EVENT HORIZON (1997, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson)

Event Horizon is a classic example of the combination of science fiction and horror in a single film. Set aboard spaceships in outer space, it is a relatively big-budget film with excellent special effects that are put to good use in producing effective representations of a great deal of high-tech science fictional hardware. But these effects are also used to represent extreme damage to human bodies that spills into the realm of body horror. Moreover, Event Horizon participates in a long line of science fiction narratives, dating back at least to Mary Shelley’s original Frankenstein in 1818, in which scientists are so focused on pushing the boundaries of their research that they fail adequately to consider its potential negative consequences. In this case, those consequences push the film into the territory of supernatural horror, as the film’s central piece of advanced technologies, meant essentially to open portals in space that would allow virtually instantaneous interstellar travel over vast distances, instead opens a portal into hell and releases the horrors from within. Along the way, though, Event Horizon introduces elements of a whole catalog of horror film subgenres, including possession films, mad scientist films, psychological horror, and body horror.

Event Horizon is fundamentally built upon one of the central premises of science fiction: that travel into the far reaches of outer space would bring humans into such unexplored territory that the things discovered there might be far beyond anything we have experienced on earth. In this case, a ship named the Event Horizon traveled beyond Neptune, where it then experimentally deployed the advanced gravity drive that was to allow it to travel instantaneously to the Proxima Centauri system and then back. Unfortunately, when the drive was engaged, the ship simply disappeared and was never heard from again. The film itself then begins in 2047, when the Event Horizon has suddenly reappeared in orbit around Neptune. As a result, the crew of the space rescue craft Lewis and Clark is sent, accompanied by Dr. William G. Weir (Sam Neill), the designer of the Event Horizon and its gravity drive, to attempt to locate the missing ship and to possibly rescue any surviving crew members.

The captain of the Lewis and Clark, S. J. Miller (Laurence Fishburne), resents having a stranger like Weir aboard his vessel (creating a version of the scientists vs. military opposition so often found in science fiction), so certain tensions are already in place as the mission begins. The other members of the crew are also a bit grumpy, have been called off leave to undertake this emergency mission. They include the executive and communications officer Lt. M. L. Starck (Joely Richardson), chief engineer F. M. Justin (Jack Noseworthy), the ship’s doctor (identified only as “D. J.” and played by Jason Isaacs), medical technician Peters (Kathleen Quinlan), pilot W. F. “Smitty” Smith (Sean Pertwee), and rescue technician T. F. Cooper (Richard T. Jones). It seems a fairly typical multiracial and multigender crew of the kind science fiction fans have been accustomed to since the original Star Trek. It is, however, somewhat Anglo heavy, including characters played by four American and three British actors, plus Neill, who was born in Ireland and grew up in New Zealand. The actors speak in their own accents, suggesting that the mission is international in scope, but race, gender, and national origin do not appear to be important issues in the film. Whether this aspect of the film is meant to imply that the problems associated with such issues have been solved in the future would be a matter of ure conjecture.

After a quick introduction of the major characters, the rescuers locate and board the Event Horizon without major difficulty. To this point, the film seems to be pure science fiction, but hints of possible excursions into horror have already been put into place—partly through a nightmare that Weir experiences at the beginning of the rescue mission. In addition, we learn early-on that the Event Horizon has sent out a distress signal filled with strange-sounding background noises and at least one (barely audible) human voice, speaking in Latin and uttering the phrase “liberate me,” or “save me” (as translated by the ship’s doctor). What they need to be saved from remains a mystery at this point, while the fact that the message is in Latin is an even bigger mystery—and one that potentially takes the film into horror territory, given that this language, so long associated with Catholicism, potentially introduces an element of religion and the supernatural.

These hints set up expectations of strangeness that are quickly realized when what they find on board the Event Horizon quickly takes the film into horror mode. seems exceedingly strange. The craft is exceedingly cold inside and seems at first to be deserted, with various bits of flotsam and jetsam floating about in the presumed weightlessness of outer space—except that (for some reason that is never explained, perhaps some sort of gravity boots) the rescuers seem to be able to walk about fairly normally. Numerous other elements of this film seem a bit questionable in a scientific sense as well, but that is not really the point to this particular film.

Event Horizon is more about an atmosphere of horror than an air of scientific verisimilitude. One of the most interesting ways in which it capitalizes on its science fictional setting to create an atmosphere of horror is in its set design, which consists almost entirely of spaceship interiors (and a few exteriors as well). The ship of the title is certainly a far cry from the clean, well-lighted spaces of Star Trek’s Enterprise or the Discovery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, tending far more toward the industrial design of the Nostromo in Alien. However, the Nostromo is, in fact, a working industrial vessel, so that its design makes perfect sense. As a scientific research vessel, one might expect a sleeker, cleaner look within the Event Horizon. Instead, it is grim and poorly lit, with lots of heavy machinery that looks like it might have been imported from the nineteenth century. In point of fact, though, the ship’s design goes far beyond this quasi-steampunk effect, often spilling over into designs that seem absolutely gothic. We see this tendency in many aspects of the film, as when a number of devices in the ship’s medical bay look so old-fashioned that they might almost be torture implements. Even the spacesuits worn by the rescuers are mostly black and have a decidedly ominous-looking design. But the most striking example of this effect occurs in the Event Horizon’s central engine bay, where the ship’s extremely advanced gravity drive looks more like a gyroscope from hell than a piece of futuristic machinery Moreover, the bay itself looks less like a high-tech engine room and more like a weird chamber in which acolytes might gather to conduct occult rituals. Indeed, so many aspects of the ship have this occult/gothic look that wonders whether the ship might have been changed during its seven-year sojourn in hell, though there is no indication in the film that this is the case. Of course, except for Weir, the rescuers seem completely unfamiliar with the Event Horizon and its original design, while Weir himself turns out in the course of the film to be less than an entirely trustworthy source of information.

