Anyone who has never taken the time out of their schedule to read Lovecraftian fiction is depriving themselves of a truly wonderful experience.
Within the realm of horror (film, television, or otherwise), it’s relatively easy to find something that scares you: those who love ghouls and ghosts have Paranormal Activity, psychological thriller fans have Silence of the Lambs, and so on. Horror master Stephen King delineates three types of scares—first, the gross-out, which is “the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, [or] when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.” Second, the horror: unnaturally sized spiders, or a murderer grabbing you in the dark. The last one, terror, is the worst, according to King—this is “when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there….”
All of these types of horror have one thing in common: they’re linked to the physical body. Gross-out affects the body, horror clings to the heart, and terror clutches the mind…but how does one scare the soul?
This question is precisely why I say that H.P. Lovecraft should be read by every person that has an interest in horror stories. Author of “The Call of Cthulhu” and The Shadow Out of Time, Lovecraft wrote within a rather exclusive genre: cosmicism (or the scary variety, known as cosmic horror). Cosmicism is difficult to summarise, but in short words, it is the literary movement that embraces the vastness of the universe. Lovecraft often wrote on this topic, taking into account ideas of human insignificance, the universe’s tendency toward entropy, quests for knowledge ending in tragedy, and the existential depression that arises from these realizations. His work is unparalleled, with no writer or artist ever truly breaching the genius that he purveyed.
Back to the original question: how does one scare the soul? The answer is a bit clearer now—cosmic horror. The realization of how small you are does wonders for the person looking for a little existential terror.
So, with that in mind, where does one find material that falls under the umbrella of this miraculous and enlightening genre? Well, that’s just the problem. Cosmicism and cosmic horror are two of the most tragically underused genres in the history of human art. Of course, Lovecraft’s work exists, but considering the fact that it is nearly one hundred years old (and extremely wordy to boot), fewer and fewer people seem to have an interest in his stories.
With such an open field of source material, one would think that directors and producers would capitalize on this untouched genre, right? Wrong. It is surprisingly difficult to find any fictional work that touches intentionally and exclusively on these ideas. Mark Twain’s short story “The Mysterious Stranger” captures the idea a bit, telling the story of a malevolent being that creates humanity out of modeling clay, only to snatch away its existence over and over again. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy also dabbles in cosmicism, as well as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, arguably. A solid modern example is Cartoon Network’s animated show Rick and Morty, which is, in this author’s opinion, one of the best programs currently running on television. Other than these instances, however, there simply isn’t much in the way of cosmic-horror-based fiction.
This is a curious problem in the horror genre. Why are we, as the human race, so much more comfortable with and attuned to physically terrifying ideas, rather than ideas that challenge what it means for us to exist? As with most questions in the realm of the arts, it’s unlikely that there’s one specific answer. Perhaps, though, it has something to do with how we’ve grown as a species. Only in the past 30,000 years has humanity developed into anything more than a hunter-gatherer. We’re now capable of questioning where in the cosmos we arrived from. All versions of fear that Stephen King explains are rooted in survival, but only cosmic fear deals in thoughts of something so beyond humanity that it is incomprehensible to all human thought.
Does the lack of work in cosmicism represent our denial of human frailty? Maybe. Or maybe, just maybe, I’m far overthinking the topic, and assigning logic where none needs to exist.
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