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Why sci-fi horror is horror at its best

Don't worry it's not real...right?

*Potential spoilers ahead*

The science fiction genre is one that has been a big part of pop-culture for years, serving as the inspiration for many games, series and movies. It offers developers, writers and directors unlimited amounts of leverage in the way of creative freedom, not only due to its unique settings, but also through its near limitless potential and possibility. It can be said this alone is why sci-fi and horror seem like a match made in heaven to many filmmakers and creatives. When it comes to horror, I'd otherwise avoid the genre altogether, but there's always something about sci-fi horror that peaks my interest, simultaneously making me want to look away, but also never wanting to miss a single moment. Movies like Ridley Scott's Alien and cult classic, The Thing, are some of the first horror movies I'd ever seen, and to this day, still make me uneasy. There's just something uniquely horrifying about sci-fi horror, and looking back on the sci-fi horrors of the past, and even some in the present, I've been wondering what it is about sci-fi that can be so terrifying, and why more and more horror films need utilise what it has to offer far more often.

Horror grounded in science fiction seems almost like it was an inevitability, that it would take one inspired individual to demonstrate its potential to others; and, as fate would have it, that individual would be a man by the name of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a largely unsuccessful novelist born in the US in 1890, but despite his lack of success during his own lifetime, he has become an inspiration to many creators and fans of the horror genre, with two notable fans of his work being filmmakers Guillermo Del Toro, and John Carpenter. Lovecraft was unique in his approach to horror, forgoing the gothic horror of his time and instead found the greatest horror's came from the real and scientific. He understood that, having lived through WW1, the world had witnessed first hand that horror was something not confined to the pages of fiction, but present in the real world, and that fictional monsters and fairytales would soon be a thing of horrors past. This is what led him to scientific plausibility, and science fiction in particular, when producing his new brand of horror.

While you'd assume his tales would verge on the realistic and factual, it was never really the case, as the subject of his stories ranged from things like: parallel dimensions housing god like creatures, ancient alien structures, the occult, and even the maddening power of impossible maths. They were bonkers to say the least, yet effective; after all, I'm sure everyone has nearly lost it at the sight of advanced trigonometry at one point or another. While strange and bizarre, Lovecraft's horrors work so well because of their foundations in scientific plausibility; the fact that despite being outlandish in premise, his horrors were grounded in a realm were they became more theory than fiction, challenging readers to question what threats dwell beyond the realms of our own understanding. While a great war was a very real threat, Lovecraft terrified readers with the idea that greater threats may exist somewhere beyond our planet, and even our universe, the likes of which made a world war seem like childs play; and science-fiction was the all powerful tool at his disposal, and one that allowed him to harness the horror of the unknown.

Lovecraft was quoted saying: "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown". He made this statement on the basis that people will always be less afraid of that which they understand; things they can explain and rationalize. Take Stephen Spielberg's iconic horror, Jaws for example. The premise of Jaws is that a great white shark is running rampant and on a feeding frenzy, where his favourite item on the menu, is us. While it's a terrifying thought that you could one day be eaten alive by a giant shark, the fear factor is lacking. After all, the chances that you'd be eaten by a shark on a normal day out to the beach, are slim to none, not only that, but everyone knows that sharks are not only mortal, but confided to the ocean; so not only is the threat of shark attack near impossible, it is a threat you can easily avoid if you really tried to. This is where sci-fi horror has the upper-hand.

While it can be said monstrosities like the Xenomorph from Alien, or even the Thing from John Carpenters, The Thing, don't exist, the horror comes from the fact that they are as real of a possibility, as, say, the shark from Jaws. These were unlike anything audiences had ever seen, giving them a glimpse into what may be waiting for us out in the cosmos; or maybe even, buried deep beneath our planet, and naturally, we'd prefer if they stayed within the realm of fiction. However, the beauty of science fiction, is that it's impossible to disprove the existence of some alien like the Xenomorph, and even though Ridley Scotts Alien is completely fictional, something similar might not be. The thought alone is enough to keep you up at night, and that was Lovecraft's point. While, like the shark in Jaws, the Xenomorph and Thing are closer to fiction than fact, the horror lies more in the audiences own imagination, and the idea that creatures like the ones they've just seen, might actually exist. Sci-fi horror is deliberately nefarious in how it operates, turning the audiences own imagination against them, essentially getting them to scare themselves. By dealing in propositions rather than absolutes, and leaving the audience with more questions than answers, sci-fi offers a unique brand of horror, making your own mind more of a threat than the aliens on screen.