Neill, at the time of this film, was still best known to American audiences for his role as a paleontologist in Jurassic Park, so it was no surprise to see him as a scientist. It is, however, something of a surprise that his Weir gradually starts to shift into the mode of a mad scientist, first by perhaps being a bit too preoccupied with his creation, and then by gradually aligning himself more and more with that creation as it becomes increasingly obvious that the ship has been essentially possessed by evil forces, turning it into a demonic entity that is bent on the destruction of any humans who happen into its environs. By the time we are roughly two-thirds of the way into the film, Weir has aligned himself completely with the Event Horizon, taking him completely into mad scientist territory, while also giving him access to the possessed ship’s inner “thoughts”—which conveniently allows him to provide a considerable amount of exposition to explain exactly what is supposed to be going on.

In the meantime, while Weir might be especially susceptible due to his commitment to the Event Horizon, the ship appears to exercise a psychological effect on the other crew members, causing hallucinations that are apparently excavated from their own worst memories and fears and thus taking the film into the realm of psychological horror, while also recalling the Soviet science fiction classic Solaris (1972), in which an alien entity (a planetary ocean) that the humans do not even recognize as an entity attempts to communicate with human astronauts that visit its planet by dredging up materials from the unconscious minds of the astronauts. In the case of Event Horizon, however, the images extracted by the entity that has possessed the Event Horizon are purely malevolent, intended to provoke fear or pain, as when Miller experiences hallucinations that replay his memories of an earlier traumatic experience in which he was forced to leave a crew member to a horrible death. Moreover, this memory is a very private one that Miller has never shared with anyone, so the entity must have retrieved it from Miller’s own mind. “It knows my fears,” he tells the doctor. “It knows my secrets. It gets inside your head. And it shows you.” Similarly, Peters is shown vivid images of her young son in need of her help, images that are ultimately used to lure her to her death.

Such examples clearly indicate the evil nature of the entity that has possessed the Event Horizon, which seems to have no motivation in using these extracted memories and images other than purely inflicting terror and harm. Indeed, the film clearly implies that the entity has motivations of a kind that we typically associate with the Satanic. This film ultimately belongs first and foremost to the category of science fiction horror films in which scientific inquiry or technological advancement lead to a crossing of the boundary of our physical universe, establishing contact either with other physical universes that might be horrifying in nature or even with supernatural realms that go beyond the physical altogether. Numerous aspects of Event Horizon suggest that the latter applies in this case and that the ship of the title might have visited a supernatural realm that either corresponds to or at least was somehow the inspiration for mythologies of what are characterized in many earthly religions as “hell.”

About two thirds of the way through the film, the doctor examines the distress signal that he had translated earlier more carefully, and confides in Miller that it actually says “Liberate tutume ex inferis”—“save me from hell.” “This ship has been beyond the boundaries of our universe,” he tells Miller. “Of known scientific reality.” Soon afterward, the rescuers finally manage to access the video recordings in the ship’s logs of the E vent Horizon. What they see are images of the crew in an abject and chaotic situation, screaming and literally tearing each other apart. It literally looks very much like the scenes that we are accustomed to seeing in artistid representations of hell punctuated by insanity, violence, and even cannibalism. Indeed, the long tradition of artistic representations of hell clearly influenced this sequence. As Gavin Hurley notes, Anderson has said in a feature on a DVD edition of the film that “he aimed to capture a “painterly” quality in these visions of hell—evoking the spirit of 15th–16th century painter Hieronymus Bosch” (Hurley 86). Yet there is also an orgiastic aspect to this scene, an element of ecstasy that takes it beyond mere horror and more into the realm of a general affective overload.

Soon afterward, Weir drifts into madness and into total complicity with the entity that has possessed his ship, suggesting that the entity has now possessed Weir as well. Among other things, he becomes a sort of spokesman for the entity. “I created the Event Horizon to reach the stars, but she’s gone much, much farther than that. She tore a hole in our universe, a gateway to another dimension, a dimension or pure chaos, pure evil. When she crossed over, she was just a ship. But when she came back, she was alive. Look at her, Miller. Isn’t she beautiful?” A few minutes later, having now himself taken on the physical appearance of a representative of hell and looking very much like a horror film character, Weir declares that the ship has been to unimaginable places and has now returned as a living being, ready to go back, taking the crew of the Lewis and Clark with it. When Miller identifies this destination as hell, Weir replies that hell is a human concept, while the place he has in mind is far worse than the human mind could possibly imagine: “Hell is only a word. The reality is much, much worse.”

