These days we look at science fiction and horror as separate genres, but they are more closely linked than you may realize. Join us as we explore (from a film perspective) just how similar the two genres are, and continue to be.
In 1956’s Forbidden Planet, a massive underground machine is capable of turning your strongest nightmares into reality. In The War of the Worlds humanity faces a relentless and invincible foe which threatens to wipe us out. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s famous computer murders its crewmates – a precursor to the type of murderous behavior perpetrated by robots we would witness in later films such a WestWorld, and The Terminator. If you didn’t know that these films were regarded as classics in the science fiction genre, their plot descriptions may convince you they are horror films.
In reality, the connection between these two genres is more than just a few crossover films like Alien, or The Thing. Science fiction and horror have very deep ties which casual fans may not even realize. It’s not just a matter of frightening plots, stoking our worst fears, or depicting harrowing deaths – horror and science fiction both take a similar approach to evoking an emotional response out of the viewer/reader/listener. In fact, science fiction is as much an extension of horror with modern understanding as horror can be considered a more primal, and provocative version of science fiction.
The genesis of science fiction is widely considered to be the release of Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. While this was a gothic horror novel, it was the first significant release to utilize science as an explanation for fantasy occurrences. Shelley was influenced by her friends’ discussions of popular scientific findings of the day. Until Frankenstein, no one had really tried to provide logic to explain the unexplainable. Gothic horror focused on the emotion and the fantasy – the contrast between awe and fear. It didn’t often concern itself with the ‘why’ or the ‘how’. While Frankenstein isn’t going to be heralded for its scientific knowledge, it did preview a direction of fiction which hadn’t yet been fully realized.
Our modern connotation of Frankenstein is understandably a bit different. Today the adaptations and works based on Shelly’s original novel are all considered to be part of the horror genre. Undoubtedly this is because of how the novel was received and first adapted. At the time, science fiction did not exist, and so the ingenuity of Shelly’s novel could not really be fully realized. Only through the wisdom of hindsight can we connect Shelly’s work to later hallmarks in the science fiction genre such as those written by H.G. Welles and Jules Verne. But even though we may not associate Frankenstein as science fiction in the same way we associate The Time Machine or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, its interconnection with horror should not be overlooked.
Consider other science-fiction leaning horror films to have been released in the 1930’s and 40’s along with the original film adaptation of Frankenstein (which was released in 1931). The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and 1941’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are among the first major film releases to have science fiction elements in the plot. Rather than rely on supernatural origins such as in Dracula or The Mummy, these examples utilized scientific principles to explain the creation/origins of their monsters. The success of these films bred not only a slew of sequels, but of knock-offs who borrowed their most intriguing elements. Movies of the 40’s like The Monster Maker, The Monster and the Ape, and The Mad Monster utilize the “mad scientist” trope, which began in Frankenstein. These types of monster films would yield to the famous sci-fi B-movies of the 1950’s where atomic-age technology would create all sorts of terrorizing menaces. And so interestingly it is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein which birthed science fiction not just in the literary world but also in the realm of popular mainstream cinema.
But you may point out that these were not the only, nor the first examples of science fiction in cinema. Go all the way back to the turn of the century to witness George Meles’ A Trip to the Moon, The Astronomer’s Dream, or Fantastic Voyage. In the 1920’s there are examples like the first adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1925’s The Lost World, foreign films like The Mechanical Man, and comedies like The Last Man on Earth, and The Man From Beyond. These are all great examples of science fiction, but didn’t necessarily move the needle of the genre like the Universal monster films did in the 1930’s. Furthermore, Meles’ films and later serials like Buck Rodgers or Flash Gordon have more in common with the fantasy genres than they do with traditional science fiction.
I mean, as much as we may associate Star Wars with science fiction, it is very much a fantasy film. The focus in Star Wars is an adventure more so than exploring potential outcomes of our social, economic, and technological development as a species. Same with movies like Flash Gordon, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Jumanji. I don’t count them as science fiction. Many modern superhero films like Aquaman, or Doctor Strange are mostly fantasy. But interestingly we have also seen an influx of more scientific reasoning to yield films which are more strongly associated with science fiction such as Iron Man, and Batman vs. Superman. How often is the bad guy in a superhero movie a “mad scientist” type rather than an entity with supernatural powers? Compare the original Superman film from 1978 with Snyder’s Man of Steel and you’ll realize an increase in the use of scientific principles being utilized in plot devices.
