A recent conversation on social media prompted a close examination of the direct relationship between horror fiction and science-fiction. Not that this hasn’t been examined before, in much greater detail, by others taking a more scholarly approach. The simple statement is that yes, the two genres are more closely related than suggested by whatever Venn Diagram you’re using to visualize speculative fiction. The recent successes of television series like Stranger Things and Dark, both on Netflix, suggest a resurgence of the mixing of these two genres, but this is also nothing new. Both of these series may seem similar at first, but once you get into the episodes, you find that the similarities end right at the synopsis descriptions, and the deeper you go, the less related they become. Both deal with the science-fiction aspects in entirely different manners, and both build to horrifying conclusions based entirely on how the characters deal with those science-fictional concepts.
For me, discovering most of what I like actually comes from a horror/science-fiction blend has been quite illuminating. For the past twenty years, I played the role of horror purist. Arguing that Alien was a horror film that happened in space was my default setting. The basis of that argument was, and still is, quite sound, but also extremely narrow-minded. It also has more to do with wanting the property to belong exclusively to horror, as though allowing it to share another genre was blasphemous. Removing bias opened the film up for closer examination.
In this day and age, one cannot afford to be too narrow-minded when it comes to speculative fiction, and not just because that’s what agents and editors are looking for right now. Of course, not all editors, not all agents, but when one of the best writers in the business recently spoke of her never-ending search for an agent on social media, one would begin to think that is the case, that the premium blend of horror and science-fiction is high on their want lists. It makes sense; they’re all looking for the next Stranger Things. When something is hot, we begin to crave something that is the same, yet different. This is the very subject of nine million clickbait articles online right now.
‘The same, yet different’ is our mantra; but how do we get there?
In film, there are three that easily come to mind as the trifecta of what horror and science fiction can offer. One is the aforementioned Alien, the other two are John Carpenter’s The Thing, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. The latter two are both remakes and adaptations, and both actually stay very close to the author’s intended vision for the most part. What these directors have done is take the subject matter out to the extreme, which results in the horror factor of the story. Alien deals with a very universal theme: Isolation. “In space, no one can hear you scream.” –one of the greatest taglines in cinema history. It sums the story up quite nicely, because this creature systematically infiltrates the crew, eliminates them one by one, sneaks aboard the escape pod to finish the deal, and runs into Ripley, who takes the reigns and gets rid of the threat by herself. But it is not the alien that makes the story fall in the science-fiction genre, or the space setting. Space travel may be in its infant stages, but it is a reality, and doesn’t necessarily make a story science-fiction. Ridley Scott could have easily shifted the setting to a group of earth salvage hunters, discovering a distress call near a close-by abandoned factory. The alien could have just been an earthly undiscovered cryptozoological nightmare, a product of evolution gone horribly wrong by any number of environmental factors, some of which could easily provide the science-fiction element without much of a stretch. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett, writers for Alien, partly based aspects of the growth cycle of the xenomorph on the behavior of parasitic wasps. There are several animals that use acid-like venom as a defensive mechanism. Who knows what kind of creatures roam the dark abyss hundreds of miles below the surface of the ocean, in places that have never seen the light of day. Any one of these concepts could have been used to provide the science-fiction element to the story, and to some degree, their existence justifies the genre. But what makes Alien a science-fiction film is that one of their crew is a synthetic human, infused with artificial intelligence, capable of making independent decisions while still following a set of mandated instructions. Hide this synthetic among a group of humans, an artificial being that could only be labeled as ‘futuristic’, and you have a science-fiction element in a horror story that at once makes it an organic blend of the two genres. Ash is integral to the story, as he has been a saboteur the whole time, carefully constructing a narrative that only leads to the destruction of the team and the capture of the xenomorph.
