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The Haunting of Hill House & The Haunting of Bly Manor: Why You Should Stop Comparing Them (Spoilers)

I feel as if, in general, I’m a pretty easy going person, I don’t like to cause a stir and I generally stay out of heated discussions. After all, I know where I stand on certain issues, so why stress out about a conflicting opinion from someone else? We’re all allowed to have an opinion, that’s our right in life as human beings; unfortunately, a lot of you horror buffs out there have been actively comparing The Haunting of Hill House (2018) and The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020), the two seasons Netflix original series The Haunting, but you need to stop and here’s why:

Aren’t Hill House and Bly Manor Part of the Same Series?

While these two seasons of The Haunting series do have a lot in common, they’re from the same showrunner, they both have some of the same cast, and their names are awfully similar—but I would consider this series to be in the same vein as American Horror Story (2011- Present), Black Mirror (2011 – Present), or Two Sentence Horror Stories (2019 – Present) as they share the similarity of standalone storylines. American Horror Story features a new storyline with each new season, but we saw in one of the most recent seasons that they are intricately interwoven together in pretty incredible ways, but they feature the same cast and same creators—I can honestly say that I enjoy certain seasons of the show more than others, but I cannot in good conscience that I can compare them in any way. Just like Black Mirror has some episodes that have a more riveting storyline than others, as does Two Sentence Horror Stories.

It’s fair to argue that because these shows share a name or even some common elements that they are even remotely comparable. The truth of the matter though, is that these shows are simply the first two parts of an anthology series where Flanagan and his creative team are tackling one iconic horror novel at a time. So yes, while they have similarities, even Flanagan himself has asserted that they both serve as standalone storylines:

The Haunting of Bly Manor is the second installment in The Haunting anthology. We started with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and this follow-up season is a standalone adaptation based on the ghost stories of Henry James. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is one of the most influential ghost stories ever written. What struck me as a really wonderful opportunity for this season was Henry James wrote other ghost stories as well, most of which have never been adaptation. The opportunity to go further into Henry James’ library, to look at some of his other ghost stories, to try to find a way to bring them all together, it was a challenge that we really couldn’t say no to.

Mike Flanagan in Behind the Scenes: From Hill House to Bly Manor

Since we’re seeing Flanagan return as a writer and a director for the opening episode, we’re also seeing the same setting where we get a lot of the same wide shots and creepy ghosts hiding in the background of a lot of otherwise normal scenes. A common question I have seen, in the horror communities within which I lurk, addresses the concept of why they made the second season of this show a completely new story, rather than continuing on with the storyline of The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan had a great response in regards to this when he was quoted as having said:

It was important to me that we told that story to its conclusion in the first season. I didn’t want to cynically repeat ourselves, and the actors didn’t want to either … this frees us up because, in theory, in this anthology format, every season can be its own exploration of another classic piece of horror literature. Actors can stay or go depending on their preference and their availability. That opens it up to a new cast and new chances for existing actors. I love that format. It would be quite a disappointment to have to revisit the Crains. It would rob them of the closure they got at the end of that season.

Mike Flanagan in an interview with Gamesradar+ in 2019

So should you expect to see some of the same characters, or even related storylines in The Haunting of Bly Manor? No, no you should not, since they are standalone stories based on the stories of two different authors, they are unique in that sense. Should you compare whether one is scarier than the other? Also no. Again, these stories are unique from one another, which means the storyline and genres are different. With respect to The Haunting of Hill House, it was adapted from the original Shirley Jackson book of the same name whereas The Haunting of Bly Manor was adapted loosely based around the novella by Henry James entitled The Turn of the Screw, with elements of other short stories also written by James.

Is Bly Manor as Scary as Hill House?

Well, that really depends on how you define the word scary—are you the type of horror fan that likes jump scares or blood and guts kind of violence and gore? Or are you the type of horror fan that can appreciate a deeply twisted storyline that gives you that sickeningly painful feeling in your gut and with each revelation, pulls you deeper into an unsettlingly and delicious feeling of dread?

It seems like everyone with a Twitter account has turned into a TV critic these days and they have been flocking to their social media accounts in droves to talk about how The Haunting of Bly Manor is not only lacking the scares and thrilling moments, but that it’s straight boring compared to The Haunting of Hill House. I guess everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I think they’re missing the essential point that it’s not meant to be the same type of frightening as The Haunting of Hill House. I get it, there are few jump scares in the second season, so those who are more of a fan of slashers and violent torture porn, then they’re not going to appreciate it in the ways that it is scary.

There are fewer ghosts in Bly Manor, and they definitely don’t pursue victims in the same manner as those in Hill House. No, Bly Manor is a slow-burn kind of horror that continued to build over each episode—it fed off of a more intense and intellectual fear that leaves the audience with a feeling of being stripped bare to the unseen forces in the world and a feeling that we are so small and meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Bly Manor is the type of cosmic gothic ghost story that Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft would have been proud to include in their genre of horror.

