Sleeping Nightmares: Cosmic Horror in Film

Imagine sitting in a glass boat floating upon an endless ocean. It’s a dark, moonless night. The light of countless stars twinkle and shine down, illuminating the limitless sea. The water is calm, almost like glass…

Above stretches the infinite void of space, filling the sky. Below the fragile glass vessel is nothing but the inky blackness of the crushing ocean depths.

Floating. Waiting. Vulnerable in the tiny glass boat.

That’s when the feeling starts. That creeping sensation and subtle tingle up the spine that informs that something is watching. Some unknowable and unfathomable entity is there but there’s no way to know where is observes from. Does it gaze from the infinity of space? Or does it wait, shrouded below the black waters? It moves closer.

Suddenly the boat begins to crack.

Image credit: Fantasy Flight Games

Cosmic horror doesn’t have a strict definition, but it is widely agreed that horror author H.P. Lovecraft is the first writer of the genre. He is famously quoted as saying: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Good examples of the genre use themes of unknowable entities and eldritch terrors that haunt the dreams, or even the realities of mankind. Creatures of the genre are not something a plucky protagonist can fight against in the traditional sense.

Themes of madness before terrors so unimaginable and indescribably alien permeate cosmic horror. These ancient gods or creatures within the stories are so powerful and unknown that they must be prevented from awakening. The best stories end just before things are about to go bad for either the protagonist or the world itself.

Sadly, cosmic horror is a genre not often explored by mainstream popular culture. After all, horror in cinema has to be tangible. Jason Voorhees of Paramount Pictures Friday the 13th stalks his victims with cold malice, but he’s ultimately an entity that the characters can rally against.

Creatures of cosmic horror are rarely so easy to parse for the heroes. Lovecraft and other authors describe creatures of strange colors and beings of imperfect and strange angles. They detail cities beyond time itself sunken deep below the sea and Antarctic palaces of impossible geometry. In most cases our world is built upon theirs. However, these ancient entities aren’t dead or gone. Most sleep, waiting for their moment to reawaken and reclaim the world.

Image credit: Fantasy Flight Games

These indescribable entities and strong themes of insignificance have been used in film, albeit sparingly. Ridley Scott’s Alien (Fox Pictures) is one of the few films to use cosmic horror well.

After the crew of the spaceship Nostromo find a derelict alien craft, one of the crew members gets infected by an alien organism. The creature gestates within him and breaks out, violently terrorizing and murdering the other members of the crew.

The completely alien (pun not intended) way the creature appears and terrorizes the characters is very much taken from the cosmic horror playbook.

The xenomorph, as it is called, hides in the shadows, very much embodying the principles of the genre. The audience is not allowed to see the creature in its entirety until the end of the film. The crew, and the audience by extension, are only afforded brief glimpses of its terrifying and weird figure. Dorsal spines, a curved-smooth skull, a set of fangs hiding another smaller set behind; the creature is a nightmare.

Sadly, like most things, Hollywood took the minimalist storytelling that cosmic horror can set up and franchised it, ruining the original fear that enraptured audiences in 1979. Xenomorphs are shown by the dozen and are destroyed as if they were just bugs on a sidewalk. The sequel, Aliens, is a fun romp, but loses the horror the first was able to set up so well.

Another great example of cosmic horror on film is the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist. In the film, a small New England town is enveloped by a thick, impenetrable mist. Wandering through the mist are various horrifying extra-dimensional creatures.

Image credit: Mondo and Dimension films

A violent and existentially terrifying film, The Mist does a great job portraying the pure horror and terror that would grip the minds of everyday people faced in an unwinnable and completely unknowable situation.

Throughout the film we see glimpses of some of these creatures. Long octopus-like tendrils, chittering, acid spitting arachnids, and earth-shaking, mountainous monsters fill the screen and convey a unique brand of horror that films can rarely achieve.

So why is cosmic horror not used more often? These films are rare examples that mostly work, but they usually turn into typical monster movies by the end. The truth of the matter is existential dread is difficult to convey on the screen. A horror film needs a monster so the audience knows what to fear.

Is it possible to make a film the could properly convey cosmic horror? Possibly.

With modern and emerging film methods audiences could be transported to strange worlds with impossible architecture. Having to rely on CGI (computer generated images) is a tricky proposition though. If done poorly the film could suffer. It would take the drive and passion of a dedicated and experienced director to properly convey the significance and fear that cosmic horror can elicit.

Director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, has attempted to get his adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness greenlit by any studio that would listen, but his pleas are going unanswered. Perhaps it’s the fear the genre brings on that gives studios pause.

Something sleeps in the minds of audiences. Perhaps these eldritch secrets should be revealed. It’s time for the nightmares to wake up.


Header image credit: Fox Studios

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