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16 February, 2008

Horror and Sci-Fi: Two of a Kind?

A couple of years ago, Sean Kotz, CreatureScape’s editor, asked if I could write something examining the relationship between Horror and Science-Fiction in film. Not having anything more pressing on my schedule, and wanting to keep my former editor happy, I said “Sure!” Then I thought to myself, “Just how big a can of worms am I opening here?” After all, not everyone has the same ideas of just what is Horror and what is Science-Fiction. Even the great Ackermonster himself considers the greatest Horror film of all time, FRANKENSTEIN (1931), to be more of a Sci-Fi film—not entirely surprising, when you remember who coined the phrase “Sci-Fi.”

Still, Sean did ask, and I did say yes… and this was the result. These are MY opinions on just what Horror is, what Science-Fiction is, and how they’re really two sides of the same coin.

Horror may be the oldest form of storytelling known to man. It certainly is one of the most enduring. Some of the earliest recorded tales are, in essence, horror stories.

The gorgons and the Minotaur in Greek legends, the eater of souls in Egyptian mythology, and countless other examples served much the same role in ancient society as Jason Voorhees and Bloody Mary do today: To frighten us out of our wits, and to warn us about possible consequences to our actions. Science-Fiction may be nearly as old, with roots also going back to the legends of Ancient Greece, such as Icarus & Daedalus; or to the Norse sagas, with tales of Valkyries and Valhalla. Superman, it can be argued, is little more than Hercules in red and blue spandex. Certainly, modern superhero groups such as the Justice League of America and the X-Men can trace their ancestry back to the heroes of Homer’s epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad.

People, especially in times of strife or war, love to be frightened, and love to be excited. It was true in the 1940’s, and it’s true today. Horror movies, thrill rides, extreme sports—whatever pushes our senses to the edge, however vicariously, seems almost addictive. We are constantly in search of a bigger and better thrill; more realistic, more frightening. And for many of us, we choose to get our thrills from Horror and Sci-Fi Films.

Horror comes in many forms, but most of those wouldn’t fit a strict definition of it commonly used when discussing genre films. War is definitely horror, especially for those called to fight in one. But that doesn’t make THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961), or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1997) Horror Films. They abundantly illustrate the horrors of war, but there is no connection to the Horror Film in them.

Also, simply because a film is violent doesn’t qualify it for genre status. There are countless examples of violence in cinema, films such as THE GODFATHER (1972) or TAXI DRIVER (1976), or, more recently, films by such directors as Quentin Tarantino or John Woo. Arguably, SCARFACE is one of the most violent films ever made, but it no more belongs in a collection of horror than any other Crime picture.

But one genre is so closely associated with Horror that often they are indistinguishable from one another, and that sibling genre is of course Science-Fiction. This is a case where two very similar genres often blend into one. Naturally, not all Sci-Fi is Horror, and vice-versa. Films such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1969) and WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951), are pure Sci-Fi, with no (or very few) elements of Horror. Conversely, WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), and ALIEN (1979), are perhaps the best examples of Sci-Fi as Horror: They have the sense of unreality that true Horror creates. So what, for the purposes of this column, defines Horror, and how does it differ from its fraternal twin, Science-Fiction?

Great Horror Films draw the viewer into the worlds they create; we experience the terror and excitement as though we were on-screen. We feel Chris McNeil’s anguish and confusion at what’s happening to her daughter Regan; we can easily sympathize with Chief Brody’s fear of the water as he heads out to sea on-board the Orca. We are as shocked as Malcolm Crowe is to find out that one of the ‘dead people’ that Cole is speaking of is the good doctor himself.

Similarly, great Science-Fiction, even more than Horror, creates worlds for the viewer to inhabit, worlds that often take on a reality of their own. Anyone who doubts this is invited to attend the nearest Star Trek convention and see for themselves. Sci-Fi more than any other genre is subject to this intense fandom, perhaps because the worlds of the Federation, the Rebel Alliance, or Middle Earth are in many ways better than the boring, ho-hum existence of life in the real world. But where does the dividing line between Horror and Science-Fiction lie, if indeed there is one?

Earth’s armies fighting back against the invading Martians; or a small group of people trapped with an alien monster, are in a situation outside their normal frame of reference; it inspires fear unlike the normal, expected fears of men in battle. The viewer shares in this, knowing that these aren’t conflicts in the conventional sense of the word. Otherwise, it would be no different than the Federation Starships battling Klingon Battlecruisers in Star Trek, or for that matter, the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor in TORA, TORA, TORA.

Horror is that which has an element of the unreal to it. Horror is not you finding a dead body; horror is a dead body finding YOU. A good Horror Film places the victim in a situation that shouldn’t be, something not within the realm of possibility.

Take for example the FRIDAY THE 13TH series of films (it really doesn’t matter which one, does it?): An attractive group of kids; pleasant, comfortable surroundings; good times being had by all.

Into this, an unexpected element is introduced, something that is completely surreal: An unstoppable killing machine, with absolutely no humanity whatsoever. No motive, no remorse, nothing to moderate the pure… EVIL of the monster. Jason Voorhees isn’t some crackhead knocking off a liquor store to get his next fix; he’s not a mobster killing for profit. His only motivation is to kill. No food, sex, or rest. Just… Kill. That makes it Horror.

Great Horror, again like great Science-Fiction, envelopes it’s fans in a world where disbelief is suspended, and all things not only seem possible, but ARE possible. We don’t question how Michael Myers keeps coming back to carve his way through Haddonfield, we simply accept that he has, the same way that we accept the fact that when Scotty slides those three levers on his console, the transporter will work. The same goes for Jason and Freddy; Phasers and Lightsabers; Frankenstein’s Monster and a shark named Bruce. We don’t question the how; and seldom the why; we just accept that it IS. Genre Films are a visceral, emotional experience for those who love them, and great ones are able to pull us into their realities, even if only for the duration of a movie.

Horror and Sci-Fi Films aren’t everyone’s chosen genres; that’s fine. Not everyone likes Gilbert & Sullivan, either. However, for those of us who cut our fangs on the Universal classics; or thrilled to the exploits of Kirk, Luke, and Frodo; or simply love a good scare now and then, don’t worry about whether it’s Horror, Science-Fiction, or a little of both. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.

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