The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

The Netflix series that debuted in 2018 began, unbeknownst to the fan base it would obtain, as an anthology series with the first season using the famous Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House as inspiration for a macabre and twisted tale of a close yet dysfunctional family. Flanagan of course takes quite a few creative liberties when adapting the book to script, as an example, when he completely abandons Jackson’s original plot surrounding a group of paranormal investigators who have come to investigate ghosts at Hill House. Even beyond that, however, Flanagan somehow takes the tale of a haunted house and turns it into a commentary on how grief and trauma manifest for each of us personally and haunt us the way a ghost might. These traumas that Flanagan addresses within his telling of Hill House come across as impenetrable walls, barriers that forever keep you trapped in eternal, yet self-inflicted pain—Hill House, therefore, becomes a metaphor for how some people escape from their past trauma, where others will be ceaselessly be victimized by it. The difference between the two is a strong support system and the will to overcome—this is illustrated perfectly by Flanagan who shows how the Crain family reacts when they begin losing their family one by one, finally realizing that they have some semblance of control over the final outcome. Their choice, in the end, is to save their family regardless of whether it puts themselves in danger.

The Crain family moves into the dilapidated Hill House; Hugh and Olivia, are the loving parents of five interesting and unique children—Steven, Shirley, Theodora, and the youngest—a pair of twins—Nell and Luke. The parents, set to repair and the flip the house, are less receptive to the baleful nature of Hill House, but as the children explore their new temporary home they become aware of things that they had never before experienced, but that children are uniquely equipped to encounter. The innocence of these children makes them vulnerable to dark spirits, hallucinatory experiences, and the discovery of rooms that simply shouldn’t exist within the house. Of course, the adults chalk this up to vivid imaginations and generalized anxieties, but when their mother Olivia begins to be affected by the house as well, things begin to turn dangerous—but the story is shrouded in mystery, the kind that never fails to pull you back in, and it all starts at the end of a tragedy the kind of non-linear timeline that not only keeps people guessing about what happened, but also how it happened in the first place.

The Haunting of Hill House (2018) Official Trailer

Adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

Shirley Jackson’s original novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) is actually based on four strangers—not a family—and they all come together at Hill House, a house that was long believed to be haunted. These strangers come under the guidance of Dr. Montague, a man who is hoping to scientifically prove the existence of spirits and specters. This horrifying tale takes the reader on a supernatural and psychological thrill-ride as we see the story progress over an incredibly haunted summer for these poor strangers who only wish to uncover the truth. It’s as if the house itself wishes to be left alone in its own misery.

While it’s true that the novel and the show are incredibly different beasts, there are some common elements that translated across the formats. These strangers share the same names as the Crain family, but it’s also true that Eleanor (Nell), the sensitive child in Hill House is also supernaturally inclined within the book. Her sense of the house being evil upon arriving at the house is also eerily similar between the book and the show.

This by no means makes the book and the show any more related, but it does show that Flanagan did take inspiration from the original novel in more ways than just the superficial elements, which is more than what most adaptations can boast.

The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)

The Haunting of Bly Manor is an American gothic romance, which means that it is steeped in mystery, the supernatural, the horrific, and a love story. As noted before, based loosely on the novella Turn of the Screw, but they also took elements from other horror short stories by the same author and essentially crafted their own story with all of the new puzzle pieces. What they created was a tragically beautiful and meaningful love story, that still pulled off the frightening elements that also made it a horror story.

Set in the 80s, Bly Manor houses its own share of ghosts and ghouls—and they’re far from boring, in fact, it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that the ghosts are what elevate these shows from being simple dramas about family, love, loss, and grief. At the beginning of Bly Manor, we see Dani a young American woman being hired as an au pair by the wealthy uncle of two young orphans—Miles and Flora. By the time we introduced to these two adorably tragic children, there is already a sense of things being wrong… we just don’t know what.

The Burden of Our Own Emotional Limitations

We slowly get to know the household staff that are paid to take care of and effectively raise Miles and Flora, in place of their uncle, Henry Wingrave, who is now their only living relative. It’s clear that Wingrave loves the children, but it’s as if he doesn’t want to get stuck taking care of them when he still has his business to run, and Bly Manor has a history of trapping people within. It’s quite a commentary on how we each get stuck in our own lives—not necessarily within places, but in torturous memories, and the grievous emotions that mark the worst moments in our lives. We see that Wingrave is running away from the responsibility of the children in much of the same way that Dani is running from the death of her fiancé, for which she feels responsible, but we soon see that she is haunted by him as he follows her, reminding her of the sheer weight of her guilt. Wingrave too, is trapped by the guilt of his brother’s death, especially due to the fact that he had a lurid affair with his brother’s wife, which may also add to the obligation that he feels to care for his brother’s children.

