“Science fiction and horror are siblings, twins who have always tried and failed to cut a different figure from one another in the world.” –W. Scott Poole, Dark Carnivals: Modern Horror and the Origins of American Empire
If you find yourself hurtling through the empty void of space, don’t panic. Not because you’re safe—you’re very definitely not safe, actually. Mostly it just won’t help.
Best case scenario, you’re insulated from the void by a foot or two of metal, glass, and finely-tuned life support systems. Maybe you’ll be fine! But all it takes is one loose bolt or a previously undetected software bug, or a crew member who, through negligence or malice or a bad night’s sleep, misses a key warning sign or an important step in the ship’s SOP. God forbid your onboard computer gains sentience and turns off life support in the cryo-chambers.
Worst case scenario, there’s nothing in between you and the void, in which case you’ve got about ten seconds to get yourself back into a pressurized environment (good luck with that). After those ten seconds, you’ll pass out, which is a blessing—it means you won’t feel the excruciating pain of the nitrogen in your blood forming gas bubbles, or your lung tissue shredding from the pressure imbalance. After about a minute and a half, you’ll be dead.
Or maybe you’re on your way to a new world—another planet, with an atmosphere that may or may not be compatible with human life, covered in flora and fauna that either passively or actively want you dead. Even if you get there safely, even if your ship doesn’t burn up on entry, even if your life-support system is state of the art, then what? Unless you’re prepared to spend the rest of your life on that planet (however long that may be), space is still there, waiting for you.
There are relatively few ways for humans to exist in outer space that end well, and thousands of ways that end very, very badly. Human error, sabotage, inhospitable planets, malicious alien lifeforms, yes, but ultimately the biggest threat is the medium itself. As a human in space, you are, by definition, out of your element. If you’re human (and if you’re reading this, I’m gonna go ahead and say that’s a safe assumption), you’re immersing yourself in an environment where you can’t breathe or survive without significant effort and equipment. If you encounter other creatures, they’re invariably better suited to this environment than you are, which means that you’re not necessarily the apex predator anymore. Pray they’re not hungry.
The thing about the void is, that void doesn’t hate you. The void doesn’t know or care that you exist, nor would it know or care if you stopped existing. The void just kind of goes on voiding, infinitely. This is, when you get right down to it, the basic premise of cosmic horror: space is unknown, unknowable, indifferent, and exists on a scale that’s incomprehensible to humans. Its mere existence is enough to instill spontaneous ego death. And every story that takes place there is inextricably linked to that enormous absence.
So how do you tell a story set in space that doesn’t contain at least a little bit of horror? Well, you don’t. Admittedly, as a horror fanatic, I’ve been credibly accused of claiming that everything is horror, actually (even though I’m right and I should say it), but much like the Matrix, once you see how pervasive horror elements are in fiction set beyond our planet, you’ll have a very hard time ever unseeing it.
There’s certainly no shortage of overt horror fiction that takes place in the void (Alien and Event Horizon, of course, and don’t miss S.A. Barnes’ Dead Silence and Ness Brown’s The Scourge Between Stars if this is your preferred mode), but even space stories that purport to be neutral or optimistic have horrifying elements just by virtue of their setting. Take Star Wars, for example: even leaving aside the space Nazis, off the top of my head, we’ve got the Millennium Falcon landing in a cavern on an asteroid that turns out to be the maw of a hungry space worm. We’ve got wampas and rancors and sarlaccs (oh my!), the mass murder of
younglings children, terrifying Force visions in weird caves, planetary genocide, and massive, epoch-defining battles fought mostly by hurling lasers at the other guy and hoping his ship blows up first.
Even in Star Trek, that most optimistic of sci-fi properties, Starfleet officers and crew are constantly dodging one gruesome fate after another. In ship vs. ship conflicts, engineers frequently update the captain on the structural integrity of the hull, a persistent reminder that any breach will end with human lives lost in the cold black (as seen in both Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness). Any given Away Team has maybe a 35% chance of coming back in one piece—the very fact that “redshirts” has become synonymous with “cannon fodder” should be indicative that Star Trek is a lot more horrifying than it lets on. There’s an episode of The Next Generation where Riker, abducted by aliens, has all his limbs amputated and reattached. And don’t even get me started on the Borg.
Space-set stories that hew more closely to realistic fiction aren’t exempt here, either. The ever-present specter of a cold and horrible death haunts Apollo 13, Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and pretty much every other astronaut movie ever made. George Clooney’s death in Gravity is arguably a best-case scenario—if you run out of oxygen, you just go to sleep—but the idea of leaving your lifeless body drifting endlessly through low orbit is its own kind of horror.
But perhaps my favorite example of horror in a mostly non-horrifying property (and a perfect illustration of cosmic horror) comes from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams wrote all manner of frightening moments throughout the series (having your entire planet blown up to make way for a space bypass certainly ranks, and lest we forget, Arthur and Ford even get thrown out of an airlock), but nothing else comes close to the Total Perspective Vortex. It’s a machine that forces your brain to understand exactly how big the universe is, and precisely how small and meaningless you are within it. It obliterates the mind of anyone who experiences it (with one notable, plot-armor-clad exception); in this world, understanding exactly how insignificant you are is, in essence, a death sentence.
Science fiction and horror (and fantasy, for that matter) are asking the same question: what if? Space is infinite and the thing about humans is that our imaginations love to fill a void. What if there’s other intelligent life out there? What if we landed on the moon? But dark, empty spaces inevitably provoke thoughts of what might be hiding within—what if a set of attenuated fingers curled around the edge of your closet door at 3am? What if someone is waiting with a knife in the darkness under the bed? What if that noise echoing up from the bottom of the basement stairs wasn’t just the boiler? What if there is other intelligent life out there, and it wants us dead?
Horror filmmakers use negative space to build tension: our eyes are drawn to the empty spot in the frame, our breath catching as we wait for the killer’s face, the speeding car, the monster appearing from the dark as if it only came into being in that very moment. Think back to The Empire Strikes Back, in that same asteroid scene, when the mynock suckers itself to the empty windshield on the Millennium Falcon. When your story takes place in the void, that negative space is all-encompassing. Anything could come at you from anywhere at any moment. Nowhere is safe. And after a certain point, what difference is there between the fear of what might be out there and the fear of “out there” itself?
Fear of the dark, fear of the void, and fear of the unknown are functionally the same thing. We want to know what’s coming so we can plan for it, we want to shine light into the dark corners and make sure nothing’s waiting to surprise us. But we don’t always have that power—sometimes the environment robs us of that agency, and then there’s a killer waiting outside the bedroom window, a shark materializing from the deep water, a tether snapping and leaving the astronaut spinning helplessly away from their spacecraft. I couldn’t see the threat coming and now the threat has its teeth around my throat.
I never wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, or even a marine biologist. I had (and still have) a healthy sense of self-preservation. I love to look at the stars, but the blackness between them? Well, that’s none of my business.
Emily Hughes wants to talk to you about scary books. Formerly the editor of Unbound Worlds and TorNightfire.com, she writes a newsletter about horror literature and tweets bad puns. You can find her writing elsewhere on Vulture, Tor.com, Electric Literature, Thrillist, and more. She lives in crunchy western Massachusetts with her husband and four idiot cats.