Sci-Fi Horror: Screaming in Space

Outer Space and the Future Are Scary

Dead Space video game, (c) EA

Sci-fi horror seems a strange hybrid. Different moods, different goals, different narrative tones. And yet, despite their differences, they go together like chocolates and cherries.

Science fiction works best when it tries to imagine the future and how it will affect us. Horror works best when it speaks about our phobias and collective preoccupations to induce fear.

One is bright, optimistic, large in scope. The other one is dark, dreary, intimate. But somehow they mesh.

Although sci-fi horror is a common trope in video games (Dead Space) and movies (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), it is not as common in book form as it used to be.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, arguably the first science fiction novel, is a horror story about a science gone wrong when a mad scientist trying to revive a corpse using electricity creates a monster.

H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is an alien invasion story and The Island of Doctor Moreau is a story about scientific human-animal experimentation. Both are pure horror.

In fact, space can be scarier than anything found on Earth. Not only is dark and immense, but there are also so many things out there which can potentially kill us.

image from the film Chernolbylite

The human body is not made to survive in space, without gravity and exposed to cosmic radiation.

Moreover, space remains the great unknown.

For all the things we can observe from our telescopes, space is so big, there is plenty we have yet to observe and discover. And we know how humans fear the dark as well as the unknown.

The future, science fiction’s main subject, is also a frightening proposition. Worse, it is in the news daily.For instance,
  • the possibility of a pandemic due to vaccine resistance,
  • robots taking our jobs, nuclear war,
  • AI and computers bringing the end of privacy and governmental control,
  • biological warfare,
  • extreme climate change.

It seems like a recipe for a horror movie.

No wonder dystopias remain so popular. Sci-fi can be frightening even without the horror element.

The Alien as the Monster

Alien image photo,

We previously explored the role of monsters in speculative fiction and what makes a good monster. However, vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghouls, and the sort cannot compete with aliens in terms of the fear factor.

If a good monster is not only disgusting, strong, and something that defies the meaning of ‘normal’.

Hence, what can be scarier than an alien, something by definition otherworldly and more advanced than us. A race of creatures who would be at the top of the food chain and look at us as if we were ants.

One reason people would panic if we ever discover were are not alone in the universe would be the realization of powerlessness in the face of a superior race.

Likewise, if we ever discover aliens, I will guess they would not be the humanoid, kind of cute, or even attractive ones we see in films like Star Wars.

Something evolved in a different solar system and ecology will be much different than us.

Science Gone Wrong

Mad scientist photo from

Modern humans believe in science in a quasi-religious way and hope science can solve all their problems.

However, sci-fi is full of stories full of mad scientists and instances of science gone wrong. It is a common trope. These types of stories have a cautionary tale feel to them.

And yet, the best horror stories are perhaps stories of this kind.

Scientific experiments with unintended consequences, bringing chaos, creating monsters running amok, new plagues, new natural disasters, and new weapons of mass destruction.

Coincidentally, there are two modern human creations, Artificial Intelligence, and robots, which are fast becoming the modern version of the boogeyman.

Forget the old arguments of invasion of privacy or elimination of jobs due to new technologies. The many times predicted singularity and the prospect of robots becoming self-aware are possibilities real enough to induce anxiety and fear in us.

Again, horror works best when it is an allegory reflecting those same fears and anxieties. Like a mirror, we cannot help but stare with disgust.

To summarize, sci-fi horror takes well-meaning scientific experiments and asks, what is the worse that could happen? And then create it.

More than a Setting

War of the Worlds art. Source: El Rincón de Cabal

For sci-fi horror to work, it needs to be more than just a setting. To explain, it needs to be more than a horror story in a futuristic city or abandoned space station.

Likewise, it needs to be more than a science fiction story with murdering aliens. But the setting is important.

Space itself is inhospitable for humans even without adding aliens and robots. It is like an ocean you cannot abandon if you get stranded or in danger. There is nowhere to run; you can only hope for a rescue.

Imagine being in a small spaceship for years if not decades. The sense of claustrophobia, if not cabin fever. All the possible horror stories you can write just from that premise.

Nonetheless, the perfect sci-fi horror story would make the otherworldly elements familiar to the reader and use the setting’s trappings to enhance the danger.

Cause and Effect Stories

robot killing man. Pinterest image

To summarize, sci-fi horror stories are cause-and-effect stories. If this goes on, this will happen. But this will happen in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

For an exploration of sci-fi horror in literary form, I recommend Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954); Max Brooks’ World War Z (2006).

Granted, those two have film versions but remember, the book is always better.

Also, Infected (2006) by Scott Sigler; Annihilation (2014) by Jeff Vandermeer; and Ship of Fools (2001) by Richard Paul Russo.

Granted, every action has a reaction, every cause has an effect, but when it means death, read carefully.

If speculative fiction is about imagining what could be, sci-fi horror is about imagining the worse that could be. As a moral story about the limits of science and the human body.

Reader, are you a fan of sci-fi horror? Which books and films do you recommend?

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March 2023