Have you ever found yourself looking up at
the night sky, staring at the countless stars sprinkled over the black emptiness of space…?
As you kept looking, its vastness grew and invaded your mind.
Making you realize the scale of the expanding universe and how small you are in comparison?
Filling you with a dreadful emotion that can be hard to describe. As if you inadvertently
peaked at something beyond yourself? That is what cosmic horror is about.
Beyond the monsters, violence, and danger; this horror is about the awareness of the
limits of your own humanity. Early 20th Century writer H. P. Lovecraft
wrote extensively on the subject, which is why the genre is also referred to as Lovecraftian
Horror. His stories often dealt with characters coming face to face with something beyond
their understanding. As much as Lovecraft’s works have inspired
well known writers such as Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, or even Junji Ito’s manga’s,
his brand of horror has not often been successfully adapted to a visual medium.
Unlike slasher movies, possession horror, sci-fi horror or monster movies, cosmic horror
isn’t as prevalent on the screen. So why is that?
Why is cosmic horror harder to make? – Can you describe it’s form? -No… Let’s take a look at an excerpt from H. P.
Lovecraft’s the The Unnamable that clearly shows one of the biggest issues of adapting
cosmic horror to the visual medium: “Good God, Manton, but what was it? Those
scars-was it like that?” And I was too dazed to exult when he whispered
back a thing I had half expected- “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!” As you were hearing the description of the
unnamable entity, you must have gone through a certain amount of mental gymnastics to try
and form a clear picture of it in your head. The writer starts by explaining its recognizable
forms, but then it shifts beyond comprehension until it becomes less tangible and finally
transforms into a concept. So, how do you represent an unknowable or
unnamable horror visually? It’s hard to think or imagine something greater and bigger than
yourself, let alone, represent it for all to see. If you give it a shape and put it
on screen, it’s not unknowable anymore and therefore, you take away its power.
A movie that maneuvers around the visual aspect is Bird Box. In it, we know that there are
monsters so frightening that they cause people to go mad and commit suicide and at the same
time, they are attractive to people that are already mad. At no point in the movie are
we shown what the creatures look like. We only see what they cause. The biggest hints
we get are the drawings. They are vague yet ominous and do not take away from the mystery.
Omitting the entity all together because of its visual complexity is a good route but
we can also find a good example of the opposite being done.
The Thing is a movie that does a good job at showing us the creature and yet, by the
end, we still don’t know what the true form is, only its transitional phases as it makes
itself look like people or animals. The visual effects, which were all practical and groundbreaking
at the time, show us nightmarish and misshapen horrors that often lack the safety of an anthropomorphic
figure. The creature constantly changes, we can’t define it. We are presented with an
entity that we can’t understand or whose goals we can’t comprehend, even as it tries to look
and sound like one of us. The Thing succeeds in representing cosmic
horror not because of the use tentacles (a calling card of the genre) but because it
honors the changing characteristics of the literary style – Just like the description
of the Unnamable it can’t be pinned down to one thing… it’s several. Cosmic horror resides deeply in the abstract.
If you recall the excerpt from earlier, the Unnamable being’s descriptions are deliberately
elusive, the only anchor in the sea of the intangible is what the descriptions evokes
in the characters or in us. The reaction of being faced with the incomprehensible
leads the character to look inwards to make sense of the complex puzzle of emotions they
are left with. “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 deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark
age.” Imagine trying to portray the emotions in
the previous passage onto film. Existential dread is an emotion that is difficult
to explain, it’s a feeling that we rarely experience in comparison to happiness, fear
or anger. On top of its rarity, not everyone can verbalize it or express it in a way that
others can understand it. It is often misunderstood or interpreted as something else.
Therein lies the hard task of representing those emotions on film and making the audience
share those feelings as well. The emotions born of cosmic horror are similar
to the genre’s monsters: abstract, not fully formed, hard to harness, hard to describe.
It’s difficult to show the introspection of a character coming to terms with the fragility
of their own humanity. This type of inner monologue is usually best explored in literature.
But an intimate inwards realization can be done without having the character say anything
like in the scene in Annihilation, when the main character is face to face with a being
that is emulating her. She slowly begins to understand it without the use of dialogue.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to let the visuals speak for themselves. If showing a
monster can handicap your movie…so can explaining it – So it was alien… It’s like assigning a shape
to something that doesn’t have any. It’s all about balance.
Some movies might get the visuals right, but they lack a cohesive or poignant story and
are missing a sense of foreboding or dread. In other cases, the setting is perfect, the
mood is just right but the effects are laughable and far from frightening.
If you want to explore cosmic horror but don’t have a big budget, the Bird Box’s example
is one to replicate. Don’t show the creatures and let peoples’ imaginations do the work.
If you’re lucky enough to have a bigger budget and have a lot of creativity, practical effects
like those in The Thing or The Void can do the trick.
Just don’t forget the second and equally important half of the equation when creating the story.
Good cosmic horror balances the external aesthetic of a sci-fi movie but with the internal feel
of an existential film. People are so hung up with the aesthetics,
the tentacles and the monster that they fail to explore the bigger questions, because that’s
even more complex: they themselves don’t understand it.
Not enough movies go into the abstract of the themes they stay at the surface level
with the visuals. And it’s completely understandable.
What is the limit of our humanity? what happens when we go beyond it?
If something is hard to think about then it’s hard to verbalize, and if it’s hard to verbalize then it’s near impossible to show. Thank you for taking the time to watch our
video. We invite you to like, share and subscribe if you haven’t done so yet.
Until next time.