There's no doubt that Lovecraft is one of the pillars of the horror genre, but his stories were so unique that he invented a whole new genre: cosmic horror.
“The basis of all true cosmic horror is violation of the order of nature, and the profoundest violations are always the least concrete and describable.”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters III: 1929-1931
When we talk about horror, two names come to mind. What would the genre be without the two masters of horror, Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft? Well, as much as I love the first one, today we’re going to focus on Lovecraft, the writer who came up with the term "cosmic horror." Lovecraft had a very particular narrative style that became one of the pillars of the horror genre, to the point that many consider his work a sub-genre all on its own known as Lovecraftian or cosmic horror. So, what’s the deal with cosmic horror, and what's so special about it? For Lovecraft, ordinary life, like the one you and I experience, exists inside a thin bubble or shell apart from an alien reality. His stories explore what happens when this reality gets inside our bubble.
This external reality includes all sorts of strange situations, creatures, and spirits capable of driving mad anyone who catches a small glimpse of the vast universe outside their bubble (this madness is a frequent theme in Lovecraft’s stories). What makes him such an important writer in the genre is the fact that he bases his stories, universe, and style on one simple principle capable of moving us in indescribable ways: our inherent fear of the unknown. At the same time, it explores our contradictory habit of seeking and exploring the unknown, even when it frightens us.
Now, this aspect of Lovecraft's world is closely related to science fiction. The main difference between the two genres is that in cosmic horror, scientific discoveries and technological advancement don't lead to humanity’s progress, but rather the opposite. Still, many movies and books are often categorized as sci-fi when they actually belong to the realm of cosmic horror, specifically. So, with this brief introduction to the genre, let’s dive directly into the main subject of the article and look at six films inspired by Lovecraftian (or cosmic) horror that play with our most primal fears.
Alien (1979) Dir. Ridley Scott
One great example of what I was just talking about is Ridley Scott’s classic movie, Alien, considered an iconic science fiction film. Many academics and critics have analyzed the film through the lens of the cosmic horror genre. One of the reasons is the body horror element and and other aspects borrowed from slasher films, like the idea of a secluded group of people being menaced and killed by an external being. But most importantly, the link with cosmic horror has to do with the fact that, in this movie, humans are portrayed as helpless and insignificant beings in comparison to the universe or new reality they’re experiencing.
Sunshine (2007) Dir. Danny Boyle
This movie shows a future where the sun is dying, and in order to save the galaxy, a group of people are sent to space to trigger a nuclear reaction to "restart" the sun. All of that screams science fiction, but the movie isn't really about the use of technology or the role it plays in the story, but rather on the psychological state of the crew sent on the mission. Although it’s never clear whether there’s a non-human force going after the crew, the movie's atmosphere gives that impression. However, what brings it even closer to the cosmic horror genre is the sense of awe and how technology drives the crew to a point of madness, a classic trope of the genre.
The Void (2016) Dir. Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie
You're at a hospital that’s about to close its doors after a strange fire destroys part of the building. Not that scary, right? What if I told you that in the middle of all the chaos, suddenly, a nurse in a state of trance state kills a patient, and then mutilates her face? That’s a little scarier, isn't? It turns out that the hospital is being surrounded by a group of cult members, and everyone inside the building has to hide or find a way out before it’s too late. It all gets even creepier when they see that the nurse's body is turning into a terrifying creature with tentacles. Does the cult leader have the power to transform people? Are these members human? Or do they come from another world? These are the questions the people inside the hospital will have to solve, if they want to survive.
Absentia (2011) - Dir. Mike Flanagan
The previous movies are set in the future, but what about the present day? Absentia is a great example of the kind of cosmic horror that has nothing to do with the science fiction genre. The movie tells the story of Tricia, a woman desperately looking for her husband, who disappeared seven years earlier. Just when she’s about to officially declare him “death in absentia,” her sister, a former drug user, discovers a strange tunnel near Tricia’s house that could be the key to understanding what happened to her brother-in-law. The tunnel becomes a gate to another world ruled by the supernatural. What’s great about this movie is that you never get to see that much of the creatures living in this world (called the “underworld”) nor the place itself, which allows it to expand the idea of a fear of the unknown.
The main difference between standard and cosmic horror is the sense of awe and fear in the face of the unknown. It’s not the monsters or supernatural scenarios what frightens us, but rather not knowing what they are. This is what makes cosmic horror so effective: the idea that we are so insignificant when compared to everything around us that we can't see.
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