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THE HORRORS OF SCIENCE FICTION

June 1999
By Paula Guran

If I were to tell you about a movie centering on a conflict between good guys with supernatural powers and evil dudes with similar powers and that one of the big baddies had glowing yellow eyes, the face of a demon, and horns -- chances are you might think I was talking about a horror flick and not Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace.

Rotwang & Robot from METROPOLIS Science fiction is often inherently horrific -- after all, science itself has a dark side. Science and technology have always offered both the shining hope of a better future as well as the threat of various dark dooms. (And yes, I realize that the Star Wars movies are better defined as fantasy rather than sf, but that example aside, you'll still discover at least half the "science fiction" films ever made are also "horror" films -- from Metropolis to the "Aliens" films to Dark City.) Science fictional science creates monsters, raises the dead, creates planet-killing weaponry and diseases, introduces alien threats, and often reflects the fear and anxiety generated by real science. The sf of the last three decades has also played upon the dark theme of cultural decay forced by decadent or misguided "progress" resulting in overpopulation, media manipulation, technological and political dystopias, artificial intelligence run amok, and other bleak horrors.

As Peter Nicholl points out in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, horror in sf is not only intrinsic, but historic as well. What we now think of as science fiction and horror fiction both have at least some roots in what came to be known as Gothic literature.

Horace WalpoleThe latter part of the eighteenth century was dominated by the "realistic" style of literature. The Age of Reason had brought with it a disregard for the "barbaric" superstitions of the Middle Ages. The resulting literature was a rather stagnant form in which the little that did happen revolved around manners and status. In 1764 Horace Walpole, under the pretense his manuscript was actually medieval and that he had served merely as translator, published the The Castle of Otranto. He subtitled it "A Gothic Story" -- using the word "Gothic" to connote a medieval style. Otranto was full of violence, emotion, and the supernatural -- and the public loved it. Evidently, in the midst of all that rational thinking, an untapped fondness existed for the supposedly romantic splendors and overwrought emotions of the Middle Ages. Walpole's ghostly story wove this nostalgia into a plot in which the characters found themselves in, according to the author, "extraordinary positions." Imitators soon abounded and novels similar to Walpole's become very popular by the end of the century.

The Gothic departed from the rationality of the Enlightenment in its rejection of reason and decorum. It explored an unreasonable universe of malevolency, wickedness, and dark perverted desires. Gothic literature was also, at least in part, a reaction to the scientific revolution and dawning of the Industrial Age. Isaac Newton had urged scientific observation and analysis of that observation in order to discover the laws of the physical world. Adam Smith developed the rigorous science of economics. Carolus Linnaeus had classified plants and animals in a logical fashion. James Watt's efficient steam engine was patented five years after Otranto. God was seen by many as a master clockmaker and the universe as a perfectly ticking machine. Gothic undermined the primacy of this machine, exposing the fundamentals of human existence -- passion or and emotion.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley The end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century was a time of political revolution and radically altered societal and cultural perceptions in the western world. Science itself was, for most people, a mysterious new realm full of strange, not fully understood forces like electromagnetism. In this environment Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) in which a young scientist creates life by galvanizing amalgamated dead body parts. The book is certainly a landmark in horror and arguably the first science fiction novel ever written. E. T. A. Hoffman's best known story, "Der Sandman," was published in 1816 and featured the sinister Dr. Coppelius and his beautiful robot (with whom he falls in love.) Other Hoffman stories reflected his fascination with the psychological theories of Emanuel Swedenborg and the "science" of Franz Mesmer's animal magnetism. Edgar Allan Poe, who published in the 1830s and 1840s, was later similarly fascinated with such subjects, particularly the pseudo-science of "mesmerism," and some scholars have termed the entire rationale underlying Poe's work as "science fictional."

Jules Verne's work of the 1860s and 1870s introduced a pragmatic balance to the romance of the Gothic in the science fictional, but the Gothic influence remained as well. Between 1880 and 1930 much of fantastic fiction as a whole was caught up in the supernatural and the occult. Writers like Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bulwer Lytton, Arthur Machen, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others can not be considered as purely science fictional or purely horrific. Even the "father of modern horror," H. P. Lovecraft wrote some borderline sf.

Hugo Gernsback With Gothic images like the alien, the monstrous, and mad science; Gothic themes that include the robot or machine run amok, fear-of-technology, dark dystopias, stories with beings who may be gods or demons or that rationalize the supernatural -- it can be argued that the Gothic is as much a part of sf as the scientific. It is the element that demands that those who would prefer to believe the world is safe and secure realize that danger is always lurking just...beyond. Science fiction is a combination the dark secrets of the unknown -- the Gothic -- with the reasonable light of our need to understand the universe -- the cognitive. And as long as there is a ghost in the machine or an alien threat to fear -- horror will remain an integral part of science fiction.


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