disasters and crises.

“If something catastrophic happens today, for the first time in history we have far more personal documentation than just a news camera that might have been there at the right time. The tsunami in Japan was the first time that happened, then the protests in Egypt.

Future history will be told by piecing together emails, text messages, Facebook posts, Skype conversations, still photographs and smartphone videos, which will truly create the story of how we lived our lives and communicated with each other.”

With found footage films like Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Host, and more there is this supernatural or otherworld, make-believe experience that is certainly frightening (and very fun to experience) but there’s a level to it that is so obviously fictional that as viewers we can’t completely suspend disbelief. With The Bay, because the story feels so incredibly human it’s easy to fall for the narrative. In our Natural Disasters series, we found a trend with governing parties where, to avoid panic (or so they say), they withhold information. It’s aggravating and upsetting to watch on screen when the scientists are begging for attention to very real issues while those in charge shrug it off. When this film came out, many of us knew this was how the government or other parties in charge would act in such a situation but in today’s pandemic world - we know firsthand how manipulated and distorted information is when funneled through the controlled media-outlets. So when we see in this film, the mayor and the CDC or other organizations ignoring, diminishing, or outright denying real, horrifying issues - it feels incredibly real. Levinson said in the Huffpost interview, “Another truth is that most things in this country are controlled by big money interests. They play high stakes and have deep pockets so they can move and change public opinion quickly. It’s not like we’re playing on an even playing field; large corporations in this country easily set the agenda.”

The other part of this isn’t just the neglect by people in power and how they are ultimately the villains of the film, there’s the other layer of the monster in the film - the isopods. What I think is so important about eco-horror films, is that they're not malicious. Similarly with natural disaster films or even the apocalypse in some ways, the Earth and the other creatures we share this planet with are simply trying to exist and continue to live. They don’t care about us. So when the isopods evolve and begin eating us in this film, it's definitely disgusting and awful, but I don’t think we have the same fears or anger we might have with a villain like, say, Michael Myers.

Isopod Nightmares & Film Intent:

In that Wired article from earlier, they go on to share a quote from Levinson themself about the impact and intent of old sci fi films. “They might’ve been more fanciful than this [movie] is, ultimately, but I think it’s always been a form in the horror/sci-fi genre that you can take existing elements of what’s going on and apply it to a fictitious story,” Levinson told Wired. “It creates a credibility that is an interesting way to work.” This reminded me of the book that Japan Sinks: 2020 was based on that was fictional and entertaining but was designed to inform and scare people into paying attention to the dangers in an accessible and interesting way that science reports, news articles, and other boring media were not going to accomplish.

Because this film was originally intended to be a documentary, much of the information regarding the ecological disaster is based or inspired by real things happening in the Chesapeake Bay. Kat will go into more detail about it in her section but I wanted to share that 80% of the facts in this film are based in reality! In that Wired article, Levinson went on to say, “Factual information in and of itself sometimes goes over our heads because it doesn’t have any kind of emotional impact. There’s no downside to using factual information because it smacks of feeling real, and it adds to the nature of the movie, as opposed to the zombie.”

Though the film certainly takes liberties to make it more horrifying there’s a string of truth in nearly everything. There is a very real possibility of a horrible disaster due to ecological neglect and disrespect. There isn’t a toxic soup of chicken runoff happening now but the things they explain that make up the toxic soup are very real (ie steroids) and the idea that farms would dump their waste and runoff into a local water source isn’t far fetched.

Isopods are real, not as large as the ones get in the film as they haven’t been spiked with the toxic soup. But in the film they do use real isopod footage at times (the little ones) and isopods do similar things as they do in the film like eat a fish from the inside out and eat a fish’s tongue. There is pollution that is disturbing the marine world and how it operates. Our water filtration systems are broken and for a variety of reasons. We will cover fracking in a later episode. So when the film poses these answers to the horror question, we believe it and it honestly makes it that much more terrifying. So much more than the gore and discomfort the infection creates, it's the failure of those in power and the subsequent cover-up of the belittled deaths of US citizens that makes this film truly horror.

