Zombie Mines and Bloody Valentines

Cyanide container from the Grant Mill in Ester, Alaska. Photo by Brian Leech 2017

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This is the second post in the Perennial Problems series exploring the intersections of environmental history and histories of health

Mining scholars John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, in a 2013 article, and Traci Brynne Voyles, in her 2015 book Wastelanding, echo activists in using the term “zombie mines” to explain how abandoned mines live on—continuing to poison the landscape and, all too often, the people who live near them. Even after they are shut down, many mines, in Voyles’ telling, are not dead—they are “undead,” threatening entire regions with their toxicity. The uranium mines she studies in Navajo country, although closed down, continue to threaten the lungs of former miners with cancer, while their wastes remain “radioactive legacies,” able to be reactivated through erosion or spills.[1] 

The vivid terminology of a “zombie mine” captures a centuries-old trope that associates the underground and its mining industry with the supernatural. Most recently this trope has appeared in horror movies. Starting in the 1980s, mines—especially abandoned ones—have featured as the origins of evil in many North American horror films, including The Boogens (1981), The Strangeness (1985), Bats (1999), Ghosts of Mars (2001), Eight Legged Freaks (2002), Silent Hill (2006), Wicked Little Things (2006), and Beneath (2013). This trend was initiated by the Canadian slasher film My Bloody Valentine (1981). Indeed, many of the themes that came to dominate this sub-genre first emerge in My Bloody Valentine, including a focus on working-class people, underground disasters, mental illness, and post-industrial malaise. These themes highlight the real toll mining can take on bodies, minds, and communities, although horror films tend to twist these realities into bizarre popular fantasies.

Underground at the Clipper Mine, Ester Alaska
(photo by Brian Leech 2017)

My Bloody Valentine came at a high point for the horror genre. Sparked by John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), independently-produced slasher films put even more violence into the genre. By the early 1980s, slasher films were often racking up millions despite typically modest budgets. Slasher films usually involved a killer who stalked teenagers, picking them off one-by-one in often inventive and yet horrific ways.[2]

My Bloody Valentine (1981) followed the slasher profile, but with a new setting: a run-down mining town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Teens hold a party at the site of a long-ago mining disaster only to be terrorized by a villain that one commentator called “half Norman Bates, half Darth Vader.”[3] The villain, a coal miner, indeed breathes heavily, just like Darth Vader, because of his miner’s mask. The villain also uses mining accoutrement in performing his slasher duties, including a sharp pickaxe. The killer’s deadly deeds occur at specific mining sites. At one point, the body of a lady is found hanging dead from a clothes-drying basket in what miners call “the dry,” a building where miners typically clean up after a sweaty, dirty shift. (See an example of a “dry” from an Alaskan mine below.) The final scenes end within an abandoned part of the mine, where the killer, a supposedly deranged former miner, stalks the remaining youth. The script even makes use of a long-standing superstition in some mining communities that a woman’s presence in a mine could lead to bad luck.[4]

The dry at the Grant Mine & Mill near Ester, Alaska (photo by Brian Leech 2017)

Using this setting, My Bloody Valentine concentrated on working-class men and women, not the suburban teens who had more commonly been at the center of slasher movies.[5] The film’s director, George Mihalka, later stated, “at the time, the formula was a couple of cheap bungalows…usually in some sleepy suburbia. They were often character-less suburban teenagers, all interchangeable.”[6] Instead, filmmakers chose to shoot at the recently-closed Princess Colliery Mine and the nearby community of Sydney Mines on Cape Breton. It was a place the screenwriters claimed “had seen better days.” They hoped the grittiness of an actual mining town of 8,000 people and a once-working mine would provide a feeling of authenticity.[7] Plus, the filmmakers hoped to communicate more “social consciousness”—a feeling that “there’s no jobs, there’s no future. Not a lot of hope” in the director’s words.[8]

