John Scalzi – What’s Really Scary in Science-Fiction Film


A timely question via e-mail:

As Halloween is coming up, can you tell us what’s scary to you? And are there science fiction movies that have this thing in it?

One
way to answer this question would be to take it on a surface level and
say, Oh, horrible tentacled aliens scare me, or ghosts scare me, or
zombies. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to address this on a slightly
more existential level because the fact is that ghosts and zombies and
horrible tentacled aliens don’t actually scare me at all. I
remember watching the first Alien movie when I was 10 years old (at a
drive-in — we had those back then) and not being in the least bit scared
– although I thought it was awesome when
the chest burster popped out. But that was an entirely different emotion,
you see. My point is that even as a little kid I knew I was looking at
special effects.

So
what scared me — and what scares me now — isn’t monsters or gory
special effects. What really spooks me in a horror
movie, science-fictional or otherwise, is the loss of self: transforming into something else, something you don’t want to be and
that you have no control over and that eventually takes over your life, until there
is no you left. Yes, obviously, this is a window into my soul, into all my
deep-seated neuroses, and I should probably talk with someone about them
and work through them. Until then, though, man, that crap creeps me out.

What science-fiction films spook me because of this “loss of self” thing? Let me tell you. The Fly
This one goes right to the top of the list because you
know what? Jeff Goldblum’s scientist character initiates the loss of
self — not intentionally, of course, but as a direct result of his own
emotional state and personality flaws. It’s also at the top of the list
because it’s a genuinely good movie and a truly frightening portrayal
of one man’s descent into becoming some other thing, one pathetic
transformation at a time. As a geek I enjoy the excellent makeup
and special effects, but as a viewer it’s Goldblum’s self-inflicted loss
of humanity that gets me every time.

28 Days Later…
It’s the film that took the idea of the fast zombie into the mainstream, but what makes it spooky to me is that it also speeds up the zombification process so that the change from you to rage-filled killer zombie almost literally happens in the blink of the eye. This is made explicit in more than one heartrending scene, and I won’t say more for those three of you who have not yet seen this
film. But it’s that rapidity that freaked me out the most and kept rolling around in my brain well after I saw the movie.

The Thing
I pick this film for itself (and because I still love
watching the head sprout spider legs and try to scuttle away), but it’s
also a stand-in for the whole “body snatcher” genre of film, in which
you are replaced by an alien thing that looks like you, acts like you,
and may even think it’s you but isn’t. That’s doubly spooky. This is
also the subgenre that really ramps up my latent paranoia that there’s
someone else in the universe just like me and he’s going to show up at my
door one day. With a knife. Yes, I know. Therapy will help with this. Look, I don’t
need you to tell me these things.

Re-Animator
So you’re dead. Which is bad enough. But then some
mad-scientist jerk reanimates your tissues and you come back just like
you, only slightly decayed — and evil. My question: is it really you?
Because, remember, you died. Even if the revenant has your memories and some of your personality, it’s not a given that the creature now shambling about in your body,
planning to do terrible, terrible things, is you. But you’ll still probably
be blamed for its atrocities. And again, you’re dead, so you probably won’t care. But even so.

Re-Animator never actually scared me; it’s too campy for that. But the
philosophical question of whether your body qualifies as you is
positively Cartesian. Perhaps we should reanimate Descartes and ask him. That is, if we can be positive that his first act wouldn’t be to try to stab us in the brain.

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