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6 Cults Shrouded in Mysticism and the Culture They’ve Inspired

Throughout the centuries there have been numerous groups–typically labeled as cults–that are surrounded by an unwavering belief in the paranormal or supernatural connections between worlds. These cults have ranged from entirely peaceful to large and lethal movements that claimed lives as they grew in size. Cults like the Manson Family and Johnstown were unquestionably some of the most deadly movements that have popped up throughout modern times. Although it’s fair to say that these particular cults weren’t actually led by true followers of any particular paranormal or supernatural belief system, they had followers willing to die or even kill for one person’s twisted views, religious beliefs, or teachings. We decided to take a look at some of the most famous paranormal and supernatural societies that helped to inspire and ultimately birthed many mystical and paranormal beliefs that still exist today.

Theosophical Society

Blavatsky and Olcott

Madame Helena Blavatsky was a Russian occultist, medium, and philosopher who co-founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. She published her first doctrine, Isis Unveiled in 1877 which outlined the Theosophical world-view which closely associated Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. There are now various branches of theosophical beliefs, though they all hold certain common characteristics. There was a deeper spiritual reality and direct contact with transcending human consciousness; this is known as a mystical experience.

They also emphasize esoteric doctrine, which leads to small factions within the larger name of the society. Theosophists maintain a healthy fascination with the supernatural or extraordinary occurrences to achieve higher psychic and spiritual powers. Finally, theosophy displays a preference of monism, which is the view that reality is constituted of one principle, such as mind or spirit. The Theosophists Society strives to combine all forms of religious, spiritual, and inner teaching of sacred texts; to provide the deepest form of self-connection with the “divine wisdom”.

Order of the Solar Temple

The Solar Temple was founded in Geneva in 1984, tracing its roots back to a break-away group of Knights Templar. This secret society’s leader, Joseph Di Mambro, brainwashed his followers into believing he was a reincarnation of one of the Knights Templar. His daughter was believed to be the “Cosmic Child” that would lead them to a planet near the Sirius star after their deaths. The Solar Temple began doing a mixture of rituals, making altars, as well as conducting occultist acts, and ceremonial sexual acts on its members. Their focus was on the worldwide catastrophe in the form of an apocalyptic event in the mid-1990s. This is what led to famous strings of murder-suicides that spanned a few years; this resulted in the loss of 74 members, the order is best known for this world-wide action.

Heaven’s Gate

Heaven’s Gate focused its beliefs on making it back into the Kingdom of Heaven from their Earth-bound soul deposits. They believe Jesus was the first “prepped vehicle” chosen to lead their followers to the next level and into the Kingdom of Heaven. Now, some 2000 years later their leaders still uphold the task of leading the order in the name of the “father’s’’ original task by combining cosmic beings and Christian ideologies. In 1997 Marshall Applewhite and 38 of his followers believed the Hale-Bopp Comet was the key to leaving Earth and the beginning of their cosmic journey into space and on to their next level of existence. The group committed mass suicide in attempts to free their souls and join their fellow cosmic beings; this led to the cult being front and center of worldwide media for quite a while.

Bohemian Grove

This San Francisco based gentlemen’s club is known for its all-male membership club made up of the most prominent men in the world. Ranging from business leaders, artists, musicians, government officials, and even former presidents; there is no shortage of powerful men within this group. The Grove is particularly famous for holding the Manhattan Project planning meeting in September 1942, as well as being a pop-culture parody–thanks to Richard Nixon. Though on the surface the Grove looks to be another “normal” high society club, many reports have brought out a darker looking side to this group. Allegedly they partake in worshiping a large stone owl called Moloch, burning bodies, Satanic practices, and sacrificing virgins. Throughout the 140 years that the Grove has been operating, their societal values have remained incredibly secretive.

Order of Thelema

Aleister Crowley in 1902

Founded by famous English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, and novelist Aleister Crowley formed in the twentieth century. It is a complicated set of magical, mystical, and spiritual beliefs that can range from atheistic to polytheistic views. Thelema is based out of the Book of the Law, which led Crowley to label himself as a prophet and encourage followers to ascend to higher states of existence to unite themselves with one’s ultimate purpose in life. Followers of the Order of Thelema practice large ranges of magick and mysticism, as their concepts are rooted in occultism; there is no shortage of rituals, spirits, and paranormal experiences here. Aspects of Thelema and Crowley’s other writings gave birth to the development of Wicca, Modern Paganism, Chaos Magick, some variations of Satanism and Scientology.

