Cosmic horror: The fear of the unknown

Vinay Pratapa, Lode Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Have you ever looked up at the night sky, staring at the countless stars sprinkled across the vast blackness of space? As you keep looking, its vastness grows, engulfing you with a sense of dread of infinite nothingness, that you are alone in the universe, or a witness to something inexplicably horrific that invades your mind. This is what cosmic horror is about, something that’s beyond aliens, monsters, or UFOs in the sky, something that you cannot define, something that makes you think about the minisculinity of humanity and human imagination.

Cosmic horror was introduced by a now-popular 20th-century writer H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote extensively on the subject. That is why it’s also called Lovecraftian horror. Due to its strangeness and alienating nature, his works were considered weird fiction and were not very popular. Though lack of success with his books during his lifetime lead to his extreme poverty and consequent death, his works are currently hailed as the benchmark of cosmic fiction narratives adopted by popular authors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Lovecraftian horror is also significantly different from slasher, supernatural and psychological horror genres that were popular at that time. So why is it so hard to create and what makes it so alienating?

Firstly, cosmic horror stories are visually complex. The movie “Annihilation” starring Natalie Portman serves as a perfect example. Consider this excerpt from “The Unnamable,” a short story by Lovecraft which mirrors the final scene in the movie:

“Good God, Manton! But what was it? Those scars, was it like that?”

“No—it wasn’t that way at all. It was everywhere—a gelatin—a slime—yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes—and a blemish. It was the pit—the maelstrom—the ultimate abomination. Carter, it was the unnamable!”

Initially, the narrator attempts to provide metaphors to help visualize it but then the tonal shift to something incomprehensible is ultimately dependent on the reader’s imagination. It’s hard to visually describe the dread someone feels when they are looking at something that’s bigger than themselves, bigger than the human condition.

This is effectively tackled by the 2018 Netflix blockbuster, “Bird Box.” When you give “it” a shape, and put it on screen, it’s not unknowable anymore. You take away its power. So the filmmakers never show the creatures anywhere in the movie, creatures that are so frightening that they cause people to go mad and commit suicide and are beautiful to people who are already insane. This unnamable creature could be a metaphor, like guilt, repressed trauma, torment, fear or existential dread, manifesting into a frightening monster that’s unique to the person looking at it.

Another aspect of cosmic horror is the abstraction. The characters provide the anchor in the sea of intangible fear the events provide as they look inward for experiences and metaphors in their life to explain the complex puzzle of emotions they’re left with. It’s difficult to express the introspection of a character coming to terms with the fragility of their own human condition. An excerpt from “The Call of Cthulhu,” another Lovecraftian work, elucidates this point:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

A good cosmic horror film should have the outward aesthetics of a science fiction film, such as “Alien,” “Interstellar,” “Prometheus” and “The Thing,” and balance it with focus on questions related to existentialism, limits of one’s own humanity and the fear of the unknown and unnamable, as seen in “Annihilation,” “Stranger Things,” “Arrival” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s best created using literature since it is visually challenging to create. But once it works, it works wonders and would probably be the most astonishing or horrifying thing that you will ever see.

*Note: This story ran March 7