“You Can’t Mix Science Fiction and Horror!” Um, Yes, You CAN!

Guest columnist Richard H. Fay is back today, as he continues to give us his very personal view of genre fiction, which he has been a part of as a reader, writer and illustrator for decades.  You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

One of the more ridiculous notions floating around in the science fiction writing world today is that you cannot mix genres, especially science fiction and horror. As it was once explained to me by an adherent of this notion, if something with the trappings of science fiction (like the movie Alien) elicits a sense of horror or dread, it is actually horror, not science fiction. What rot! Not only is this type of genre gatekeeping annoying as heck, it also neglects to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

This idea that one cannot mix science fiction and horror seems to be another example of that black and white thinking pervading today’s society. There are no shades of grey, just black or white, this or that, up or down, right or left, science fiction or horror. When you really think about it, such thinking is absurd. In reality, the world is rarely so strictly dichotomous, even in the realm of genre fiction.

Here is a shocking alternative notion: something doesn’t have to be solely one genre or the other, it can be BOTH! You CAN have science fiction horror!

According to definition, science fiction is “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.” (definition from Oxford Languages via Google). Again, according to definition, horror is a “genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, or disgust” (definition from Wikipedia).

Please note, one genre definition does not in any way preclude the other. One concerns itself more with settings and trappings of a work, the other more with feelings elicited by the work in question. You can have a work with a science fiction setting (another planet, for instance) and science fictional elements (interplanetary travel, alien lifeforms, advanced computers or robots, speculative technology) that also elicits feelings of fear and/or dread. Furthermore, those feelings alone do not, in any way, shape, or form, disqualify a work with a science fictional setting and various science fictional trappings from belonging in the science fiction genre just as much as it belongs in the horror genre.

Has such mixing been done? Of course it has! Have writers and filmmakers mixed science fiction and horror? Of course they have!

Whenever this topic rears its head in the genre writing world (and it does seem to pop up every now-and-then), I immediately think Alien, a cinematic masterwork that deftly combines science fiction and horror. The film is set in outer space, on a starfreighter (USCSS Nostromo), an alien world (the planetoid LV-426), and an alien craft (the Engineer ship) that crashed upon that alien world. Science fictional elements in Alien include: interplanetary travel (complete with suspended animation), an alien lifeform (with unique biology), advanced computers/advanced artificial intelligence (mother, a 182 model 2.1 terabyte AI Mainframe ) and robots (Ash, a Hyperdyne Systems 120-A/2 android). However, the film also elicits a definite sense of fright and dread as the xenomorph alien picks off the embattled Nostromo crew one-by-one. It also includes moments meant to disgust, like the infamous “chest-burster” scene.

Is Alien the only cinematic example of such mixing of genres? Of course not! It! the Terror from Beyond Space, the plot of which may have helped influence that of Alien, is also a science fiction horror film. 1951’s The Thing from Another World and 1982’s The Thing, both based on the John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There?, also mix science fiction and horror (in the case of the 1982 film, with a lot meant to disgust thrown into the mix). The 1956 and the 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are also great examples of a cinematic story (same basic story in both) that mixes science fiction elements, namely pod people from outer space, with a sense of dread and fear. 1962’s The Day of the Triffids, a loose adaptation of the 1951 post-apocalyptic novel of the same name by John Wyndham, is another film that mixes science fiction with horror. Even that 1931 horror classic Frankenstein has science fictional elements, with Henry Frankenstein bringing life to his hodgepodge monster using speculative technology that harnesses cosmic rays.

The list could go on and on. As a matter of fact, there is a much more extensive list of science fiction horror films over at Wikipedia. Incomplete though Wikipedia’s list may be, it’s worth a perusal nevertheless: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_science_fiction_horror_films

Is such mixing restricted to motion pictures? Absolutely not! One also finds the mixing of science fiction and horror in genre literature. As I’ve already mentioned, both 1951’s The Thing from Another World and 1982’s The Thing are based on a science fiction horror novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. The various versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are based, ultimately, on Jack Finney’s 1955 science fiction horror novel The Body Snatchers.

Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park, which is a lot darker than Spielberg’s 1993 film, is another literary example of such mixing. Jurassic Park contains both the science fictional element of resurrecting dinosaurs by using dinosaur DNA extracted from blood-sucking mosquitoes trapped in amber, and the horror elements of fear, dread, and disgust (some of the death scenes are quite graphic and disturbing). One scene in particular I found quite disturbing was right in the beginning, when a nurse entered a nursery in Costa Rica and discovered a group of Compsognathus dinosaurs feeding on an infant.

Again, Wikipedia contains a list of science fiction horror novels (although it doesn’t include the novel Jurassic Park — I argue it SHOULD):
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Science_fiction_horror_novels

The speculative sub-genre of weird fiction encompasses non-traditional tales of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural that may utilize alien monsters and other science fictional elements. When it comes to feelings elicited in readers, this particular branch of speculative literature often seeks to add awe to a list that already includes fear and dread, the latter sometimes being of the cosmic variety. A number of H. P. Lovecraft’s works are perfect examples of weird fiction that includes both science fictional and horror elements. Topping the list might be At the Mountains of Madness and The Colour Out of Space. I would call both of those tales science fiction AND horror.

As a writer of science fiction, fantasy, and horror poetry and prose, I’ve been known to mix science fiction and horror. I can claim to have been inspired by films like The Thing from Another World and Alien and works of fiction like At the Mountains of Madness and The Body Snatchers. As a matter of fact, the very first poem of mine to have been accepted for publication in a zine, “Explorers”, is a rather dark science fiction piece with a definite sense of horror and dread. My horror microficiton “From Within the Earth”, which has the science fictional element of the Earth releasing a sentient sludge against humanity, would more than likely be classed as a weird fiction piece, complete with tentacles (tentacles often being seen as symbolic of the weird fiction genre).

Can you mix science fiction and horror? Obviously, the answer is a resounding “yes!” As a matter of fact, not only have I seen numerous films and read various works of fiction that mixed science fiction with horror, I’ve done it myself! Let’s throw the notion that you cannot mix science fiction and horror, that a horror work with science fictional elements cannot be science fiction, into the dustbin where all such garbage thinking belongs.

8 comments

  1. Genre is just a method bookstores used to sell more books, based on the demands of their audience. Publishers and producers ran with it, and unfortunately writers decided to line themselves up in neat little rows because they thought it was the only way to sell their stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Genre is rather artificial at times, especially when it comes to genre boundaries. It can be more a marketing tool than anything else. It is also true that some fans and writers (especially those wishing to act as genre gatekeepers) get hung up on those genre boundaries. Drawing definite lines between genres is a notion (and a rather silly one) that’s gotten stuck in the writing world and won’t get unstuck.

      In the entry, I mention a time that it was explained to me that something with a sense of fear or dread can’t be science fiction, it must be horror. That was back when I used to hang out in various online forums, and I haven’t done that in over a decade.

      However, the thing that triggered me to write this entry was seeing a writer mention that someone else told them that they could not mix science fiction and horror. Obviously the notion, silly though it may be, is still circulating in the genre writing world.

      Like

    1. Very true! I think that’s because horror is all about how a piece makes one feel while reading or watching it. Horror is about eliciting a sense of horror, dread, fear, or disgust in the reader or viewer. You can do that within the parameters of science fiction, fantasy (often in what’s referred to as dark fantasy), mystery, etc. Horror isn’t about having a certain setting or certain characters, it’s about having a certain vibe.

      Liked by 1 person

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