Cult of Cthulhu and Necronomicon

This particular cult was brought on by the creations of H.P. Lovecraft; originally only a fictional work that featured various cults that worshipped Cthulhu, the destroyer of humanity, and bringing of an era of chaos. Over the years this fictional work has inspired the creation of real cults that combined Lovecraft’s mythology with other beliefs such as Occultist dark arts and Satanism. Most of these groups use Lovecraft’s Necronomicon as a means by which they derived their beliefs and structured their cults. These beliefs combined with the dark arts caused these groups to take on a violent slant, as well as the ritualistic use of magic from Satanic teachings. This has accumulated into the establishment of a little known, yet mightily feared reputation. Lovecraft’s works have inspired many aspects to horror culture of literature, well as horror movies, and is said to be the father of cosmic horror. The cults that use his writings to influence their belief systems are still around today and doing their best to grow in numbers as they prepare for the end of days.

Though these cults or orders are just a few in the long list of paranormal or mystic beliefs, there are hundreds of groups that can fall into this category. Most of them are still practicing their beliefs to this day in one form or another, but surprisingly not all of them are to be feared as criminal or dangerous. One thing they all share is the belief that there is another world across the veil from our own and it can be connected with. Within that connection, they believe we are able to heighten our inner connection to the higher powers we may follow or believe in.

The need to connect to these higher powers in life not only helped masses of people to find a community to belong in, but it also helped to shape government as we know it today and business communities as well. These groups also influenced hundreds of books, movies, TV shows, and a large amount of horror culture to become what it is today–such as American Horror Story: Cult. There is an endless list of examples that can be used to highlight these groups and their beliefs being used to wow us on the big screen and have elicited jaw-dropping horror within each of us. Without the belief in the paranormal and mystical world, horror would simply be stuck in the slasher and gore realm.

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7 Times the Necronomicon Appeared in Cinema

What is the Necronomicon, you may ask? It’s an ancient tome that sprung from the nightmarish imagination of H.P. Lovecraft, which he encouraged his peers to use in their literature as well–subsequently, it has become a book that symbolizes evil in horror culture. It continues on now, as an icon of what can come from the supernatural and occult influences of, what could be, an unknown origin of our universe.

So now we get to enjoy a plethora of movies that all have something to do with the Necronomicon–to be clear, this isn’t an exhaustive list of where the Necronomicon appears within pop-culture, but these are some of the most memorable!

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

This movie never got rave reviews, but it did add to the pop-culture relevance to the history of the Necronomicon. Despite its blatant 1970s style, it has a sort of creepy charm to it. This particular mystery is taken from Lovecraft’s novel by the same name in which Wilbur Whateley, a seemingly harmless young man, coerces a female virgin from a California University to be the vessel for the spawn of the devil. It’s worth a watch, even if it’s just to learn more about what the Necronomicon can do when it’s in the hands of someone who wants to destroy the world.

The Evil Dead Collection

The Evil Dead Franchise

Yeah, we know, the Evil Dead franchise constitutes four movies, a series, as well as a handful of crossover movies, comic books, and more–but we’re going to count it as one for the sake of this list. As far as the Necronomicon is concerned, it is pretty much contained in the four feature films, as well as the television series. This supernatural horror film franchise was the brainchild of Sam Raimi and revolves around the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, which is referenced as an ancient Sumerian text that systematically targets and possesses its victims. Initially, a group of teenagers who are staying in a cabin overnight, in The Evil Dead (1981); the franchise devolves into a sort of comedic horror hybrid, which suits fans just fine.

