This article probes the somewhat ambiguous line often drawn between science fiction and horror films in order to illuminate the ease with which some films shift from one category to another. Subsequently it argues that three films: The Thing from Another World (1951), Alien (1979), and Event Horizon (1997), which are often discussed in terms of science fiction conventions, perhaps with a peppering of horror tropes, can also be seen as a continuation and extension of traditional haunted house movies.
Susan Sontag’s description of the prototypical scenarios of science fiction films came in 1965, a time when the genre had gone stale as a result of its predictable form. According to her essay “The Imagination of Disaster,” science fiction films progress in five phases as follows. First, the arrival of the thing, be it a monster, alien, or whatever, that is witnessed solely by the protagonist, whom no one believes. Second, other witnesses or victims of a great act of destruction confirm the hero’s report leading to a summoning of the authorities. Third, the attacks or destruction continue while, in the nation’s capital, scientists and the military devise a plan to thwart the antagonist. Fourth, the attacks continue, at which point the protagonist’s girlfriend or loved one is threatened. At this point game plans are discussed as tension builds and the hero works away in his lab before eventually coming up with a solution, usually something nuclear that will conquer the danger.
Sontag’s model proves somewhat useful in breaking down and describing The Thing from Another World (1951), which she goes on to reference in her 1965 article. It can also serve as an analytical tool for exploring 1979’s Alien and 1997’s Event Horizon. With these two films the setting shifts from an arctic military outpost to exploratory space vessels on the edge of our solar system and beyond, but the film’s trajectory remains essentially the same. For example: the Thing in The Thing from Another World, the Xenomorph in Alien, and the Hellish Sentience in Event Horizon all emerge as potential threats, but nobody shares the protagonists’ extreme apprehension.
These three films deviate, to some extent, from clean phases à la Sontag’s prototypical scenarios. First of all, the rest of the staff or crew in these films does initially confirm the arrival of the being. This is a result of everyone being present when the Thing gets brought back to base in The Thing from Another World, when the Face Hugger gets brought aboard the Nostromo in Alien, and when the hallucinations begin on the Event Horizon. Next, although the attacks continue as Sontag explained, plans to thwart the antagonists do not begin in the nation’s capital. Protecting civilization from the terrors of these threats becomes an objective only for the small groups of protagonists who are in direct danger. Furthermore, of the three pictures only The Thing from Another World features a specific love interest for the protagonist. Still, in Alien and Event Horizon an opposite sex crew member with whom the protagonist has a close relationship does indeed get threatened. Although the heroes of all three films vanquish the antagonists, they do not resort to extreme nuclear measures, but rather take advantage of more traditional forces such as electricity, vacuums, and fire.
While these three films may ostensibly seem like science fiction movies because they feature aliens crash landing, or aliens stowing away, or derelict spacecrafts out near Neptune, in reality they skew more towards horror films, specifically haunted house films. In a typical haunted house film, a group of people, sometimes friends and sometimes strangers, get brought together to a specific location under the guise of an offer that seems too good to be true. Strange things start happening and when a catastrophe occurs that prevents the group from leaving the location, they are stranded inside with a menacing entity. The group inevitably splits up, and the ghost or being begins to pick them off one by one with each gruesome death discovered by the surviving members. This often leads to in-fighting and dissension in the ranks, with a feeling of paranoia spreading as the members grow suspicious of one another and begin to turn on each other, with the possibility of there being a mole within the group planted by whoever offered the house, or the accommodations, or the prize/reward. The house essentially becomes a character, creating the notion that the conflict is between the protagonists and the house itself. Finally, the last two or three members realize they must work together to survive the night, with the most courageous or pure at heart ultimately vanquishing the ghost.
This framework describes the three aforementioned films more clearly than does Sontag’s model of science fiction. The only major deviation from paradigmatic haunted house films such as House on Haunted Hill (1959) or The Haunting (1963) is that the haunted houses in these three films are space vessels or research stations filled with aliens or satanic demons rather than actual houses.
In The Thing From Another World, the reporter and Air Force crew are brought in to investigate a crashed meteorite. The storm strands them, and the Thing, acting as the prototypical haunted house ghost, gets thawed out before going on a rampage. Dr. Carrington, acting as a type of mole, tries to communicate with it and Scotty wants to report on the finding, both against Captain Hendry’s wishes. The research base’s metallic, cold interior matches the snowstorm raging on the outside, and the broken windows and open doors blur the line between interior and exterior, as well as between life and death. The Thing attacks those on the base who are alone, as they have split up to look for it and perform their duties. Finally, with the heating system compromised by the Thing, the courageous Captain Hendry spearheads a plan to entrap and electrocute it, thereby saving the base and, by extension, humanity.