Wingrave’s personal assistant, Peter Quint, is also stuck—he’s stuck with the trauma he endured from a negligent and abusive upbringing—and despite the fact that he isn’t a terrible person underneath all of that, he comes across as a villain throughout the show. Owen, the cook responsible for feeding the children and staff, finds himself in Bly taking care of his sick mother, who is suffering from dementia, and she proves to be a significant burden on him emotionally. His guilt lies within the fact that he not only resents his mother for her condition, but he also grieves her loss despite her still being present in his life—this is something that anyone who has ever dealt with a family member suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s can sympathize with. Owen too is trapped in Bly, at least for as long as his mother remains alive. The housekeeper at Bly Manor, Hannah Grose is revealed to have died at the beginning of the season when we begin to see all of the pieces of the puzzle realized together as the picture finally becomes whole. He torture in this circumstance is that her life was devoted to holding the family together in the face of wanting to follow her own pursuits, half-aware of her own fate and half-unaware as she is taunted with the fact that she can never leave and live the life with Owen that she so desires.

Regardless of whether or not these people are able to leave the manor, we see them trapped within their own circumstances, they struggle hard to prevail over them, but in the end realize that their fate is inevitable. This brings that hard-hitting, existential crisis to heart; that no matter what we do, we will never win, we will never get what we want, and there is no one who can save us from our inescapable ruin…

The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)

Flanagan touches upon grief in a hauntingly beautiful, by bringing you deeply into the lives of his characters and exposing their psychological trauma to the light of day. We’re not just seeing one person’s struggle as noted in the section above, we’re seeing them unfold for everyone involved. This is what makes the story so tragic.

What is a Gothic Romance?

A gothic romance stories have a strong emphasis on the mood that is conveyed to the audience, it should be suspenseful, mysterious, and thrilling—not something that you might expect with a traditional romantic storyline—but at the same time, it should focus strongly on the romance of the characters. This of course is achieved quite fluidly by Flanagan…

What sets Bly Manor apart is that at its heart it’s a love story. It’s a Gothic romance story. When you look at the word ‘romance’ it conjures up images in your mind. Gothic romance means something very, very different, steeped in mystery and doom, incredibly passionate emotions that swung into the darkness of human nature.

Mike Flanagan in Behind the Scenes: From Hill House to Bly Manor

If we take a second look at Bly Manor, we realize that this is set up as a romance from the very beginning, it’s not something that the story simply took upon itself later in the season—this was a deliberate setup that we see from the narrator at the start of the season. We realize only at the end that the narrator is actually an older version of Jamie, telling the story of Bly Manor to Flora Wingrave and company at her wedding reception. It seems strange that Jamie would be telling Flora about her own childhood, but as we find out shortly prior to this revelation, Flora nad her brother Miles had completely forgotten about what transpired at Bly Manor after moving with their uncle to America. Jamie’s relation of this story to her old piecemealed family from Bly is tragic in many ways—because of a forgotten history that to Jamie is ever-present and heartwrenching.

The theme of love in Bly Manor although not necessarily apparent to those who go in expecting cheap thrills in the generic horror fashion, is peppered generously throughout and is undeniable once the end of the story has been reached. Jamie’s own love story with the au pair Dani Clayton was something that she had previously considered something of a horror story, with all of the tragedy, loss, and subsequent grief from Dani’s self-sacrifice in taking the spirit of the faceless ghost into herself in order to save Flora from certain death.

We see Dani’s past, steeped in guilt from the recurrence of the specter with the yellow spectacles, who we find is the ghost of Dani’s fiancé Edmund. Upon facing their pending marriage she finally has the courage to stand up for what she wants for herself and that denying her own sexuality by marrying her childhood best friend will only lead to a lifetime of unhappiness for herself. Dani’s guilt lies in the fact that breaking off the engagement due to not being heterosexual, directly preceded Edmund’s flight from the parked car and directly into the path of a big rig. Despite not wanting to be married to Edmund, the last thing Dani wanted was for him to die and she takes upon herself the blame for his death. Edmund’s ghost shows up as having blindingly yellow glasses because, at the instant of his death, he saw the truck coming rendering the reflection of the headlights upon his spirit from then on.

There are many other love stories that take place within the context of Bly Manor; Peter Quint, and Rebecca Jessel which is another horror story in and of itself, as Peter is abusive to Rebecca. Translating even after his death by the hand of the Lady in the Lake, when he possesses Rebecca and walks her into the lake so they can be together again, which of course leads everyone to believe Rebecca had committed suicide. The housekeeper Hanna and the cook Owen who develop an obvious fondness for each other after Hannah had already passed away (thanks in no small part to Peter Quint, who upon possessing Miles, shoves her into the well), which leads to broken hearts for both of them.

