The Horror at the Heart of the Island Paradise Fantasy

Social distance used to be a luxury—but it's always had a dark side

Animal Crossing screenshot
Screenshot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Surely 2020 will be remembered as the year that the United States became an archipelago. Over the past month, the majority of Americans have spent more time than ever before at home, alone or with a small group of companions—on islands, that is, both socially and physically. Even the luckiest of people sheltering in place—those for whom home is not dangerous—have mourned  the isolation and claustrophobia built into this new normal. But living in enforced solitude hasn’t stopped a good number of us from choosing to spend our newly abundant free time on…imaginary islands. 

The video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons has become the feel-good hit of the quarantine, garnering millions of users worldwide and overwhelming Nintendo with console orders since its March 20 launch. The plot is as simple as it is soothing: players spend their time festooning a personal desert island with decorations and cheery animal friends. Through a fluke of release-date luck, New Horizons arrived at a time when it was similar enough to our current circumstances (strict boundaries, focus on the home, widespread availability of face masks) to not cause FOMO, but different enough (visits with friends, no illness worse than a wasp sting, capitalism based mostly on selling fish) to be gently cathartic rather than stressful. The fantasy of a lovely isle to which one has freely traveled allows a given player to imaginatively rewrite her involuntary, often materially drab isolation as a pastel-hued tropical vacation. 

But the wish-fulfillment that Animal Crossing provides isn’t new. For millennia, mainlanders have used and abused islands for our own imaginative and material needs, projecting onto them pleasure and possibility. 

For millennia, mainlanders have used and abused islands for our own imaginative and material needs.

For the ancient Greeks, heaven was an island. The Fortunate Isles, supposedly located somewhere in the Atlantic, were believed to be the final reward and eternal residence of exceptionally heroic men. (Variants of this legend include the Odyssey’s Isle of Ogygia, on which Calypso ensnares Odysseus for seven years with the joint promises of immortality and nymph nookie.) The possibility that islands grant everlasting life has continued to fascinate ever since. Early Christians pictured the Garden of Eden as an isle; the occupants of J.M. Barrie’s Neverland never age; Themyscira, the island-nation from the Wonder Woman comics, is populated by immortal Amazons. Mainlanders seem to assume that islands’ geographical separation from the civilizations of terra firma grants them a kind of temporal separation as well, an enchanted bend in the river of time where the water stands eerily still. Because isles float in these static pockets, this line of thinking goes, their inhabitants are protected from the corruptions of aging—and of modernity. 

It’s here that the fantasy begins to sour. When we suggest that islands are immune to the march of the centuries, we also imply that their human inhabitants are forever trapped in a primitive way of life, as unchanging as the amber-glazed mosquitos of a certain island-based Spielberg blockbuster. (To do so also overlooks the fact that islands are often topographically dynamic, perpetually reshaping themselves via volcanic or sedimentary action.) This attitude was perhaps most clearly emblematized in Paul Gauguin’s late nineteenth-century paintings of Tahitians as noble savages, but “has barely undergone revisions in the West since,” as anthropologist Carmen M. White notes. Gaugin’s assertion that denizens of the Tropics lead, in his words, “a more natural, more primitive, and above all, less spoiled” existence lives on in tourist advertising and fictional media that present islands as prehistoric paradises, and islanders their pure-hearted stewards. 

The French painter’s fever-dream of an uncivilized Tahiti yielding itself to the first civilized man lucky enough to wash up on its shores reflects an abiding tradition of colonialist fantasies about islands. The geographical protections that made islands easy targets for cultural domination, in Gaugin’s mind, also made them appealing targets for political domination. In the 1516 book that coined the word and concept of Utopia, for instance, Englishman Thomas More placed his ideal society on an imaginary crescent-shaped isle off the coast of South America (originally a peninsula that the state’s founder broke off from the mainland). The fictional Utopian commonwealth is presented as far more prosperous, stable, and egalitarian than the England in which More lived—thanks primarily to its modest size, which made its shores defensible and its polis manageable. The title character of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe derives a similar comfort from total political control of an island, albeit at a drastically reduced scale. Having established a two-man colony on the island on which he was shipwrecked near Trinidad, Crusoe savored “a secret kind of pleasure to think that this was all my own, that I was king and lord of all this country.”

