Not Just Aliens: Why Horror In Space Is So Terrifying

Who doesn't love a good space horror?


Two of mankind’s most primal fears are the unknown and the dark. So, it’s no surprise that throughout history the stories we’ve told ourselves have looked up into the sky and pondered (and dreaded) the terrors that could be lurking in the vast, unknown, stygian, depths of outer space. More often than not, those scary stories and films are narratives about monstrous, extraterrestrial beings like the Xenomorph from the Alien series. There are films, though, that have shined a light on the other types of terrors that lurk in space. In this piece, we’ll examine three of them, each from a different sub-genre. We’ll look at how the space setting adds to the film’s tension and refreshed its tropes, as well as postulate the potential of other space-set horror films in that sub-genre.

Event Horizon And The Haunted House

First up is something a lot of people don’t think of when their thoughts turn to space: the haunted house film. If you feel that way then you haven’t seen Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1997’s film Event Horizon starring Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Neill. The film is set in, what was at the time, the distant future of 2047 where exploration of our solar system has become a reality. It follows the crew of a rescue ship, commanded by Fishburne’s Captain Miller, sent to investigate the sudden reappearance of the titular experimental space vessel that disappeared seven years earlier. Accompanying them on their mission is the Event Horizon’s designer, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill).

So, Event Horizon takes the classic legend of the ghost ship/house and uses outer space to amp up the scares. It does that early on by sending the rescue ship out to a remote part of space and introducing a story complication that traps its crew on the spooky vessel. So, the film effectively addresses one of the most troubling questions in any haunted house story: why don’t they just leave the house? In Event Horizon, the characters can’t because the cold, oxygen-free depths of space will kill them.

The Gothic Goes To Space

Event Horizon also refreshes the look of the haunted house film by setting the scares on an incredibly designed spacecraft. Instead of the classic Gothic-style entrance hall, we get a cold, dark, immense space lined with floating detritus and explosives that you just know will come into play later. On top of that, we get a funhouse-style spinning tunnel with spiked walls. It looks like a dizzying walk through a garbage disposal. That walkway leads to the film’s most iconic set-piece: the room with the spinning gateway device. It’s a chilling locale that’s the focal point of many of the film’s scares and central to the mystery behind the movie’s haunting. 

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I don’t want to spoil that mystery here. But I will say the infinite expanse of outer space amplifies Event Horizon’s underlying mystery of “where did the titular ship disappear to?” and gives it weight. The sci-fi trappings of things like the distorted video of the ship’s log also offer up some great ways to unpack the mystery of the haunted ship. You only see a few seconds of footage from that log, but what you see is truly chilling.  Also, when the mystery is finally revealed it’s a neat twist and a great way to tell a truly chilling haunted house story set against a sci-fi backdrop.

Jason X And The Space Slasher

Let’s move on to a film type where the horrors aren’t extraterrestrial or as supernatural. In 2001, writer Todd Farmer and director James Isaac showed how entertaining a space-set slasher could be when they refreshed the formula of the classic Friday the 13th franchise with Jason X. It’s a movie that still engenders strong feelings from much of the Friday fandom. They did that with a story that began by cryogenically freezing the unkillable title character, Jason Voorhees, and then jumps to the far future where a team of archeology students visiting the now-dead Earth find his body and revive it aboard their interstellar transport ship. The vessel also features a contingent of highly trained and heavily armed marines assigned to guard the students.

Jason X has a lot of fun with the absurdity of its setup. But there’s no denying the fact that letting Jason Voorhees run rampant in the darkly lit halls of a spaceship is a fun way to refresh the tropes of a slasher film and make the killer feel even more dangerous. One of the ways Jason X does this is by showing how the title character makes the most of his environment. He lurks in the shadows and quickly dispatches the team of marines in over-the-top and gruesome ways. This shows that Jason is a lot more cunning than people think.

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Interstellar Kills

Speaking of kills, the film has a lot of fun with them. That’s because they use the future environment to the fullest. Perhaps the most memorable kill is when one of the students has her head dipped into a tub of liquid nitrogen and then smashed face-first into the counter. 

