Why Cosmic Horror is Hard To Make

Why Cosmic Horror is Hard To Make

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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.

100 comments

  1. This is actually weird, reading all the replies below talking about the algorhythm.

    I'm passionate about cosmic horror and this video did something I've been trying to do for decades: To accurately describe the genre in detail.

    I guess the algorhythm strikes again! Fantastic video and you certainly got a new subscriber!

  2. I wonder if we'll ever overcome cosmic horror. Maybe once we've colonized and fully explored our solar system, eventually our whole galaxy, we'll be less scared.

  3. I'm currently designing a competitive video game with an interactive cosmic horror narrative.
    You are obviously keen on the subject, if you know any versed writers please let me know.

  4. I think its pretty easy actually. The monster wont be shown.. it will have countless stories about it but nobody us sure about it. Anonymous murdering.. i mean, the movie writes for itself.

  5. If you confused about cosmic horror, you can start with scp foundation. It basically like the tutorial of all horror genre including cosmic horror.

  6. Those saying existential dread is not cosmic horror have never even imagined that reality is the monster.
    Reason in itself is the purpose of such an unfathomable being.
    "Flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."
    We can't live too long without realizing and we comfort ourselves with hope that death delivers life meaning.

  7. So basically, creating the perfect cosmic horror movie is like trying to create a new color and describe it without using other colors.

  8. There had been a few adaptations i know of: hellboy & hellboy 2, it, alien, cabin in the woods, and mostly the series stranger things

  9. I've watched this video a few times already. Can't wait to show friends and co-workers. The sound is fantastic. Just glorious. It sounds amazing on my M-Audio BX8's. Keep up the amazing work. I am in your debt.

  10. So basically that's what stranger things did right we know what it is but we don't really know what it is as in the mind flayer they kind of just give it a name and just go by that because it's literally it just beyond their comprehension and that's why it's so interesting like its giant Smokey form is just that a form we don't know if there's a giant brain controlling that Dimension From Another Dimension for all we know like the upside down has an always open gate to the other world in the other world before that and the other world before that and I'm done because my brain needs a break lol

  11. Eh, HP Lovecraft was just your typical, overly paranoid Antisemitic dude.

    (shrug) Sure, he was a great writer..but you can't ignore that Xenophobia is at the heart of many Cosmic Horror stories thanks to Lovecraft.

  12. "have you ever looked up at the vast countless stary night sky?"

    Well I live in England so it's mostly cloudy and light pollution is everywhere so no.

  13. how am i, me? how are you, you? how are u alive? how do u have ur own consciousness? were u even a thing before u were born? what is the purpose of anything when u are nothing more then a spec of dust in the grand scheme of things? don't stop moving forward with the never ending marching of time less u be left in the past doomed to fall and possibly never get back up in time to catch up with the present. I know the only me is me, but is the only you, you?

  14. There’s a good cosmic horror manga short series by Junji Ito called ‘Hellstar Remina’

    I recommend a read to anyone keen on Lovecraftian imagery and the helplessness of man.

  15. This is precisely why many of Stephen Kings best stories often fail when adapted to film. There really is no way to visually represent the ending of the novel IT. No matter how it’s filmed, it winds up looking silly. Some things are only really frightening when they are happening TO you…describing it takes away the effect of how scary it was. This happens a lot when trying to tell someone about a scary dream you had, because while telling it, you realize that you can’t convey what made it scary. They had to have been there. I remember having a dream about being chased by a fireplace brick. One single red brick, yet no matter how I describe it, I can’t make anyone feel how terrifying it was.

  16. I think all of this is brilliant,, except for a certain part at the end. "If it's hard to verbalize then it's near impossible to show." I feel like language and our ability to communicate hinders a lot of our ability to share. Sometimes it's better to show not tell. Couldn't you have explained the beast in your dream much better if your friend could have stepped into your mind, seen it for themselves? I feel like that's what cosmic horror is, if we as a people cant't explain the monster or the way it can make you feel. Showing that speaks more then a thousand novels could.

  17. I could listen to you speak on cosmic horror all night…truly my favorite genre. I have a modest telescope and love stargazing…my imagination reels with the thoughts of what vistas exist out among the stars..scenes of haunting beauty, and devouring horror…what hungry things are feeding as we sit here wondering…

    Edit: new sub here enjoying the hell outta your channel 🙂

  18. My favorite genres are cosmic horror and erotic horror. The former is because I like the concept of undefeatable otherwordly machines that are basically the culmination of your existence. The latter is not for the erotic sense, but because of the way it seamlessly blends fear and arousal.

  19. I think it was easy to write my cosmic horror deities into my book. Mostly because 80% of my thoughts are the inanity of existence (I had to describe what the physical manifestation of entropy is)

  20. I'm a writer myself and I can confirm that Lovecraft cosmic horror was never my strong suit.

    I created my own cosmic entity and to this day I still cannot come up with a coherent description for what it looks like because it is simply beyond comprehension.

    Allow me to give you the best possible description of it.

    "A large hybrid entity part arachnid, part cephalopod inconceivable in size and shape. Eight jointed tendrils laced in place of suction cups with large arachnid mandables. It's head and body is that of a spider, yet it moves and swims across the cosmos, undulating like an octopus. It's thorax is one large, all seeing eye, that flickers on any motion. Large pustule, mucus filled eyes line the thoraxic eye giving it an eternal sight. The pure sight of this monstrosity is unfathomable to the human mind and awakens the deepest fears in all mankind. Yet strangely as maddening of a sight it is, there is much wisdom to it's existence, for it is Spadra, the web of knowledge."

  21. I fucking adore the entire concept of inconceivable or cosmic horrors

    Also which is better, SCP monsters or Lovecraft Monsters

  22. This video is terrifying because I have an extreme fear of not existing. Existential dread and the ticking clock of the unimaginable is terrifying.

    Its why we created the Afterlife and religious purpose. To avoid the unnameable. Its better to exist somewhere horrible and conceptual somewhere than to not exist and be everywhere at the same time.

    Its terrifying. The univerese and our powerlessness in controlling it is connecting to our powerlessness with not wanting to accept not-existing someday.

    Scary ass shit.

  23. Who here ever had a cosmic horror lucid dream? It was a trip man for some reason I didn’t want to wake up from it. It felt like the dream wanted to tell me something 😳

  24. Lovecraft, being the pioneer of it, is the only one who could do it perfectly, though as a Stephen King fan I do think that there ARE good attempts at recreating it out there- some worth expanding upon.

  25. I know it’s not a movie, but I was genuinely terrified the first time I played the Dragonborn DLC for the Elderscrolls V Skyrim. They did a great job with the cosmic horror of Apocrypha and Hermaeus Mora himself.

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