If there’s one thing that I hope fans take away from this season of Bly Manor, I think it’s that wonderful connection between a great love story and a great ghost story. The two are really the same thing, how each of us when we fall in love is kind of giving birth to a new ghost, something that’s gonna follow us for the rest of our lives. I hope that that intermingling of a ghost story and a love story is really impactful for people, and I think by the end of this season the line between the two is pretty much obliterated entirely.

Mike Flanagan in Behind the Scenes: From Hill House to Bly Manor

Adapted from Henry James The Turn of the Screw (1898)

Although Flanagan wasn’t the first creator to adapt Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), he and his creative team did the best job so far. It was previously adapted for television when BBC produced Ghost Story: The Turn of the Screw (2009), which itself also took a few creative liberties. It’s worth mentioning that this infamous ghost story has also inspired live performances throughout Europe as well.

So while there are valid connections between the two seasons of The Haunting anthology, they are actually standalone presentations that merit a separate analysis, completely removed from the other. I think Mike Flanagan really said it best in this Behind the Scenes: From Hill House to Bly Manor:

From Hill House to Bly Manor – Behind the Scenes

Final Thoughts…

When we finally meet Viola Willoughby, in The Haunting of Bly Manor, the ghost with no face, she goes from being an evil spirit to being a sympathetic character in a way—a woman who in life was beautiful, a good mother, and very much loved by her husband, but stricken with sickness and too stubborn to die. Her sister, who coveted what Viola possessed eventually choked her to death in an effort to take over Viola’s duty as a mother and wife. Viola, still too stubborn to leave the life that she had desperately yearned for, remained as a spirit, locked in a trunk of her nicest possessions, which she had left for her daughter to inherit at the appropriate age. Her sister again covets what her sister only possesses in death, unlocks the trunk, and is, in turn, choked to death by Viola’s ghost. Viola ends up trapped within her own home and over time, her spirit forgets everything except for the one thing that drove her in the first place—the drive to see her daughter and once again be reunited with her keeps her ghost coming back, long after she has even forgotten what she looks like. As tragedy prevails throughout the ages, anyone that has passed within the house is too stuck there with her, forgetting themselves and their own faces as well. So in a sense, the ghosts of Bly Manor do not haunt the living, they are haunted by the living, knowing that they at least have the opportunity to escape from the prison that the manor has become.

I can say with confidence that having experienced trauma in my life, that living a life trapped with sorrow, grief, or a devouring sort of guilt is bad enough, but the concept presented in Bly Manor, where we see that grief breach the veil between life and death, bringing that unending tragedy into eternity. Twist that knife a bit more while you’re at it.

Sincerely, to compare these two masterpieces is to do neither of them justice, as to be appreciated fully they need to be appreciated separately. So when you watch them again, like I’m about to, remember that they were never meant to be compared to one another in the first place.

Works Cited

Chitwood, Adam. “’The Haunting of Hill House’ Creator Mike Flanagan Explains How ‘Bly Manor’ Is Different.” Collider, 28 Sept. 2020, collider.com/haunting-of-bly-manor-netflix-vs-haunting-of-hill-house-difference-explained/.

Flanagan, Mike, director. Behind the Scenes: From Hill House to Bly Manor. Youtube: Behind the Scenes: From Hill House to Bly Manor, Netflix, 28 Sept. 2020, youtu.be/LRE3PzK_vUE.

Hill, Libby. “You’re Right. ‘Bly Manor’ Isn’t as Scary as ‘Hill House.’ It’s Scarier. – Spoilers.” IndieWire, IndieWire, 14 Oct. 2020, www.indiewire.com/2020/10/bly-manor-scary-hill-house-scarier-netflix-1234592826/.

Romaine, Lindsey. “All of THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE Parallels in BLY MANOR.” Nerdist, 13 Oct. 2020, nerdist.com/article/all-the-haunting-of-hill-house-parallels-in-bly-manor/.

Shepherd, Jack. “How The Haunting of Bly Manor and Hill House Are Connected.” SFX Magazine, GamesRadar+, 9 Oct. 2020, www.gamesradar.com/how-the-haunting-of-bly-manor-and-hill-house-are-connected/.

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The History of Psychological Horror

What’s scarier: a fabricated boogeyman, or the realistic pressures of paranoia, guilt, fear, and self-doubt gnawing at your very soul? When it comes to horror all scares are good scares, but when it comes to psychological horror the scares tend to hit closer to home. You may not have a den of devil worshipers trying to steal your baby, but as a parent you may fear for the safety of your child and the unknown dangers that could lurk around every corner. Oftentimes it’s the dreaded anticipation of something happening, rather than the actual thing itself, that is more alarming. 

