What Is Cosmic Horror?

(Last Updated On: September 24, 2019)

What Is Cosmic Horror?

We’ve entered the fall and winter months; as the holiday gauntlet ramps up, Halloween is close on the horizon for many of those reading this post. While you might not be out there trick-or-treating, you probably have some Halloween tradition. Whatever your traditions may be, perhaps you’re looking for a different kind of Halloween threat. Machete wielding killers or poltergeists can get pretty boring. So enters cosmic horror; eldritch and existential. But what is cosmic horror? And why is it hard to get right?

H. P. Lovecraft and Horror

You can’t really talk about cosmic horror without mentioning H.P. Lovecraft. This goes mostly because cosmic horror is largely informed by Lovecraft’s style. He was born in 1890, passing away in 1937 to cancer; actively writing from 1917 to 1937. If hearing the name didn’t evoke the imagery already; yes, he’s responsible for all the Cthulhu jazz–jazz that would inspire many contemporary horror authors today (including Stephen King). 

While he was unknown for most of his life, dying in poverty, Lovecraft would posthumously become one of the most influential horror writers of all-time. Most of the themes in his writing are, unsurprisingly, similar if not the same as contemporary cosmic horror. If it hasn’t really sunk in yet, he kind of defined the genre.

Despite basically inventing cosmic horror, we’d be remiss not to mention Lovecraft’s belief in white supremacy. Many of his works, both private and non, contained elements of racism and/or xenophobia. While these sort of attitudes were prevalent during the era which he lived, we can’t simply ignore the fact that they guy was a straight up bigot.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about some of the less shameful themes of Lovecraft’s writing–the ones that actually helped mold this idea of “cosmic horror”.

Lovecraftian Themes

  • Forbidden Knowledge
    • There exists knowledge so dark possession of it is near incomprehensible to humans. Knowing the forbidden will break you either physically or psychologically.
  • Humanity Is Influenced by the Inhumane
    • People in Lovecraft’s work often form cults dedicated to the service of gods and beings that themselves are not human. In relation to Lovecraft, this would constitute beings like Cthulhu. Kind of like how the entire linchpin to most of the MCU is a bunch of colorful rocks–if those rocks were sentient squid monsters that would drive you insane if you saw them. And also if you worshiped them.
  • Fatalism | Also Civilization as a Whole Is Threatened
    • The threats placed upon the protagonist or humanity in general are inevitable. Kind of like Thanos. 
  • Bloodlines
    • In line with what’s right above this one, people are often bound by blood. The sins of distant ancestors often still bears influence over their lives. 
  • Slime
    • We didn’t really know where to put this, but Lovecraft liked to describe things as slimy and gelatinous. This is in opposition to the contemporary blood and guts. It’s still inherently disgusting.

More on Cosmic Horror

Cosmic horror, as a huge general statement, evokes feelings of extreme existential dread. It centers around the idea that everything you understand, hate, and love is under constant threat by something so alien you could never hope to understand it. This threat is often a mere hair from acting, but for reasons unknown to anyone; it either cannot, or chooses not to, act. It could be extraplanar, it could reside deep within the oceans, a parasite in the water you drink and food you eat, even buried within your own bloodline. 

Motives are often not sinister, though they generally are in direct conflict with our existence. Imagine when humans deforest an area. We need/want those trees to use as resources, but a squirrel will end up facing a relative world ending threat. While we are destroying the home to the squirrel, it’s not like we’re looking at squirrels like “we’re taking all these trees for no reason other than we hate squirrels.” Just like the squirrel, though, we would never hope to understand this threat’s motives. So we probably just project “evil” onto it.

Oftentimes there is no real “victory” when it comes to cosmic horror. Maybe the hero is able to ward off this existential threat, for a time. Maybe they only can mitigate the damage done by whatever ancient god sleeps beneath the Earth. There’s almost always a cost too, as per Lovecraft’s idea of forbidden knowledge. Our protagonist will likely be driven insane, perhaps even having had to sacrifice their own soul.

Why Cosmic Horror May Not Land

Therein lies why cosmic or Lovecraftian horror is so hard to make well. As writers, we are all human; we bring our human views and biases. So it’s hard to write about a threat whose motives can’t be understood by humans. That’s why you see a lot of “words could not describe its appearance” when it comes to the genre. It ultimately preys on our fear of the unknown, fundamentally holding that the unknown will bring about our end.

Anyway, enjoy knowing an undulating, festering, tentacled, meat monster is probably forming a cult deep in the oceans, and it’s going to bring about the end of humanity once it decides to stop taking a nap.

Speaking of Stephen King and Lovecraft, do you think you can distinguish between the two? Try your hand here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.