Cosmic horror loves a good mystery. Many great stories from the genre rely on the reveal to generate the horror. That realization is often connected to questions around just how powerful we are in an infinite unfeeling universe.
The scope of our lives feels all-encompassing to us who live them, but they are just tiny blips on the vast scale that is the universe. Your life, all the people you know, all the things you’ve ever interacted with will be gone after a few decades. Even the longest-lasting plastics will eventually disintegrate.
So then that leaves us with a second question: What is the point of it?
If we are powerless, then why should we convince ourselves that we can affect the world in any lasting way? Why should we allow ourselves to dream, hope, and plan for a future that will just swallow us and wipe away all that we’ve accomplished?
Terror versus Horror
These two questions: Do we have power over our lives? And What is the point of being alive? Drive the genre. Horror is only as good as the question that motivates it. It taps into base fears around death, loss, and ostracization, but I’d argue that by engaging with our thinking brain with these two questions the genre is elevated from mere terror-making to true horror.
As far as we know, humans are unique in this ability to contemplate their own death and their place in a broader universe. Religion is created in part to answer these and similar questions. Most offer a kind of continuity after death, often reincarnation or an afterlife.
But Cosmic Horror offers a world with god-like beings who have immense power over us, but with no affirmation that we do anything but cease to exist when we die. Just trying to comprehend these ancient cosmic beings is akin to an ant trying to understand a human. We wouldn’t even have an idea of how they perceive reality much less what they want to do in it.
They are more like forces of nature, cruel but not intentionally so. We just get in the way and a dead human doesn’t matter very much to them. Why should it? The scale of time they operate on makes it seem like a human is being born, living a full life, and dying in the blink of the eye.
Understanding through Fear
Fear is the great teaching emotion. More than any other emotion it alerts us that something in our environment is wrong. It motivates us to action and paralyzes us with indecision. It forms immediate and lasting memories that we can recall despite decades of time between the incident that struck fear and a similar one year s later.
Fear is powerful and unless it is seen as a teacher it can control us. Cosmic horror centers around fear and trepidation. The tension that is built int he story is often resolved in a dark and unhappy way. So how, then, do we learn anything from it?
Fear is a blunt instrument, designed to react to stimuli quickly and efficiently. It’s better to react to a broad set of stimuli than it is to wait and assess the situation. Cosmic horror, or really any other horror genre, can impart a better understanding of ourselves and how we feel about our place in society, the world, or more metaphysically, in the universe.
By feeling fear while reading, we can learn how it manifests in our bodies. We can learn what we are afraid of. The stories we can’t get enough of often are the ones that reflect our greatest fear. The question I ask when I go into a story like that is, “what will this show me about my fear?”
We can explore fear through the work, in a safe and experimental way. Then, with some reflection, become better off because of it.