To quote author Douglas Winter, “Horror is not a genre…Horror is an emotion.”
Star Wars generally categorized as Space Opera specifically or as Science Fiction more generally doesn’t fit what one would consider as horror. The expansion of the Star Wars universe in various forms has allowed for many storytellers and artists to make their own contributions to the Star Wars story. One of the more unique developments of this expansion is the rise of the horrific elements in Star Wars that have elicited plenty of screams from fandom.
In the films:
The nature of the stories that George Lucas was telling, based on the structure of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” combined with the setting of the films make clear that the six Star Wars films are not horror films. It is interesting to note however that there are some commonalities in these films and horror films that come out of shared themes and character archetypes. Many of these themes flow out of old folk lore, legend and the belief in the supernatural.
The Force is often discussed in terms of it’s relationship with religion and spirituality, but it also carries with it the influence of the universal belief in magic. This concept of magic is evident in both the Jedi and Sith use of the Force. The ability to supernaturally attack your opponent in particular marks the Sith as a group of characters who could easily be cast as the villains of a horror film. After all, in Return of the Jedi, Palpatine looks very much the image of an evil withered witch.
Darth Vader is interesting on many levels, but in some ways I wonder if he set the template for a subset of horror film villains In the films, Vader is relentless and methodical, a driven instrument to enforce the Emperor’s malicious will. Vader enormous size, his armor, his breathing and his supernatural powers create a very formidable and scary character. In many ways he reminds me of Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise and to a lesser extent Michael Myers from the Halloween franchise.
Of course the visual smorgasbord that is the Star Wars films also provides us with a vast array of aliens and monsters that could be characters recycled from a Hollywood horror film’s prop department, and some where. From the wolfman and devil in the Cantina, to the Wompa, Space Slug, Sarlacc, and Rancor, monsters and Star Wars goes hand in hand. These aliens and monsters are used to create emotion, fear, anxiety and tension both in the viewer and in our heroes.
On the small screen:
The Clone Wars animated series has allowed George Lucas, Dave Filoni and their creative team to experiment and try telling different kinds of Star Wars stories. The series has oscillated between dramatic and lighthearted, two particular story arcs stand out to me. As borrowing heavily from the horror genre. In season two, the Republic attacked Geonosis in episodes 2.05-2.08. The final two of these episodes entitled “Legacy of Terror” and “Brain Invaders” featured parasitic brain worms that could either be used to control undead Geonosian warriors or to take over the conscious will of a living person.
The introduction of the Nightsisters of Dathomir and the head of their coven Mother Talzin, drew upon an existing Expanded Universe group of characters and infused them with a much more traditional brand witchcraft flavor. On Dathomir we also saw that the Geonosians were not the only ones with undead warriors, as the Nightsister’s magic created their own brand of witch-zombie warriors.
On the printed page:
I have always enjoyed Star Wars as told on the written page. Between the unlimited special effects budget that is my imagination and the expanded storytelling opportunities that are provided in novels, it was Star Wars books that took my fandom to another level.
Just as we have seen with TCW, we have seen Star Wars publishing under the direction of Lucasbooks and Del Rey expand Star Wars story telling into the horror genre. This trend is clearest in the works of two authors who approach the genre in different ways. We have author Joe Schreiber and his novels Death Troopers (2009) and Red Harvest (2010). These novels take the Star Wars universe and use it as a back drop to tell zombie stories. Death Troopers tells the tale of a virus that is released on an Imperial prison bardge and in classic horror fashion, the fight to survive of a small group aboard the ship against the horde of zombies. Red Harvest is a prequel to Death Troopers and tells the story of the origin of the zombie creating virus as part of a twisted experiment at the Sith Academy on the planet Odacer-Faustin.
It is worth noting that this isn’t the first time that Star Wars has tried this sort of explicit horror storytelling. In 1997-98 author John Whitman wrote a series of twelve young readers novels in the series titled, “Galaxy of Fear.”
The other author that I feel has brought elements of horror storytelling into Star Wars to a strong degree is Paul S. Kemp. Kemp may be best known for his fantasy work and he has a decidedly dark and brutal flavor way of telling a story. Kemp has written two Jaden Korr novels, Crosscurrent (2010) and Riptide (2011). In Crosscurrent we meet Kell Douro, a Force-sensitive Anzat who has feeding appendages that sprout from his face and invade the cranial orrificaes of his victims. Douro then proceeds to consume his victims brain or “soup” as he calls it. We also are introduced to a New Republic era Imperial cloning lab that has been overrun and destroyed by the crazy clones that resulted of mixing the DNA of various Jedi and Sith together.
In Riptide we have the return of the insane clones and the introduction of the sentient Rakatan space station “Mother.” Riptide has a very survival horror feel to it, and is a great example how using the darkness and suspense of the horror genre in other genres can enhance a story. This approach also can be seen to some extent in Troy Denning’s Dark Nest Trilogy, where the giant bugs not only illicit an instinctual repulsion and fear, but there is also the issue of the loss of indivdual will to the hive mind. This theme of losing the ability to think for yourself is common in horror films.
Star Wars is an amazing broad storytelling universe and this Halloween if you are looking for a good scare sit down by the TV or dust off a book and you may just find what you’re looking for.
-Peter Morrison (@PeteMorrisonLR)