The cold expanse of space creates a necessary isolation in Alien and Event Horizon, with the distance from earth cutting off communication to anyone that can help. In Alien, the group is returning to Earth with a trove of mineral ore, excited to cash in on its value, only to be woken up and drawn to the moon LV-426 in response a potential distress signal. The Nostromo breaks down, delaying their departure, and while investigating the moon Kane gets attacked by the Facehugger, which then gets brought on board after a series of neglected orders and the breaking down of quarantine procedures. The group, which was already arguing about splitting their shares, now has even greater concerns with tension about contaminating the ship versus saving the life of a crew member. Once the Xenomorph explodes out of Kane’s stomach and grows into its huge size, the crew splits up into search parties. Ash, acting as a type of cyborg mole, tries to keep the Alien safe. It then picks off the members of the party as they split off from each other until Ripley manages to become the lone survivor and blast the Xenomorph into the void.
Event Horizon features many of the same beats, substituting the Hellish Sentience of the ship for the physical creatures of Alien and The Thing from Another World. In this sense it can be seen as the closest to a prototypical haunted house movie of the three. The crew of the Lewis and Clark vessel has been sent to seek and rescue the Event Horizon, which disappeared seven years prior. An experimental gravity drive activates automatically, causing an explosion on the Lewis and Clark and forcing the crew to abandon their ship and board the recently discovered Event Horizon. The crew, already arguing about why they are out there and why Dr. Weir, the Event Horizon’s designer, is forced to be with them, split up and subsequently begin suffering hallucinations of their darkest fears. Weir acts as a mole, trying to sabotage the mission and commandeer the ship to the hellish alternate dimension. It is Captain Miller who must understand the situation, and face his fears about leaving soldiers behind, sacrificing himself to save the remainder of the crew from the ship’s evil influence.
On top of these story trajectories, each of the three films uses specific imagery associated with haunted house films in order to elicit fear in the viewer. Each of the three films features a storm, or stormy imagery, associated with the scary story trope of “A dark and stormy night.” A storm strands the protagonists in The Thing from Another World and Alien (on LV-426), and the Lewis and Clark comes upon the Event Horizon amidst the nebulous storms of Neptune. This helps to unnerve the audience, and alludes to the dangers brewing around the crews as their adventures continue. All three films also include jump-scares, from the Thing popping out, to Jonesy the cat popping out as a false terror, to the hallucinatory jump scares used until literally the last scene in Event Horizon. This plays right into the haunted house trope, with the protagonists wandering around an empty space ship or military base, feeling a terrible dread as a result of not knowing when or from where something will attack them. The audience shares in this dread as viewers anticipate that, at any moment, something terrible can happen at the hands of the malevolent entity.
The use of mist and nebulous floating liquids (in zero gravity) act as a substitute for the ghosts typical of haunted house films. The snow blowing in from the outside of the army base, the mist above the ground on LV-426, the steam blowing hard on the Nostromo all act like traditional, white hovering ghosts. The ectoplasmic coolant in the air on the Event Horizon gives the impression of buoyant specters, drifting along aimlessly waiting for an unsuspecting soul to wander upon their decaying ship. It is unclear what they will do, but these features lend a shroud of mystery to the films’ settings.
Maintaining an element of mystery also adds to the suspense felt in each film. By keeping the evil presence from plain view, the filmmakers allow for the audience to use their imagination in order to fill in the gaps, where the unknown can be far more terrifying if the audience’s imagination starts running rampant. It proves far scarier to imagine the horrors of the Thing, or the Xenomorph, or whatever the previous crew did to themselves as recorded on the ship’s log of the Event Horizon, than to show in great detail what they look like or how it happened. Once the audience sees a threat, it can begin to systematically assess it, understand it, and eliminate it. Instead, these films use dark and frightening locations to keep the threats hidden from the audience, allowing their imagination to increase and sustain a level of dread. The fear of the unknown outweighs the known fear.
This leads to one explanation for why the members of the groups in haunted house films turn against each other. A combination of the known and unknown threats in these film worlds can be very effective, often leading to a feeling that those threats are coming from within. The members of the group suspect that some outside, alien forces act against them, but even more terrifying would be if one of their own comrades was against them. This, in conjunction with the house acting as its own character, leads to protagonists to wonder where in fact the threat comes from, within or without. Since the characters are stranded in a tight, restricted location, there are few places for them to hide as their fight for survival progresses.
In all three of these films, the restrictive location takes on its own persona. The natural impediments of the North Pole infringe upon the safety of the entire staff. From the opening shots of Alien, the audience gets a tour of the Nostromo before any of the crew wakes. The ship itself seems to come alive on its own, waking first to the news of the beacon before deciding to revive the crew. The characters even interact directly with the ship’s mainframe computer, Mother. In Event Horizon, Lt. Stark posits that the ship has indeed come alive and is manipulating the hallucinations of the crew. The ship essentially becomes the evil entity which Weir wants to control and guide to hell.
These three films reveal a great combination of genres. The use of science fiction tools and settings in them allows for a successful re-imagining of traditional haunted house movies, and leads to the melding of the two genres in a way that favors and advances both, leading them away from the origins that Susan Sontag envisioned in 1965, towards newer, perhaps more interesting, and thought-provoking pieces of science fiction and horror. A critical approach that investigates generic influences without rigid classification is necessary because of the fluid nature of genre film.