The Evil Dead Franchise IMDB Listing

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

The ninth chapter of the Friday the 13th franchise, where we get yet another dose of our favorite supernatural psycho, Jason Voorhees. We see Jason return from the dead in order to possesses the body of a medical coroner–so we realize that even after his death, we can never escape the fate of Camp Crystal Lake. This movie is one of several interesting crossovers that appears with Raimi’s Evil Dead Franchise–as the Necronomicon and the Kandarian dagger appear within the movie, very briefly. Here’s the thing though and Adam Marcus confirmed it later on–Jason Vorhees is now a deadite, after his mother made a deal with the devil to bring her son back.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday IMDB Listing

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1994)

This film is a collection of three terrifying Lovecraft stories brought together as an anthology. In the Cold revolves around a scientist who cannot tolerate warm temperatures. The Drowned tells the story of a man who inherits a dilapidated mansion from his uncle. Whispers concerns two police officers who have to deal with a particular resident of a horrifying subterranean community.

Necronomicon: Book of the Dead IMDB Listing

Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1998)

Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft (1998)

This particular movie never made it to the big screen; in fact, the low budget and actors made this a less refined, yet interesting take on Lovecraft’s original creations. We follow the story of a young man who inherits a book–the Necronomicon–from an estranged uncle, and against his better judgment begins to investigate the content of the book quite intently. After reading from the book, he begins to be haunted by disturbing dreams that are reminiscent of the Lovecraft universe, this leads him to become interested in the writings of the father of cosmic horror himself.

Out of Mind: The Stories of H.P. Lovecraft IMDB Listing

The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

The Theatre Bizarre (2011)

This anthology of horror features a myriad of inexplicable and terrifying stories; part spiraling insanity, part supernatural exploration, Enola Penny is obsessed with what is thought to be a long-abandoned theatre. Acting upon her impulsive curiosity, she sneaks in one night and what she finds in that dilapidated auditorium is a show she could have never expected. This show features six different stories and while it might not be a huge part of the story, there is one entitled “Mother of Toads” which is based loosely on a story by Clark Ashton Smith, a colleague of Lovecraft’s. Smith’s stories regularly featured the Necronomicon and this one was no exception.

The Theatre Bizarre IMDB Listing

Color Out of Space (2019) Movie Poster

Color Out of Space (2019)

Loosely based on the short story by Lovecraft, Color Out of Space is possibly the most successful movie to come out of the body of work of H.P. Lovecraft. This isn’t of course due to a flaw in his stories, so much as an inability to capture the cosmic horror sub-genre for which Lovecraft is responsible. This doesn’t follow the short story that Lovecraft wrote specifically, so it can’t be judged based on those merits, but it does capture the essence of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. This movie focuses on a secluded farm that is struck by a strange meteorite, the consequences of which are quite disastrous for the family who lives there with the potential of it reaching the rest of the world.

Color Out of Space IMDB Listing

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A Gothic, Cosmic, and Psychological Lifetime of Horror: The 16 Greatest Short Stories from Robert Bloch

Robert Bloch wrote literature that ranged from the psychologically terrifying to the downright “weird” horror; his inspiration stemmed both from watching his first scary film on his own as a child—and his subsequent nightmares—and his admiration for the stylistic horror of H.P. Lovecraft. His stories, however, are and always will be uniquely Robert Bloch, a genius in psychological horror with a splash of the supernatural. His deep interest in serial killers brought back anti-heroes like Norman Bates and Jack the Ripper.

“The Shambler From The Stars” (1935)

This particular short story first appeared in the September issue of Weird Tales, in 1935—later on, it was included as a part of his first published book, The Opener of the Way (1945). It was one of the many works that bore the influence of H.P. Lovecraft and can be considered part of the genre of cosmic horror. More than just another author following the footsteps of Lovecraft, Bloch still included elements of Lovecraftian influence, such as the inclusion of The Necronomicon, and The Book of Eibon. Deliciously self-indulgent, Bloch’s story is about a writer of weird fiction obsessed with learning all things occult when he looks to find the aforementioned esoteric tomes of forbidden knowledge. As we all know when it comes to Eldritch cosmic horror, this writer inevitably summons something disastrous.

“The Secret in the Tomb” (1935)

Another instance of cosmic horror in the early days of Bloch’s writing career, it has been compared directly to the stylistic literature of the father of cosmic horror himself—to the point that, if the author of this had been unknown, it would have been assumed to have been a product of Lovecraft. This dark, dank tale of eldritch horror and dread is lurking, just beyond sight, and awaiting the arrival of the last descendant of a long line of sorcerers.