Islands seem like petri dishes in which mainlanders hope their wildest dreams will flourish.

It is because of this enticing combination of physical isolation and apparently controllable social conditions that many continent-dwellers still regard islands as “tabulae rasae: potential laboratories for any conceivable human project, in thought or in action,” as sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino puts it. Over the centuries, mainlanders have used islands to conduct imaginary experiments in civic society (More’s Utopia, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Sir Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis); in education and authoritarianism (William Shakespeare’s The Tempest); in domesticity (Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson); in romance (Randal Kleiser’s film The Blue Lagoon); and, of course, in dinosaurs (Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park). (This is not to say that the experiments always go off well, of course—just ask the unfortunate souls who settle down on islands in Lord of the Flies, “The Most Dangerous Game,” and The Beach.) Small, self-contained, and freeingly distant from “the real world” to which the contestants of tropical reality shows like Love Island  condescendingly refer (a phrase by which they mean, of course, the continent), islands seem like so many petri dishes in which mainlanders hope their wildest dreams will flourish. 

Recently, however, hairline cracks have begun to appear in the foundation of this fantasy. A darker kind of island narrative has emerged, one that attempts to inject a degree of accountability into the stereotype of islands as escapist paradise. Two American productions, both filmed in Fiji and released in the past year, initially register as standard entries in the genre of tropical-experiment porn—but eventually show themselves to be takedowns of the idea that islands are contextless testing-grounds for mainlanders’ wildest whims. This critique becomes crushingly explicit in Jeff Wadlow’s horror flick Fantasy Island (2020), which follows a small group of visitors to a vaguely tropical isle whose magical properties grant each guest the ability to live out one wish. In keeping with the 1970s TV series to which the film serves as a prequel, however, each fantasy eventually turns dark: a wannabe G.I. is permitted to play soldier, only to be confronted with the violence and impossible choices inherent to war; a bacchanalian pool party becomes the site of a slaughter.

Love Island (CBS, 2019), the U.S. adaptation of the megahit British reality show of the same name, similarly undermines its own island reverie, albeit more subtly than does Fantasy Island. The series places a group of genetically gifted Americans in a lavish villa somewhere in Fiji (and I do mean “somewhere”: just as the precise location of Fantasy Island is kept vague within the movie itself, the 22-episode CBS series never specifies which of the nation’s over 300 islands we’ve washed up on the shores of). Contestants compete for a cash prize by courting and pairing off with one another, a death-march towards monogamy interrupted only by the periodic arrival of new, tempting singles. Viewers gradually vote their least favorite couples off the show until only one remains. 

On these conjured islands, one can experience a prelapsarian past and a hedonistic present without a single thought of the future.

Asked why his team chose to set Love Island in Fiji, one of the program’s executive producers explained to the LA Times that “Fiji mean[s] something to Americans. It feels like a place you would want to come and fall in love.” In both CBS’s and Wadlow’s productions, the “something” that Fiji apparently “mean[s]” is a passive backdrop against which American travelers can engage in thrilling exploration, devoid of consequences back on the mainland. On these conjured islands, both screen narratives initially hint, one can experience a prelapsarian past and a hedonistic present without a single thought of the future. 

In order to shape Fiji into an ahistorical stage for their own adventures, however, sojourners to the lands of Love and Fantasy must scrub their destinations of one inconvenient truth: the existence of other humans. Love Island and Fantasy Island make glaringly clear that mainland cultures’ romanticization of islands continues to hinge on the imagined or literal eradication of the real people who live on them—despite the fact that the Earth’s islands are, taken together, twice as densely populated as its continents. (Let us not forget that Manhattan, Singapore, Great Britain and Hong Kong are all islands, too.)

