Chasing Transgressions: Censoring Excess in Exploitative Horror

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Ever since the introduction of the Hays Code in 1927, films in the horror genre have fought to remain true to the voice of the genre. The consistency in which film creators have chipped away at those codes since their inception has brought us to where we are today; while movies like Hellraiser (1987) have still had to deal with censorship before they premiered, what is deemed excessive or exploitative is brought to new heights with each film that dares to push the limits.

Fully banned in Kansas…

When Frankenstein (1931) was first released, the local Kansas board banned it for the entire state; thousands of unhappy moviegoers wanted access, so eventually, the board relented. The Kansas board bastardized the movie with so many cuts that it, “would have stripped it of all its horrific elements,” which brought the intervention of the MPDDA and fewer cuts (Petley 132). The film standards that were enforced in the 1930s didn’t take into account the production of the horror genre; after wondering where the line would be drawn for a genre that consistently dug further into the dark, it was decided that:

As long as monsters refrained from illicit sexual activity, respected the clergy, and maintained silence on controversial political matters, they might walk with impunity where bad girls, gangsters, and radicals feared to tread.

(Cited in Petley 131)

Those standards wouldn’t last for long. The lines within horror are blurred, humans can be the monsters who don’t refrain from illicit sexual activity, demonic representations within films regularly disrespect the clergy, and have had a tendency to be outspoken on controversial political matters [see Night of the Living Dead (1968)]. Censorship for violent or graphic content was incredibly strict from the inception of the Hays Code until the 1960s when the standards for censorship were relaxed (Petley 130).

With the growing popularity of television sets in the home came tight restrictions for television programs. Televisions made entertainment easily accessible to people in the comfort of their own homes—this created stiff competition for filmmakers. While television standards were stricter, it allowed film production codes to be lowered in order to lure viewers back to the theater with the prospect of seeing something more forbidden. When Hellraiser was first released in 1987, audiences may have been a little shocked at the overt sexualization of pain and violence.

The graphic nature of the gruesome torture scenes cut in between scenes of sexual conquest and that starts within the first fifteen minutes. The mise-en-scène we are given with Julia’s flashback to her affair with her soon-to-be husband’s brother Frank sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Frank appears at the door, confident if not rude and slightly mysterious, drenched from the downpour of rain. He imposes himself upon Julia and we see her in her most innocent and unassuming form—cut to her walking into the third floor attic, a dusty, dingy, room in ill repair, to be alone with her thoughts.

Every inclusion of prop, from the knife that he cuts her nightgown strap with, to the wedding dress he lays her down upon to begin their torrid love affair, is essential to the story. Frank will take what he wants from Julia; having never been with a man who so confidently takes what he desires, Julia falls lustfully into their fervent and passionate, if not taboo, lovemaking. Engaging with Frank atop her pure white gown, sullying her presumable innocent reputation, is at the core of what Hellraiser translates to. Pleasure that feels sinful, Pain that feels pleasurable—two things that, with the Lament Configuration, blend together seamlessly.

The scene continues, cutting from the flashback of the affair to present-day Julia in longing remembrance, and then to her husband as he struggles to move a bed into their home. Frank and Julia climax in the flashback, Julia begins to cry, and Larry cuts himself deeply on a nail protruding from a wall. In these five minutes, we have excess in the taboo sexual act of cheating, the emotional show of Julia’s aching desire for Frank, and the adverse reaction Larry has to his own hand gushing blood. The movie continues on in this manner, unapologetic and all the more entertaining for it—we spend the next few minutes watching the floorboard soak up Larry’s blood and subsequently reconstitute most of Frank’s body.

Pinhead from Hellraiser

Torture Porn and Erotica?

