Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Incomprehensible Horror of ‘Dead Space’

Horror comes in many guises and forms, with many takes on the genre feeding off of our own personal fears and aversions. From the guts and gore of splatter cinema to eerie tellings of the paranormal, there’s plenty of ways to harvest the screams of fear-loving fans. There is, however, one guaranteed method of unnerving even the most hardened terror enthusiasts – by presenting them with a threat that they can’t quite figure out.

The 2008 survival horror game Dead Space may draw influence from various other space-fueled fright-fests, but it also gave birth to one of the most horrifying creatures to inhabit the stars above, in the form of the Necromorph. While many might simply interpret Dead Space’s gaggle of grotesque hostiles to be mere alien zombies, the true nature of the Necromorph is obscured by its disconcerting disposition, comprising of incomprehensible body horror and a fear of the unknown. 

We’ve all been there, seemingly safe within the confines of our bed before opening our eyes to a weird entity in the corner of the room. Sure, there’s nothing scary about a jacket draped over a chair, apart from potentially your fashion sense, but when your brain is drowning in darkness and deprived of visual information, that chair is a threat. This kind of sensory trepidation is exactly what the Necromorph thrives upon, inhibiting your brain from attaching a schema to the horror that it witnesses.

Horror monsters are usually very easy to describe, mostly due to the fact that their factual influence and fictional lore has been preconceived. Our old friends – the vampire, werewolf, and extraterrestrial – might not always walk around playing an intimidating version of The Name Game, but there’s usually enough information present to inform us of what’s trying to munch us. Even some of the genre’s more obscure beings, such as Xenomorphs, are labeled by the title of the film they reside within. Alternatively, Necromorphs illustrate themselves through mutilation, creating difficulty when it comes to perceiving its barely humanoid form.

At a glance, a Necromorph appears to be a figure of pulverized flesh and twisted bone, that is until your eyes begin to adjust to the deadly details. As you count the extra limbs and notice the creature’s fondness for scythe-like appendages, it becomes ever clearer that this isn’t just a reanimated corpse. Just like the visual panic experienced with a night terror, it’s hard to digest the dangers before you, with the caveat this time being that you’re not just seeing things. There is no rhyme or reason to the makeup of the Necromorph, with it being less of a species and more of a bastardized use of the previously living.

Despite the Necromorph not belonging to the natural world, the creature does wield the ability to implement its own twisted version of Darwinism. There’s a variety of flavors of Necromorph lurking within Dead Space; from the sharp vanilla of the welcoming party to the sickly aftertaste of encountering a necrotic infant, you’re sure to be spoiled for choice. The fact that the Necromorph has multiple manifestations adds to the angst of deciphering what they are, especially when morbid curiosity is lost within the sheer panic of survival. 

In typical video game fashion, Dead Space is complicit in instructing you on how to fight off its in-game nasties. This is usually something that would solicit comfort in players, as after all – if it bleeds, we can kill it. Unfortunately, this mantra falls flat when it comes to Necromorphs, as the destruction of their blood-soaked bodies contradicts everything that we know about fighting the undead. The blood-smeared advice telling us to “Cut off their limbs” is simultaneously helpful and harrowing, as the well-aimed headshot you’re accustomed to will likely this time lead to your demise. 

The Necromorph might go against conventional game mechanics, but visceral degradation being at the core of an antagonist is a recurring theme within various pieces of cinema. It’s common knowledge that Dead Space creator, Glen Schofield, was heavily influenced by the likes of Event Horizon, a film that features the mutilation of a crew after boarding a corrupted spacecraft, due to the fact it went to Hell for a day trip. The diabolical dread of Event Horizon imbues itself with the idea of science beyond our comprehension, a theme which is tightly shared with the narrative of Dead Space as a whole. While witnessing beloved dino-doctor Sam Neil gouge his eyes out is unmistakable body horror, it perhaps isn’t as close to what is portrayed in Dead Space as we’d like to think. 

There’s a bounty of comparisons that can be drawn between Event Horizon and Dead Space, with plenty to explore in terms of the horrors of being entrapped and driven to insanity within deep space. However, when it comes to the Necromorph, there are various pockets of influential body horror that better fit the bill. Of course, when it comes to horrific transformations, it’d be foolish to omit the work of Cronenberg and his stomach-churning remake of The Fly, as it is one of the truest forms of body horror within the world of cinema. Yet, The Fly still seems to fall outside the realms of what is on display in Dead Space, as even though vomit-inducing, viewers are still aware that they’re gazing upon a Goldblum-bluebottle hybrid.

The key to finding an appropriate comparative when it comes to the Necromorph is found within the theme of incomprehension. This is when it becomes more appropriate to compare the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which features a shape-shifting lifeform that absorbs its victims. As the film title suggests, this creature is a non-descript abomination that makes identifying it near impossible through obscurity. The Thing’s tactic of warping the DNA of others and using their reconstructed flesh as a weapon bears a close resemblance to the Necromorph, with both placing an emphasis on the aggressive use of transformation. 

Sticking with the theme of the incomprehensible, various works of Lovecraft-inspired fiction also bear resemblance to the horrors found within Dead Space. Cult classics such as From Beyond perfectly illustrate the merged worlds of eldritch horror and the folly of tampering with unknown science. After using a resonator device, in an attempt to see beyond our reality, two scientists find themselves under attack from otherworldly beings, resulting in degradation of both their sanity and the physical form. With character Dr Edward Pretorius serving as this flick’s antagonist, we see his body transition into something unnatural, complete with tentacles and extended limbs. The type of transformation found within From Beyond is perhaps a bit more complex than with our Necromorph friends, yet retains the same visually indecipherable results.

Another great example of Lovecraft-influenced fiction that’s comparable with Dead Space is the work of Junji Ito, who has penned various manga novels that feature perverse body horror and grueling art style. The transformations featured in these books are unnerving to look at, with the result again leading to the reader struggling to comprehend the creature on the page. Ito’s work may not be based on sci-fi, yet the book Spiral features a plague-like pandemic that distorts both the bodies and minds of a small town, which is something of a dead ringer when compared to the events that take place in Dead Space.

You’d expect most comparative examples to the Necromorph to be morbid and gritty, yet one of the strongest body horror resemblances can be found in Slither, a black comedy horror by James Gunn. While the film does have a humorous overtone throughout, this tale of a small community being infected by alien slugs features some of the most putrid examples of body horror in existence. From glutenous bloating to slime-coated masses of tentacles, Slither demonstrates a similar variety in its monstrosities that Dead Space facilitates with its own gnarly nasties. 

For many, the Necromorph is always going to just simply be an intergalactic zombie, but if you’re willing to look past the vague tropes that horror sometimes presents us with, they’re much worse. The Necromorph’s incomprehensible nature is crucial to the impactful horror that Dead Space wishes to bestow upon its players, using its unsettling composition as a weapon. Just like the other horror creatures that they’re akin to, Necromorphs represent a disturbing sub-type of threat, one that leaves you little time to decipher before tearing into your flesh. When paired with the already horrifying ordeal of navigating the derelict USG Ishimura, Necromorph’s become one of the most iconic horror video game enemies of all time – even though their sense of style will put you off your dinner.


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