“The Mannikin” (1937)

Another Weird Tales original, published in the April edition in 1937, we get a tale of a strange reclusive and a disfigured, hunchbacked man named Simon, whom the locals all despise. As a short story, of course, it doesn’t take long to find that this cosmic horror is based all around the diabolical hump on Simon’s back—just wait until you find out what the hump really is.

“The Sorcerer’s Jewel” (1939)

This is a story that Bloch originally published under the pen name Tarleton Fiske in Strange Stories Magazine, in 1939; in this story we see a similarity to “A Shambler in the Stars” when we follow a photographer who takes incredibly bizarre photos as his life’s passion. While he doesn’t believe in the occult, his assistant happens to be a devotee of a peculiar occult practice and everything changes when the photographer is brought an ancient jewel.

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“Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” (1943)

Over the years, Robert Bloch’s short story “Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper” has been adapted to various mediums following its publication—the story is about a man from Chicago who is approached by a gentleman from England who tells him that he’s looking for Jack the Ripper. This, of course, is strange on its own as the infamous serial killer should have died years before. The Englishman believes that Jack the Ripper has become immortal through occult means and that his serial murders are actually ritual sacrifices that restore his youth. The man from Chicago is enlisted to help to bring the Ripper to light.

“Satan’s Phonograph” (1946)

A slow burn for a short story, this haunting tale follows the narrator down memory lane as he tells the reader about the ingenious, but wildly mad piano teacher that helped him to reach Carnegie Hall—but when the pupil returns from his tours across Europe with his new wife in tow, he finds that his old teacher had been institutionalized—when his insane old teacher shows up in his house with a seemingly innocent phonograph and his wild theories, the narrator believes his teacher is simply delusional.

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“Sweets To The Sweet” (1947)

Bloch spins the thread of a sinister six-year-old girl, following the narrative of the housekeeper as she speaks to her former boss’s brother, who happens to be a lawyer. The housekeeper encourages the lawyer to look into what she believes to be a brutally abusive situation between father and daughter. She tells the brother about all of the signs of alcoholism and beatings, while the child is accused of witchcraft. When the lawyer finally goes to investigate what is happening in his brother’s home, he finds out that the truth may be more disturbing than he expects.

“Floral Tribute” (1949)

An eerie tale of a young boy being raised by his grandmother brings her fresh flowers home every day—it’s not until the inhabitants of the local cemetery come to speak with the grandmother that she finds out that he has been taking them from the graves of the nearby graveyard, where he plays among the tombstones.

“The Shadow From The Steeple” (1950)

Yet another story based in the Lovecraft universe, Bloch starts the story off with the friend of a character Lovecraft had killed in his short story “The Haunter in the Dark” whom Lovecraft had modeled after Bloch himself. A convoluted and dark fictional tale based on Lovecraft and his circle of writers, we get to see the authors appearing as characters of their own making. As another story within the Cthulhu Mythos, we see how involved Bloch was still within the Lovefcraft style even at this point in his career.

“Head Man” (1950)

An interesting spin on Nazi Germany’s obsession with the occult and paranormal, a SS executioner puts everything on the line to keep possession of the heads of a man and woman who had been charged with witchcraft and executed as a result.

“The Hungry House” (1951)

A tale that will once again make you fear your own reflection in a mirror; “The Hungry House” takes place after a couple moves into their new home. As they try to get comfortable in their new house they begin to see spooky inexplicable reflections around the house and dismiss it as being an overactive imagination. It’s not until the husband finds the locked closet in the attic that they realize something is incredibly wrong with their house—in it are all of the mirrors that the previous owners had removed from the walls of the house.

“Notebook Found in an Abandoned House” (1951)

This story is told from a notebook found in an abandoned house, which was written by a twelve-year-old boy by the name of Willy Osborne who is trapped within the house by the sinister beasts, or “them ones,” that stalk him from within the woods and swamps that surround the house. “Them ones,” that Willy is scared might come and get him are monstrous, Lovecraftian elder creatures who used to be take sacrifices to be appeased.

