The phrase “cosmic horror” conjures up images of massive tentacled beasts that defy all aspects of human understanding. Monsters created by author H.P. Lovecraft, such as Cthulhu, Dagon, and Shub-Niggurath, drive those that see them into madness, driven insane by their pure incomprehensibility. Their massive size, many limbs, innumerable eyeballs, and unnatural forms only amplify their horrific nature, making humans realize their insignificance in the universe. It is a genre that allows for speculation and questions about what it means to be human, especially in the face of these monsters. Lovecraft defined his own genre of writing as “the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” He continues to say that as these stories “cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown—the shadow-haunted Outside—we must remember to leave our humanity—and terrestrialism at the threshold.” But even with Lovecraft spelling it out, this leaves so much room for interpretation, particularly in the world of horror films.

Previous iterations of cinematic cosmic horror rely heavily on the gore and the monstrous, creating a spectacle around the destruction of the human body at the hands of creatures or otherworldly beings. Take Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1997 film, Event Horizon for example. Perhaps not the most well made movie, but it is a shining example of certain aspects of cosmic horror, especially because it takes place on a spaceship that opens a literal portal to another dimension (which ends up being hell). When the portal is opened and Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) looks inside, he literally gouges out his eyes, unable to stand the sight of this interdimensional truth. Other examples of the Lovecraftian cosmic horror include In the Mouth of Madness, The Thing, The Void, and The Mist.

However, there seems to be a recent shift in the genre. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be looking at the inclusion of interdimensional alien beings that throw humans into chaos that therefore open up possibilities within themselves to navigate their emotions and relationships. Lovecraft may have said human emotions don’t have a purpose in the bigger cosmic picture, but recent horror films have inverted this model to make their narratives more focused on the purpose of human emotions rather than invalidating them.

Recent films such as Starfish and The Endless have leaned into this emotional aspect to create films that use horror as a backdrop to discussions of grief, love, and being human. They have adopted these tropes to create a new kind of cosmic horror that is more contemplative and relies less on gore and more on the emotional effects of being confronted with a maddening unknown. Sure, there are monsters, but they are vehicles for more internal contemplation rather than spectacles around the abject body.

A.T. White’s 2019 film, Starfish, is a prime example of this shift within cosmic horror. The film is centered on Aubrey (Virginia Gardner), who is mourning the recent death of her best friend. In an attempt to heal, she heads to her friend’s apartment to look through her belongings and relish in the memories. She finds a cassette tape labeled, ‘This Mixtape Will Save the World.’ Unknowingly, she unleashes a mysterious signal that opens an unknown dimension that lets a variety of monsters into our world. So now she must collect the rest of the cassette tapes to somehow close this interdimensional portal and save humanity.

But even with strange beasts of varying sizes running rampant, Starfish is not about their consumption of humans; instead, they are tangential to a more meaningful story about a woman trying to feel more connected to her dead friend. Throughout Starfish, transitional spaces are created by the strange radio signals. As she plays songs with the signal embedded within them, she is transported to another place, or dimension. These moments of transportation, while incomprehensible, are used to access a deeper part of her emotions, whether that be love for her friend or shame due to a past relationship. It is only through these spaces that she is able to begin to understand her past actions and try to decipher them. Since her friend is so linked to these events, this also allows her to become closer to her friend in a way. This cosmic event provides a way for their friendship to continue and even grow as she navigates the snowy town to find each of these tapes.

Then there is Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s 2017 film, The Endless. Benson and Moorhead are no strangers to cosmic horror as their previous film, Spring, is a love story meets cosmic body horror. However, The Endless takes a different approach to the genre, opting for the contemplation of brotherhood in the face of an unknown alien entity rather than romance and body horror. Benson and Moorhead play two brothers, Justin and Aaron, respectively, who are trying to live normal lives after escaping a UFO death cult. In trying to continuously pick up the pieces of their life post-cult, their relationship is strained, and mysteries drive a schism between them. It is only through returning to their childhood compound that they can understand their past and somehow start to fix their lives.

Again, like with Starfish, the possible interdimensional alien being is tangential to a larger story about family and reconciling past trauma. As Justin and Aaron wander through the arid cult ranch, greeting old friends, they are also able to recognize the strains in their relationship. Without the potential (and eventually confirmed) existence of some greater alien life, these two brothers wouldn’t be able to heal and understand each other’s actions. Only here can Justin confess to going public about the ranch and telling a few white lies to protect his brother. And only with this confession can Aaron understand Justin’s intentions and what he’d do to protect his brother. It is through the realization of some other form of life that Aaron can realize reconciliation is possible. Sometimes, a giant extraterrestrial being can be a gateway to connection, and not just a pathway to destruction.

These two films open up possibilities and ways to understand our own emotions, especially grief, whether it is for a friend or for a life never had. Grief has always been prevalent in horror films, with the genre playing into the many facets and terrifying aspects of what it means to grapple with grief. So it only makes sense to incorporate grief into cosmic horror, inverting its typical structure into something more human-centric than creature-centric. The unexplainable throws characters into states of chaos and confusion but also allows them to expand their minds and look at a bigger emotional picture.

This isn’t just about their own small insular worldview anymore—there’s something bigger at hand that lets them reassess and try to understand their own reality.

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Author : Mary Beth McAndrews

Publish date : 2019-08-14 21:00:57