Monday, June 29, 2015


As I mentioned in Part I last week, after my anthology was released late last year from McFarland & Company (James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy, 2014), I spent the next few months weighing several ideas and completing cursory research on my shortlist of ideas that I felt had the most promise for a second book. By the beginning of this year, there was one idea that sifted to the top of my list and that was space horror, in part because I was preparing a presentation on a comic book series, Caliban, by Garth Ennis (Avatar Press), which was a space horror story about the human crew aboard the Caliban and the events that unfold after their ship literally crashed into an alien spacecraft. I presented that paper at Wondercon in early April. Afterwards, I spent another month preparing my pitch.

I pitched my proposal for a collection of essays exploring space horror in films last month. By that time, I had probably watched about 20 – 25 films. Some films I had seen before such as Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997) and Pitch Black  (2000), but there were some I had not seen before, such as Pandorum (2009), Planet of the Vampires (1965) and The Last Days on Mars (2013). From my viewings, I noticed certain recurring settings, alien manifestations and interactions, and tropes that were repeated often enough that they are worth mentioning.

Event Horizon


I found four central settings or mise-en-scenes that became visible from my research and the settings were used either separately or in combination with each other. The labels I use are based on scientific (astronomy) terms and are bolded below. The first setting takes place entirely or almost exclusively in outer space on a spacecraft or on a space station. Examples would include Event Horizon and Dracula 3000 (2004) because in both of these films, the action takes place entirely on a spacecraft(s). To me, these are ‘pure outer space’ space horror films. The second setting for a space horror story takes place on a planet or moon outside of our solar system. This setting is categorized as Extrasolar and would include Alien and Pandorum. The third setting refers to a story set within our solar system, but not on Earth. These would be known as Extraterrestrial and would include Apollo 18 (2011) and Europa Report (2013) for example. The last setting refers to stories set on Earth and are known as Terrestrial. They are often called “invasion films” and would include Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958).

As mentioned at the start of this section, I found there was crossover between each film’s setting such as Alien, which took place on a planet outside of our solar system (Extrasolar) briefly, but was for the most of the film, set on a spacecraft. What was interesting is that a majority of the earliest identified space horror films that started appearing in the 1950s - The Thing from Another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, and believe it or not, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) – were terrestrial. However, over the intervening decades since these movies premiered, space horror films have diversified from its roots, expanding to all four settings.

The Blob


Every good story has an antagonist. Of space horror films I have watched, most often the nemesis is an alien life form and will usually represent one of three broad categories. The first type of alien is a physical entity unto itself and does not need to inhabit a host. Examples include the alien hunter in the Predator franchise, the alien creatures or bioraptors in Pitch Black, and the watery tentacle creature in Europa Report. 

The second type of alien uses a human as a host, physically or psychologically, and morphs the host so that it is readily apparent to others and at other times, the change is subtle enough to fool the people around them. These aliens are typically some sort of organism or parasite that penetrates the host in a violent way. Doom (2005), The Last Days on Mars (2013) and The Thing (1982) are good examples here. A psychological ‘parasite’ is more difficult to uncover. Solaris (1972) and Sunshine (2007) had apparitions that took up physical space and multiple people could see and interact with them. In each film, individuals were changed psychologically.

The last type of alien transcends the physical plane and is considered paranormal, usually appearing as apparitions or occasionally seeming to take up physical space. In Event Horizon, each crewmember of the Lewis and Clark experience apparitions of individuals from their pasts that only they can see. In the case of Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill), he becomes possessed by the spirit aboard the ship and he self-inflicts bodily harm to himself, physically changing his appearance to match the horror and chaos of the alternate dimension the prior crew encountered during their gravity drive experiment. This category also includes the occult oriented aliens, so here’s where those interplanetary vampires and the Cenobites that astronauts sometimes encounter would fit.

There is one other aspect of the alien that needs to be considered: to be or not be a sentient alien. There are aliens that are interpreted as hostile, but in fact, are only driven by the instinct to survive. The bioraptors in Pitch Black are not sentient beings but are an alien species led by their instinct for survival. They are led by the most fundamental need to exist – hence, they have not evolved. On the other hand, one sentient alien being would include the hunter from the Predator franchise. The hunter’s actions are thoughtful and with intent. They have advanced themselves through the development of clothing, armor and technology for example, which they use for the purpose of hunting others. In the former example, the horrifying nature of the film’s aliens boil down to a “survival of the fittest” mentality, while for the latter film, the motivation is more devious and intentional.

