“In space, no one can hear you scream.” These were the words emblazoned on the posters and billboards of the first movie of the “Alien” franchise. First released in 1979, the movie was an instant success, launching a franchise that would go on to earn more than 1.6 billion dollars. Alien was one of the first films to codify what would eventually become known as space horror movies.
The concept of frightening instances happening on spaceships and on alien worlds is by no means new or novel by the time “Alien” came out. Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise encountered disturbing and deadly events long before the firs “Star Trek” memes hit the internet.
What makes space horror so different from other films and movies set in space? What makes it so appealing?
What are Space Horror Movies?
There are plenty of movies and television shows set in space, but space horror movies raise the stakes to a more personal level. Even though the crew of the Enterprise lost a lot of red shirts, the deadliest of Starfleet ranks, “Star Trek” episodes rarely felt scary. This is because the series and films like it have an air of positivity and adventure to them. Sure, the intrepid crew on “Farscape” face deadly enemies, but the scenarios were rarely frightening. Uhura may get into the occasional fight or encounter an alien being, but audiences know deep down that she and the other women of “Star Trek” won’t be mauled savagely by some entity.
Space horror removes all the certainty and adventure that make other movies set in space positive. It inverts all the attributes that make space-faring adventures fun and turns them into dark reflections. Instead of rewarding curiosity with knowledge, space horror movies punish it with madness. Instead of focusing on the abundant possibilities of space, it highlights the vast and isolating vacuum of the void.
What are the Themes of Space Horror?
There are several recurring themes in space horror. Again, they twist the sense of adventure and exploration that science fiction is known for. They also highlight several real dangers that people involved in space travel actually have to consider. For example, some space horror movies bring up the debunked condition known as space madness.
Below are some of the common themes and concepts you’ll encounter if you watch enough space horror.
Astronauts and other spacefarers are almost always scientists eager to push the boundaries of human knowledge. Or they could be explorers, colonizing new worlds in the name of advancement. But in space horror, there are things humanity was never meant to know. In these movies, there are dark corners of the universe that should never be explored. When people start asking deep questions in a space horror movie, expect the blood the start flying.
“Event Horizon,” 1997. Scrappers explore the derelict hulk of an experimental ship with faster-than-light travel only to discover it travelled to places humanity was not meant to go.
Space is vast. Incredibly vast. Terrifyingly vast. The expanse that astronauts wish to venture into is made almost entirely of nothing. And when disaster strikes, as it always does in horror movies, there is no one out there that can help. Although Earth-bound horror has to work hard to remove the protagonist from possible sources of aid like hospitals and the police, there are no such things out in space. The heroes are alone against whatever evil they face.
“Pandorum,” 2009. Astronauts awake in the ruined hulk of their colonist ship only to find it has been overrun by deadly monsters. Thousands of lightyears away from Earth, the survivors have no one to turn to but themselves.
When travelling in the void of space, the only thing standing between an astronaut and certain death is the technology they bring. Space is an extremely hostile environment, and without the protection of their ships, suits and computers, the protagonists of space horror movies are vulnerable. Which is why everything than can go wrong with technology will go wrong. This works like the visceral terror of an airplane shuddering midflight. If you can trust your technology, how will you survive?
“2001: A Space Oddysey”: Although not entirely a horror movie, the corruption and devolution into homicide by ship computer HAL is one of the landmarks of space horror. There are few things scarier than when the program meant to keep you safe turns on you thousands of miles away from home.
Finally, most space movies try to answer the question if humanity is not alone. In shows like “Star Trek”, most of these alien lifeforms are civilized, if not entirely always on friendly terms. But in space horror movies, the lifeforms the protagonists meet are almost always deadly. These things have no concept of morality and are just as likely to breed with humans as they are to feed on them. Some of these monsters embody concepts and features so far-removed from what is considered normal they are no longer inhuman but unhuman.
“Alien,” 1979. A crew of space truckers run afoul of what can only be described as the perfect killing organism.
Space horror movies allow you to explore the dangers of the void without exposing yourself. It allows you to look into terrifying vistas while safe in the knowledge that someone will hear you scream. Which is a lot more than the protagonists of these movies ever got.