The horror genre comes in a variety of flavors, whether it’s startling jump-scares or truly unnerving and disturbing imagery plaguing the mind’s eye into sleepless nights. One of the most difficult yet vehemently effective sub-genres to create is the phenomenon of Cosmic Horror. It’s the only genre where every character assumes the role of an unreliable narrator as the descriptions are just vague enough to paint a picture but are just faint enough to blur it with horrifying results. The protagonists are usually put into situations that are insurmountable and incomprehensible as a result of humanity taking a lower position in the hierarchy of the known and unknown universe from the horrors that be. Truly a testament to how creative and intriguing the genre at large can be while staying in the confines of the scare factor.
This terrifying genre was coined by the tentacle-obsessed weird science lover Howard Philips Lovecraft in his horror short stories named The Call of Cthulu and The Shadow over Innsmouth. Lovecraft’s stories both involved sea-based towns with demonic cults secretly making sacrifices, ancient godlike beings with no regard for humanity nor their morality, a protagonist that starts off normal but slips into insanity as abominable truths are revealed, and plenty of gross, gory violence to turn readers’ stomachs. Since then, his works have garnered many writers in the field of horror to inspire the next echelon of fear content for the next century, to even to today.
With a Lovecraftian birthday to celebrate and a Halloween night to gear up for, here are 10 cosmic horrors from all types of mediums (i.e. movies and games) that’ll make you check every shadow in your room tonight.
1. The Lighthouse (2019) by Robert Eggers
The film stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as lighthouse workers in the late 1800s, trying to keep up with their work during a harrowing, seemingly endless storm. As time elapses they begin to lose their minds, and tensions between the two worsen as the work and living conditions become harder. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson’s character’s grim past is slowly alluded to as imagery of monstrous mermaids, birds, and sea creatures borrow into his mind as madness ensues. The story captures the Lovecraftian setting, as well as the duo’s status as unreliable narrators that are seemingly losing their minds, and the climax delivers on grim fates taking innocent people to a horrid Promethean end.
2. Annihilation (2018) by Alex Garland
Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and veteran who teams up with a group of military scientists from a variety of backgrounds into something called “The Shimmer”. The only thing that is known about the shimmer is that it’s a meteor that landed in a lighthouse off the coast of southern America, and its own alien atmosphere is expanding over the earth while mutating everything it touches. The group is sent in to uncover the secrets of the shimmer while also attempting to rescue the first team that made contact with the phenomenon, of which Lena’s husband was a part. The cosmic horror element comes to play in the form of the shimmer being an indecipherable horror that engulfs our heroes as they feebly try to understand their environment. The film is layered with an extraterrestrial setting while a thoughtful approach to presenting themes of sadness, grief, and the self-destructive nature of human beings plays out. The film hauntingly accomplishes this while retaining the unsightly horrors ranging from the body to mind.
3. IT (1986) by Stephen King
It might seem like a strange entry, considering the boom in popularity from the recent films, but the story of The Losers Club taking on Pennywise the Dancing Clown in 1950s and 80s Maine is definitely a worthy contender for cosmic horror. This stems from Pennywise himself, as the origins of the terrifying clown are of an extra-dimensional variety. His evil aura, on a psychic level, is nigh immeasurable as it is mysterious. This cosmic psychic power is also the basis for the way the kids and eventually the adults of The Losers Club take on Pennywise due to their shared traumas. The scariest part of this cosmic horror is that Pennywise’s form can be anything to his liking, but the clown form just seems to be a favorite of his. As long as his form results in a mortified prey, this ancient malevolence will stop at nothing to feed on fear.
4. The Fisherman (2016) by John Langan
In upstate New York, two widower fishermen, Dan and Abe, try to find peace for their respective losses in this book. The duo catches wind of a reservoir that might be the answer to the grief they harbor, but pass it off as urban legend. As time passes, the two find themselves drawn to the murky depths of this mysterious reservoir to sully their spirits. The titular fisherman, dubbed as Der Fisher, vaguely encounters the men as their sanity and fortitude are crudely tested as they make their way to the creek. The story is a cold, haunting in-depth look into the themes of loss, grief, and what tortured souls are willing to endure to quell their pain. Langan’s penchant for literary dreariness is almost reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe but leans toward the Lovecraftian with its vague characters, ocean-atmosphere, dark ancient secrets being unearthed, and characters worming through an unclear series of circumstances.
