Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Can a story be both science fiction and horror at the same time, or does one have to defer to the other? I first wondered this when I was six years old. I was watching Saturday Morning cartoons and one of my favorites, Where Are you Scooby-Doo? Came on, it was an Episode I had not seen yet, The Kooky Space Ghost. I was shocked by the presence and the premise of the glowing alien specter. When you are a child you see things in yes or no terms. Black isn’t white, boys aren’t girls, spinach isn’t candy and monster cartoons don’t have aliens in them. In my simple childish perceptions, I had divided to genres, I didn’t have names for. I am older and more nuanced now, but I still remembered my initial confusion over the violation of cartoon taboos.
I recently asked several people this week if they thought Alien (1979) was horror or science fiction. and the main answer is that is either sci-fi or both. I am on the other side of the fence and I think that it is a horror movie in a science fiction sitting. And you know who else agrees with me? Steven King. He wrote in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre that he thought that it was a horror story, where the eldritch abominations of Lovecraft, stopped. Coming to the earth but that where we began going to them. After all he points out. At the end of the movie the final girl kills the monster with a spear gun, while she is in her underwear. What can be more horror than that?
And though it has some scary scenes I wouldn’t call the Follow up Aliens, a horror story. It is more clearly a Sci-Fi adventure story. So for this treatise, I am going to define our terms. I am going to use the most basic definitions I could think of for horror and science fiction. Horror – A story whose primary enjoyment comes from producing a sense of fear or dread in the audience. (Note it is not necessarily supernatural in nature) Science Fiction – A story that’s plot mainly revolves around greater technology than the time it is set in, or features non-terrestrials or a non-terrestrial event. With those definitions, Alien, meets both definitions.
But which one is it more of? To me whether or not something is science fiction or horror, is a lot like the Supreme Court’s pornography standard. I may not be able to describe it but I know what it is when I see it. So I have to admit that a lot of whether or not something is sci-fi or horror is in the eye of the beholder.
When I think back to 1979, I remember Alien being marketed as a Horror movie. I was 12 so maybe I don’t remember it too well, so I looked up the original trailer for the movie.
Do it it’s worth it ^^^^^^^
The original trailer is this awesome minimalist masterpiece. It goes from a panorama of stars to the surface of LV-426. Then focuses on a xenomorph’s egg. Followed by something breaking out in bright eerie blue light. From then on it is the faces of the panicked crew. Note there is no dialogue in the entire clip, the only things we hear besides the music is the cat and the alien. To me this is saying we are going away from the Sci-Fi of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the IVth kind and going to some place new. A land where horror meets science fiction.
Even its famous tagline “In Space no one can hear you scream.” Evokes both genres. The fact that noise doesn’t travel in space is hard science, but the screaming part is reminiscent of other 70’s horror flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
There are many horror/sci-fi hybrids out there. John Carputer’s The Thing, Event Horizon, Pitch Black, Dark City, even 12 monkeys. But in true geek fashion, I am asking if you had to tag them as one or the other, which would it be H or SF? This isn’t a question that can be asked only of modern stories, it can be asked of Victorian literature too. Is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Sci-fi or horror, what about Well’s War of the Worlds?
If I was, forced by a psychotic time traveling alien with a death laser, to say what those stories are at their core, I would say that Frankenstein, is horror and WotW is science fiction. Yes Frank has a very sci-fi premise, using technology to conquer death. But when I read it (and yes this is all about me) I see on the page, the horror of a young girl dealing with the loss of a child. She is manifesting that horror in the readers mind.
As for War of the Worlds, I would say it is sci-fi, because at its core it is about aliens and their advanced technology. , but it has some truly horrific scenes. Such as when the black cloud chokes to death the masses in the London streets, or the incredible scene where the narrator is locked in the damaged cellar and the vampiric Martians come after them. But WotW’s DNA is truly science fiction.
Jumping ahead to the 1920’s what about the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Most see him as a horror writer, I have even seen it written that his only true science fiction story was Color out of Space. But if we accept that Cthulhu and his kindred are not gods in the religious sense of the word, but alien entities, of immense power doesn’t that make all his stories science fiction? My argument is that even though they would make the definition of science fiction, the Mythos tales are really horror stories.
But that doesn’t mean everything that the man form Providence wrote is not science fiction, just because it came from HPL. Co-written with Kenneth J. Sterling, Lovecraft helped write, The Walls of Eyrx. I have to admit that I actually listened to this little know gem only today, on You Tube. Published after HPL’s death, it might be better referred to as one of Lovecraft’s revisions. But I see this a co-authored piece because Lovecraft nearly doubled length of the story. It is about a prospector on Venus who encountered and is trapped in an abandoned alien city. Despite being co-written by the master of modern horror, the story is true space pulp.
Television anthologies are extremely apt in combining horror and science fiction. Most people would say the show was science fiction. Some stories however are defiantly horror. Such classics as Night Caller, Nightmare at 20.000 Feet, or The Hitchhiker, come to mind. My favorite scary Twilight Zone is 1961’s The Invaders. Staring a pre-bewitch Agnes Morehead, as an old woman in a rustic cabin, who is menaced by small aliens and their robots after their spaceship crashes in her attic. She eventually destroys the space craft, as it burns we see written on it is US Airforce Space Probe One. It turns out she was the alien the whole time. A brilliant merger of horror and science fiction.
The same is also true for science fiction. When I was young 8 years old or so the scariest show on TV for me, was the original Star Trek. It was the music that did it for me creeped me out forcing me to leave the room, that and the large pile of red shirted corpses. Maybe it would be better to say that ST:TOS was one of the many few shows that scared me as a child that I would come back into the room after the scary parts were over.
But even with three TOS episodes written by horror master Robert Bloch (What are Little Girls are made of, Catspaw, and Sheep in the Fold) I wouldn’t say Star Trek is a horror series, despite the fact that it scared the crap out of little David. But some shows have do have elements of horror.
As adult I do see things more nuanced than I did as a child. And well if you can blend genres together like Ridley Scott did in Alien and Blade Runner (Sci-Fi and noir) and pull it off you get some mind blowingly fresh stories. Something that is new and more than just the sum of its parts. But I do feel that a story that stressed the science fiction setting it is more science fiction, and if a story focuses on the atmosphere and emotions that come with the unknown it is primarily a horror story.