Defining Psychological Horror

Psychological horror centers around the mental and emotional states of its characters, typically replacing actual physical monsters with psychological terrors instead (madness, paranoia, anxiety, guilt, and so on). And even when the story does contain monsters, it tends to keep these creatures shrouded in darkness so the focus is on subliminal rather than overt horror. In fact, the “monster” is often meant to function as a complex metaphor for the flaws of the character or society at large. The overall effect is an unsettling story that uses internal conflict to dig into the darker, underlying fears of the human psyche. 

Psychological Horror Origins and Development

Illustration from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto showing a man and woman in a gothic castle hallway

Early gothic literature features mentally unstable protagonists and terrifying manifestations of guilt and fear, so it’s no surprise that much of the groundwork for today’s psychological horror was laid in the 18th century by popular gothic writers. Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk are all shining examples of gothic horror establishing and promoting an emphasis on psychological terror.

In the 19th century American authors such as Ambrose Bierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne were instrumental in continuing the fascination with psychological fear. Henry James is another standout author during the time period, whose 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw effectively blends supernatural frights with mental uncertainty. But perhaps no one did it better than Edgar Allan Poe. Pick a Poe story from a hat – from “The Black Cat” to “The Tell-Tale Heart” and beyond – and you’ll likely wind up with an unreliable narrator suffering through thick layers of paranoia, terror, and even mental disorders.

Psychological Horror Films and Books in the Postmodern Age

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Going into the 20th century, psychological horror gained an even larger audience and wider popularity in literature. One notable contributor to the genre during this time is Shirley Jackson, who became a household name with her disconcerting novels of distrust and paranoia such as The Bird’s Nest (1954), The Haunting of Hill House (1959), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Then of course there’s Stephen King, who wrote breakout hits in pretty much every horror genre, but whose novels Carrie (1974), Misery (1987), Gerald’s Game (1992), and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordan (1999) in particular are known for their elements of psychological terror.

Jackson and King really helped propagate the genre, in the stories they wrote but also the numerous adaptations and spinoffs that they inspired. Other fan favorites from the 20th century include William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Robert Block (Psycho and American Gothic), and Thomas Harris (basically anything involving Hannibal Lector). This is also the time period when the “psychological thriller” rose in popularity, blurring the lines and making it more difficult to discern between the two overlapping genres. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari poster from 1920's

The 20th century is also when psychological horror was woven into newer forms of media as well, specifically in movies. One of the very first films that fits into this genre is the 1920 German expressionist piece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with its unnatural architecture, foreboding mood, and unsettling discomfort. Moving forward in the decades, some standout films in American cinema include Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Additionally, elements of psychological horror can also be found in the Italian genre of giallo and the Asian genres of “J-Horror” and “K-Horror” (all of which also have their American remakes, of course). 

Recent Examples of Psychological Horror

The 21st century has only seen an increase in popularity for the genre, as many notable creators seek to tell stories that not only disorient and unsettle, but that include relevant social commentary and complex metaphors as well. In the world of film Darren Aronofsky gave us Black Swan (2010) and mother! (2017), David Robert Mitchell made the subliminal hit It Follows (2014), Jordan Peele elevated the genre with Get Out (2017), and Robert Eggers continues to amaze with movies like The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019). Some newer authors who write in the vein of psychological horror are Josh Malerman, Brian Evenson, V.C. Andrews, Nick Cutter, and Mark Z. Danielewski. And of course there are plenty other examples; indeed far more than there is room for in this article. With these particular standard bearers and more, it is clear that the genre is in good hands.

The Lighthouse psychological horror film poster 2019

In Conclusion

The effectiveness of this horror genre lies in its ability to unnerve and disturb by getting inside your head and messing with your mind, Stories that stand on often shaky narrative ground sound risky, but in actuality this inability to discern fact from fiction (for the character and the audience) is quite effective in its ability to frighten. If you’re looking for a deeply unsettling scare that explores important societal issues while also making you question your very sanity, look no further than psychological horror.

Do you have a favorite book, film, or comic in the psychological horror genre? Let us know in the comments below!

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The History of Sci-Fi Horror from Books to Film

Defining Sci-Fi Horror

Mankind has always looked to the stars as a source of inspiration. The desire to explore and make meaning of the unknown is woven into our DNA. The more we learn through science and technology, the more we look to advance our understanding of both the world around us and the worlds above us. But there is a dark side to all of this. What boundaries are we pushing, and can they be pushed too far? What consequences are brushed aside with each new technological advancement and innovation? What terrors lurk in the vastness of space? There’s a reason the sci-fi horror genre has been popular for decades.

Science fiction horror stories often have a lot of bright-eyed wonder and fascination, but there’s also an inherent or underlying fear. Outer space is wondrous and also terrifying. Though not technically a horror film, you can’t watch Gravity and not be petrified by the cold, cruel infinite nothingness. Science fiction and horror are inextricably linked in many ways, and coming up with an exact definition is challenging because they share many of the same genre roots. Not to mention there’s plenty of overlap in sub-genres of body horror, cosmic horror, eco-horror, as well as in stories of the apocalypse or dystopia. To gain a better understanding of what exactly sci-fi horror is, let’s take a look at its origins, development, and notable creators. 

