Fighting Cosmic Horror with Charts and Graphs

Hey there, welcome to That Dang Dad, my name is Phil, and tonight we’re returning to the topic of cosmic horror but this time, through the eyes of two indie filmmakers, Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. If you’re not familiar with their work, don’t worry, I want to talk about a thematic connection I noticed that only requires me to spoil the first halves of four of their films, so you can have the pleasure of seeing how they ultimately turn out. 


But here’s my elevator pitch for their work just to whet your appetite: Moorhead and Benson explore the terror of unknown dimensions beyond our understanding without relying on goopy tentacle monsters and instead focusing on how confrontations with the inexplicable affect flesh and blood people and their relationships.


This past weekend, I watched their latest film SOMETHING IN THE DIRT from 2022, and I noticed something in it that started scratching at my brain a little. The premise of the film goes like this: Levi is a kind-of down on his luck bartender getting ready to drift out of Los Angeles. He puts all his stuff in storage and rents a dilapidated apartment to be a temporary shelter for a couple months until he can figure out his next move. His neighbor, John, is a divorced math teacher whose life may or may not be falling apart. One day while the two move a couch into Levi’s apartment, they notice a quartz ashtray begin to float and give off an unnerving resonant hum. This being Los Angeles, the two, of course, decide to make a documentary about it. The film follows their attempts to record and ultimately understand the thing haunting (question mark) the apartment.


There’s a scene partway into the film where John explains one of his theories about what’s causing the phenomenon using equations and symbols he’s drawn on a door frame. In fact, one of the major recurring motifs in the film is John and Levi’s conflicting theories about what’s happening and how that affects their friendship. But for me, the reason this started scratching at my brain is because it took me back to Moorhead and Benson’s 2019 film SYNCHRONIC. 


In SYNCHRONIC, New Orelans paramedics Steve and Dennis encounter several bizarre deaths, such as a man stabbed with an antique sword or a woman immolated in a room that otherwise has no fire damage in it. When Dennis’ daughter Brianna disappears at a drug party where people are taking a drug called Synchronic, Steve buys some himself to find out how it works. And it appears that the drug maybe sorta kinda transports you back in time?


Much like in Something in the Dirt, Steve begins to film his experiments with the drug, learning the rules of the game, and developing a plan to hopefully find Brianna. And when John’s diagrams reminded me of Steven’s experiments,this also took me back to the duo’s 2017 film THE ENDLESS, in which two young men who escaped a UFO cult return to the compound for closure. They discover strange phenomena happening in the woods and they spend their time exploring the area and learning the rules of these phenomena.


Which of course brings me back to the duo’s debut film RESOLUTION from 2012. In this film, a man named Michael travels to a cabin in the woods where Chris is deep in the throes of drug addiction. Michael decides to kidnap Chris at the cabin to force him to quit cold turkey, but during their stay, they begin to notice, you guessed it, weird phenomena. And, you guessed it, they begin trying to map it out and discover the rules. 


Again and again in the work of Moorhead and Benson (or Benhead for short), regular people come into contact with unexplainable phenomena hinting at worlds beyond our own, strange spaces between spaces, tips of icebergs we can’t even begin to imagine. And again and again, the characters who encounter these cosmic oddities decide to study them, map them, figure them out.


It’s easy to draw parallels to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. In Lovecraft’s work, characters have similar encounters with strange places and ancient unknowable entities, and, as with Benhead’s characters, these initial encounters compel the protagonists to investigate them. We see them pouring over mouldering grimoires and forbidden scrolls for some scrap of information, or they travel to small villages to interview town elders with a knowledge of forgotten things. And, often in Lovecraft stories, this creates a feedback loop that results in the protagonist going too far, seeing too much, and learning something that cannot be unlearned no matter how maddening it is. 


While I believe that Moorhead and Benson are creating films that are (intentionally or not) in conversation with Lovecraft’s legacy, they bring a unique spin to their stories that elevates their work above mere pastiche. And it all comes down to the characters.


With Resolution, we have Chris and Michael, with the Endless, Justin and Aaron, with Synchronic, Steve and Dennis, and in Something in the Dirt, Levi and John. What makes these characters interesting is that nearly all of them are in precarious, if not dire circumstances. Chris is on the verge of killing himself with drugs, Justin and Aaron have not adjusted to a lonely purposeless life outside the cult, Steve and Dennis work a difficult, thankless job as one receives a cancer diagnosis and the other believes his marriage is over. Levi has no roots and is constantly in trouble with the law, and John is a divorced, dubiously employed serial liar who may or may not be part of a fascist church.  


And it is precisely this precarity, this vulnerability that I think energizes these films and gives them something important to say. Because I’ve known guys like Chris and Steve and John. I’ve known people struggling to get by, burning out in exploitative jobs, falling into the cracks of society, and taking risks with their health managing that pain or loneliness or anger. I’ve known people (myself among them at times) who feel like the deck is stacked against them or who feel like there is an invisible force with a boot on their neck or who sense that there are systems at work that they can’t seem to plug into. 