Bioraptor from Pitch Black


Below, I have identified a number of recurring tropes during my film watching. I am starting out with the stereotypes that had the strongest validity within the space horror genre, then I will follow up with the remaining tropes that I feel will need more time and analysis. However, I felt they still have importance in this dialogue. 

Sense of Isolation
A sea of black with twinkling stars and glowing planets may provide wonder and awe, but after traveling in space – days, weeks, months, years – isolation sets in and takes a physical and emotional toll on each person. We have seen this countless times – Event Horizon and Europa Report – where bodily fatigue, depression, and an anxiousness to get home to Earth are prevalent. Additionally, space represents danger to humans because there are deadly hazards to space travel: the threat to the air supply if the ship is damaged and the adverse impact of gravity and radiation to the human body.
If a crew finds themselves in trouble, they know they are alone. And if any space horror has taught us, any help will be too far away (months or even years) to be of any assistance because the alien or aliens are faster at annihilation.

Elite squad from Doom

Military and/or Corporate Presence
In many of the space horror films, there is either a military component such as the special elite squad in Doom or the marines in Aliens (1986) for example – or a corporation presence such as Weyland-Yutani throughout the Alien franchise. Eventually, the crew discovers they are expendable in the eyes of the corporation, or alternatively, the military. The crew, or the remains of it, may also identify there is a “turncoat” in the group. An individual will turn, either intentionally or not, against their fellow crewmembers because they are following their corporation’s directive and/or trying save their own skin. This person is a walking dead man.

Returning to Aliens as an example, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) is a company man and he creates a situation, which Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Newt (Carrie Henn) should be impregnated by an alien. He does this with the intention of smuggling an alien embryo back through intergalactic customs. However, that tactic was foiled. Later, when the aliens are storming the base, Burke becomes scared and tries to save himself, to the detriment of the others. He uses the intended escape route and locks the door so the remaining survivors cannot use that route, but he comes face to face with an alien and his own demise.

High Fatality
In many of the films set in space, there is a limited number of crew, usually ranging between 7 or 8, which is probably the tipping point for the film to have just enough time to introduce and develop each character for the audience to identify with and keep track of during the movie. Alien had seven crewmembers as did Dracula 3000, while Sunshine, Event Horizon, Last Days on Mars, and Doom (the marines) had eight. Some of the outliers included Europa Report with 6, Pandorum with 5, Stranded (2013) with 4, and Apollo 18 with 3, while Pitch Black, Aliens and The Thing had over 8. As a trope device, it is about the right count of deaths for the purpose of pacing tension and suspense.  Ultimately though, the presence of aliens are seriously bad for a human’s longevity and with crews typically averaging around 7 or 8, it doesn’t take long for an alien to get to…..

Ripley from Alien

Sole Survivor
….the sole survivor: This person defies Darwin’s law and either defeats the alien in a climatic battle or is able to escape, until the sequel – think, Ripley from the Alien franchise. In some stories, the last survivor has to complete their task, which will cause their death yet will be for the greater good, such as in Sunshine, Last Days on Mars and Europa Report. We often see this trope utilized in the slasher films where the last survivor is the ‘final girl’ and while that is the case in a few of the space horror films I have watched so far, I think it is the exception rather than the norm. More often, either the entire crew dies or there will be a small number of survivors, usually two or three, such as in Event Horizon, Pitch Black and Pandorum.

‘Uncanny Valley’ or the Evil Android
I noticed that if there is an android or a central computer present in the story, then they usually turn out to have questionable intentions that may or may not lead to the termination of human life. Such is the case with Ash (Ian Holm) in Alien, David (Michael Fassbender) in Prometheus (2012), and Bishop (Lance Henriksen) in Aliens, which were androids made to pass as human and do so for a time during their respective films. Occasionally, instead of an android, there may be a central computer, often referred to as ‘Mother’ and controlled by the military and/or corporate entity within the film. Two examples of this can be found with Alien and with the Japanese anime Lily C.A.T. (1987), which was directly influenced by Alien. I think it is a fascinating concept that I would like to spend more time researching and expanding on in a future blog, especially in light of Isaac Asimov’s laws regarding robotics – robots should not injure humans – and the concept of ‘uncanny valley’ whereas there is an adverse reaction and/or discomfort in humans. 
Example of foreshadowing

Foreshadowing Events via the Ship’s Name
Foreshadowing, the use of a clue in the narrative that eludes to or predicts an event later in the film, is an intriguing concept that has not had much discussion from what I have found thus far. In particular, I think there is a need to mediate the literature, mythology, and real events to their filmic references. For example, Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo: A Tale of the Seaboard (1904) for the Nostromo ship in Alien and the fictional town Sulaco lends its name to the ship in Aliens, while William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) is referenced in Forbidden Planet (1956). The Icarus I and Icarus II  ships in Sunshine reference Greek mythology, while the Lewis and Clark is the rescue ship in Event Horizon and references the early American explorers.

