Why Cosmic Horror is the Scariest Sub-genre of Horror
It’s fair to say that all horror is scary to some degree; scaring is, after all, the point of the genre. And there are endless possibilities to the things that can be used to terrify people, from the obvious, like serial killers and ghosts, to the more abstract, like a walking STD. But not all sub-genres of horror are created equal. As obscure as it may be, cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian horror, is easily one of the scariest sub-genres horror has to offer. Here’s why.
If you’re not familiar with cosmic horror, it’s a sub-genre of horror fiction that deals with the fear of the unknowable — the unfathomable. Classic staples of horror like jump-scares or blood and guts don’t particularly feature. Cosmic horror is less about the tingling of the spine, or the shock to the heart, and more about a crushing sensation of dread that slowly creeps up on you, until you’re left questioning your very existence.
Another name for the sub-genre is Lovecraftian horror, named for the American writer, H. P. Lovecraft, who popularised it with his tales of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones — terrifying, impossibly powerful beings who once ruled over the Earth as Gods. Stemming from this, much of Lovecraft’s fiction features themes of madness, of forbidden knowledge, of the sense that life as we perceive it is nothing but a thin gauze over the true reality — a reality that is so unrecognisable and bizarre that it could drive a person mad to be faced with it. One look into the Lovecraftian abyss, and the mind could crack for good.
You might wonder what makes any of that scarier than anything else in horror. After all, Cthulhu is as real as Dracula, and pulling back reality’s veil seems too abstract to be truly scary. But it does make sense when you begin to consider the implications of such possibilities, and that the people in Lovecraft’s stories are just like you and me — living their normal, everyday lives until they stumble upon the awful truth. Who are we to say that it could never happen?
What cosmic horror really works on is our fear of not understanding, of not knowing. It’s part of our nature, as humans, to search relentlessly for the meaning in everything, whether it’s why we chose toast over cereal for breakfast or why we’re feeling low on any given day. After all, we tend to think we’re pretty important as a species — placing ourselves firmly at the top of the food chain — and therefore, there has to be meaning. Otherwise, we’re just another animal, eating, sleeping and reproducing, with no greater idea of the world around them.
We think we’re not like that. We’re refined creatures, making art and music, driving around in cars and not just going off of pure instinct when deciding who we will and won’t sleep with. But I’m sure we’ve all had those moments where we stop, and think, and wonder if it really means anything, or whether we actually have any of it figured out. You know the moments — when you’re staring up into the vast gulf of space, suddenly feeling so small, and wondering what it’ll all mean at the very end.
The thought that none of it means anything is horrifying, and no doubt responsible for a lot of existential crises. If it became real, something we had to face within our own lifetimes, then I’m not sure how many of us, if any, could really bear it. Something tells me that if it came down to being faced with either a serial killer, or the very fabric of our perceived reality being ripped from us, then we’d gladly take the killer every time. I know I would.
Because, relatively speaking, serial killers are a safe zone. Sure, they’re murderous and quite often insane, but in the end, the likes of Norman Bates and Leatherface are still only human. Even those who aren’t altogether human, like Freddy Kreuger, have their weaknesses, and even the majority of monsters have their weaknesses. In fact, when it comes to most horror story villains, the common thread is that they can always be beaten.
As scary as popular horror antagonists can be, they’re all tangible, and the heroes of their stories can often fight back in some way — silver bullets for werewolves, crosses for vampires, exorcisms for demons, and so on. Even aliens, as powerful as they would likely be in real life, are often depicted arriving on Earth only to be thwarted by something as simple as water or bacteria. There’s almost always a solution in horror movies — a way out for the protagonists, at which the audience can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Because horror is most enjoyable when there are safe limits. That’s why most people would rather watch a movie about a family living in a haunted house than live in one themselves. It’s also why a lot of people have boundaries when it comes to horror, things that they just can’t deal with even at a distance. Having the heroes of any given story, horror in particular, come out on top is a safety net for people — the promise that, no matter how scary things might get, there’ll be some kind of saving grace at the end of it all.
But there is no solution or saving grace when it comes to cosmic horror. The problem is quite literally cosmic, a gargantuan threat that can’t be outrun or overcome by strength or sheer force of will. When the very fabric of reality comes undone, there’s no stopping it or sitting down and having a meeting about it. There are no plans to be made and there’s no hope in fighting back. Even if there was some way of returning fire against such a thing, our minds would hardly be resilient enough to take the shock.
Most horror is shown to be like a game of cat and mouse between the antagonist and the victim. But the likes of Cthulhu, or any of the Great Old Ones, barely even recognise us as living things. They see human beings the way we see ants — tiny, insignificant creatures, milling about with no real idea of the world. Just the idea that we’re not the superior race we think we are, that there are levels of reality we can never understand — much like the ants themselves — and that, therefore, all the meaning we’ve ascribed to life doesn’t particularly matter, is terrifying. It’s unthinkable.
And it’s a very human fear. No other creature in the world is so concerned with their own existence, or has the capacity to be. As if cosmic horror wasn’t scary enough, we’re the only species on Earth to know this fear. We are alone in our fear, and that, in itself, is horrifying.
And here’s the kicker; we don’t need Cthulhu or any of the Great Old Ones to rear their ugly heads to understand why cosmic horror is scary. We don’t need to be faced with it to feel that dread creeping up on us. We just need to think, and think some more, and we’ll find that that fear is right there within us, bubbling below the surface, waiting for the opportunity to sink its teeth in. The true horror is in the possibility of meaninglessness — that we are the ants — and I think we all know how real of a possibility that is. After all, the only meaning anything has is the meaning we, as humans, have ascribed to it. Beyond that…what’s left?