And this is why I keep coming back to the scene of John scribbling on Levi’s wall and Steve filming his Synchronic trips for research, and similar scenes in The Endless that I won’t spoil. The characters in these films have stumbled up against vast, unknowable, completely alien systems and for some reason, they feel compelled to study them, catalogue them, trace around and push and prod them. Why would they believe they are capable of understanding the inexplicable and why aren’t they more afraid of poking the bear?


In each film, the characters have a high-level motivation for trying, be that greed, boredom, curiosity, or even altruism. But undergirding those motivations is an unspoken belief all the characters seem to share: “if I can map it, I can understand it, and if I can understand it, I can beat it.” Whether beating it means escaping it, surviving it, or exploiting it, the characters all have a kind of… unearned optimism that anything that can be sufficiently documented can be triumphed over. 


And, as a video essayist and an activist or at least a would-be political agitator, that impulse and that optimism really resonate with me. Because, in my opinion, that is the seed for political consciousness (both good and bad). I mentioned earlier that Benhead protagonists are dealing with precarity and alienation and a feeling of falling between the cracks. I’ve seen how these feelings and circumstances can lead people down different paths as they try to understand a life that isn’t exactly going how they’d planned. We always need a story to tell ourselves about who we are and how we got here. We need our lives to make sense. 


And so, when I watch the protagonists of these films attempt to sketch out the boundaries and mechanisms of the alien phenomena upending their lives, I see a direct parallel to us and the people around us trying to map and navigate the mechanisms of equally gargantuan forces we can barely understand, forces that are upending our lives. 


At the risk of both Amerocentrism and being a commie soyboy beta cuck, one need look no further than QAnon and the January 6th Riots to see the kinds of stories some people tell themselves about why they’re so lonely, so angry, so afraid, or just not where they want to be in life. 


When you look at Donald Trump’s rabid fanbase, for example, you can see a lot of people who feel like they’re being left behind in the world: people struggling with medical debt, underemployment, hometowns falling apart, rising food prices, vanishing savings, a perceived loss of status, and powerful elites who just don’t care. His campaign put a story around that which centered his base as victims of a vast and powerful conspiracy to humiliate them. His campaign promised to teach them the rules of the game and how to overcome their enemies. 


However, other people on the margins have encountered the same alienation, the same loneliness, the same fear and anger and often deeper poverty, but reached much different conclusions. They, too, can feel the slow cancellation of the future, can feel the vice-grip of rent-seeking clamped around the citizen-as-consumer, can feel capitalism and white supremacy strangling the life out of the world. 


But rather than put themselves at the center of a labyrinthine conspiracy, they instead perceive the contours of vast hierarchies and tentacular political systems designed with a very easy-to-understand goal in mind: keeping the powerful powerful. Perhaps more importantly, they detect that, through solidarity rather than self-centeredness, these hierarchies can be toppled, that these tentacles can be severed, that these systems were built and thus can be unbuilt. 


Often when you encounter cosmic horror in media, be that Lovecraft stories or horror movies, there is a kind of fatalism at play. There are beings beyond our understanding, we are like little germs to them, the best we can hope for is to be ignored and try not to think about it. And that definitely makes for a delightfully chilling tale or unnerving work of art. But, I do think it’s a valid critique of particularly Lovecraft’s work that his vision of cosmic horror was born out of misanthropy, racism, and ableism. I can mentally separate the art from the artist but that disgust for alienness and degeneracy is pretty foundational to his stories. 


That’s why I am such a big fan of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. Because they do something that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen other artists do with cosmic horror, and that’s to create it from a place of love. Their characters don’t always behave appropriately and rarely pass for model citizens, but they are always painted with dignity, suffused with humanity. If Lovecraft was obsessed with how scary it is to be powerless against alien intelligence, I believe Moorhead and Benson are much more obsessed with how encounters with the unimaginable affect the emotions of real people and how it changes their relationships, and perhaps most importantly, I detect in their work a curiosity about whether and how people can thrive after such encounters. 


See, there is a fifth Benhead joint I haven’t mentioned yet, 2014’s SPRING. It’s maybe the one I want to tell you the least about, except to tell you this: it’s a love story. And if you’re looking at the other films I’ve described in this video and you’re confused about the cosmic horror guys doing a romance film, I get it. But it is a love story and it is 100% in line with the rest of their oeuvre. It’s why I’m so confident that love animates their filmmaking. 


Whatever you want to say about the characters in these films and their questionable judgement, 90% of the time, their encounters with the Vast, the Unthinkable, even the Terrifying don’t force them inward, don’t make them look out for themselves, but rather, these encounters compel them to work together, to take care of one another, to protect each other, and to try to find a way forward, a way to live. A way to thrive. 


Like a cosmic horror protagonist, I want to understand the shape and the rules of the invisible systems interfering with my life and the lives of the people I care about. I read books about them, I watch videos about them, I listen to podcasts about them, and I talk about them with other people out in the world. And sometimes it’s really easy to see a system that is powerful and ancient and seemingly untouchable and think that maybe… this is just the way it’s always gonna be, that maybe all you can do is hope it doesn’t come for you next. 


But that’s Lovecraft protagonist-talk. I don’t want to be a Lovecraft protagonist. I want to be a Moorhead and Benson protagonist who has the audacity and the optimism (unearned or not)  to believe better things are possible.