Jason X also makes full use of futuristic firearms. They’re deployed against Jason multiple time. One shootout in particular messes up the hockey mask-clad killer in a big way. That leads to one of the most excessive and enjoyable ways futuristic technology is employed in this film; the tiny, self-replicating, healing robots known as nanites. At one point, nanites are used on a badly damaged Jason transforming him into the cybernetically enhanced killer known as “Über Jason.” 

Future technology also allows the film to have some fun with meta-commentary. One of my favorite scenes is when the ship’s holographic entertainment center is used to distract Jason with a recreation of Camp Crystal Lake in the ’80s.

Also, just like in Event Horizon, setting the film on a spaceship means Jason’s targets have nowhere to escape him. At one point the ship is about to dock at a space station, but then Jason takes out the pilot. This leads to a collision that compromises the ship’s structural integrity and oxygen supply. That adds a particularly tense ticking clock element to the student’s already dire situation. What will kill them first? Jason? Or a lack of oxygen?

Horrors of Humanity in High Life

The last film we’re looking at shows that you don’t need really any fantastic or supernatural elements to make a truly disturbing horror film set in space. Claire Denis’ 2018 High Life is a psychological horror film set in space. It blends together Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar with some of the most disturbing elements of a prison film and Robert Eggers’ 2019 psychological horror movie The Light House. Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliet Binoche, Mia Goth, and Andre 3000, the movie follows a spacecraft full of convicted criminals who’ve volunteered for a clandestine experiment. It shows how the cramped, claustrophobic quarters of a spacecraft can exacerbate a person’s inner demons. It also shows that surviving in space means following a tedious, soul-crushing, but absolutely necessary routine.

That’s because High Life is told via a series of flashbacks and present-day sequences. In the present-day sequences, we follow Pattinson’s Monte. He and his baby daughter are the sole survivors on a prison ship. We watch him try to hold onto his sanity and keep the ship together while also being there for his infant daughter. 

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As the story unfolds, we flashback to the past and meet some of Monte’s fellow passengers on the ship. We also slowly learn what happened to each of them and the stated purpose of the ship’s mission. We also start to learn the true nature and agenda of Binoche’s character, the doctor in charge of the experiment. 

So, High Life also emphasizes the claustrophobic, but also the impossibly infinite feeling that comes from floating in space. It shows just how precarious space travel can be and the catastrophes that happen when even the seemingly smallest of systems break down. It also shows how soul-crushing and isolating space can be. On top of that, it highlights the lethality of interstellar phenomenon as we’re shown what happens to the human body when it enters a black hole.

To Space!

If you watch any of these movies it’s clear that setting a film in the inhospitable confines of outer space amplifies the tension regardless of subgenre. It also means there’s no escape from the literal or metaphorical demons besieging a film’s cast of characters. They’re surrounded by the infinite, but trapped in the often fragile structures people have designed to navigate and survive space.

One of the big elements space adds to ghost stories that I think deserves further exploration is the gravity (pun somewhat intended) the setting gives choices. That’s because ghost stories are often about past actions and decisions that still haunt the present. In space, even the simplest of choices can lead to death or other catastrophes. So, setting a ghost story in space makes the haunting feel bigger and even more powerful.

That idea of disastrous consequences also deserves further exploration in space set slasher stories. In fact, outer space is the perfect setup for the classic cover-up or dark secret tales. Think old-school slashers like the original Prom Night, where a masked killer targets a group involved in the cover-up of a past, fatal accident. Space is a place where plenty of fatal accidents are possible. A cover-up is as simple as dropping a body in the infinite void outside your ship.

So, space may be the final frontier. But it’s also a place of infinite darkness. It’s a setting that makes the challenges in horror films, whether that means confronting the monsters that lurk in the dark or our own inner demons, even more powerful and resonant. The perfect horror setting is out there waiting for filmmakers and storytellers to boldly go into that dark frontier.  

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