(This article is intended to teach and therefore, if you want to get the most out of the experience I would suggest reading some of the works of H.P. Lovecraft in preparation for what follows. Most importantly, I suggest The Beast in the Cave and The Alchemist as they will feature prominently as examples.)
Part 1: An Introduction to Lovecraftian Horror
H.P. Lovecraft was and still is one of the giants in the world of horror - creating stories to intentionally scare, Lovecraftian Horror has since been picked up by writers such as Stephen King, Susan Hill, and Poppy Brite, with it even making its way into the film world with clear influences within movies such as: The Crazies and Evil Dead. But how important is it to understand Lovecraftian Horror and how it works? I would say it is very important purely because of the effect it has had on the vast majority of monster/supernatural-based horror films.
Here, we are going to look at some Lovecraftian Horror Themes and how they're used within his works. We're also going to connect them to modern cinema and see how the influence has been kept and adapted for the screen and for what purpose.
Part 2: Lovecraftian Horror Themes
Ambiguity is uncertainty and tampering in the unknown. The way in which Lovecraftian Horror presents this is that the information that is unknown is not only unknown, but also denied to be true by the protagonist. The protagonist slowly realises that it is actually the truth and is not prepared for the consequences or what is to come.
In Lovecraft's The Beast in the Cave, this is presented as part of the resolution and "unhappy" ending for the main character. For example:
“The horrible conclusion which had been gradually obtruding itself upon my confused and reluctant mind was now an awful certainty.”
Is when our character realises something that they probably didn't want to know — or something they already knew and tried to deny as they believed it was impossible. Whatever it is, it is left unclear to the audience/reader until the mention of it through realisation and thus, the audience/reader prepare for the worst case scenario.
This is used to a great extent in modern horror and can be seen in practically most of the genre. Let's have a look at a prime example, here's a clip from The Sixth Sense — the realisation is more than just an ambiguity between the characters, the ambiguity of realisation remains here from this scene until the end of the film.
(Please watch the film in order to view this scene as it cannot be posted due to copyright law).
2. Landscapes and Mazes
Since the character's mental state must be understood for the film to have a psychological effect - hysteria is the route a lot of filmmakers have been down. According to Lovecraftian ideologies - madness and confusion should be presented in settings that reflect the character and their mind. This is done in Lovecraft's The Alchemist in which the protagonist revisits an "old chateau" his family used to live in and says it has been ruined by the "storms of generations". This is seen to inspire the famous "Maze Sequence" in The Shining. Not only depicting the madness of Jack himself, but also offering the child a place to hide - leaving it ambiguous as to whether the maze represents the mental state of Jack or the thought sequence of the child.
3. The Old and The Ageing
Often used to depict settings of Horror, the Old and Ageing was actually used in Lovecraftian Horror to show the "state" of things. For example; the character that we were to pay attention to would offer us some insight into who they are by presenting us with something of their past and then filling it with horrible dimensions that make us question the mental stability of our character.
In Lovecraft's The Alchemist, this is focussed on as the character we rely on for the story, approaches the location. The line "old chateau of my ancestors" is followed through with "storms of generations" giving both a personal and a dark tone to the piece. The very suggestion that we don't know our narrator/protagonist is quite uncomfortable to us, but it is really that element of something old and ageing that is used as information about them that does it. The information about this protagonist is that they must have been from a good family if the family lived in an "old chateau" - but then something must have gone bad because the "storm of generations" came to darken the atmosphere.
Let's have a look at the way in which the great Conjuring 2 explores this theme. In the clip below we see the entrance into the house - everything about the house looks pretty normal and then we get a shot of some old rusty chains before we go into an old abandoned room that looks as if it hasn't been used in a very long time.
Not only this, but we have to think about what this tells us about the nature of the horror in the film. Obviously we see Valak (who basically looked like every Catholic School Girl's Church Sister on a Monday Morning - I should know) and yet we still need something that connects her to them (as in the characters). The old and ageing atmospheres that are regularly created in the film can help with this as they give an unexpected tension - but also they give an insight into Valak's character as she is not from their time and is - in fact, a supernatural entity.
Negation is the absence of positivity and this is used purposefully in Lovecraftian Horror in order to make the atmosphere more swayed towards the negative side so that the reader/audience are more prone to feeling negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and sadness.
Normally used to depict supernatural entities, negation can be used to take away certain human qualities that would otherwise make a character seem quite normal. For instance, if you have a ghost/spirit - you need to take away something that makes them human. Most horror films will go for complexion and signs of life. Popular and successful ones include: The Sixth Sense with the girl under the bed, The Woman in Black with Jennet and even The Conjuring 2's incredible performance by Valak.
In a response to Lovecraft's The Alchemist, this is depicted through emotion via lacking, depression and even intense melancholy.
"A sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit."
The term "insufferable" is something that produces extreme negation via empathy. We understand that the character is depressed, so we are more likely to imitate this emotion whilst reading/viewing the action.
Let's have a look at The Babadook - the scene in which the mother reads a story to her child is quite interesting as it begins the theme of negation via having the "Babadook" lacking various things that are considered human.
Let's first see the colour scheme of the characters compared to the colour scheme of the book - the book takes away colour and replaces it with black and white thus negating our monster and disassociating them from the characters. Also notice the wording of the story - it's very simplistic but it also seems a bit odd for a children's book. The fact that the part of the story being read in the clip is about making a friend is an obvious lead on to something purely by the appearance and wording of the book itself. (I'd like to say it's cliché, but I'm going to leave that part out).
Part 3: Pros and Cons of Using Lovecraftian Horror Themes
As with all decisions you will make in life, Lovecraftian Horror is something you really need to sink your teeth into. I will include some references to articles you can read if you want to begin your critical journey into using Lovecraftian themes (there are way more than what has been covered here). But remember - there's always too much of a good thing. Let's weigh out the equation, shall we?
Lovecraftian Horror places itself in that cosmic space between humanity and monstrosity - a branch of American Dark Romanticism, it comes from the influence of E.A. Poe and the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. Since Lovecraft's writings had been so popular long after he himself had died - the cult of horror began to take this over. The Thing is probably quite famous for depicting Lovecraftian monstrosity in a film, but even after that it has been repeated to the effect that we may have lost our fright of monsters. I wrote an article on the "Filmmaker's Guide to Monsters" in order to explain this properly.
Another thing you must be aware of is that Lovecraftian Horror needs to be read to be understood - get yourself reading Lovecraft and understanding the connections between monster and human through themes and symbols. Analyse different ways in which Lovecraft displays his protagonist and how this changes the emotions within the story.
Remember: In Lovecraftian Horror, you rely mostly on absolute fear. You want to maximise this by creating good enough atmospheres that will give off the same vibe once you put your character into them. The downside to this is that you could have some trouble with repetition - after the scare has happened a few times people will expect it. So keep changing your style and exploring different methods of filming horror (James Wan is a great example of a modern horror director).
Part 4: Conclusions
To conclude upon all of this, there are some obvious themes and symbols within Lovecraftian Horror that can be manipulated into different things. There are also some that can be taken and directly applied to a different situation. What you really need to understand is the process of doing this - unlike a lot of other horror theories and styles, Lovecraftian Horror isn't a design, it's a technique. You need to do the reading and planning on Lovecraftian Horror before you sit down and take pen to paper. Then, when you come to writing - consciously formulate your story and set based on what you have read via application, adaptation or manipulation.
Good luck on your next project.
"From beyond: H. P. Lovecraft and the place of horror" by James Kneale
"The Impact of HP Lovecraft's Fiction on Contemporary Occult Practices" by John Engle