By Maia Venuti
Cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror, is a subgenre of horror created by its namesake, author H.P. (Howard Phillips) Lovecraft. To better understand the genre, I will discuss the central philosophy of cosmic horror, as well as look at some examples of cosmic horror films.
The primary focus of cosmic horror is in the unknown and incomprehensible, rather than in things grounded in reality. Lovecraftian horror typically works in tandem with the science fiction genre, with scientific experiments gone incomprehensibly wrong. Cosmic horror is arguably one of the scariest genres of horror, with creators within the genre constantly pushing the boundaries of the human mind.
If anything is scarier than coming face-to-face with something you cannot even begin to imagine or comprehend, it is the central question posed by cosmic horror and its founding author.
Lovecraft was an incredibly complicated man in his philosophical beliefs and created his own literary philosophy to best fit his beliefs. In his book “History of Humans,” Trung Nguyen wrote how the central principle of cosmicism is that “there is no recognizable presence such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence.”
Neither an optimist or pessimist, Lovecraft saw himself as a cosmic indifferentist, which is reflected in his stories. The cosmic and otherworldly forces that people in his stories interact with are indifferent towards humankind, rather than outright malevolent. His stories typically revolve around people who are hungry for knowledge of things that they themselves will never be able to comprehend, which costs them their lives, sanity and worse.
Two of the greatest examples of cosmic horror in film are film adaptations of two of Lovecraft's most popular short stories: “From Beyond” (1920), and “Herbert West: Re-Animator” (1922). These films were released within a year of one another and were both directed by Stuart Gordon. The casting for these movies is the same, down to the roles played by each actor, with Jeffrey Combs starring as Dr. Herbert West in “Re Animator” and Dr. Crawford Tillinghast in “From Beyond.” Both of these stories chronicle scientists wanting to expand their knowledge but suffering dire consequences. The scientists in both of the stories have opposite motivations, with one wanting to further his own knowledge out of selfishness, and one being selfless and wanting to protect those around him from the horrors he created.
“Re-Animator” (1985) tells the story of a scientist named Herbert West who has developed technology that can reanimate, or bring back to life, dead people. Working with his student assistant, West becomes determined to succeed in his experiment, no matter the costs.
Jeffrey Combs’ brilliant performance as Herbert West brought the character to life, perfectly fitting the role of a mad, borderline neurotic scientist. The flaw in Herbert West’s character that puts him in this unimaginable position of horror is in his desire to expand scientific knowledge. His desire to succeed in his experiments and bring about a revolutionary scientific discovery outweighs all rational thinking, causing him to continue his experimentation despite the failures of previous subjects.
“Re-Animator” does a brilliant job at visualizing the words Lovecraft put to paper and somehow managed to bring these creations that had never previously existed in human consciousness to life. The visual effects and special effects makeup for this film are some of the most impressive I have ever seen despite it being 37 years old, and the film would not have been nearly as effective had it not been for the remarkable visual depictions.
“From Beyond” (1986) tells the story of a scientist named Dr. Pretorius who discovered the ability to gain access into a parallel universe existing invisibly within our own through the use of the pineal gland. After his experiment is proven fatal, Dr. Pretorius’ assistant, Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, is accused of his murder, forcing him to revisit the machine that killed his boss to prove his innocence. Unlike Herbert West, who was unwilling to quit his experimentation despite knowing the consequences, Crawford Tillinghast is the complete opposite. He is not a mad scientist; rather, a very fearful one who is aware of the powers that these otherworldly forces have. However, the outcome is still incredibly similar despite his caution due to those around him who refused to heed his warnings. “From Beyond” shows the existential dread and nihilism that Lovecraft carried with him. No matter how hard Tillinghast tried to prevent the events of the story, it did not matter in the grand scheme of things because the unlimited universe supersedes the limited abilities of humankind.
Cosmic horror is a very complex, philosophical and difficult-to-understand genre. Creating horror in things we don’t even know or understand is a challenge to execute successfully. However, when it is successful, the results are otherworldly. It is a sub genre that everyone who likes horror should look into, as it is really fun to push your own thoughts in the way cosmic horror does. It’s such a creative sub genre that anything you find in the genre will likely never have been done before.