Taking a more terrestrial approach, as well as the extraterrestrial, we find Carpenter’s vision of The Thing covering subject matter much closer to the heart: Identity. There’s an argument that the alien creature could have been another undiscovered animal from this planet, but that falls on a slippery slope, as the very nature of the creature goes against everything we know about life here on Earth. Of course, from the beginning of the film, we know where this creature comes from. The discovery of the crashed space craft at the Norwegian camp further establishes the science-fiction element. The concept becomes organic as the crew struggles against an entity that challenges the very thing that makes us human. If we don’t know who we are, if that core concept is questioned, then what, and who, are we exactly? Even the tagline is a blend of the science-fiction and horror concepts: ‘Man is The Warmest Place to Hide’, suggesting something foreign, alien if you will, seeking refuge inside of us. This alien not only wants to hide, but its very nature allows it to mimic other lifeforms to hide in plain sight. The question is when does the human in you come to an end and the alien taking over you begin? At what point do you stop being you? Would you even know it? The result is terrifying, as Kurt Russell’s MacReady begins his inquisition to determine who is human. “Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be.” –MacReady. This may be the strongest quote of the whole film; it sums up exactly the threat the men are up against.
David Cronenberg’s The Fly is quite possibly the perfect blend of science-fiction and horror, with an organic approach so deep that to remove one element makes the story fall flat on its face. Both film adaptations draw directly from the source material, with the main thrust of the story being machines that are disintegrator-reintegrators, capable of transferring matter from one location to another. Here, there is no doubt of the science-fiction element. Both films also use the fly as the instigator of the horror element, as the scientist uses the machines to transport himself to one location to another. Unbeknownst to him, a common house fly was in one of the transporter machines. The original story deals with the horror of discovering that your body parts, specifically your head, has been switched with that of a fly. Cronenberg takes the concept out to the extreme; Seth Brundle and the fly are bonded at the genetic level. “No. Be afraid, be very afraid.” has been ingrained to our personal lexicon, and the phrase is typically associated whenever scientific experiments have horrifying results that weren’t realized or intended. The ‘transformation’ element works on multiple levels, both physical in the time and space, and at once psychological and physiological in relation to the characters. Brundle simply wants to build machines that will allow the teleportation of inanimate objects and living beings. He discovers why his experiments fail and reprograms his computers to ‘love the flesh”. His first trip through the machines results in the integration of his genes with that of a fly.
Cronenberg takes the saying “What’s the worst that can happen?” and scoffs. Hold my beer and watch this. Following along with his usual themes of body horror, sexuality and identity, he takes this simple story about transformation and turns it into our worst nightmare, then ups the ante even more when Brundle realizes he is unable to reverse the situation. Brundle-Fly embraces what he’s become, succumbing to the brutal world of ‘insect politics’, and attempts to create the perfect family.
A close examination of the very best science-fiction and horror stories reveals that at the very heart of the story is a universal theme we can all relate to. Isolation. Identity. Transformation. These are human experiences common across all races and cultures. What better genres to explore these themes than science-fiction and horror, or a blend of both? Even the best of weird fiction falls into this genre blend, often forging its own path without a single supernatural element, or even diving into the horror end of the pool. The blend here is nothing new. What is Shelley’s Frankenstein, or many of the strange tales of H.P. Lovecraft but careful blends of two genres to create something completely different than what we’ve seen before.
The same, yet different.
If agents, editors, and publishers are seeking these kinds of works, stories that blend both science-fiction and horror, then it’s simply because they’re following a measurable trend that’s never really gone out of style. We’re just noticing it more now because it’s become more mainstream. As cool as that may sound, there’s always the danger that the more mainstream something becomes, the more watered-downed, and dumb-downed, it becomes, and that is the last thing any genre needs. The only way to successfully navigate trends is to become the trendsetter, and the only way any creative is going to stand out from the crowd and become the trendsetter is to kick aside any mainstream sensibilities and embrace the genres as strongly as possible. Focus should be more on the ‘different’, and less of the ‘same’. The premium blend of horror and science-fiction is just one of the many available avenues we have to tell our stories, and it is up to us as creatives to use every single resource we have to bust through the ever-growing slush pile threatening to crush us with mainstream mediocrity. Our very future depends on it.
Now that’s one helluva tagline.