Origins of Sci-Fi Horror

Though the blended genre has been proliferated with noteworthy entries in the past few decades, the origins of sci-fi horror actually date back to over two hundred years ago. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus shocked the literary world and continues to ignite imaginations to this day, its tale of reanimated bodies and mad scientists spawning countless spin-offs and reinterpretations. Shelley created not only an incredibly influential horror story, but also one of the first real science fiction books. Her “mad scientist” trope fascinated cosmic horror great H.P. Lovecraft, and she pioneered the way for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897), the latter of which sent America into a frenzy during a 1938 radio broadcast because everyone thought aliens were actually invading earth. This just goes to show how genuinely frightening sci-fi horror can be.

Tracing the development of sci-fi horror also means exploring the history of social commentary and political statements, as stories within the genre are often born from societal upheaval and seek to question trends, policies, and belief systems. The film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is ostensibly about aliens taking over the bodies of human hosts, but it’s also a reflection of the cold war paranoia and fear of communism prevalent in that time period. Larry Cohen’s film The Stuff (1985) is campy, gross B-movie fun, but it’s also a critique of capitalism and consumerism. Of course some sci-fi horror stories are created purely for entertainment value. But more often than not they contain social commentary, ranging from subtle to overt, that adds a layer of critical intrigue to the enjoyment. 

Notable Creators of Sci-Fi Horror

dead space sci-fi horror book cover

Sci-fi horror got its start centuries ago in literature, and many writers (such as Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick) have helped it stay a mainstream attraction along the way. Even in recent years there are numerous authors continuing to push the genre in new directions. Some of the more famous ones that come to mind are Michael Chricton, Jeff Vandermeer, Octavia Butler, and Scott Sigler. The genre also has exciting entries in comics (such as Grant Morrison’s Nameless and Rob Guillory’s Farmhand) and video games (Bioshock, Dead Space, Alien: Isolation, SOMA, etc). But the most popular medium for sci-fi horror over the last few decades is unquestionably film.

When one hears the term “sci-fi horror” it will come as no surprise when images of viscous xenomorphs spring to mind. Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise is a staple of the genre. And no article about influential sci-fi horror would be complete without mentioning John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, movies that are terrifying in concept but also in their use of practical effects. To list out all the important movie makers in the genre would be pointless as popular creators are constantly emerging, but some other ones you should be paying attention to are Brandon Cronenberg (with provocative films like Anti-viral and Possessor) and Alex Garland, who has either written or directed such masterpieces as Ex Machina, Sunshine, and Annihilation

In Conclusion

Sci-fi horror is an engaging and exhilarating genre, melding mankind’s greatest hopes and fears into tales that shock and awe. It’s also a genre that is riff for new stories, as we continue to advance modern technology and seek the outer limits of space. The question of “what if” is extremely compelling, and it’s very exciting to speculate what dark and insidious conclusions lie on the other side. From where we’ve come and where we are now, the future of the genre certainly seems to be in good hands.

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The Necronomicon in The Evil Dead Franchise

After Lovecraft introduced The Necronomicon (1927), it traveled far and wide within horror-lore and culture. This book has now been used in horror franchises over the last forty years; in the very spirit in which it was created, it has appeared with the interest of expanding upon a universe that develops something truly ancient and terrifying. Less than a week ago we discussed the origins of The Necronomicon as well as investigated whether or not the book had any basis in reality and we were surprised to find what we did.

The History of the Necronomicon Book (1927)

Essentially an extensive chronology of the origin of the Necronomicon book, The History of the Necronomicon (1927) creates a detailed timeline of a book that floats through time with limited translations; an ancient tome that is understandably considered a forbidden text within the context of its own interesting unknown universe. It created a solid foundation for the mythology that would include the text within each story-line, as not only a prop, but a symbol of darkness, madness, and destruction.

It’s been pointed out that Lovecraft made sure to name drop the book within his stories, so that it would stay ever-present on the minds of his readers, but that it seems to be doing the same with modern culture and not just within horror culture–but we can talk about that later.

