Welcome back to Horrorhead, a biweekly column where we explore the intersection of scifi and horror. If there's one thing more terrible than having a zombie eat the tongue out of your head by breaking your jaw, it's imagining that zombies are eating you when they aren't. That's why one of the best veins to mine in scifi-horror is madness. What makes insanity worse in many ways than giant drooling monsters is that you can't kill the monsters in your head with ice or swords or cold viruses. You want to escape the horror of your own crazy? You've got to drill your own brain out, like the protagonist does in Pi. And that, my friends, is what makes scifi-tinged madness so tragic as well as frightening: there's no way to set things right. Without further ado, let's take a dark psychological tour of most horrifying examples of space madness.
Obviously, not all scifi madness is space madness, but there are some great examples of this classic form of mental degeneration coming from being cooped up in a tiny place that is your only life support. Sometimes you're cooped up with a bunch of annoying people, like in the Michael Crichton book/movie Sphere, where the space madness is actually "undersea madness" but it's the basic idea. You're in a tiny, stinky space and you want badly to leave, but if you do you die. In Sphere, as in many "space madness" classics (including the best Ren & Stimpy episode ever). One of the basic signs of space madness is rampant hallucination, usually enhanced into something real by alien technologies. This also the case in the original Russian version of Solaris, where a mad spaceman starts seeing freaky visions of his mother and lots of macrame because the planet he's circling has some kind of power to manifest the unconscious.
You see a strange and gooey-disturbing variation on the theme of space madness in Donnie Darko, a cult film that may be slightly incoherent but wins the awesome award anyway for successfully depicting a genuinely scary cute bunny costume. In this film, which has about a billion interpretations, one thing is clear: our antihero Donnie has a potentially-fatal encounter with a jet engine that crashes into his bedroom. And then time goes out of joint, or maybe his imagination does, and he begins to have visions of an evil cute bunny and car crashes and a sky filling up with clouds like dark ink. Space doesn't drive teenager Donnie mad, his family does. And his suburban house is sort of like a spaceship in that he's still too young to leave home and survive. So he's stuck there, until his world is punctured by a giant piece of jet junk. Are his visions real? Can he change the future? You'll be creeped out by these questions and his mental anguish until the very last scene.
The novel and movie Mysterious Skin turn childhood trauma into space madness. It's the story of two boys who grew up together in Kansas, barely knowing one another, but connected by an incident that one of them is convinced was an alien abduction. The movie, an indie directed by Gregg Araki with Joseph Gordon Leavitt, is terrific — but the novel by Scott Heim is simply gorgeous and haunting and full of midwestern teen angst turned trippy. While one character pursues his theory that he was abducted by aliens, the other pursues gay hustling and moves to the alien city of New York. It's to Heim's credit that you don't know until the very end whether the aliens are real.
As I said in reference to Sphere and Solaris, one of the hallmarks of space madness is that your mad fantasies become real. That's certainly the case with one of the most tragic and beloved crazy creatures in science fiction: The Hulk. I'm not the first person to point out that Bruce Banner is basically a mutant with multiple personality disorder, whose dark alternate self has the unfortunate ability to embody what would in an ordinary person be merely a delusion of grandeur. Like Mr. Hyde before him, Hulk is the literal representation of repressed rage. Like madness itself, which can sometimes be contained but often never completely cured, Hulk is always returning from whatever prison the military, the shrinks, or the Avengers cook up for him.
Of course, there is one perfect way to defeat madness — perhaps as perfect as the cold virus was at defeating the tripods in War of the Worlds. Simply destroy the brain that spawns the madness. Hence the amazing brain-drilling scene in Pi, which allows our hero to escape his own mind — and escape the evil corporation that wants to exploit his mind. This idea also feeds into the utterly depressing scene at the end of Brazil where our romantic hero Sam Lowry has been tortured to the point of complete catatonia. I suppose in Brazil his madness may in fact be his salvation. Depends on how you read it.
There are dozens of other books and movies that deal with space madness writ small or large: Jacob's Ladder, Perdido Street Station, Dark City, and Octavia Butler's superlative Patternmaster series. While some of these stories imagine that you can get over "the crazy," as it's called in the TV-signal-makes-you-smash-heads movie The Signal, most of them don't. Either the characters die, or remain alive in a state of horrifying out-of-controlness like Hulk or some of the creatures whose minds have been eaten in China Mieville's novel Perdido Street Station. So, like I said, things could be a lot worse than having your brain eaten by zombies. You could have zombies in your brain. Forever.