Some people might have found those two scenes to be subversive or even repulsive—some, according to movie critics at the time, found it comical. As if the excess pushed it from a horrifying experience, to a campy overdone joke. I think, when appreciated for the time it was created and given a little benefit of the doubt, it sows the seeds of a completely gratifying horror experience. Any attempt to relate to Julia, one might actually feel sorry for her—she feels as if she’s fallen in love with Frank and that he loves her back. The truth that she doesn’t really take into consideration is that desire and love don’t always coexist; Frank doesn’t actually care about Julia past using her for his own personal gain. We find out later, Frank’s coercive nature leads her to bring back men for him to feed off of and escape hell. Her own selfish desires lead her to assume that once he’s back in his skin (quite literally), they’ll rekindle their love-affair.

Violence and sex have had a tendency to be viewed differently in different countries. Where America has historically fallen back on christian outrage when it comes to depictions of sex (especially premarital sex) on the big screen, violence has been considered more acceptable. Alternatively, as Dumas has noted, countries like Sweden have had the opposite policy (29). People experience an incredible amount of shame and anxiety surrounding their own sexual desires that may or may not be considered taboo within an otherwise moral society—this of course causes an internal conflict for the audience (Dumas 29). What’s more is when Hellraiser’s Pinhead suggests that, “pleasure and pain (are) indistinguishable,” within his realm, it cements the concept of sexualizing brutality.

A certain morbid curiosity has escalated the gory nature of horror films with the release of each new feature. Post 9/11 audiences seemed to be even more desensitized than before—torture porn like Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005) hit the theaters—horror fans flocked to experience the repulsion and anxiety that comes with watching the suffering of others (Pinedo 345). A world where fear and uncertainty were becoming more commonplace, there became a vaccuum for horror. These gratuitous, taboo, excessive movies gave viewers a space in which we were free to be afraid.

Excess turns exploitative when the horror no longer fits around an underlying story, but instead, a story is made to fit around underlying ideas of violence and repulsion. Like pornography that attempts to have a plot—just look at any motion-picture porn parody—exploitative horror like The Human Centipede (2009), I Spit on Your Grave (2010), A Serbian Film (2010), and Tusk (2014) is simply an excuse to showcase gratuitous violence. These films are still liable to be heavily cut (Petley 146-147) and for good reason.

What is interesting is that such exploitative films are defended regularly, but are they films that need to be defended? A Serbian Film’s subject matter is indefensible, yet there are people who try to reason away the infant rape scene by bringing up that it wasn’t a real infant. Regardless of whether it’s a real infant or not, it’s meant to convey the scene in the most realistic way possible so as to instigate a severe repulsion response. It’s even suggested that “the masochistic and sadistic aspects of the film-viewing experience [implies] that viewers get some form of sexual gratification from these images,” (Pinedo 347) which in the case of A Serbian Film is beyond horrifying.

Horror and sex have a long, intertwined history, the eroticization of depictions of violence is nothing new. However, a horror film’s ability to stimulate viewers sexually, “not only draws their attention, but also primes them to react more strongly to other feelings, such as suspense and fear,” (Pinedo 347). In the end, what is considered exploitative or excessive is dependent upon the audience—there will always be those who object, just like there will always be those who call for more violence, gore, repulsion, and explicit sexual content.

Strong reactions and emotions have historically created experiences fewer people can forget. As an example, who can forget the release of Hostel in 2005, where viewers were not only fleeing the theater, they were reportedly throwing up in their seats. If the saying, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” is true—which it certainly seems to be within the horror genre—then these outrageous claims of such violent repulsion created a more morbidly curious audience.

Works Cited

Dumas, Chris. “Horror and Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Primer.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 21–37.

Petley, Julian. “Horror and the Censors.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 130–147.

Pinedo, Isabel C. “Torture Porn: 21st Century Horror.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry Benshoff, Wiley-Blackwell, 2017, pp. 345–61.

Cinema and Television Inspired by Horror Author Richard Matheson

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Many of Richard Matheson’s works went from page to screen pretty successfully–perhaps that’s part of the reason why so many people are familiar with work that he originally penned, but are unaware of the source of the story. After such a long career, one might hope that people would come to recognize your name, but it didn’t seem to bother Matheson, who seemed to only write for the love of writing.