The important thing is to realize how fantasy stories eschew the discomfort of traditional science fiction. Science fiction thrives on a conflict between man and his environment. The challenging environment is often brought about due to a flaw in man himself, rather than through unnatural or fantastical intervention. And this is very similar to what we see in horror. A significant percentage of all science fiction at least contains horror elements crucial to the central story.
Both horror and science fiction are speculative, which means at a basic level they both deal with things outside of our normal lives. Instead, they deal with the implications of changes to our current way of life. Like all works of art, their goal is to elicit an emotional response from the reader/viewer/listener. Without being limited by the constructs of the reality in which we view our everyday lives, these genres are able to create more specific, and therefore effective opportunities to provoke emotion. They are able to extrapolate, and embellish our concerns for more effective understanding.
The difference between science fiction and horror is more about how the extrapolation from a base point of reference occurs. In horror, the emotional response is usually one of loathing and disgust. These provocations are usually created in an unexpected, or unfathomable way. Horror preys off of our own insecurities and fears – and nothing is more frightening than something we can’t understand. Science fiction also often provokes a negative emotional response, causing us to feel anger, frustration, or panic. Rather than these emotions being brought out from a place of inexperience, science fiction looks to show us how they come from places we have control over.
Be it our insatiable curiosity of the unknown, or our selfish motivation to protect what we have – science fiction is about cause and effect. The discomfort in true science fiction comes from the realization we can do better, but because of our flaws, we don’t. The terrors of science fiction can be explained, whereas the terrors of horror cannot. Frankenstein is one of the first places in mainstream cinema where the unexplainable terror began to be explained. It realizes the fact that man is responsible for many of his own struggles.
Dystopian settings are commonplace in today’s science fiction, and depict perhaps the most pure version of science fiction possible. In these stories, characters live in an oppressive society. The society functions in this manner out of some sort of fear. Fear may come from the powerful fearing that they will lose control of their status (Metropolis, Elysium, Alita: Battle Angel), fear of groups of people who are different (Divergent, Planet of the Apes), or even sparse conditions driving a fear for survival (Mad Max, Logan’s Run). Dystopian settings are the ultimate example of man creating his own struggle, and science fiction often portrays the protagonist against this environment. Just like in horror, fear is a very important part of science fiction even if it isn’t depicted as directly.
In many ways, science fiction grew because man had reached a point where he could adequately understand the implications of not only his own actions on the world around him, but the interactions of the natural world on man. When Shelly released her book, the word ‘scientist’ had not yet even been coined. Until that time, science had been a philosophical interpretation of the natural world. Chemistry was still a part of the ancient tradition of alchemy, Darwin had yet to establish the foundations of evolutionary biology. Man realized natural occurrences, but did not have the grasp to explain them. For these reasons, much of the natural world was misunderstood, and horror played off of that skepticism. Only as science began to grow did the opportunities for science fiction open up.
Consequently, you can look at science fiction as the modernization of horror. At its roots it has many similarities with horror, but mankind’s improved understanding pushes the branches higher. There is still a point at which we find ourselves peering into the unknown, but it is getting further and further away. Consider how works of science fiction half a century ago may seem dated based on our understanding of the natural world today. Classic horror fiction, on the other hand, is timeless. The effectiveness of horror is not dependent on human comprehension of abnormal occurrences. Actually it thrives on our inability to explain the unexplainable, and further emphasizes that fact by embracing the unnatural.
The point is that science fiction is supposed to be frightening, but it isn’t to the extent or the intention of horror. Both genres come from a place where they want to examine the causes of our fear. Both genres find fear in places of the unknown, but the location of those unknown places is where the difference in the genre lies. Horror finds the unknown in our most immediate perspective. It feasts on our base motivations and drives. Science fiction looks above our knowledge. It follows the strands of our knowledge to locate the loose ends, and exploits them.