By the time Fantasy Island deposits its vacationing protagonists on the shores of their tropical destination, the island’s original inhabitants are long gone, having sold their residence to the present-day resort’s host, Mr. Roarke, for six cases of rum. But the resort’s guests are not troubled by this story of indigenous disappearance. They’re here to party, and immediately make good on the plan with umbrella-topped drinks featuring—yup—rum. It’s in their interest to overlook the details of the island’s human past, after all. Without the South Pacific slate having been wiped clean of prior residents, the guests would not be able to use this slice of land as their own personal playground-laboratory. 

Likewise, although the visitors express some initial puzzlement about the downright science fictional capabilities of the island—the extraordinarily realistic, bespoke wish fulfillments it offers each of them—their doubts are soon allayed by the flimsy explanations that the people populating their fantasies are either well-paid actors or holograms. The latter theory makes literal the extent to which the cliché of the island paradise is constituted of mainlanders’ projections.

And projections work best when displayed on a blank screen, whether they are supporting the manufactured narrative of a fictional film or of a reality show. Accordingly, it is not until over halfway through the season that the American stars of Love Island interact with actual islanders (to receive a foot rub from two presumably local masseuses). Apart from this interlude and two other fleeting moments, however, the contestants inhabit an island within an island, spending 99% of their time in the palatial villa that the show’s makers constructed just for them. What’s more, these luxurious digs seem expressly designed to physically and aesthetically separate the contestants from the surrounding island: the villa’s neon signs (“Good Vibes Only”), day-glo paint job, AstroTurf, and electric-blue pool cut a jarring contrast with the deep green background of Fiji’s lush forests. At night, a mile of fairy light strands encase the outdoor patio in a crisscross pattern, looking, for all the world, like a net. 

The paradisiacal mainstages of Love and Fantasy Islands are thus kept hermetically sealed—not only from Fijians, as it turns out, but also from another class of inconvenient human. Both islands’ visitors make every effort to leave the people from their own pasts back on the mainland. Although the contestants on Love Island have virtually nothing to do all day but talk about themselves, they discuss their hometown exes, friends, and families with astonishing rarity and brevity. In this way, the contestants—or the show’s editors, at least—choose to keep each hottie’s interpersonal past an uncomplicated blank, as amnesiac as the lotus-eaters of another island. Similarly, it is the express goal of more than one Fantasy Island guest to rewrite her past relationships—not to completely forget the people from her prior life, per se, but to edit them in a way that more perfectly aligns with her own desires. 

Explorers and daydreamers from the continent have long evacuated islands of their residents.

In all of these respects, Love Island and Fantasy Island seem, at first blush, to be predictable distillations of the exploitative historical relationship between Euro-Americans and Fijians, mainlands and islands. Explorers and daydreamers from the continent have long evacuated islands of their residents, either voiding them of people entirely or imaginatively voiding them of fully realized people whose complexity, history, and rights equal their own. These are the mental gymnastics that made it possible for Europeans and Americans to colonize and enslave Fijians in the nineteenth century, for instance. But what makes Love and Fantasy Island members of a novel and moderately more self-aware strain of island story is that the empty-island fantasies they so carefully craft in their opening acts exist only to be eventually deconstructed. For the real plots of both works take off when the seemingly vacuum-sealed perimeters of their respective islands are breached by other humans, unhappy reminders of the social past and present. 

This twist is less surprising to observe in Fantasy Island, whose horror branding should prime us to expect the eventual collapse of any fantasy we see onscreen. Consequently, what begin as blissfully self-absorbed romps for the guests eventually darken as the island shows them the inevitable interpersonal consequences of their hearts’ desires. A woman exacting Hostel-style revenge on what she believes to be the hologram of a childhood bully realizes that she has unwittingly been torturing the genuine article; brothers carousing at an extravagant mansion discover that it is owned by a drug lord with dangerous enemies. Even host Mr. Roarke is eventually revealed to be guilty of tyrannizing another person to fulfill his own impossible yearning, keeping his tuberculosis-ridden wife alive—but physically miserable—with the help of the island’s magic. 