The Films Based on Matheson’s Novels

I Am Legend (1954) is Richard Matheson’s most talked-about novel–it was such a success and inspiration to creatives everywhere that it was even adapted to film three separate times. The Last Man On Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007) all wonderful movies in their own right, just never seemed to capture the concept behind the original novel.

The Last Man On Earth (1964)

The Last Man On Earth (1964) Movie Poster

The dark tale of The Last Man On Earth takes place in a post-epidemic nightmare world, where a scientist by the name of Robert Morgan–played by Vincent Price–is the only man immune to a vampire plague which has transformed the entire population on Earth. This vampire society comes to fear Morgan, as he turns into a monster slayer. As a scientist, he studies the plague and ends up being able to cure one of them, by transfusing his blood into her. This upsets the vampire race and they end up killing him for what he has done to Ruth.

The Last Man On Earth on IMDB

The Omega Man (1971)

The Omega Man (1971) Movie Poster

Considered the second adaptation of I Am Legend to film, Charlton Heston plays Robert Neville, a man who is the only recipient of a serum that made him immune to the germ warfare between Russia and China. This caused him to be the only known normal human left alive and he lives in a gaudy, antique-decorated penthouse in Los Angeles where he roams the vacant city by day and fends off bloodthirsty (read: vampire) mutant scavengers. Eventually, Neville comes across a young group of healthy non-vampires, which destroys the idea of him being the last remaining normal human being.

The Omega Man on IMDB

I Am Legend (2007)

I Am Legend (2007) Movie Poster

The third adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, this attempt at the film follows Robert Neville–played by Will Smith–as the last man on Earth struggling to survive and fend off the infected victims of the vampiric plague. He’s a brilliant scientist who is meant to find the cure to a highly contagious superbug–something he is inexplicably immune to, as we find out later in the film. By day, Neville searches high and low for supplies, sends out desperate radio messages with the hope to find other survivors, and by night he hunkers down in his fortress of a home while attempting to find the cure to the virus by using his own blood in experiments on vampires he has captured. The horde of vampires is more intelligent than Neville realizes, however, and they take vengeance upon him after he captures a vampire woman who the alpha vampire is bonded to.

I Am Legend on IMDB

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Movie Poster




Adapted from Hell House by Matheson, into a screenplay by Matheson himself, four people with supposed extrasensory powers are hired to spend the weekend in a haunted house in order to gather evidence of the haunting.

The Legend of Hell House on IMDB



Stir of Echoes (1999)

Stir of Echoes (1999) Movie Poster

Tom Witzky lives a fairly normal life, he works in Chicago and lives with his wife and son, not believing in anything out of the ordinary. One night, while at a party, Tom and his sister-in-law, Lisa, get into a verbal debate about psychic communication and the power of hypnosis–he challenges Lisa to hypnotize him, so she does. She plants a post-hypnotic suggestion for Tom to be more open-minded and things begin to happen.

A Stir of Echoes on IMDB

Television Shows Inspired by Matheson

Matheson wrote several screenplays, including sixteen episodes of The Twilight Zone, where he could simply pitch an idea and spur an entire episode.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (2002)

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (1963) Screenshot

A salesman is traveling via plane after a recent nervous breakdown–after being told that he’s recovered from his issues–while flying, he begins to believe he’s seeing a monster climbing on the wing of the plane and damaging the engine. The only problem is, is that he’s the only one who sees it.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet from The Twilight Zone on IMDB

Corey Taylor Live with Doug Bradley on Down to Hell

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Corey Taylor will join this Thursday, March 3rd 2022, Doug Bradley’s “Down To Hell” live show as the special guest of the week. Down To Hell originally aired on Twitch through 2021, but since has moved to Youtube, and you can find it at Horror Hub’s Youtube channel here https://www.youtube.com/channel/horrorhubmarketplace

Down To Hell will start Thursday at 8pm EST 5 pm PST. Doug and Corey will take questions from guest commenters and otherwise talk all things horror, metal, and strange.