Sci-fi horror movies in particular, are great at bringing these potential horrors to life, demonstrating how powerful alien life can be, and more importantly, how weak we are in comparison, forcing audiences to face the reality of our own fragility. If tapping into the unknown regions of science primes the audience for terror, the horror which takes place within a feature, is what brings it home. Many sci-fi horror films feature a significant degree of body horror, where extreme and subtle levels of guts, gore and mutilation are used to show the audience that at times, there are some fates worse than death. Where slasher movies, like Friday the 13th, showed us the many ways in which we can be butchered by our fellow man, Alien showed us that we could be made involuntary mothers to chest bursting aliens; courtesy of face hugging space crabs. To this day, the image of Alien's face hugger latching onto someone's face, and the subsequent chest bursting, still gives me the creeps; and if I had to pick between that, or getting stabbed to death by Jason Voorhees, I'm going with the latter. The notion that there are things out there that are stronger, and even smarter than us, is not only unsettling, but deeply disturbing, and through film and filmmakers use of body horror to demonstrate that, they really bring that feeling home. Sci-fi shows us that in the grand scheme of things we are no nearer to a predator than we are to prey; and the possibility of something being greater than us, is terrifying.

But sci-fi horror isn't just about how physically inferior we are, but also mentally and intellectually, showing us that we are nothing short of powerless to forces beyond our understanding. Sometimes the threat in sci-fi isn't as clear cut or tangible as Alien's Xenomorph, but unlike anything you could mentally or even physically comprehend, something like the 'Colour', from Lovecraftian horror, The Colour Out of Space. One of Lovecraft's original novels, the story follows a family that move to a farm, where out of nowhere a meteor crash lands on the property. It is unlike anything the human eye has ever seen, emanating with unfathomable colours, distorting and warping its surroundings. As time goes on, the 'Colour' spreads like a virus across the farm, mutating plants, fauna, and even people, twisting their minds and taking control of their actions. The Colour Out of Space, received a fairly well received movie adaptation in 2019, and was described by critics "Harrowingly beautiful", but, more than that, the movie truly captured that feeling of existential dread, that we are but fragile and insignificant in comparison to the horrors that lurk beyond the reaches of our understanding. Things like the 'Colour' are so scary because they are so drastically different to anything we would perceive as living or even sentient, things beyond comprehension, and on that note, scientific reasoning. The fact something as simple as colour can be maddening and capable of holding power over the human mind sounds impossible, but sci-fi horror challenges us to consider that such things beyond our understanding may exist somewhere within the realm of science; a troubling thought to say the least.

However, we often find comfort in the fact that most of the things we see in horror movies can be beaten, but if presented with the fact we can't, our minds start to go into overdrive. Both The Thing and 2018 horror movie, Life, ended on sour notes, where the monster looks to have won, and are out for more blood. Life in particular, wasn't necessarily a terrifying movie, but the ending left me thinking about it long after the credits rolled; and the same can be said for the ending of The Thing. In both instances, the Alien succeeds in surviving, seemingly escaping from the protagonists, and more than ready to continue on its path of terror, leaving the audience with an existential feeling of helplessness. Sometimes, its never the monster that scares you, but the knowledge that, were such a thing to exist, we would stand no chance whatsoever, and are doomed to suffer whatever fate would befall us.

Thus, things like body horror and existentialism come together and culminate into what makes sci-fi horror so terrifying, as it forces the audience to face the fact that we are at the bottom of the food chain, and regardless of what lies out there, whether it be apex predator or indifferent entity, we are fragile, small and powerless in comparison; like an ant to a boot.

So what makes sci-fi horror such a unique brand of horror? If not its limitless potential and scope for creativity, then perhaps its how engaging it can be for an audience, whether they like or not. Where the vast majority of horror movies today miss the mark, either through overreliance on cheap scares or through use of classic tropes and cliché, sci-fi offers a more thoughtful approach to terror, and the many ways in which it can scare an audience. Whether it be through the thought of existential insignificance, fates worse than death or creatures beyond the scope of known science, sci-fi horror excels over its peers through the wide variety of horror it brings to the table; telling us not only that in space, no one can hear you scream, but we should be worried that something else might.

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