I want to end my section with some quotes directly from Levinson about the crisis in Maryland and the intent of this film. These are from that interview on Huffpost. Barry Levinson's 'The Bay' Is A Fictional Horror Movie Meant To Save The Real Chesapeake | HuffPost Impact

“There is nothing that’s going on the Chesapeake Bay that can’t be corrected. It’s not an unknown disease, we know all of the contributing factors, so how do we aggressively try and fix it? It’s 40 percent dead now. We don’t want it to become 55 or 60 percent dead because then the economics will turn against you. The chicken industry of course says that cleaning it up will cost jobs, but even with that we still have time to find answers. As a filmmaker, I have the obligation to entertain an audience. But I can also pose questions. The facts are what make this movie more captivating at a certain level.”


What Horrible Things Are Happening in the Chesapeake Bay? by Kat Kushin

RED: Quotes, someone else's words.

There was a very visceral fear that I experienced from this movie. I already actively fear the ocean and the millions of things that live in it that we don’t know about, but this really elevated that fear to a new level. I have seen things I can never unsee. There were two mistakes I made going into this film, 1. Eating during it, 2. Keeping my eyes open during parts I wish I had my eyes closed during. This film hit a bit harder knowing that we are in the middle of a pandemic that never seems like it’s going to end, and especially believable considering how mind numbingly frustrating humanity as a whole has been through this entire experience.

The more I learn about this film, the more horrified I am by the state of our planet, the state of the LITERAL REAL CHESAPEAKE BAY, and the level of worry I now fear for anyone I’ve ever heard mention they’ve gone to Maryland to eat crabs. Something I already wasn’t doing but absolutely never will do now that I’ve seen this film and done this research. Are those crabs filled with Isopods that will eat you from the inside out? probably not, but they are filled with pollution and run off, and other things that I’d rather not intentionally put into my body. Also I’ll say after trying to understand some of the math associated with all this, I am just very aware that I am not a scientist, so these numbers only make so much sense to me. However they do instill a sense of urgency.

Apparently the dead zone referenced in the film is very real. While it is not known for creating deadly flesh eating isopods, it does show how unclean and unsafe that water is. I would love to say that since the movie released in 2012, that the deadzone got better, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to have from what I can tell. To give some further context about what the deadzone is, has some answers. In an article titled, Experts find an average Chesapeake Bay dead zone in 2021 by Rachel Felver offers some perspective on the current state of the Bay. “The “dead zone” is an area of little to no oxygen that forms in Bay waters when excess nitrogen and phosphorus, otherwise referred to as nutrients, enter the water through polluted runoff and feed naturally-occurring algae. This causes algae blooms to grow and then eventually die off and decompose. When they decompose, the process removes oxygen from the surrounding waters faster than it can be replenished. This creates low-oxygen, or hypoxic, conditions at the bottom of the Bay. Plant and animal life are often unable to survive in this environment, which is why the area is referred to as a “dead zone”.”

The article goes on to highlight how this deadzone is impacting the Chesapeake Bay and how rapidly it’s doing so. Since the runoff pollution is heavily based on rainfall, and what pollutants exist in the Bay area, the human factor that we can control is the level of pollutants that are nearby. According to a US Geological Survey, that tested the overall average watershed pollution between October 1st 2020 and September 30th, 2021, even though the rainfall and river flows decreased, the pollution levels were higher than normal. The survey stated that the Bay was seeing “flows entering the Bay around 84,880 cubic feet per second. To put that into perspective, an average-sized bathtub holds approximately 5.6 cubic feet of water (42 gallons). That’s the equivalent of 15,118 bathtubs being emptied into the Bay each second. EACH SECOND. On the same website but on their page exclusively dedicated to the Dead Zone they provide information on the Annual Dead Zone Report Card that the Virginia Institute of Marine Science conducts. In the report card they announced that the 2021 Chesapeake Bay Dead Zone covered an average of 1.5 cubic miles during the summer, slightly larger than most recorded in the past 36 years (67%). This deadzone lasted 46 days longer than 2020, with 141 days of dead zone. “The duration of the 2021 dead zone was 89% longer than those recorded over the past 36 years.”