“Taylor co-founded Stone Sour with drummer Joel Ekman in 1992, playing in the Des Moines area, and working on a demo. He joined Slipknot in 1997 to replace their original vocalist and has subsequently released six studio albums with them. After the first two Slipknot albums went Platinum, Taylor revived Stone Sour to record an album and tour in 2002. His debut solo studio album, CMFT, was released on October 2, 2020, by Roadrunner Records.” — wikipedia.

Corey Taylor wearing a scary mask at a slipknot concert
Corey Taylor Wearing a Horror Mask at a concert

Doug Bradley, known for his brilliant role in the Hellraiser movie series as Pinhead, arguably one of the most intelligent inter dimensional demons, has also tortured us for more than 20 years now. He has been hosting Down To Hell since 2021 and the show has had some of the biggest horror and metal stars on it since.

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Cosmic Horror Movies that Perfectly Capture Existential Dread

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Clinical and consulting psychotherapist, Dr. Paul Hokemeyer tells us that, “existential dread is the terror we experience in our awareness that we are transient beings acting out life on a precarious stage. It’s a phenomenon that’s universal among humans, but that varies in its intensity.” Essentially, existential dread is the result of hyperawareness of our own minuscule nature within our universe. Cosmic horror movies capitalize on this hard-to-navigate realm of insecurity and inner turmoil. When we look too closely or are too aware of something we don’t understand it can cause a break in reality and ultimately thwart our attempts to handle our own mental health. This leads us to a better understanding of why cosmic horror is such a tricky thing to tackle within the horror film industry and why it is inevitably an unqualified success or a laughable failure.

How to Translate Cosmic Horror to the Big Screen

One of the main reasons why cosmic horror writers such as Lovecraft can never hope to be fully realized on the big screen is the intangibility of existential dread. You can’t put a form to it, it is simultaneously within and without our own understanding and it’s something that Lovecraft himself aptly described within the philosophy of his own body of work.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

H.P. Lovecraft

Since the cosmic horror subgenre doesn’t rely solely on jump scares, it’s difficult to really sink your teeth into what is truly so frightening about these kinds of stories. Few movies have been fortunate enough to capture the existential dread that we get from the literary cosmic horror; these precious few examples leave us wanting more. What we end up finding when we delve deeper into trying to understand such an intangible fear, is that the fear arises from within ourselves, our paranoia, insecurities, and the emotions that these things stir up that we are nowhere near prepared to deal with.

The realization of cosmic horror is that there are these unknown, inhuman, races of beings that have inexplicably existed since times before life on Earth could boast multicellular organisms. These beings, creatures, or ancient powers don’t care about us or our existence–we are insignificant and immaterial to the grand scheme of things. This insignificance fuels our fears and results with the ultimate imperceptible terror, the unknown. Fear of the unknown has many succumb to insanity and that’s exactly what happens with the best Lovecraftian literature.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - Horror Movies Poster

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

We have Stanley Kubrick to thank for making the first movie to successfully capture the vision of cosmic horror. His vision met the Lovecraftian horror requirements pretty spectacularly; while critics either hailed this movie as a boring spectacle of lights or a visionary way to explain the cosmos, one thing is for certain–Kubrick gave us a possible view into the future that we could have never before have even tried to explain. This piece is a solid example of cosmic horror that meets both our aspirations of where we could possibly go as the human race and the place we also inch towards with trepidation. Lovecraft’s writing suggested that in his world that extraterrestrials were actually his inspiration for the ancient gods or beings that societies long since passed had worshipped.

