Where no one can hear you scream

11 Dec

Science fiction horror has a long and venerable tradition on both the small and big screen. At the very dawn of the movie age, science fiction films were hopeful, almost idealistic in tone, looking forward to a bright age of exploration and discovery. It did not, however, take very long for the visions of film-makers to darken considerably and between about 1930 and 1950 the first true ‘horrors’ of the sci-fi genre were made. Classics such as The Day the Earth Stood StillThe Thing from Another WorldThe War of the WorldsForbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were notable for the genuine terror that they could inspire in their audiences, just as much as for the more traditional qualities of a science-fiction film, like special effects and imagination. These films really set the tone for the creature features that followed in successive decades, from the Creature from the Black Lagoon to the more sophisticated horror of Alien, Predator, Terminator and Species. This revolution on the big screen was reflected to some extent in television series which veered away from purely ‘futuristic’ science fiction to stray into horror territory, probably the best examples of which being Doctor Who in the 1970s and, of course, The Twilight Zone.

Horror in science fiction initially took the form of formulaic, but nevertheless enjoyable, ‘Monster Movies’.  Science fiction films have a long tradition of featuring monster attacks, which differed superficially from similar films in the horror or fantasy genres because they typically relied upon a scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) rationale for the monster’s existence, rather than a supernatural or magical reason. Often, the science fiction film monster is created, awakened, or “evolves” because of the machinations of a mad scientist, a nuclear accident, or a scientific experiment gone awry. Typical examples included The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which illustrates well the fact that, despite the film-maker’s attempts to inject some degree of logic into proceedings, a science fiction film could be every bit as scary as anything that was officially termed ‘horror’. It was a lesson that was learned quickly by successive producers and directors.

For me, the best early example of the ‘haunted house in space’ concept was Quatermass and the Pit. As an intelligent and highly moral British scientist who continually finds himself confronting sinister alien forces that threaten to destroy humanity, Professor Bernard Quatermass can almost be seen as an early version of Doctor Who. In The Pit, which is by far the most terrifying of the good Professor’s adventures, Quatermass  becomes involved in the discovery of a bizarre object at an archaeological dig in Knightsbridge, London. As the serial progresses, Quatermass and his associates find that the contents of the object have a horrific influence over many of those who come into contact with it. As this influence increases, affecting Quatermass himself, darker implications are revealed about the entire nature and origins of mankind. The series was famous for one particular scene involving Quatermass coming into contact with a thing in a spacecraft, which in its time was every bit as shocking as the chest-burster scene in Alien.

Alien is of course the film most of us think of when horror in outer space is discussed. Even now, despite all of the sequels, tie-ins and blatant cash-ins that the Alien franchise has gone through, the original movie has lost none of its power to shock. From the moment that the spaceship Nostromo appears in view, an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension is created – a tension which never lets up until the end credits roll. Alien is very much a film of its time, taking a conscious step away from the more hopeful science fiction of the 1960s, as exemplified by Star Trek, to reflect the darker, more uncertain 1970s, when war and economic problems were everywhere. Other films made in the 1970s and early 1980s, such as Blade Runner and The Terminator, presented the future as dark, dirty and chaotic, and depicted aliens and androids as hostile and dangerous. Since the end of the 1980s there haven’t really been any successful attempts at out-and-out horror in a science fiction setting. What offerings there were tended to be pale imitations of what went before – a prime example of this type of film being Event Horizon (or Alien without the Alien as it is sometimes called), a science fiction horror which does not really work on either level.

What was happening on the small screen reflected what was going on at the cinema. Inspired by classic science fiction serials like Quatermass, The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, Doctor Who had what amounted to a mini Golden Age in the 1970s when extensive use of horror was made in its science fiction stories. Many horror elements appeared in some of the best stories from this time, for example Zombies (Inferno), Vampires (State of Decay), Mummies (Pyramids of Mars), Man-Eating Plants (The Seeds of Doom) and even the Loch Ness Monster (Terror of the Zygons)! In this context several brilliant television adaptations of classic science fiction novels from the 1970s and early 1980s should also be mentioned, including Day of the Triffids, The Tripods and The Nightmare Man. When Russell T Davies re-launched Doctor Who after its long hiatus in 2005, he specifically mentioned many of these classics from the 1970s as being a major influence on him, and the reason why the new series has continued to make use of horror staples like werewolves, haunted houses and demons.

Probably the best fairly recent example of horror in science fiction is The X Files. Although many may dispute this, for me this series has always stood fairly squarely in the science fiction rather than the horror or paranormal camp. There is almost always some scientific basis put forward for the extraordinary phenomena that the two FBI agents Mulder and Scully come across rather than it being simply left unexplained or labelled ‘supernatural’. This is a key difference from the series which is in many ways The X Files’ modern day successor, Supernatural (which I love by the way), where the horror is genuinely outside human understanding and usually demonic in origin. Having said this, the two series are at times equally scary in different ways, proving that there is a genuine (and traditional) place for horror in science fiction.

Of necessity, due to the space limitations of a blog post, this has been a whistle-stop tour of the science fiction horror genre rather than an exhaustive treatment. I hope, however, that I’ve given everyone plenty of ideas for what to rent on DVD or seek out online (or avoid, as the case may be!). I do plan to return to a number of the series and films which I have mentioned above in greater depth in due course but for now I wish you happy viewing and (hopefully not too) sweet dreams.

4 Responses to “Where no one can hear you scream”

  1. The Heretic December 11, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    For some odd reason the title of your post reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream”.

    I really like the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still. I also like a lot of the science fiction horror episodes of The Outer Limits, which also featured stories by Ellison. There is more I like but that would take too long to go through.

    • anilbalan December 11, 2011 at 10:22 am #

      Yes, I know the feeling – this is a huge field!

  2. echoroompress December 15, 2011 at 9:16 am #

    Great read – should be extended some day into a PHD in sci-fi horror

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