On the Lovecraftian nature of United 93.

There have been sufficient people asking about my observation here that the most successful Lovecraft/Mythos movies made were Alien, Pleasantville, and United 93 – particularly the last one – that I will attempt to explain what I meant there.  Let’s dispose of Alien quickly: malevolent universe, deliberately hostile towards humanity; overwhelming doom – everybody on-board with that one?  We good?  Good.

Likewise, explaining Pleasantville is fairly straightforward, and I’ve discussed it before.  The short version (and thanks to Ken Hite for having the thought first): try to imagine how that scenario plays out if you’re one of the black-and-white characters who get to have your entire consciousness expanded in another dimension by Those From Outside whether you want to or not.  And not just you: thanks to the aforementioned Outsiders entire nations of sentient human beings are created and then sent off to murder, rape, kill, starve, and oppress each other as a direct consequence of the actions taken to allow you to be able to ‘enjoy’ this strange, extra-dimensional perception called “co-lor.”  By the way: compared to your grandfather, you’re now an insane, incomprehensible, gibbering not-human chock-full of forbidden knowledge.

So: Alien for the visceral, existential horror; and Pleasantville for the soul-sucking destruction of your cherished delusions under the cruel weight of true reality.  United 93 taps into the often overlooked aspect of Lovecraft’s work: Holding Back the Darkness.

let’s go back to Ken for a moment.  This passage is from the essay “The Man who shot Joseph Curwin,” which can be found in his excellent Dubious Shards.  Ken notes that it’s assumed in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game that your character will die, usually after going insane first; in other words, there’s not going to be a happy ending.  Nihilism is the order of the day.  And yet…

But a surprising number of Lovecraft’s stories back away from that precipice.  In those stories, terror provokes a response.  In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Dr. Willett boldly investigates Ward’s fate, and avenges him.  In “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Daniel Upton does the same for his unfortunate friend Edward Derby.  Walter Gilman kills the witch Keziah Mason in “Dreams in the Witch-House,” though he dies in the attempt.  Although the narrator, Robert Olmstead, succumbs to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” his warning inspires the FBI and the Navy to destroy the town.  Professor Armitage exorcises “The Dunwich Horror,” the police break up “The Horror at Red Hook,” and the narrator dynamites the Martense mansion at the end of “The Lurking Fear.”  And most uncharacteristically of all, the Whipples armor up with “Crookes tubes” and flame-throwers to burn out the demonic entity within “The Shunned House.”

…to which I’ll add the various adventures of Randolph Carter – and, for that matter, the fact that in “The Call of Cthulhu” story itself the forces of humanity manage to prevail.  They then typically died, but they prevailed.

Now let’s look at the plot of United 93.  The goal of the terrorists (fairly obviously, given the very name that we use for them) was to provoke terror – but al-Qaeda’s goal in both the movie and real life was to create a transformational sort of terror.  To put it simply (probably too simply) the group wished to drive us all insane by wrecking Western society’s existing consensual view of reality and substituting one more pleasing to al-Qaeda; the movie covered this brilliantly by showing the inability of various air traffic controllers and military personnel to grasp the way that things that could not happen were happening.

Now, whether this would have actually worked or not is still an open question – personally, I’d say no; al-Qaeda seriously misjudged both my country’s resiliency, its taste for monster-killing, and its ability to wreck other people’s days – but the question is moot because as soon as the true awfulness of the situation was brought home* to the people closest to it (the passengers of United 93) those people fought back to preserve their existing reality against, well, a bunch of mad, suicidal cultists attempting a mass human sacrifice.  They did so successfully, albeit at the cost of their own lives – and in doing so reestablished the existing reality.  It is still not normal to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings.  Crazy people may do that, but we do not live in a world where such things must be accepted as being part of how things work.

So.  Very Lovecraftian.  Possibly not so much the stuff that his literary grandchildren and great-grandchildren write, but actually fairly close to some of the things that HPL himself wrote.

Anyway, that’s my take on it.

Moe Lane

*The role of information in Lovecraft’s work is another fascinating subject, but I’ve blathered on enough as it stands.


  • Lazarus Long says:

    “The role of information in Lovecraft’s work is another fascinating subject”

    The Necronomicon is ALWAYS locked up in the “unavailable” stacks at the University library, the monstrous runes are unreadable, the very existence of some is literally unknown.

    Interesting point.

  • Rob Crawford says:

    Ah, the Necronomicon may be in the locked stacks, but the protagonist always manages to learn enough to make a difference in the end.

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