Why is this happening? Experts from the report believe several factors influence this, including more rain, hotter temperatures and calmer winds throughout the late summer of 2021. Over the long term Global Warming will continue to impact the dead zone but there are things we can do to decrease the size of the dead zone just by limiting the amount of pollutants we use. The states that impact the Chesapeake Bay watershed pollution are Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. The page lists ways you can help if you live in these areas, that are applicable to any area honestly for any and all water sources around the world. “While you may not be able to control the weather, there are actions you can take to control the amount of nutrient pollution entering the Bay and to help slow the rise of climate change. Consider reducing the amount of pollution that can run off your property by installing a rain garden or rain barrel to capture and absorb rainfall. Use boiling water to kill weeds and other pests, rather than use chemical pesticides in your garden or yard.” They offer more tips for helping the environment on their website:

If you are wondering why this should matter to you, my first question is How did you find our show? It’s kind of our whole shtick that things matter. That aside, there are many reasons this should matter to you whether you live near the bay area or not. The danger of polluted water is something that should matter to you if you’re a human, which I assume you are, as you can’t live without drinking water for more than three days. With that fact, drinking unclean water can give you illnesses that can kill you as well. Water and Nature can fight back, literally through the development of parasites and bacteria. This actually happens, and is not just exclusive to this movie, or the M.Night film ‘The Happening’. There have been cases of serious vibrio vulnificus traced to contact in summertime with warm bay waters. What is Vibrio Vulnifcus? FLESH EATING BACTERIA that enters into open wounds, cuts, abrasions and so on. Other (Vibrio) water borne illnesses can be transmitted through the consumption of contaminated shellfish and seafood.

According to the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NOAA for short), as recently as June 2021, they predicted the occurrence of Pathogenic Vibrio Vulnifcus Bacteria in the Chesapeake Bay. Apparently this is a somewhat natural occurrence, but is something that happens during the warmer months, specifically when the waters become warmer. Logic would indicate that the increase in global temperature, for longer periods of time, caused by global warming, would in fact increase the frequency of Vibrio Vulnifcus. The Chesapeake Bay Program at again provides some useful information on this subject, in their page titled “5 facts about Vibrio”, confirming that global warming will increase the occurrence of Vibrio illnesses and skin infections. “While Vibrio occurs naturally in the Chesapeake Bay, the increase in recent years is a direct result of climate change and pollution. As Bay temperatures rise and nutrient pollution from urban stormwater, agricultural runoff, sewage and animal waste continues to increase, algal blooms become more frequent. As sea levels continue to rise, coastal bodies of brackish and saltwater are beginning to spill into freshwater streams around the country. Because Vibrio thrives in areas of high salinity, their habitat is likely to grow in size in years to come, causing people living further inland to also be at risk for infection.” The article provides some advice to avoid infection, including avoiding going into the water for 48 hours after rainfall, as that is when the water is filled with the runoff pollutants. There are other methods including making sure your body is free of cuts or areas that the Vibrio bacteria could enter when you go into the water, as well as when touching raw or undercooked shellfish. It also recommends keeping hand sanitizer, and antibiotic ointment on hand to treat wounds immediately and avoid infection.

Ultimately the moral of the story is we need to treat our planet better, and take steps to dismantle the systems that negatively impact the planet. There are things big and small that you can be doing to help take care of the planet we live on, that can be as small as changing the products you use to be more environmentally friendly, gardening, planting trees, cleaning your neighborhood, collecting rain water to reduce the amount of runoff that empties into our water supplies, and sourcing your food locally. It ultimately all stacks into making the planet a better place to live, and allows the planet to be livable for future generations. It’s also important to know what’s happening legislatively to ensure that companies near you and elsewhere don’t have the governments go-ahead to dump waste into dangerous places like our water supplies. The government has proven time and time again to be entirely incompetent when it comes to letting the population know when problems are occurring that will result in massive loss of life. This applies across the board, so my advice is to make impact where you are, locally, and those actions will make waves, or at the very least ensure that you, and those around you, are safe.


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