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The Essential Elements of Cosmic Horror

Explore the essence of cosmic horror, what makes the genre so engaging and fun to read.

July is going to be all about Cosmic Horror! It is one of my favorite genres, because of the feeling of unease that it imparts. Tension is my favorite emotion to instill in an audience, on stage, or in my writing.

I feel that tension in my life, a subtle, trembling knowledge that not everything is as settled as it should be. There could always be something incomprehensible and horrifying just behind me. 

If you’re in the mood for some cosmic horror right now, check out this short story.

H.P. Lovecraft (noted racist and bigot) shaped the genre with his philosophy of Cosmicism. The philosophy basically denied the existence of God and emphasized humanity’s insignificant presence in the larger universal picture.

I see it as a search for meaning in a universe that does not present any coherent meaning or purpose. Cosmic Horror is a genre of self-reflection as much as mind-bending, face-melting, wet-pant-inducing horrors.

Here are the three essential elements that I love to see in Cosmic Horror. This is not a definitive list, but rather my top personal favorite elements of the genre.

Cosmic Horror = Tension

Yummmmm, gimme that tension. 

Cosmic horror thrives on withholding information until the last moment, and even when the story ends there are thousands of other questions that remain to be asked. 

Mysteries abound in cosmic horror stories, like Stranger Things which just straight up does not give reasons for why the upside-down is how it is. These mysteries from the core of the genre and when these questions get answered, they often rob the story of much of its power.

The mind tries to fill in the gaps with the information at hand, creating a delightful feedback loop of testing various theories about why something exists in the story, or what it actually means. Tension is the backbone of cosmic horror, without which it would just be well… sci-horror? Cosmic spooky?

Inscrutable Beings

I think that here is where Cosmic Horror really shines. The strange and weird entities we encounter, whose motivations are obscure, confusing, or just unexplainable thrive in the genre. It often beats out sci-fi in making truly alien beings.

However, like tension, it can be used to poor effect. Having too much information is just as bad as too little. Sometimes without information — even speculation from a character about the creature — the story becomes muddied and unclear. We can’t really feel the tension building if we don’t understand the danger. 

Similarly, with too much information, the Eldritch Slimemold just becomes goofy. Turn on the light and the monster is revealed to just be a puppet controlled by sweaty men. 

It’s a fine line to walk, and really good cosmic horror can make you look up at the stars and wonder, “do we want to know what is out there?”

Questions and Revelations 

The answer is yes. Yes, we do want to know what’s out there.

The questions that cosmic horror asks are not like other science fiction, where one wonders what the effects of technology would be on society or person. It instead grapples with existential questions of “Why are we here? Why is this world so chaotic? Why are we born and come to be aware of our own death?”

You know, cocktail party questions.

These questions are the kind that I have grappled with all my life and still struggle to understand. What is the point of it all? Why keep on living?

Even if no answers are offered, it’s nice to see somebody in the story try to work through them. Maybe they’ll find something that I missed?

Maybe this time, I’ll look up into the emptiness of space and see the purpose of life reflected back to me.

Or maybe a tentacle monster.

What are your favorite elements of cosmic horror? What about it brings you back for more?

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