Clarke’s writing supported Lovecraft’s creative expression of the ancient ones–an idea further supported by the sequel to 2001: A Space Oddysey which was titled 3001: The Final Odyssey. The only major difference between the attitudes of Clarke and Lovecraft lies within the approach of the aliens towards humanity. Where Lovecraft features an indifferent perspective–as if humans were aphids to their godly prowess, Clarke suggests a far more amicable relationship. What really matters in this narrative though is that Lovecraftian horror elicits an existential dread which is made clearly possible in Clarke’s literary works and Kubricks eventual screen adaptation.

The Thing (1982) Movie Poster - Cosmic Horror Films

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter is considered a master of horror and that’s a fair assessment, in his long career of horror creation he has been the main name attached to some of the most famous and most underrated movies the horror genre can boast about. His first big studio movie came to us in 1982 via The Thing and it’s also a perfect example of cosmic a cosmic horror movie. Almost forty years after its creation and it’s still a classic within this subgenre. Despite initially coming across as a monster movie, when it’s analyzed with a heavier lens, it’s clear that it perfectly fits the bill of something that’s deeper, darker, and far more intangible than just an evil monster. While The Thing (1982) does deliver the monster, it’s the actual form of this invading force that is ultimately well beyond our ability to comprehend.

We never see the monster in its true form, because it’s always shown either in the guise of one of the crew members or in its transformation to its new disguise. The monster effects were considered state-of-the-art in 1982, it may seem like they would be outdated by now, but don’t be fooled, Rob Bottin continues to enthrall us with his ability to both elicit a sense of wonder and revulsion; they also keep us in the dark just like Lovecraft himself thrived on being non-descriptive, choosing to encourage readers to envision their own, “indescribable horror.”

The bread-and-butter of the cosmic horror genre is typically that which cannot be seen, right? Well, John Carpenter gave us all a middle finger when he essentially slapped us in the face with a monster that we can not only see but one that we still can’t give a proper description of. This monster doesn’t behave in a manner that would suggest it’s a creature that belongs to our world, which leads us to believe it’s an alien. Not to spoil anything but it is the main reason that we suggest watching this movie before the prequel, of the same name, that was released in 2011. The monster (alien?) is just the tip of the cosmic horror iceberg; what the creature ultimately represents is the debilitating nature of what it means to have your entire worldview changed forever.

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) Movie Poster

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

Another John Carpenter movie, albeit quite a bit more underappreciated, In the Mouth of Madness (1994) definitely did its job of inviting existential dread upon audiences. Curiously enough, while the audience experiences this indeterminable terror, so does our protagonist; we watch as his reality unfolds around him and he is exposed to the ultimate mindfuck at the end of it all. What is real? What can truly be expected in life when we don’t even know how to cope with the existence of the unknown?

Event Horizon (1997) Movie Poster

Event Horizon (1997)

This classic sci-fi movie takes cosmic horror to a more literal level, by being set in the actual cosmos. This movie is amazing because it functions on so many levels, as a mystery, science fiction, horror, and action movie. The characters on board are sent to discover what happened to the crew of a ship that had been sent to discover parts of the universe and had otherwise been missing in action for nearly a decade. After it suddenly reappears, the question on everyone’s mind is–where was the Event Horizon the entire time?

Pulse (2006) Movie Poster

Pulse (2006)

This movie is where Wes Craven finally took a crack at cosmic horror and even if he didn’t do it intentionally, he still technically did it. While this movie was basically a remake of the Japanese film Kairo (2001), it begs the question of what would happen when technology crossed paths with the other side. While the move came across as simply another American remake of a successful Japanese film, it does still make it to the cosmic horror party.

The Mist (2007) Movie Poster

The Mist (2007)

This movie brings us a psychologically traumatizing kind of fear–the kind that makes you lose faith in humanity and its ability to maintain some semblance of civility and order throughout chaos. What is really terrifying about this movie isn’t the otherworldly monsters which we get decent exposure to, it’s the characters and their inability to withstand the stress of their situation. We see the characters go through an extreme transformation in their two days of being held captive by the mist; at first cooler heads prevail, but constant fear-mongering by the town’s bible-thumping mentally disturbed resident leads a majority of them to demand blood sacrifice to appease the monsters that they believe God has sent to punish them. Classically terrifying cosmic horror that has aged well over the past decade.

