Is it Sci-Fi or is it Horror? More to the Point, How do You Tell?

This debate raised its head again, not too long ago, when I went to see A Quiet Place, a film firmly promoted as a horror and yet, to me, so obviously science fiction. It sparked quite a heated debate with my friends afterwards and got the voices in my head chattering.

But why? Why did I know in an instant that this, to me, wasn’t a horror film? Easy – the monster. As soon as I saw it, I switched off, because, as far as I was concerned, the monster was an alien and hence lived in the category of science fiction – of which I am not a fan.

But why did I determine the monster in A Quiet Place to be an alien? Firstly – the way it looked. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I won’t go into detail. All I will say is that it was a creature with parts. You may argue that many a horror movie has ‘creatures’ as the monsters and you are correct, but, when it is a completely made up monster (as in this case), there is usually only one of them – as in The Ritual.

This brings me to my second point – there was more than one of them. Even in the area the film was set, we saw more than one. Again, you may argue that many a horror movie has multiple creatures i.e. Aracnophobia and you are correct again, but that is a known insect, not a made-up creature.

My third reasoning is that the invasion was worldwide and had come from outer space – bit of a giveaway. This fact was shown in the subtly placed newspapers blaring out their headlines.

So why is it being touted as a horror film?

Probably because the film itself is based around fear. The whole premise of the film is that people have to live in silence because, if they make a noise, they will draw these creatures out and they will be killed.

Now, the instilling of fear in the audience is indeed a horror movie trait, but is this enough to make it a horror? No, I don’t think so. Not when you have a monster involved. Fear does go hand in hand with a monster, but so does blood and gore, which this film didn’t have.

I think the correct categorisation of A Quiet Place would be sci-fi horror, as it has a mix of the two genres.

So, what is it that makes a film science fiction? After several days of pondering, the voices in my head came up with a few requirements – the action must be set in space or the threat is from space, the monsters are non-humanoid, the story is science based (usually science gone wrong), there is an ‘other’ world invasion, or the story is based on the writer’s imagination and what they believe the future may look like.

Once I’d finished the consultation with my voices, I decided to garner some other viewpoints. What I found out wasn’t too different from my view, it just had more detail and, of course, specific examples…well, it is ‘science’ fiction – they have to prove everything!

A sci-fi story is usually scientific, visionary and imaginative in nature and includes robots, spaceships, scientific development, futuristic technology, or distant planets. Many sci-fi films feature time travel or fantastic journeys, and are set either on Earth, in outer space, or (most often) in the future.

 True sci-fi stories often portray one of the following:

  • The dangerous and sinister nature of knowledge (Frankenstein, The Island of Lost Souls)
  • Vital issues about the nature of mankind and our place, and individuality, in the world (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Incredible Shrinking Man)
  • Space-related conspiracies (Capricorn One)
  • Supercomputers threatening impregnation (Demon Seed)
  • The results of germ-warfare (The Omega Man)
  • Laboratory-bred viruses or plagues (28 Days Later)
  • Black hole exploration (Event Horizon)
  • Futuristic genetic engineering and cloning (Gattaca, The Island)
  • The unleashing of strange and extraordinary microscopic organisms or giant, mutant monsters, either created by misguided mad scientists or by nuclear disaster.

Science fiction tends to be quite prophetic in nature and is often set in an imagined future. It portrays a view of the world which appears grim and unappealing. Examples of this are Metropolis (underground slave population), 1984 (Big Brother is watching), Westworld (malfunctioning androids) and The Stepford Wives (perfect suburban wives).

 The sci-fi genre often expresses anxiety about technology and how to forecast and control the impact of said technology on society. It frequently shows us the power of this technology through world ending events, as seen in The Day The Earth Stood Still, The War of the Worlds, Deep Impact, Armageddon, and The Day After Tomorrow.

Science fiction is a genre that thrives in asking ‘what if?’ It involves technology that does not yet exist and often focuses on exploring philosophical ideas. The speculative nature of science fiction allows writers to create their own worlds and their own rules for these worlds, where they are not restricted by the here and now. These worlds, however, still need to be believable and the writer still needs to be able to get us to suspend our disbelief, by creating worlds that we can actually imagine taking shape.

So, that’s sci-fi. As I said, it’s not my cup of tea, but horror, well, now you’re talking. I asked the voices to be objective as they argued over what it is that makes a film horror. All I can say is, they did me proud.

Horror, for me, is set on earth with humanoid monsters. The important factor is that horror is fear based, with plenty of blood, gore and death, and is generally supernatural or paranormally based. Yes, even Halloween, as Michael keeps returning from the dead!

As is only fair, I also did my research into what other people say horror is and this is what I found. A horror film seeks to elicit a physiological reaction, such as an elevated heartbeat, through the use of fear and shocking the audience.

Horror, as a film genre, has existed for more than a century and was initially inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley, with the themes of the macabre and the supernatural being the most widely used. Horror often aims to evoke viewers’ nightmares, fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown.

Horror storylines often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or person into the everyday world, with the most prevalent elements being ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons, satanism, evil clowns, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, zombies, cannibalism, psychopaths, and serial killers, to name but a few!

Horror, like most genres, breaks down into many subgenres including psychological horror, slasher horror, supernatural horror, and science fiction horror.

The aim of the horror genre is to elicit a fear response from the viewer, just for the thrill of it.

As with most things in this age in which we live, purism is a dying art and what is left behind is an amalgam of different genres. Sci-fi horror is one such genre and is, arguably, where far too many films sit these days.

To create a successful bridge between these two, in my opinion, very different genres, the storyline needs to have, quite simply, the alien/scientific/space element combined with the fear, blood and gore of a good horror. The best examples I can think of to illustrate this are The Fly, Alien, A Quiet Place and Event Horizon.

But what do others think? Apparently, sci-fi horror often revolves around subjects that include alien invasions, mad scientists, and/or experiments gone wrong.

Sci-fi horror films contain all the thrills of a horror movie whilst also containing the science fiction, and often philosophical, element. Good examples are Predator, Event Horizon, The Thing, The Fly, Looper, Pitch Black, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Terminator and, of course, Alien,

Given our propensity to fear the unknown, it’s easy to see how science fiction themes can be twisted and used to instil fear and terror into audiences.

So, dear reader, which camp do you sit in? Sci-fi or horror? Or are you more of a sit on the fence, embrace it all kind of person? Do let me know.

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

’Til next time