D&D General The Layers of Cosmic Horror

Steampunkette

Rules Tinkerer and Freelance Writer
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When most people think of Cosmic Horror they think of Lovecraft. They think of tentacles and water, of red eyes and madness. But it's sometimes hard to really understand why people thought it was so scary, and why or how seeing such a thing would drive someone insane, a common outcome in Lovecraft's work.

It really comes down to four important layers:

1) That which should not be, the Aesthetic Layer.
Seeing something that shouldn't exist is startling. You know this is you've ever walked around a corner, certain no one was coming, and -nearly- crashed into another person. So simple. So banal. But it makes every nerve in your body yelp all at once. You weren't expecting someone to be approaching, weren't expecting the near collision, and the sudden change of expectations is shocking.

Now apply that to the scale of Cosmic Horror. To the idea of a -thing- that shouldn't be, to the sight and smell and sound of something that cannot, in a universe with laws or loving gods, exist.

This is the first portion of cosmic horror. The surface of it. This is why we get shocked when something unacceptably strange appears in the movie, but that sense of shock quickly fades and we get used to the idea of that unusual thing existing. For some Cosmic Horror settings, this is the only layer that actually "Matters" or even "Exists". The trappings of true horror.

2) Cosmic Insignificance, the First Existential Layer.
This is where things start getting more dreadful, more 'Real' for fear. The knowledge, in the pit of your stomach, in the darkening heart of your spirit, that you are nothing before the great cogs of the universe. An insignificant speck so short-lived in relation to geologic time, much less cosmic time, that you can barely have been said to exist.

The greatest legacies of the world, from the Pyramids at Giza to the Roman Empire, have existed for less time than T-Rex walked around planet Earth. And T-Rex infinitely less time sice the Earth formed. And Earth infinitely less time than the Universe itself. And when all of human creation has collapsed into nothing, an infinite amount of time will continue beyond that.

We build religions about infinity, about eternal elements, in part to assure ourselves that we're not entirely pointless meatsacks shuffling about for far too short a time, only to perish ignominiously on an irrelevant hunk of rock, no more unique or special than any other hunk of rock out tere.

This is where the edge of understanding exists for most cosmic horror consumers. This is the Existential Dread that lies at the core of Cosmic Horror. This is what "Drives Men Mad"... but it's not quite there, yet.

3) Loss of Self, the Second Existential Layer
Core to basically every story of horror is the ability of the characters in it to be changed in horrible ways. Whether that's becoming a Werewolf, Vampire, Zombie, a Deep One of Innsmouth, or something more esoteric like "A Killer". Because we fear change. Not just of the world around us, but within -ourselves-.

If we change, if we become a monster, we lose some aspect of ourselves. We lost the traditions of our life and family and friends. If they aren't trying to kill us or hand us over to the authorities, they're rejecting us for the change that's come over us, or in direct danger -from- us after that change.

Because with a simple loss of control, a moment's anger, we can unintentionally change them into something -else-, as well.

Here, too, is the leading edge of madness from Cosmic Horror. Existentialism in these two things causes us to doubt and fear so very much.

4) Change of Perspective, the Final Existential Layer
Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Ant. You live in a colony and spend much of your life underground. You use your sense of smell to know which direction to go, use your sense of touch to know whether you're about to run into a wall or another ant, and your life is farming fungi, feeding babies, and cleaning or attending to the Queen. When you do leave the colony, your eyes are fairly simple and mostly register shapes and some colors, but you're still mostly reliant on sent.

And then something happens. One day, you're outside of the colony, and a large fleshy pink thing appears in your path. It smells vaguely foodlike, so you climb onto it in order to decide where and whether to bite it. Then you're in a place of smooth scentlessness. You can see through it, but there's nothing -there-, and it stops you.

And then... you're not an ant anymore. You're a human being. You see so vividly, you see how tiny your family is, below. You're aware of more than the colony. You feel -love- and -hate- and -horror-. You spend months in this form, learning about the amazing variety of the world, experience sexuality for the first time, taste garlic, swim without fear of drowning, fly through the air without wings, play videogames...

And then you're back to the lab. And back to the ant. And back to the colony.

How can you live in that colony, with no love or sex or garlic or swimming or videogames..? How can you exist in darkness, again, with only scent and touch to guide you, after seeing the brilliant colors of the world...?

Therein lies the real horror in Cosmic Horror. The moment where madness becomes inevitable. Because how does an ant explain World of Warcraft to another ant? How do you describe the sensual flavor of chocolate when your basic mouth-parts can never again know that delight? How can you bear being the only ant that knows the -truth- beyond the colony...?

That is the true madness of Cosmic Horror. The Unspeakable Cults aren't unspeakable because they're terrible. They're unspeakable because there are no words to communicate the truth of what you've seen, felt, experienced.
 

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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
Nice analysis! Your particular analogy for change of perspective doesn’t quite resonate with me, but the broader point of the analogy is well-received.

Something else I think is important for understanding cosmic horror is the context. At the time, we thought we were pretty close to figuring it all out. Science was broadly believed to be almost “done,” and in maybe just a few more decades we would have thoroughly decoded all the secrets of the universe. In that context, the cosmic insignificance was frightening in a different way than it is now.
 

Scribe

Legend
People once thought they understood the world, and their place in it.

I feel absolutely that the same disconnect when Lovecraft was writing is happening again, only we have enough time, money, and distraction to keep it together as a society, kind of.
 

dave2008

Legend
Thanks for the easy - very fun and well thought out.
When most people think of Cosmic Horror they think of Lovecraft. They think of tentacles and water, of red eyes and madness. But it's sometimes hard to really understand why people thought it was so scary, and why or how seeing such a thing would drive someone insane, a common outcome in Lovecraft's work.

It really comes down to four important layers:

1) That which should not be, the Aesthetic Layer.
This one is easy, but as you note transitory.
.2) Cosmic Insignificance, the First Existential Layer.
I know this is a trope of the genre. But I never really get the idea that it would drive you made. I basically operate under this perspective every day and most people think I am sane.
3) Loss of Self, the Second Existential Layer
I get this, for all my faults I want to be me. This is a big reason I don't drink or do drugs. But I can't quite get to the point of it driving me to madness
4) Change of Perspective, the Final Existential Layer
That is the true madness of Cosmic Horror. The Unspeakable Cults aren't unspeakable because they're terrible. They're unspeakable because there are no words to communicate the truth of what you've seen, felt, experienced.
Love this paragraph. I think you captured the frustration and madness that would develop from trying to explain something for which you have no method to communicate. Knowing only you know the horrible truth.

Thanks for sharing!
 

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