The Fear of the Unknown: A Discussion on How Sci-Fi can be used to Horrify an Audience…

Warning! Warning! This following discussion discusses extensively my thoughts on the Sci-Fi Horror and so contains spoilers for The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Annihilation and Doctor Who. Read ahead at your own risk…

Horror has always been in some way a big part of Science Fiction ever since the beginning in novels and serials of the 1950s. It’s finding out about the unknown in space that always excites us. Finding a weird alien in our back garden such as in E.T, exploring new worlds across the universe, new galaxies, new civilizations and with that possible new threats to our own planet. With Science Fiction, whilst looking at all the possible advantages that can come through space travel, new technology and better medicine, there has always been the question; what if this all goes wrong?

Sci-Fi has always looked at this exact thing, may it be a modern day fight against an unspeakable alien threat (the usual Doctor Who affair) or protecting our humanity against the cold embrace of new technology we base our lives on. I would like to look at this exact thing in today’s post, although seeing I’ve already gushed the hell out of Alien, I will be using different examples. 


First of which is John Carpenter’s 1982 film, “The Thing”  (the second adaption of the book “The Thing from Outer Space”) following a group of Research Scientists in the Atlantic make contact with a dangerous creature. The Thing is though, this alien doesn’t have a specific form, it shape shifts into anything it touches no matter it be animal or human. To anyone this is a terrifying thought. A menace that could be anything or anyone with the sole intention of taking over the world. The fact that it can blend in so well is utterly terrifying but when you add the element of paranoia and a terrifying form that can kill anyone in sight, you’ve got something even more frightening on your hands. Just check out this clip for example of the Horror in The Thing: 

There you have some iconic imagery, from some of the best special effects put to film, to the great score and set in a snowy wasteland where there is no hope of escape. It’s very similar to films such as Alien but gives us another form of paranoia. Instead of coming into the unknown and being infected by a mysterious creature, it instead takes the form of anything it touches. This could very easily be a metaphor for the Cold War paranoia where America believed spies where living amongst them trying to covert people to Communism. What more of an apt metaphor to add to a film (although based on the book) set in Antarctica. This end with our crew being picked off one by one all to a point where there are only two left although you don’t know if one is the monster or if both are just human. You are only left with the idea and that’s where the great sense of paranoia kicks in. Check out the scene below, although heavy spoilers for the movie:

Similarly you can look at earlier Science Fiction films such as Invasion from the Body Snatchers (1956), a film where the plot is aliens literary taking the place of people across a small town which slowly starts to spread world-wide. There’s always this uncanny feeling that not everything is right, there’s something weird about this town.

It’s the same looking people but there’s something about them that seems off and that in many ways is terrifying, similarly to The Thing. Sure the plot is quite silly but it was one of the first uses of Sci-Fi Horror. Although done better in the remake, I’d recommend this cult classic if you haven’t seen it. It’s silly camp fun but still has a lot to say about paranoia and posses what if aliens tried to take over. We would have no hope, them blending in with ease to into our society, planet Earth and taking it for their own. 


Both of these films are quite similar. They look at what if aliens came to Earth and tried to blend in with humanity. How easy would this be? Could we even survive a threat that could so easily fool us? They also follow an ordinary male protagonist, using their wits to try and outsmart the alien foe but only to barely escape for a brief time. The aliens win, we have no hope and although very high concept is an interesting and terrifying thought. This “What If?” scenario is compiling even from just it’s concept paralleling Cold War paranoia, (which if you’re not familiar with the topic, it was the non-violent battle between Capitalism and Communism after the Second World War). 

To move on, however, I would like to look at the opposite of this type of Horror, although weird body Horror is also popular, I mean who doesn’t love The Fly (come’on I couldn’t turn this grotesque Jeff Goldblum down, look at this beautiful face) is being trapped in an unknown plain with nothing but our wits and no way to get out. 

The Fly - Goldblum

The first of these is the recent film Annihilation from this year, fusing both types of this Sci-Fi Horror simultaneously. The plot is simple, a weird distortion has appeared in Earth after a crashed meteor crashes on the planet which begins to mutate the landscape. This leads for a group of intelligent women from different areas of Science and expertise to explore the area, collect information and find out what happened to the previous crews that went though the area (of course disappearing, apart from one, a soldier and the husband to our protagonist).


What happens is very similar to the last crew, they slowly get picked off, the landscape warping them on the inside as they slowly get picked off, one by one until only one is left. If you haven’t seen Annihilation watch it for free on Netflix now, it’s worth a watch and a one of the best Sci-Fi movies of the last few years.  It looks at the unknown, the unexplainable and shows us a potential example of when our landscape gets warped into something dangerous.

But to simply look at the basic plot is an insult to this movie, it’s really much deeper than that. Annihilation is a Sci-Fi film pure as can be, using the unknown as a form of metaphor. The movie isn’t about be lost in a distorted part of Earth, it’s more so about the Horror that comes from becoming a person that we no longer recognise. The fear of ourselves and becoming what we fear. It’s not about being infested by an alien species, it’s about two versions of our self that can be seen as alien and in a way, that is more Horrifying than a perverse alien or being hunted by an android. 

And finally, Doctor Who is also a great example of doing this concept well instead for a family viewership, often stranding The Doctor and their companions on a alien planet where they have to find a way to survive or solve a problem. Often elements of this allow for a lot of mystery, wonder and sometimes terror, playing on the unknown and the fear that can come from it. There are many notable examples of this I could bring up.

There’s the Impossible Planet/the Satan’s Pit from Series 28 where the Doctor and Rose find themselves stranded on a space station on a planet right next to a Black Hole. 

There’s Midnight where The Doctor gets stuck on a train with a bunch of passengers and a monster that takes the form of anyone it comes across, one of my personal favourites.

Silence of the Library/Forrest of the Dead where The Doctor is stuck in a planet sized library with something more sinister then the Weeping Angels or the Daleks, shadow with the ability to devour anything in sight. 

And not forgetting good old Classic Who, such stories as the Brain of Mobius, a good Gothic Horror with a Sci-Fi spin. 

But, hey that’s enough from me, although I will touch on this topic again soon. It’s a sub-genre that’s close to my heart and I would love to know your personal thoughts on it fellow Future thinkers and Intergalactic travellers down in the comments below…

On Wednesday, set your Phasers to stun and power-up your Warp-drives as we discuss intergalactic travel…until then, “live long and prosper”.

logical as fuckMichael McGrady, Signing off.

2 thoughts on “The Fear of the Unknown: A Discussion on How Sci-Fi can be used to Horrify an Audience…

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