The Happening (2008) Movie Poster

The Happening (2008)

This is probably the movie that least represents cosmic horror within the context of this list–since this movie deals with forces that originate on Earth, particularly Mother Nature herself, instead of an ancient being that has come to take over and extinguish our existence with little to no premeditated vision of extermination. It still fits the subgenre though, because of the inability to truly comprehend the forces at work and the feelings that we see the characters experience throughout the movie. Even though we’re left with an explanation of what our protagonists have encountered, we’re also left with this unrelenting feeling that we don’t actually possess as much control over our existence as we initially believed.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) Movie Poster

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Perhaps its the stereotypical creepy gas station attendant, or the lack of accumulated dust on the relics in the cellar of the cabin, or perhaps it’s the pain-worshipping redneck zombies that dig their way out of the ground–this movie doesn’t walk or quack like a cosmic horror duck, at least not at first. If we discount the major hints that are dropped throughout this movie, the entire movie may end up shocking you once it reaches its finality. It stands to reason though, that if you pay attention throughout the movie you’ll be on edge and most notably creeped out by the subtle external influences at work in this complex, comical, and downright terrifying film. In the end, the character’s realization of what is really going on is what sells this movie as a true gem in the realm of cosmic horror. Not only do they go through all of the stages of grief in a twenty-minute span, but they also cross over into the realm of acceptance within the insanity that they find themselves facing.

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The Thing (2011)

Even though The Thing (2011) came out almost thirty years after the original 1982 version, it actually serves as a prequel to John Carpenter’s first masterwork. More is revealed to us about this universe throughout the movie, but it’s almost like this prequel was meant to be watched after we’re already exposed to the monster and already know the havoc it can wreak within a small, claustrophobic, and insanely isolated region. In our opinion, watching this one as if it were a sequel really helps to keep the original mysterious and terrifying. So if you’re planning on watching these two movies back to back, watch this one last.

Prometheus (2012) Movie Poster

Prometheus (2012)

This movie was birthed from a movie franchise with an already extensive history, stemming from the Alien franchise that began its epic journey in 1979. The cosmic horror focus made this move unlike any of its predecessors, which all made their home in the action, science fiction, monster/alien horror, and thriller genres. We get to see the missing piece of this familiar Alien puzzle, but the Engineers weren’t exactly what was expected out of the story. It makes sense that fans of a violent and terrifying franchise wouldn’t be able to relate as well to a story that hinged on a narrative where human beings were simply a test species genetically engineered by an ancient race of beings. As a result and none-too-surprisingly, it didn’t do too well with the main following of the original franchise. So even though Prometheus (2012) was a highly anticipated movie, the fans of the original franchise weren’t too thrilled with this new cosmic horror focus of the overall story.

The Void (2016) Movie Poster

The Void (2016)

As creepy as it is confusing, this movie is a great example of cosmic horror. The creatures smack of Lovecraft’s strange influence, where there is no real ability to describe what they are. This all takes place in a pretty deserted hospital, which is creepy enough if you’ve ever seen a movie with the stereotypical abandoned and haunted medical center. All we really know when we watch this movie is that it attempts to convey the existence of evil things we can’t hope to know or understand and if that’s not cosmic horror, then we’re not sure what is.

The Endless (2017) Movie Poster

The Endless (2017)

If you’re the type that is intrigued by the psychology of cults and their idea of ascension within the context of mass suicide, then this movie is definitely for you. Outwardly it just seems like some kooky people who are looking for a form of validation through their belief system, but then we realize there are indescribable things at work behind the scenes. When we join two of the cult survivors who go back to find out what’s really going on we see that nothing is what it seems and that the mystery is hidden beneath the surface. The dread that we face from this movie is spurred by our need to know what is going on, so we sit on the edge of our seats waiting to see what our two protagonists came to find out.

