A wise tagline once said “In Space, no one can hear you scream”. And it’s no surprise that space horror is a popular genre, since space is already kind of terrifying by itself. Space madness! But you know what’s really scary? Encountering a supernatural force in space, where there’s no place to run.
Our own Esther Inglis-Arkell wrote earlier this week about the banality of a spacebound existence — there’s not much to do out there than sit in your little metallic box, float around and while the time away. But at the same time, that feeling of isolation is going to claw away at you. Even if you’re on a habitat with a small crew or a larger population, you still can’t escape the fact that you really are alone, floating around in the silence of space — you’re cut off from that background ephemera of life, out in the deep dark.
You can of course, feel isolated down here on Earth too. But in Space, that feeling is multiplied tenfold, as you’re literally separated from everyone else by hundreds of thousands of kilometers of void.
All good supernatural horror stories prey on that sort of environment in the first place — that solitary feeling, the heightened awareness of being alone, leaving your mind to wonder at every little bump and sound. Space is the perfect setting for supernatural freakishness, in that you can be so extremely isolated that the sudden presence of something else is already innately going to be emotionally taxing. And the halfway house of the supernatural — a presence that is both there and not quite there — in that scenario just compounds that tense feeling even further.
Imagine all that, your own thoughts slowly eating away you, cut off from the rest of humanity, only you suddenly discover that you’re not alone? And to boot, what is there for company is a malicious supernatural entity that wants to be a jerk? Great. Screw you, Space Ghosts.
Deep Space Nine’s Empok Nor, an abandoned Cardassian space station, was home to spooky stories about both the supernatural and physical horrors during the show’s run.
This ties into the isolation feeling, but it’s also important enough to warrant a mention on its own: the other big hallmark of horror, both physical and supernatural, is being trapped somewhere with seemingly no way out. Of course, there is always going to be an actual way out for some of your protagonists to escape whatever nightmarish entity is haranguing them — but being up in space on a ship or a habitat doesn’t offer that at all. Creepy abandoned house? Provided that your supernatural entity hasn’t blocked them by some means, there are doors, windows, points of access that offer an escape to the outside world. What’s outside your habitat?
A cold, dark, and empty vacuum. That will kill you dead.
Much horror fiction is littered with hope for its characters — the hope of endurance, of survival, of escape. Space robs you of that, because outside of where you are (i.e, surrounded by bad things that want to do bad things to you), there is literal nothingness. And it’s that, or the supernatural shenanigans that you get to choose between. Neither seem like pleasant options.
Here’s the thing with a monster or an alien or what have you in a horror story: it’s physically tangible. You might not know where it is all the time, but when it makes its presence known at least you know that it’s there. It has to occupy a physical space to threaten you.
Supernatural horror’s advantage is that its fear is derived from its ambiguity, the fact that you can’t comprehend whatever this entity is, paired the with the fact that it can be anywhere (and everywhere) around you, is what ratchets up the tension. Combine that supernatural horror’s other hallmark, the ability to possess and manipulate objects, and you get something very sinister in space: Beings that can manipulate the technology around you, and more specifically, manipulate the systems that power your ship/habitat and keep you alive. The literal Ghost in the Machine! Sure a monster could eat you, but all a supernatural nasty needs to do is cut your oxygen, open an airlock, compromise your life support, whatever. That’s a lot of unpleasant ways to off you.
Even worse is that, when you think about it, this sort of possession would actually be even harder to detect. Think back to any sort of classic supernatural story and the act of possession, be it possessing an object or even a person, it’s a very obvious moment: It’s the physical manifestation of whatever malicious presence is around.
Onboard a spaceship or a space station? Well, starters for ten things are floating around willy-nilly anyway, so that’s not going to look out of the ordinary. A supernatural entity possessing your computer system, outside of any obvious scare tactic, is going to be nigh on unnoticeable to most unassuming space-dwellers until it’s too late. You’d basically assume any weirdness to be a glitch in the system, never thinking it could be something far more malicious until it actually reveals yourself (and by that point, thanks to all the other points I’ve just mentioned, you’re probably already screwed). That’s paranoia inducing to its most extreme, even without the actual horror.
The USG Ishimura from Dead Space. Sure, the video game series had physical horror thanks to the zombie-like Necromorphs, but it played on a lot of psychological, supernatural horror tropes too.
But honestly, what really makes space so perfect for supernatural horror is that space itself shares a lot of elements with supernatural horror already — space already contains a bundle of some of our most primal psychological fears. A fear of the dark. A fear of the unknown, not knowing what’s out there. The aforementioned fear of isolation and being trapped.
The hallmarks of everything we fear about the supernatural plays upon very much the same sort of feelings, just coalesced into the fear of an entity rather than a fear of an entire environment like space. They’re symbiotic, two very similar sets of fears that can play on each other to make an enthralling (and pants-wettingly terrifying) horror experience. They amplify each other in a way that more typical horror in a spacebound setting can’t quite match.
Maybe that’s why we don’t see as much supernatural horror in space. Space itself is already vast and psychologically scary enough on its own that it makes ghostly horrors seem like chump change.
Got any examples of your favourite spooky space ghost stories? What makes them so great — and so petrifying — to you? Let us know in the comments.