These sick vignettes are less lessons in being careful what you wish for and more reminders that our fantasies very often entail exerting power over people. “This isn’t your fantasy!” the guests repeatedly shriek at one another as their dreamscapes begin to collide with one another. So, too, in standard horror film fashion, do the interpersonal sins from each character’s past come back to bite them in a tender place: we eventually learn that our five protagonists have been brought to Fantasy Island because they all had a hand in causing a tragic death back home. 

If the problem of other people means that there is no such thing as an innocent wish, it also means that there is no such thing as an empty island.

If the problem of other people means that there is no such thing as an innocent wish, it also means that there is no such thing as an empty island. Fantasy Island implies that its island’s first inhabitants—those who lost the place, centuries ago, in an unfair booze trade with Mr. Roarke—are the ones now doling out karmic justice to the guests. It is eventually revealed that the visitors’ nightmares have come to life because their welcome rum cocktails were spiked with enchanted island water. Through the same alcohol that robbed them of their home, the original Fantasy Islanders reassert their presence. 

The forces that besiege the social fortress of Love Island are not so much supernatural as potently natural. The show’s basic rhythm is to wait until contestants have found an equilibrium in which the group is largely subdivided into contented pairs—then to introduce one to six attractive strangers to stir the pot. (“Fiji is my sandbox, and I’m ready to play,” remarks Kyra, the first newcomer to disrupt the balance.) The narrator reminds us continually that “this is Love Island, so you never know who’s gonna come through that door, or that beach.” He means this literally: fresh contestants first emerge, Venus-like, from the natural landscapes of the island, approaching the highly artificial villa from the beach (by foot) or the ocean (by jetski and boat) as though miraculously birthed by the sand, the sea, the jungle. In this way, the island itself asserts a kind of chaotic sexual energy, disrupting the fragile ecosystems of the villa’s committed relationships with the invasive species of new singles. The result is typically a monogamy massacre, as previously besotted couples split to pursue shiny new toys. 

In other ways, too, the show delights in destroying the fiction of unperturbed coupledom  by reintroducing of off-island personal relationships. Late in the season, the final four couples’ families and friends come to Fiji to meet their loved ones’ new loved ones. The double social  bubble that is the island villa has left the show’s members unprepared for this intrusion of external opinions, and the emotional fallout of the exercise throws at least one formerly rock-steady pair (Caro and Ray) off-balance. These upsets accurately foretell how unready these island-born pairs were to reenter their established social universes back on the mainland: three of the four couples who made it to the finale of Love Island broke up within months of the show’s airing. 

In exacting these harsh vengeances on the characters who visit them, Love Island and Fantasy Island suggest that islands are simply places, not paradises, and that our ideal worlds swiftly become monomaniacal when they’re dreamed up without considering the realities of other humans. And Fantasy Island’s nod towards indigenous land theft reminds us that the particular strain of monomania that islands seem to invite has always had material roots in colonialism. Today’s visitors to tropical vacation spots continue to unknowingly or willfully ignore those locales’ deep histories of violent contact between islanders and outsiders (as well as the abiding legacies of that contact, like local poverty and language erasure). We turn the same blind eye every time we log on to Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game which, as Gita Jackson points out, is “basically a fantasy of harmless colonialism.” As the player fills her conveniently abandoned island with adoring animal subjects (much less complicated than human ones) and natural resources that she’s blithely plundered from nearby regions, ruthless dominion has never looked cuter. After all, it’s little more than the ability to reign over one’s companions and physical surroundings that distinguishes an island paradise from an island prison—or from a quarantine zone.

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