That is not dead which can eternal lie…

Abdul Alhazred

The Evil Dead Franchise

Within the Woods (1978)

A franchise that has become somewhat legendary in horror culture started with a production budget of $1,600. Within the Woods (1978) started the franchise and although it wasn’t written as a prequel, that’s what it eventually became. It was really Raimi’s proof of concept short horror film to help to build interest of potential investors, but even though he had cast his friends and operated under a severely low budget he was able to convince a local theater to screen the film with The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the normal grindhouse manner. This initial production inspired a larger budget remake that Raimi also directed, The Evil Dead (1981)

Sam Raimi started something when he developed a story based around Lovecraft’s book and regardless if it was something that Lovecraft would have approved of as far as the content of the story, it did bring a different perspective to the cosmic horror that Lovecraft was so famous for. Then again, that’s what we’re all about here at Puzzle Box Horror, we’ve found inspiration through the works of others and now we want to give other people a place to find their own source to create and be inspired.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Here I continued my research undisturbed by the myriad distractions of modern civilization and far from the groves of academe. I believe I have made a significant find in the Candarian Ruins. A volume of Ancient Sumerian burial practices and funerary incantations. It is entitled Naturom Demonto – roughly translated, ‘Book of the Dead’.

Straight out of a Lovecraft tale, The Evil Dead (1981) features a quote through a tape recording of a long-dead professor.

Within the context of The Evil Dead franchise, the Necronomicon is considered the foundation of the darkness that follows the characters throughout –at one point, The Evil Dead (1981) it even had the working title of Book of the Dead. While it didn’t exactly go with Lovecraft’s narrative that the book was something that could be lost on the shelves of some ancient library, forgotten and dusty, it still provided a much-needed foothold in modern horror culture.

In the movie, this ancient tome actually appears as a kind of abomination as a book bound in human skin, the words inked in human blood, nothing that Lovecraft would have ever dreamt up. Suffice it to say, it’s a memorable look for a book that is said to drive the reader insane–it became quite a cultural phenomenon and seems like it will continue to be one.

Evil Dead II (1987)

By this time, the franchise realized its slightly comedic take on a story about possession and evil as the result of playing a recording of a passage from the evil texts of The Necronomicon. So instead of a serious horror, they essentially parodied their original movie. Regardless of the initial popularity, Evil Dead II (1987) has acquired a quite large cult following on a global scale.

Army of Darkness (1992)

Officially considered the third installment of the Evil Dead franchise, Army of Darkness (1992) was released as another horror comedy, where our protagonist from the first two movies is trapped in the Middle Ages and it’s almost like the third Back to the Future, ridiculous but somehow still worth the watch. The book has a larger role in this film, where it serves as a means of time travel.

Evil Dead (2013)

The Necronomicon has a renewed appearance in the newest remake of Evil Dead (2013), where they stepped up the game in removing the book from its archaic and unholy origins of antiquity to being a prop filled will awful images and obscenities, but it doesn’t come across as a remake, as much as it does a soft reboot and a continuation of the original and not as a comedy, but a hard horror movie.

Ash vs. Evil Dead (2015 – 2018)

This television continuation of the original comedic horror was a three-year run that was filmed for the Starz network, where Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash. It’s considered a sequel, of sorts, to the original trilogy, but was canceled after the third season

Categories
Reviews Scary Movies and Series

The Serpent and the Rainbow: Dissecting the Truth of Voodoo in Movies

The Serpent and the Rainbow Movie Poster
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Even if you’ve never been buried alive, rest assured, this movie cannot hope to capture the terror that one must feel waking up to the darkness and heart-stopping fear of waking up in a coffin, with no possible hope of being rescued. If you have not yet seen The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), then perhaps it’s time—this movie has aged well, at the time of this posting, it’s nearly thirty-two years old, still relevant and pretty terrifying through the right lens. Given the fact that this movie was created in the late eighties, it stands to reason that if it were remade, it could be given new life, it definitely has the potential with a higher-rated actor and better cinematography to be a more nail-biting journey to have a glimpse into what zombification in the voodoo culture is truly about. The Serpent and the Rainbow was based on a book with the same name and directed by Wes Craven—a highly regarded thrill-maker in his heyday—and is given the attribute of being inspired by a true story, which is believable considering the attention to detail that was paid to even the most insignificant aspects of the story.

“In the legends of voodoo
The Serpent is a symbol of Earth.
The Rainbow is a symbol of Heaven.
Between the two, all creatures must live and die.
But because he has a soul
Man can be trapped in a terrible place
Where death is only the beginning.”

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Set during the political unrest of Haiti in 1978, Dr. Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman), an anthropologist turned field-researcher has just come back from exploring for medicinal herbs and plants; he’s hailed as a hero at the biological research company, at which he works because he’s brought back medicines that no one before has ever been able to collect. No rest is given for the weary though and he’s immediately asked to go investigate the mysteries of zombification in Haiti—they have just come across evidence of a case eerily similar to that of real-life Clairvius Narcisse. Christophe was a man who died and was brought back to life. So, Dr. Alan sets off to find this mysterious zombification powder, something his bosses hope to find useful in their medical research.