As Hurley emphasizes, the very unthinkability of the “hell” from which the Event Horizon has returned is the key to its horrors. There is no real sense that this “hell” is “evil” or “Satanic” in the Judaeo-Christian sense. Hurley this concludes that the “hell” of this film is “more fittingly described as the atheistic space of the cosmic nonhuman, which is fueled by chance. This chance does not link with a divine purpose; rather, it formulates a void that conflates life, death, pleasure, and pain” (86). All of these experiences are conflated because this “hell” simply overwhelms the human mind, becoming something too large and too confusing to be processed, leading to madness. Using the work of French philosopher Georges Bataille as a guide, Hurley concludes that visiting this hell can be thought of as an encounter with “nothingness” (87). Certainly, the horror of this film might very well be thought of as arising from a confrontation with the void. However, a more science fictional explanation would, in a sense, be just the opposite. The trip taken by the Event Horizon might involve, not the nothingness at the heart of things, but the mind-shattering overload of a confrontation with the sheer magnitude of the universe, which is unthinkably large, in comparison to day-to-day human experience, even if it might not be literally infinite. From this view, human visitors to this realm are driven to madness simply by a realization of the vastness of space, to which they respond like the cliché of all those old science fictional computers that blow their gaskets when confronted with an insoluble paradox. And, of course, one might add to this interpretation the fact that Weir is the one who responds most powerfully to this experience not just because he has a special investment in the Event Horizon but also because, as a scientist, he is the one is most committed to logically processing the data encounters and then proceeding to develop a logical understanding of those data. Confronted with a situation in which this understanding is impossible, Weir also blows a gasket.

To an extent, Weir resides in the Frankensteinian tradition of the excessively and obsessively driven scientist whose research takes him into territory that was never meant to be explored by human beings, leading to dire results. Indeed, Darryl Jones sees the film very much this way, arguing that the film is driven by Weir’s “severing of scientific concerns from ethical concerns … without concern for the consequences” (55). At the same time, in this case one might say that Weir is a character from science fiction who simply cannot function when confronted with a situation from horror, placing the bigeneric character of this film at the very center of his dilemma. Alternatively, that this trip to “hell” can be just as easily described as a confrontation with nothingness or with infinity can also be taken as a fundamental result of the hybrid genre of this film, with the “nothing” resulting from the horror component of the film and the “infinity” resulting from the science fiction component. That the two interpretations, seemingly diametrically opposed, amount to very much the same thing, simply indicates how perfectly meshed the genres of horror and science fiction really are in the case of this particular film.

Ultimately, Miller sacrifices himself by blowing the central connecting section of the Event Horizon, sending himself and Weir aboard the stern section of the ship back through a black hole and presumably to “hell,” but saving the other survivors, much as Father Karras throws himself out that window, presumably saving Regan MacNeill from Pazuzu in The Exorcist (1973). Meanwhile, those other survivors—Cooper, Starck, and a comatose Justin—escape in the forward section of the Event Horizon inside stasis pods. Seventy-two days later, a rescue ship arrives, providing a partial happy ending. Before this ending is secured, however, the film provides one last quick jolt of horror of a kind we have come to expect from the shock endings of classic horror films such as the original Carrie (1976) and the original Friday the 13th (1980)—though such endings actually have their roots in a number of science fiction/horror hybrids of the 1950s, which concluded as seemingly resolved crises were shown not to be so resolved, after all. For example, the titular alien invader of The Blob (1958) is seemingly defeated when it is frozen by being spraying with fire extinguishers, then flown to the North Pole for safe keeping. But then the film ends with a giant question mark on the screen as the blob parachutes onto the polar ice cap, thus suggesting a note of possible future danger. After all, maybe audiences in 1958 were less aware of the possibility that the polar ice caps might melt as a result of climate change, but some of them might have remembered The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), in which the monster of the title is freed from an icy tomb in the Arctic as a result of an atomic bomb test.

The outer space setting, the high-tech hardware, and even the heavy use of spectacular explosions all tend to identify Event Horizon as a science fiction film, while the dark visuals and the emphasis on the horrors of hell mark it as a horror film. In addition, while there might be some vague implications of a broader threat, the danger in this film is primarily quite localized, focused on only a few individuals in an enclosed, localized setting, which is more characteristic of horror than of science fiction—and is one of the key reasons why a spaceship setting is conducive to horror. At the same time, making the source of horror in this film another dimension (or even a distant part of our own dimension), rather than the supernatural hell of the Judeao-Christian tradition also helps the horror elements of the film to work better with the science fictional elements.

Works Cited

Hurley, Gavin P. “Nonknowledge and Inner Experience: A Post-Modern Rhetoric of Space Horror.” Horror in Space: Critical Essays on a Film Genre. Edited by Michele Brittany, McFarland, 2017, pp. 81–95.

Jones, Darryl. Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film. Oxford University Press, 2002.