Life (2017) Movie Poster

Life (2017)

It’s difficult to know whether or not a movie like this exists within the realm of cosmic horror–or if it’s just another alien movie. Here’s the thing though, even though we see the alien, monster, lifeform (or whatever you want to call it) throughout the entire movie, there is no viable way to know whether this is another evil alien, or just an uncaring being that has a predisposition to survive no matter what the cost is to another form of life. A huge part of cosmic horror is that the menacing force within the story doesn’t need to be evil–it just needs to be overwhelming and intangible, or unidentifable. Their trail of destruction needs to make you feel small, insignificant, and easily discarded.

Annihilation (2018) Movie Poster

Annihilation (2018)

If you didn’t quite understand Annihilation (2018) then you’re not the only one, but that was sort of the entire point of the movie. Even though Natalie Portman dominated this movie in her typical fashion, the movie didn’t get a lot of credit for how intensely original it was; perhaps it was because there was no determinable wrap up to the story, but no good cosmic horror story does. While the jump scares and monsters should have lent to it being an instant horror classic, the terrifying nature of what was going on inside of “the shimmer,” and the inability for people to completely understand the grand theme of utter helplessness in the face of something so large and indefinable led to a lot of people saying it was a bad movie.

In the defense of Annihilation (2018), it’s not that it was a bad movie, there are just not a lot of people who understand or appreciate the classic Lovecraftian influences that make this movie such a success. There’s nothing better than a movie that leaves us questioning everything we know about our own existence, that is the very core of cosmic horror. We see the invading force of the movie literally taking everything it encounters in its path and changing it from something we know and can easily recognize to something entirely new and foreign. Neither we as the viewers nor the characters themselves can fathom the existence of something that can literally rewrite how we define reality on our Earth. If you’re planning on reading the book that the movie was based on, don’t worry about whether or not you read it first–the movie and book hold little in common other than the name.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft
Bird Box (2018) Movie Poster

Bird Box (2018)

A movie that was simultaneously successful and a joke in the increasingly nihilistic attitude of today’s world; it earned its status as the most successful original Netflix film in the history of the platform, but it also caused the less intelligent people of society to take the Bird Box Challenge in an effort to take advantage of their fifteen minutes of fame. This challenge like its predecessor, the Tide Pod Challenge ended up getting people hurt and challenged a lot more people to denounce Darwinism in the face of such blatant disregard of responsible action. The social media frenzy that surrounded this movie may have been what everyone was really talking about, but it didn’t detract from the overall cosmic message of the movie.

Like any true Lovecraftian horror story, we see from the very beginning that the horror element of this entire story is the indescribable, madness-inducing truth of the evil they are facing. The perfection of cosmic horror is that the source of fear doesn’t have to be seen by the audience in order to really bring the point home. In fact, the less we see of the source the scarier it becomes, that which cannot be defined or that which cannot hope to be known speaks to our fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown is one of the oldest fears to plague humanity, it harkens back to the days where our fight or flight response to dangerous situations was what kept us alive. This indescribable creature that terrorizes the survivors of the Bird Box universe is exactly what Lovecraft’s cosmic horror is truly all about–we see that just the sight of these creatures creates such a huge wave of existential dread in a person that they literally respond by committing suicide. Those who are already suffering from mental illness just see the truth of what they already know and seek to show their truth to others.

Color Out of Space (2019) Movie Poster

Color Out of Space (2019)

This take on Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space (2019) marks the first truly successful adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing to the screen. The original short story of the same title was noted to be Lovecraft’s favorite amongst his own short stories and can be listened to on YouTube.

