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Culture, Art, Film

An Experiment in Fear 

When Science and Technology Meet Horror in Film. 

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James Pike

Horror has always revelled in fear of the unknown – something that is so unfathomable even the human psyche finds it hard to comprehend and process. When horror started to merge with the more credible science and technological advances portrayed in films (particularly moving into the 21st Century) the fear on display became more alarming. By creating plausible terrors that echoed current social dread and (on occasion) foretell emerging concerns and anxieties around the technology we use, and the scientific practices undertaken, science and technology has proved to be an effective set-up for the horror and thriller genres.

The science fiction (sci-fi) genre is a relatively broad theme and can be found in a lot of films even to this day. Described as a genre that uses speculative, fictional science-based depictions of phenomena that are not fully accepted by mainstream science it actually covers a large spectrum of what the film industry has to offer – extraterrestrial life, alien worlds, space, robots, dystopian worlds and focus on social and political issues within a futuristic setting are just some of the themes explored within sci-fi – the chances are one of your favourite films has sci-fi hallmarks, the very definition of escaping to the movies. Sci-fi has been prevalent within film since the silent-era – 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) is widely regarded as the first sci-fi genre film that paved way for a plethora of, predominantly budget, sci-fi films (B-Movies) that littered cinema from the 1930s through to the late ’50s.

©Star Film Company

Although many of these featured horror elements, The Blob (1958), The Thing (1951) and The Fly (1958) being well-known notable standouts – all of which were remade into far more effective sci-fi horror films in the ’80s, none were taken seriously as the sci-fi genre was generally considered far too fantastical to warrant any merit.

(Left) The Blob (1988) - ©TriStar Pictures

(Right) The Thing (1982) - ©Universal Pictures

2001: A Space Odyssey - ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

It wasn’t until 1968 when Stanley Kubrick’s classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey arrived that the sci-fi genre as awhole, was taken far more seriously. An absolute landmark in sci-fi cinema, 2001 utilised experts within various scientific/engineering fields within its pre-production to predict future technologies that were so accurate we're starting to see the effects within our own lives today. It also introduced a menacing AI antagonist in HAL 9000, the ship's computer that becomes self-aware and breaks down almost acting as an allegory on our reliance on technology and how it can all go horribly wrong.

The sci-fi genre became very profitable for studios thereafter with Star Wars (1977) becoming one of the most lucrative film properties the world has ever seen. With sci-fi proving that was money to be made, studios started to invest more heavily in sci-fi productions that ventured out of its scientific, technology-driven core narratives and started to sideline the main focus into other genres. When Alien (1979) arrived on our screens audiences were terrified by what they had witnessed – having come off the back of the more family-friendly Star Wars, with elements of slasher and body-horror conventions, Alien almost contradicted Star Wars in every way bringing back fear of the unknown (in this case deep-space) and a serious, urgent approach to its narrative and stakes that were far more plausible than what the public were used to. Alien also revelled in its core sci-fi set-up, offering the viewer subtle exposition on the day-to-day operations of a giant space-freighter which also included a nifty piece of AI called MU-TH-UR 6000 (Mother) that assisted the crew with decision making during the course of the film – Alien is a perfect example on how to meld two seemingly different genres flawlessly. (Image - ©20th Century Fox)

Due to the commercial success of Alien, there was an appetite for more sci-fi horror, with the ’80s literally exploding and acting as a platform for the genre. The aforementioned The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) and The Blob (1988) were all remakes of 1950’s sci-fi B movies, offering a more plausibly scientific approach to the source material and ramping up the gore and body-horror elements to 11 to satisfy the sci-fi horror nuts who fell in love with Alien. The ’80s saw a plethora of sci-fi horror classics such as Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Terminator (1984) and its subsequent sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Aliens (1986), Predator (1987) and They Live (1988) to name but a few, you also need to remember this was the era where the home rental was booming and arguably within its golden age, with a whole host of modern B-movie sci-fi horrors that either bypassed or had a limited run at the box office in favour of rental income.

The Terminator - ©Orion Pictures

The ’90s (to a lesser extend) also saw a healthy run of sci-fi horror output from major studios with Event Horizon (1997), The Relic (1997) and Deep Rising (1998) being personal favourites and hugely underrated creature feature gems. The ’90s also gave way to a hybrid horror phenomenon in found-footage. Arguably the sci-fi elements are scarce to non-existent but the fear of technology – or use of to convey nightmarish visions, are rife within films such as Ringu (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999) which merged modern curiosity to uncover folklore ephialtes – the latter taking the marketing one step further, creating a website dedicated to the investigation into the ‘missing’ student filmmakers which had a lot of audience members wondering if The Blair Witch Project was indeed very real (thanks to casting unknowns in the main roles). Fantastical elements will always remain within sci-fi horror, however for the genre to evolve into something truly terrifying it needed to tap into the collective consciousnesses social fears, something that was relatable to all which Ringu and The Blair Witch Project did so well to set up for films such as REC (2007), Paranormal Activity (2007) and Cloverfield (2008) – some of these had varying degrees of sci-fi and horror tropes but all utilising camera technology within its narrative to capture the terror onscreen. It worked because it was relatable, something any average joe with a camera could capture.

Image - Ringu - ©Toho

The new millennium saw more scientific exposition, better-researched projects that tended to sit very uncomfortably with audiences thanks to takes on social and political sciences. 28 Days Later (2002) – and subsequent zombie films, provided realistic backdrops with broken societies and shady scientific practices that brought down the country (and in some cases, the world) that could easily be emulated in real-life. You also had scarily accurate depictions of dystopian futures – Children of Men (2006) being a standout, not traditionally horror but certainly horrific in its accuracy of broken democracy and atrocities being committed on screen. Not that the hokum of the ’80s and ’90s was lost, it was just more refined for a pessimistic generation. Recent offerings have seen the latest technology take front and centre to conjure up its scares, 2020’s Host was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic (with all its social distance restrictions firmly in place) shot almost entirely on a Zoom call centred on a seance –reactive horror doesn't get more poignant than that, whilst Possessor (2019) shows a shady government outfit who are able to hack peoples consciousness to act out violent assassinations undetected.

Possessor - ©Elevation Pictures

The truth is sci-fi horror is extremely broad, it borrows elements and tropes from other genres and concocts its own entity yet maintains its feet firmly within science. It’s a genre that touches the fringes of other classifications and is constantly evolving along with modern science and technology and what scares the living daylights out of people – it’s quite literally an experiment in fear.

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