“The Light-House” (1953)

This particular short story took special influence from a story that Edgar Allan Poe began before his death in 1849, but was never able to finish; in 1953 Bloch took this unfinished short story, finished it, polished it up, and then had it published. As such, it is considered a posthumous collaboration. It follows the pursuits of a nobleman who takes a job as a lighthouse keeper, so he may write in solitude. His loneliness gets the better of him in this weird and satisfyingly dark tale, when he tries to psychically summon a companion.

“House of the Hatchet” (1955)

A couple with a relationship on the rocks decides to take their a second honeymoon on the road—on their trip they end up stopping at a haunted tourist attraction, where the story goes that a husband had killed his wife with a hatchet in one of the rooms. When they decided to take a tour of this haunted house, the husband begins to feel a heavy dark presence in the room where the murder was said to have occurred…

“Terror In Cut Throat Cove” (1958)

Considered a horror adventure tale, “Terror In Cut Throat Cove” follows the tale of an American writer who is approached by a treasure-hunting duo; they end up recruiting him to help them locate this long-lost legendary ship that sunk with a massive fortune aboard because the writer has an undeniable fondness for the girlfriend of the treasure hunter. A crazy adventure ensues until they find the ship and one of the divers returns from the ship’s wreckage without his head.

“The Animal Fair” (1971)

This story of a drifter who ends up in the small town of Medley, Oklahoma while the carnival is in town—where he enters the a tent that houses a gorilla who happens to be the main attraction—not to mention seriously abused by his trainer. This horrifying weird tale ends in a shocking twist and is well worth the read.

Works Cited:

Cowan, Matt. “FIFTEEN HORROR TALES BY ROBERT BLOCH.” Horror Delve, 4 Apr. 2016, horrordelve.com/2016/04/04/robert-bloch/.

HorrorBabble. “The Shambler from the Stars” by Robert Bloch. Youtube/”The Shambler from the Stars” by Robert Bloch, HorrorBabble, 12 Mar. 2018, youtu.be/0Q6xA0f9SNk.

HorrorBabble. “The Secret in the Tomb” by Robert Bloch. Youtube/”The Secret in the Tomb” by Robert Bloch, HorrorBabble, 20 Aug. 2018, youtu.be/vodqchPxgCoyoutu.be/vodqchPxgCo.

Thomas, G. W. “The Early Robert Bloch.” Dark Worlds Quarterly, 6 Aug. 2020, darkworldsquarterly.gwthomas.org/the-early-robert-bloch/.

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A Lovecraftian Life and Death

Known as the Father of Cosmic Horror, H.P. Lovecraft only lived for forty-six short years. What he was able to accomplish in his lifetime, however, was enough to change the tides of an entire genre.

A Visionary from an Early Age

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in the late summer of 1890, to Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft and Winfield Scott Lovecraft, in Providence, Rhode Island. As a child of three, his father suffered from a nervous breakdown and was sent to Butler Hospital, where he remained in residence for five years until his death in the summer of 1898. Unaware of his father’s mental condition, Lovecraft was told that his father was paralyzed and comatose, but surviving medical records show that his father actually died of paresis—a form of neurosyphilis.

Following the death of his father, Lovecraft was brought up by his mother, two aunts, and grandfather—who had him reciting poetry at two, reading at three, and writing at six or seven years of age, having recognized his advanced intelligence. By the age of five, he had proven his penchant for the creative, fantastical, and mythological, eventually using these influences to inspire his own literary works. His oldest surviving work came when he was a young boy of seven, having paraphrased the Odyssey into rhyming verse in his 1897, “The Poem of Ulysses.” His grandfather played a large role in Lovecraft’s strange gothic sense of fantasy, encouraging him to pursue his weird flights of fantasy into the realm of horror.