5. Uzumaki/Spiral (1998) by Junji Ito
In a fictional Japanese city, high school couple Kirie and Shuichi discover a widespread curse involving spirals after Shuichi’s parents die from the psychological powers of them. From then on, our heroes are caught in the center of the city that’s now run amuck from the curse as the two lose grasp of reality as the manga progresses. The tale is the textbook example of a pair of ordinary people being in a situation that is completely outside of their control let alone their understanding. The horrors are mostly of a psychological nature as the story evolves into a more supernatural phenomenon encompassing the helpless heroes. There is also a film version that slightly deviates from the three-volume manga and changes the ending a bit, due to the two interpretations being written simultaneously.
6. The Void (2016) by Steven Kostanski & Jeremy Gillespie
The Void follows a small group of survivors in a hospital during a stormy night as they’re followed by hooded cultists, and eventually, strange malevolent creatures. The Lovecraftian horrors on this low-budget film allow the actors to tap into the audience’s thoughts on what they’d do in the character’s shoes. The Void accomplishes this impeccably while reminding them that nihilistic doom surrounds every dark corner of the setting and mind as they’re horrifically picked off. All the cosmic horror staples are here: the violent cult looking to make human sacrifices for godlike beings, terrifying monsters that come from the darkest corners of the mind, and innocent people tragically dragged into the hellish ordeal.
7. The Thing (1982) by John Carpenter
This grotesque creature feature stars Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot for an antarctic research facility who discovers the remains of an alien corpse. Soon after the crew of the facility are hunted by a mysterious alien creature that can mimic any of its victims down to the cellular level. Tensions rise as the crew struggle to survive while suffering from the paranoia of their shapeshifting foe in the cold isolated labs. The sense of dreariness and paranoia is always at play from the moment the film start to the cold bitter end. Scenes of quiet relief are struck out by gut-wrenching practical effects that to this day disgust and terrify audiences making The Thing a Halloween staple as well as a poster child for horrors born of the cosmos.
8. Bloodborne (2015) by FromSoftware Inc.
This Japanese hack and slash interpretation of Lovecraftian monsters in a fictional Victorian London-esque setting of Yharnam is one of the greatest squid-like love children of Lovecraftian horror since the days of H.P. Lovecraft himself. In it, players assume the role of a Hunter belonging to the beast purging hunters of the Healing Church. After the church transfuses blood from inter-dimensional godlike beings into humans the townspeople of this world are transformed into disgusting mindless beasts. It is up to the player to exterminate the beasts and extinguish something only know as Paleblood in order to end the scourge. The game almost rips straight from the Cthulu mythos but retains a unique identity as the cosmic horrors play out in real-time. It does this by having the player viscerally experience the madness characters in cosmic horror experience in a more methodical way. The game’s story is never directly told to the audience rather the audience must bask in the environmental storytelling to come to their own conclusions making bloodborne one of the scariest, most nuanced experiences of the genre.
9. Event Horizon (1997) by Paul W.S. Anderson
What starts off as a simple rescue mission on a space station, the titular Event Horizon with inter-dimensional technology turns into a chaotic nightmare from hell. The rescue crew of the Lewis and Clark are haunted by visions of their respective regrets and transgressions as a secretive invisible entity drives the crew mad one by one as an escape from the Event Horizon narrows toward impossibility. Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne are the oblivious leads in the claustrophobic nightmarish space opera that’s likely to enthrall as well as disturb the audience to their own base fears.
10. Call of Cthulu (1928) by H.P. Lovecraft
I know it must seem like a bit of a cop-out to list the original short story from Lovecraft himself, but everything listed above has a particular element inspired by this spooky tale, whether it’s thematic or related to the narrative. The story is about Francis Thurston, who recovers his uncle’s encounter with elusive cultists attempting to revive the titular monster from the depths of the sea. The short story is easily accessible via an online search or made readily available on audiobook for horror fans who are eager to break into this taboo genre of gods and monsters and the helpless humans caught in the incomprehensible terrors.
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