Considering the failure of many of Lovecraft’s previous works being translated to the screen, this movie was both highly anticipated and doubted. Horror lovers eagerly awaited to see if it would be a true flop as all of the attempts that had come before it, or if it would actually capture Lovecraft’s vision. This undertaking, Nicolas Cage notwithstanding, was an incredibly solid effort to capture that lovely, wonderful, existential dread that Lovecraft made so popular. The jump scares in this movie are nearly non-existent, instead, we got the frightening tale that we were hoping for in true Lovecraft form.

Curse of The River Serpent – Urban Legend

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

Technically speaking, we as a species have explored more of the cosmos than of the extensive oceans that make up the majority of our planet. Earth’s history is riddled with sightings and encounters of subaqueous creatures both large and small, beautiful and dangerous, and real and imaginary. Whole skeletons have been discovered to prove the existence of immense antediluvian monsters the globe over. While these creatures are in fact proven to have roamed the earth’s waters at some prehistoric juncture, many more fantastical types have managed to bleed over into a myriad of weird and wonderful superstitions. The Curse of The River serpent is no exception.

Urban legends are positively rampant in the United States, largely in sparse areas of vast deserts, rivers, and woodland where superstition is given true space to run wild. One long-persevering tale, originating from the rivers of Tennessee and Alabama, sounds more like something from HP Lovecraft’s most aqueous nightmare than a backwater fantasy. This is the curse of the river serpent. 

 The Coosa River

Coosa River Map home of the river serpent urban legend
By Original: Pfly, using a base map template made with US Federal public domain GIS data;Version 3: John Lambert – This is a modification of File:MobileAlabamaCoosa2.png, which is in Wikimedia under GFDL license., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2065758

The Coosa River, once claimed by the French and considered the “key to the country”, is one of the main areas this particular thalassic oddity has been sighted. A 280 mile tributary of the Alabama River, Coosa River has been a place of rich history since long before the first Europeans visited it in 1540. Coosa Basin contains 147 fish species, oddities such as the painted rocksnail, and plenty of alligator sightings, but it was around 1822 when a great snakelike creature with large fins was first spotted slithering near the banks at Ball Play Creek. 

The Curse of The River Serpent Legend

Columnist E. Randall Floyd described several incidents in a 1993 article in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. According to the article, Buck Sutton was fishing in Van’s Hole when he saw the creature writhing in the swampy shallows. He described the horrible sighting to his friends, only to turn up mysteriously dead a few days later. Since this mysterious occurrence other victims have fallen prey to the serpent’s curse, such as Billy Burns dying in 1827 and Jim Windom in 1829. No records exist as to the actual cause of these perplexing departures, though the stories are evidence enough for many to avoid the basin at all costs.

So is it just backwoods imagination gone wild, or is there something to be said for the curse of the Alabama river serpent? While most tales of sea creatures have been dismissed as sightings of extremely large river fish, fossils discovered in 1834 show a prehistoric whale once swam in waters that existed long ago where Alabama is now. According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the creature was later found by scientists to be Basilosaurus cetoides, or zeuglodon, a prehistoric meat-eating whale found once in the Eocene epoch that grew as long as 70 feet (the head itself able to grow as long as five feet).

Conclusion

Humans are not meant to be underwater, and it is this fact that drives our inescapable thalassic fears. Films like Underwater (2020) and Leviathan (1989) exploit this to great effect, and the possible existence of seventy-foot sea serpents doesn’t help matters much. From the early to mid-1800s, sea serpent sightings occurred with the regularity of UFO sightings today, according to the Geological Survey of Alabama, and it is within the public’s fascination with the uninhabitable that the truth will grow ever closer.

References

Underwater (2020) – IMDb
Leviathan (1989) – IMDb
Car-sized catfish? Supernatural serpents? ‘Monster Fish’ host Zeb Hogan discusses Alabama’s legendary river creatures (Odd Travels w/video, photos) – al.com
Herald-Journal – Google News Archive Search

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