Due to numerous childhood afflictions, including some instances of psychological troubles, Lovecraft’s attendance at school was never consistent—he spent much of his youth studying independently, favoring chemistry and astronomy over all else. As far as works of fiction, Edgar Allan Poe served as the inspiration for much of Lovecraft’s dark and imaginative creations. Despite his diminished ability to socialize, he was still able to create and maintain a number of significant friendships with his peers when he attended Hope High School, through his self-published hectograph journals. These journals, The Scientific Gazette (1899–1907) and The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy (1903–07) garnered him his peer’s encouragement to write outside of his home. Unfortunately, in 1908 Lovecraft suffered from a nervous breakdown and never received his diploma. His inability to graduate high school and be admitted into Brown University would be a source of great shame to Lovecraft later in life

This breakdown led Lovecraft to become somewhat of a hermit for several years—exacerbated by the death of his grandfather and their consequential financial ruin—he would stay up late studying, reading, and writing poetry, then sleeping late into the day. Even though he managed to publish articles on astronomy in several newspapers, Lovecraft went through a difficult time after losing his childhood home, as well as the compulsive love-hate relationship he had with his mother, so he regularly contemplated suicide.

From Isolation to Notoriety

Emerging from his need for isolation in 1913, like an internet troll emerges when they see something online that drives them absolutely crazy, Lovecraft wrote an entire letter in verse to Fred Jackson as an affront. He joined the United Amateur Press Association in 1914, which is where his amateur journalism career began, leading him to launch his self-published magazine The Conservative in 1915. It would be safe to say that these opportunities launched Lovecraft’s entire career out from within the pit of his own self-pity.

H.P. Lovecraft (1915)
H.P. Lovecraft (1915)

“In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be… With the advent of the United I obtained a renewal to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening world.”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

It only took two more years of his life before he once again delved into his fictional worlds—in the summer of 1917, Lovecraft easily produced “The Tomb,” as well as “Dagon,” which were two shorter stories that he owed to his passion for fiction. The dark edgy tales of Edgar Allan Poe and fantasy tales of Irish author Lord Dunsany, which inspired some of his earlier fiction pieces.

I will tell only of the lone tomb in the darkest of the hillside thickets; the deserted tomb of the Hydes, an old and exalted family whose last direct descendant had been laid within its black recesses many decades before my birth.

The Tomb”, June 1917 by Howard Phillips Lovecraft

It was around this time that his mother’s own mental and physical deterioration began to really affect her and after her own nervous breakdown in 1919, she was admitted to Butler Hospital—the same hospital Lovecraft’s father had been committed to and subsequently died in. Only two years later a failed operation caused the death of his mother and in spite of his devastation, Lovecraft recovered enough to meet his future wife a few weeks later. In 1923, the horror magazine Weird Tales paid Lovecraft for his stories, which was his first paid gig as a writer. When he married Sonia Greene in 1924, they moved to New York for two years, but the marriage soon failed and Lovecraft returned to Rhode Island where he began working on his most renowned stories. Just two years after splitting up with his wife, “The Call of Cthulhu,” came out in the Weird Tales magazine, which was the first piece that really helped make a name for Lovecraft as an author of otherworldly horror.

The Death of a Legendary Horror Writer

I am essentially a recluse who will have very little to do with people wherever he may be. I think that most people only make me nervous – that only by accident, and in extremely small quantities, would I ever be likely to come across people who wouldn’t.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, 1926
Tombstone of H.P. Lovecraft
Tombstone of H.P. Lovecraft

The last decade of his life was spent creating what is now known as his classics, having found a niche for himself as an author of weird horror fiction, and prolific writer-of-letters. The last few years of his life, in particular, were incredibly strenuous for Lovecraft, beginning with the death of one of his aunts in 1932, from there his writing became largely too complex to sell to a normal reader. At this part of his career, he began to attempt a career solely editing, as well as ghostwriting stories, poetry, and non-fiction—no longer even trying to sell his own original creations. The suicide of a close friend brought him depression, but it was ultimately his own incurable illness that would bring Lovecraft’s final days. In the winter of 1936, Lovecraft’s intestinal cancer caused him pain that increased on a daily basis and eventually he had taken himself to the hospital where he died five days later, on March 15, 1937.

Like many other underappreciated artists of his age, Lovecraft has gained a far greater following after death than he ever saw during his lifetime. He’s been the inspiration for writers Peter Straub, Stephen King, as well as Neil Gaiman—to name a few.

Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.

Stephen King
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Cosmic Horror Movies that Perfectly Capture Existential Dread

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 capitalizes 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) Movie 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

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 horror. 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.