Surprisingly, much of the lore of voodoo is represented quite faithfully, which has a lot to do with the fact that most of the movie was filmed on location during a time of political and social unrest; the scenes in which voodoo rituals occur, they were actually filming voodoo practitioners who were in a trance state. The authenticity of these scenes sets this movie apart from any other movie about voodoo that is out there, it can’t get more realistic than this without being an outright documentary. The whole movie was based loosely around The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985) a non-fiction book was written by Wade Davis. The author is to this day, an anthropologist who initially made himself famous by his research in the field of psychoactive plants; he was one of the first outsiders to gain access to the secrets of zombification and how the powder was created, which are highly guarded secrets in the community of voodoo in Haiti.

So, while simultaneously staying true to much of what voodoo is about and not intending to create a horror movie, director Wes Craven was somehow able to make the movie a psychological experience that kept it both interesting and entertaining, long enough to get to the meat and bones of the plot. Insights into the poorly staffed insane asylums and the psychological state of a person who had undergone the trauma of being drugged, declared dead, buried alive and then being dug up and made to serve a master, created an environment early in the movie that this entire expedition was going to be a dangerous one for Dr. Alan. Like a well-trained and eager anthropologist, our antagonist goes above and beyond what any sane field researcher would do, finding himself in graveyards searching for a mentally unstable resurrected Christophe, attending voodoo rituals in which he witnesses men chewing on fire and women eating glass, and running into an evil witch doctor, Peytraud, who does not want him to be successful in finding the secrets to zombification. It’s important to watch this movie without any lens of bias, as far as what valid religion and spiritual practice are, it requires people to be open to what is possible when belief in the strange and unnatural is strong and unwavering.

Possessing the knowledge that Wes Craven never intended this movie to be a horror flick, it’s quite easy to see past the dated effects and experience Dr. Alan’s nightmarish visions with the depth of fear that someone that has had the superstition of the land seeded into his brain. With an added element of complexity, Dr. Alan falls for the beautiful psychiatrist who aids him in his journey to the highly sought-after zombification powder, which allows him to be more easily manipulated by Peytraud who later has Dr. Alan in his clutches. The cinematography in the torture room of Peytraud is intense, especially considering the time in which the movie was made, the gore wasn’t a necessary element to induce fear in audiences. We know what is going to happen to our antagonist when we find him being strapped into a chair, with his underwear around his ankles, when Peytraud reveals a coffin nail and tells Dr. Alan that he wants to, “hear (him) scream.”

Dr. Alan drowning in blood in a nightmare
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Not to be deterred, we see the effects that Peytraud has had to Dr. Alan’s mental state, his nightmares and visions get worse—he’s being buried alive in his dreams, he screams as blood begins to fill the coffin and quickly consumes his body. Political tactics are taken to scare Dr. Alan into leaving Haiti without what he came for, which nearly works if it weren’t for his hidden ally who ends up sneaking it to him after he has been forced into a plane that will take him home. Threats of being arrested and executed have been levied on him, which means he has to leave his lover, Marielle (Cathy Tyson), behind despite the danger she would be in for her associations with him. The brief time back in Boston is punctuated with the powder having been researched, which the movie is also incredibly true to its source, noting that the subject would be aware of everything that was going on, while still appearing clinically dead. Peytraud shows himself through magical means, making it clear that he can reach Dr. Alan wherever he may be—his visions have not ceased since arriving back home. Dr. Alan returns to Haiti in order to make sure Marielle is safe, he finds the ally that gave him the powder has been executed for what he has done—this is where things truly turn bad for him.

Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.

Dr. Alan – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

After having zombie powder blown into his face by one of Peytraud’s associates, Dr, Alan stumbles through the village and eventually falls to the ground, pale and apparently dying–he utters the words that the movie is famous for, “Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.” The fear in his eyes is not overplayed, in fact, this part was incredibly well done. After being declared dead in the hospital, we see Peytraud has taken control of his body and is seeing to it that Dr. Alan is put in the grave.

“When you wake up, Dr. Alan—scream.
Scream all you want, there is no escape from the grave.”

Peytraud – The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Before watching this movie, I read reviews of it, so this is always where I was led to believe that the movie ended—our hero, the noble anthropologist, seeking secrets for the future of medicine gets buried alive and that’s that—the ultimate fear of someone who is claustrophobic, meeting their demise in a cramped box with severely limited oxygen. Except, this isn’t where we end—Christophe, comes to Dr. Alan’s rescue when he awakens from his drug-induced trance and begins to scream. In a moment of unexpected vulnerability, Christophe consoles the anthropologist, “You’re alive. You see things the living can’t see. In a daring rescue of his lover, Dr. Alan squares off against Peytraud where he encounters several setbacks and finally overcomes the mind control of his nemesis, defeats the bad guy, rescues the girl, and saves the day. His visions cease and we’re led to believe that he goes on to live a happy and full life.

All in all, this movie has stayed relevant over the past three decades and is highly recommended for being both unique and authentic in its representation of zombies. You’ve got to check this one out!