MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY: Parallel universes, lurking monsters, and the void

“You see them? You see them? You see the things that float and flop about you and through you every moment of your life? You see the creatures that form what men call the pure air and the blue sky? Have I not succeeded in breaking down the barrier; have I not shewn you worlds that no other living men have seen?” – H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond

Lovecraft was certainly a complicated figure. He died at the age of 46 in Providence, Rhode Island, where he had spent most of his life aside from some years in our own Brooklyn, New York, which he hated and exacerbated his racism. His family had a history of psychosis and he, himself, was an ill child and sickly adult. It is rumored that he was gay and, despite being married, was perhaps indifferent to sex at most. He wrote prolifically and never saw success, critically or financially, during his lifetime. Knowing this about Lovecraft informs a deep understanding of the dark horror, reclusion, and fear of the other that is the heart of his work. In his book H.P. LOVECRAFT Against the World, Against Life Michel Houellebecq qualifies Lovecraft as having an “absolute hatred of the world in general, aggravated by an aversion to the modern world in particular.” His strange relationship to the world manifests itself vividly into his stories, twisting and turning into a terrifying monstrous form…and there’s nothing to do about it.

The tenor of his writing is pervasive even when it’s subversive and his influence is as far reaching as the tentacles of Cthulu or the Great “Old Ones.” In many ways, Lovecraft’s tales are more accessible than the man to whom he will always be compared, Edgar Allan Poe. Or at the very least they seem more fun to tackle for filmmakers, television writers (The Twilight Zone) and, these days, video game makers. From the classic to the camp with some expected inclusions (Buckaroo Banzai?), Miskatonic University provides a cross-section of Lovecraft’s influence and shows us how deeply entrenched this idea of other worlds is still today.

A literary master of the unknown, H.P. Lovecraft’s true gift is that he was able to vividly describe of unsightly horrors as they bump up against and into our normal life. He constructs a unique architecture of time wherein the framework for these terrifying other worlds contain the past, present, and future. Still, these spaces and the creatures within are not easy to make visible – and that’s where cinema come one. Films, like the unique collection in Miskatonic University, explores this territory in new, experimental, and often comedic ways. They reveal to us the parallel worlds, the worlds that contain deep, primal fears, that exist adjacent to our own.

“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects are infinitely narrow.” – H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond

Making a Lovecraftian film is tough endeavor because, afterall, it is hard to depict the unnameable. But being difficult surely hasn’t stopped the likes of Roger Corman, Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter and many others from making their mark on making the unknown known. The films inspired by Lovecraft become their own mutations as his stories move from the written word to the big screen. Some, like The Dunwich Horror, The Mouth of Madness, and From Beyond are more straightforward adaptations while others, like Ghostbusters, Cabin in the Woods, and Buckaroo Banzai take this Lovecraftian idea of other, menacing worlds and make it their own.

Miskatonic University explores both of these approaches. One the more literal adaptations, the psychedelic laced The Dunwich Horror (pronounced “dunnich”), is based on the short story of the same name. Produced by the crazy genius who is Roger Corman, it features the fictional Miskatonic University in Arkam, Massachusetts, where many of Lovecraft’s stories take place. The Dunwich Horror is a weird, 1970s, sexed-up/turned-out version of the Lovecraft story where a mysterious man uses the Necronomicon as an appeasement to the Elder Gods. Seven years earlier, Corman directed the glorious The Haunted Palace that was part of his Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. But, as we know, this is a Lovecraft story. Marketed as as “Edgar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace” but is actually derived from the plot of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It stars Vincent Price, as it should, as a man who revisits a familial palace and his wicked ancestry.

Frequent Lovecraft sourcer Stuart Gordon is no stranger to tackling his bizarre tales and making them a gory mess of a good ole time. His film From Beyond is part of a series of Lovecraft-based films he made starring the same actors (ala Corman’s Poe releases) that included Re-Animator and Castle Freak. Based on the short story of the same name, Gordon gives the audience access to an amoeba-like other world through the human brain. When the doctor, Dr. Pretorious (Gordon referencing Bride of Frankenstein), who made this discovery meets his untimely demise by the creatures that lurk in the beyond, his assistant must face this distorted reality in order to clear his own name.

In the mid-1990s, horror legend John Carpenter tackled Lovecraft’s In The Mouth of Madness in what he refers to as his “Apocalypse Trilogy” along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. Told in flashback, a Lovecraft staple, it recounts the story of a psychiatric patient who, in his formerly sane life, was a novelist whose books manifested very real nightmares. “Reality’s not what it used to be.” Lastly, the most recent inclusion is 2016’s pure Lovecraftian The Void. It’s grotesque monsters, hospitals harboring the gateway to hell, and the blackness space of the void prove there is universal and perpetual interest in Lovecraft’s weird worlds.

The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind. – H.P. Lovecraft

Now for those atypical inclusions. Well, they may not be so different after all. The three implicitly Lovecraftian films in Miskatonic UniversityThe Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Cabin in the Woods, and The Ghostbusters – are all comedies that address the absurdity and the horror of the unknown.

The dry, brilliant, and nearly absurdist The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension tells a Lovecraftian story through the renaissance hero Buckaroo Banzai and his band of diversely talented friends, the Hong Kong Cavaliers. For this adventure, they must stop a deranged scientist who has recently escaped from an insane asylum. His insanity was sparked by, you guessed it, entering into another dimension. The fissure he created opened up the portal to other alien beings as well; some friendly, some not. Things are similar in Ghostbusters, a witty and enduring classic where unimaginable horrors are unleashed onto New York city when the Keymaster opens up the gates of hell. In Lovecraft fashion, this story has a group of scientists who must not only discover where this portals to other dimensions exist but to clean up the messes along the way.

Lastly, and maybe even most importantly, is 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. In many ways, the significance of this film has yet to be fully explored but this meta-referential film makes both a wink and a nod to the horror genre in the smartest of ways. At its core, this absurdist tale shows our world’s safety is dependent upon human sacrifice to appease the elder gods who are ultimately, to say the least, unsatisfied. As funny as it is scary, this film is an insightful reminder of into the fragility of order and the world’s collectively close proximity to total chaos.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. – H.P. Lovecraft

Written by Caryn Coleman, Director of Programming/Special Projects