When the residents of Sydney Mines discovered that the film would feature the Princess Mine, they repainted the entire pithead to make it shiny and more presentable. The filmmakers arrived back in town surprised and annoyed, as they had to spend $75,000 transforming the mine back to its original state. Residents of the town still welcomed the filmmakers (and their influx of money) because the area was experiencing economic doldrums due to colliery closures. Filmmakers wrapped up shooting in just seven weeks, including a rather difficult shoot 900 meters (2,700 feet) below ground (and without the use of anything brighter than a 50 watt bulb for fear of sparking methane gas).[9]

In My Bloody Valentine, the very real dangers in a working coal mine become fodder for a fantastical view of how mining warps nature, bodies, and minds. Indeed, the supposed killer, Harry Warden, had originally been found after an explosion killed everyone else on his shift. Trapped underground, Warden resorted to cannibalism to survive. One year later, Warden arrives back in town to take revenge on his negligent supervisors, cutting out their hearts and causing panic across the community. That the Princess Mine had, in reality, been the site of a horrific minecar accident that killed 22 miners back in 1938 provided “added creepiness” in the film director’s view.[10]

The Motion Picture Association of America demanded major edits to the murder scenes in My Bloody Valentine; yet, upon its release, the film still received scathing reviews for its “sadistic” tendencies. One critic questioned the financial contributions made by the Canadian Film Development Corporation to “a movie made by the mentally warped for the mentally warped.”[11] In spite (or because) of this blowback, the movie eventually became quite popular in both the U.S. and Canada, building up a cult following after its release on video.

With a focus on working-class lives and landscapes, films like My Bloody Valentine reflect painful realities. They highlight common issues like health problems for former miners and economic busts for former mining communities. However, these horror films tend to concentrate on more immediate harm, like cave-ins and masked killers, than on far more common, but less dramatic, processes. These films were not trying to expose the “slow violence” of acid mine drainage on the environment, for instance, or the halting, painful lung problems faced by some former miners.[12] Even if these serious issues fail to gain attention, it is clear that mining communities face a continued stigma. Scholars have long noted just how differently outsiders perceive mining communities when compared to the much warmer attachments of insiders.[13] It is possible that mining horror has strengthened this disconnection by blurring reality with fantasy. To many observers, mining places are now simply damaged landscapes full of damaged people.


[1] John Sandlos and Arn Keeling, “Zombie Mines and the (Over)burden of History,” Solutions 4, no. 3 (June 2013): 80-83; Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 211-218, quote on 216.
[2] Wickham Clayton, ed., Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015).
[3] Brooks Barnes, “Future Shock: Horror Film Is Adding Another Dimension to Fear,” New York Times, December 22, 2008.
[4] My Bloody Valentine, directed by George Mihalka (1981; Canadian Film Development Corporation, Famous Players, & Secret Films; Seattle, WA: Amazon Digital Services, 2019). Streaming.
[5] Karam Kvaran, “’You’re All Doomed!’ A Socioeconomic Analysis of Slasher Films,” Journal of American Studies 50, no. 4 (November 2016): 953-1970.
[6] “My Bloody Memories: An Interview with George Mihalka,” The Terror Trap, June 2005.
[7] Andre Link and John Dunning in Bloodlust: My Bloody Valentine and the Rise of the Modern Slasher Film, directed by George Mihalka (Deluxe Digital Studios, 2009), DVD.
[8] “My Bloody Memories.”
[9] “My Bloody Memories.”
[10] “My Bloody Memories.”
[11] John Dodd, “I Couldn’t Take It Anymore,” Edmonton Journal, February 16, 1981.
[12]  Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.
[13] Among many examples, see Jessica van Horssen, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community (Vancouver: University of British Colombia Press, 2016).
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Brian Leech

Brian Leech is Associate Professor of History at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. His interests include mining, food, energy, and region in North America. He is currently working on a trio of research projects--one about the portrayal of mining in popular culture, one on the history of speed limits, and another on high fructose corn syrup. Check out his 2018 book titled The City That Ate Itself: Butte, Montana and Its Expanding Berkeley Pit and get in touch with him on Twitter @brianleechphd.

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