"Icarus" by Cosmonaut Vladimir Dzhanibekov

Below, I have briefly described a handful of tropes that I am still conceptualizing and will be explored in future blog posts. However, initially I think they are valid points that are worth pointing out, with their significance pending further investigation.

Kafka’s Metamorphosis
The Metamorphosis (1915) written by Franz Kafka is a novella about Gregor Samsa, who wakes up to find himself mysteriously transformed into a large beetle-like insect. Kafka explores Gregor’s adjustment and his family’s response to his transformation. Many of the space horror films involve a transformation of one or more individuals who have been invested with an alien being. The majority of the time in these films, the point of view is from the uninfected humans, but sometimes there are breakout performances: Dr. Weir in Event Horizon, Goat (Ben Daniels) in Doom and Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 (2009).

Symbolism & Semiotics
The religious references in Event Horizon, the concept of mother/motherhood in Aliens and the copulating facehuggers of the Alien franchise are just a few of the many examples that could use some semiotic analysis. 

I noted several instances of humor, particularly in the first and second films of the Alien franchise. Humor provides a break in the tension of fear and can result some fantastic memorable lines in the heat of the action.

Dinner table scene from Alien

Gather Around the Table
This is an interesting one because it employs tradition of family and friends breaking bread together. In the films, it becomes a vehicle to gather all of the characters for the purpose of introducing them, revealing the group’s dynamics and relationships, and setting up the story that will unfold. There are meal scenes in the Alien franchise, with the first film having the most famous, but I noticed there are similar scenes in Sunshine, Event Horizon and Europa Report.

Element of Romance
Although one would think that the crew is too busy trying to stay alive in a space horror, there are references to either an established relationship between two of the crewmembers such as Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) in Prometheus, or the potential for a relationship to be hinted at, such as Ripley and Hicks (Michael Biehn) in Aliens and Carolyn (Radha Mitchell) and Riddick (Vin Diesel) in Pitch Black. In Doom, an interracial relationship is brewing between Samantha Grimm (Rosamund Pike) and Duke (Razaaq Adoti) and Aurora Ash (Erika Eleniak) and Humvee (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister) explore a human and android romance in Dracula 3000. However, I have yet to come across same sex relationships, except in the comic book series, Caliban.

Check back next week where I will begin exploring the themes I listed on my call for papers.

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  1. There were a number of things I found were really interesting. In your second post, I found it intriguing that there seems to be a large gap between the 1920s and 1950s in space films, when though it seems that literature and public interest in space travel was continuing. Do you have an idea why this is?
    Reading this post, I would fully agree with your conceptualization. I would even go further and link the Metamorphosis aspect to the uncanny valley: Since out of space travel has this “heart of darkness” aspect of travel away from earth and its social system into geographical and emotional solitude, the crew necessarily transforms. The interesting thing is that in some case, like infection or alien bias, emotional breakdown etc., an inversion of the uncanny valley takes place – a human transforms into a non-human being.

  2. Hi Miscatonic Ink,

    I too was surprised by the gap of space horror films between 1920s and 1950s, especially given the fact that early space horror had its roots in the “invasion” literature of such authors as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds for example. Also, because the two wars occurred during that timeframe, there would have been a real need for nationalistic propaganda in films to sway public opinion. However, space horror oriented films seemed to rise in popularity during the 1950s and beyond because of the heat up of the space race between USSR and US. The testing of and dropping of the atomic bombs and the rise in sightings of UFOs may have also contributed to the genre. I hope as I investigate this genre further that an answer will come to light.

    I had not thought of the connection between Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the uncanny valley and this bears further research! I recently re-read Kafka’s story, but at the time, I was not aware of uncanny valley as a term and concept. Yes, the spatial and emotional solitude, loneliness, and the dangerous nature of space, is fascinating. I recommend Garth Ennis’ comic book series Caliban from Avatar Press in which he explores those ideas. He even goes further and I would say he compares “Space Exploration” of the late 20th century not unlike our view of the “American Dream” – a lofty, idealized dream that in reality, is a disappointing façade. In addition, Ennis’ story compares/contrasts two alien species and I can see how uncanny valley would fit well!