Being an insane over-analysis of one of my favourite sub-genres!
You know this story, you’ve seen it a million times. It’s two parts sci-fi and one part horror, and it owes its ancestry almost entirely to movies and later, videogames; its only direct literary ancestor would by the haunted house story. Usually taking place in the future, the story will feature a group of humans (often military) who either stumble upon or are sent to investigate a mysterious space ship, space station or remote colony or outpost of some sort. At first it seems as if the place is deserted. There will be no signal and no response to any attempts at communications. There may be some evidence that the previous occupants came to a sticky end. The characters will wander around in the dark with flashlights. Sooner or later, they will encounter whatever it was that killed the original crew, and things will get nasty. It’s often aliens, zombies, ghosts, demons, or some combination of the above. Depending on the ratio of horror to sci-fi, members of the team may be killed off one-by-one, or they may fight the threat outright.
I’ve got a weakness for these stories. Sometimes they’re done well. Usually they’re not. But I find it interesting to trace which ideas crop up time and time again in these narratives.
TV Tropes calls this storyline type ‘the Ghost Ship.’ It may feature an actual sailing ship (for example in the Ps2 game Cold Fear or the movie Virus, or indeed the movie Ghost Ship), but in most sci-fi scenarios, it will be some update on a ship. Typical examples include the Ishimura from Dead Space and the Ozymandias from Dino Crisis 3. According to TV Tropes, the scenario may contain a number of sub-tropes, my favourite of which include-
DISTRESS CALL: it’s extremely common that the protagonists will have answered a distress call from the mysterious, stricken vessel, and that’s why they’re out there. Happens in Alien.
EVIL ARCHITECTURE: The ship will often be designed in a spooky, gothic fashion completely unlike the smooth, clean lines of actual spacecraft. Particularly prevalent in Alien, Alien Ressurection, Event Horizon and Dino Crisis 3.
LATE TO THE PARTY: They arrive, only to find that everybody’s either dead or disappeared. Whatever went down is now over- but it’s probably about to happen again. Think of the pirates who show up on the Argonautica in Deep Rising. Also happens in the video game version of The Thing, in which the main characters have been sent to find out what happened to the original crew, only to find that some mysterious shit has already gone down. In the Star Wars horror novel Death Troopers, the prison barge Purge finds a Star Destroyer drifting in space, and sends a boarding party over…
BIG DUMB OBJECT: in which the crew find some large, mysterious and utterly alien object inside the ship. It’s usually incredibly powerful, but in some subtle way. Think of the sphere from Sphere, Rama from the Rama books by Arthur C. Carke, or the monolith from 2001.
APOCALYPSE LOG: The characters will find a diary, video or note left by the previous crew that details the descent from normality into hell; used often as a clue as to what’s about to happen to the protagonists. Used memorably in Event Horizon (Liberate tute mae ex inferis!). Also used in the original Resident Evil, when characters read the diary of a scientist who is slowly becoming a zombie.
MEAT MOSS: In the sections of the ship that have been infected by the aliens/bio weapons/whatever, walls and floors will have some sort of horrible biological growth covering them. Though not a ‘ghost ship’ story, an early example is the creep that the Zerg generate in Starcraft. Also, think of the infected areas from Run Like Hell, Dead Space and Doom3.
So, where does this genre come from? I reckon Alien is the prime culprit. Though not without its spiritual predecessors, Alien stands alone in inspiring hordes of movies that feature idiots wandering around in dark corridors with torches strapped to their guns. And when it comes to videogames, Doom cornered the market so entirely in this department that first-person shooters were known as ‘Doom-clones’ for years. But lets have a look at the chronology anyway.
Traditional haunted house stories: going back hundreds of years. A person, or bunch of people, get stuck in a spooky location, often with evil architecture, and weird things happen.
Planet of the Vampires (1965): a slightly schlocky Italian horror-sf movie with lurid and disturbing visuals. Two spaceships receive a distress call from an unexplored planet. On the planet, they find a rotting ship that contains the corpses of a long-dead crew. Turns out that there’s a race of creatures on the planet that can use mind control to manipulate people and have been using a false signal to lure ships to their world.
Alien (1979): Miners-in-space on board the Nostromo (which is towing a refinery that looks like a gothic cathedral) interrupt their mission home in order to answer a distress call from an unexplored planet, LV-426. They land and find out that the signal is coming from an ancient rotting alien ship. The mummified corpse of the crew is found inside. They find eggs, face-huggers, and a creature with a really nasty reproductive cycle. They also walk around slowly in dark corridors a lot. Introduces the idea of the evil greedy corporation (Weyland-Yutani) who ‘knew all along’ about the creature, and don’t care how many people have to die in order to achieve their goals. A massively influential movie that pretty much defined the much abused ‘walking-slowly-down-the-corridor’ branch of cheap horror.
Aliens (1986): Introduces the idea of Space Marines into the mix. A bunch of space marines are sent to LV-426, which is now a colony world, after contact is lost with the colony. They arrive late to the party, finding that most of the terraformers are dead. They slowly wander around in corridors for a while before the movie becomes an all-out action classic as they fight the aliens. Again, the evil greedy corporation want to capture the aliens for their own capitalistic purposes, and one of the team is a company operative who’s actually in on the scam. Like its predecessor, much imitated.
Doom (1993): The first video game in our list. Another evil greedy corporation, the Union Aerospace Corporation, operates remote, secret research and military outposts on the moons of Mars. When things start going horribly wrong, space marines are sent into the facility to investigate. They don’t come back. Eventually the player character, a space marine, arrives late to the party to investigate. Everyone’s dead, and he soon finds that the place is swarming with demons. Turns out UAC has been experimenting with teleportation, and accidentally opened a portal to hell (though an accident, it’s made clear that their experiments were far from ethical even beforehand).
Event Horizon (1997): A movie that knowingly mixes and matches from all the examples that have gone before, and was pitched as ‘The Shining’ in space. The rescue vessel Lewis & Clarke is sent to answer a distress call from the Event Horizon, a ship that disappeared years before, and is now floating in orbit around Neptune as a big dumb object of sorts. The crew of the Lewis board the Horizon, only to find that it’s empty. Something strange happened to its crew. They wander around in the dark for a bit, then they find an apocalypse log in the form of a video showing the crew seemingly in hell and speaking spooky ominous latin things. There’s no evil corporation, but there is an evil scientist who ‘knew all along’ what the score was. And the rescue craft gets destroyed, stranding the crew on the ghost ship.
Run Like Hell (2002): A largely-forgotten PS2 game that’s a nice example of a ‘ghost ship’ scenario, and pretty much a pattern for the much more successful Dead Space. Lance Henrikson plays a mining surveyor on the deep space station Forsetti. After a days’ mining, he returns late to the party to find that it’s been overrun by a kind of Alien-influenced race that can assimilate human bodies to create new alien horrors. They spread meat moss throughout the station in an attempt (as usual) to turn it into a massive hive. Henrikson’s character must travel through the deserted station, fighting the creatures. Includes some Star Trek-like inspiration as well.
Dino Crisis 3 (2003): Much maligned sequel that pretty much killed the franchise. It’s a typical example of ‘what do we do with the series next? I don’t know- how about space?’, putting it in the illustrious company of Jason X and Leprachaun in Space. Again, there’s a ship from the past that disappeared mysteriously and then reappears, the Ozymandias. Check out the intro video on Youtube for some great, over-the-top use of spooky choir music and evil, gothic architecture when the Ozymandias is introduced. Three characters are sent to investigate the ghost ship, but their entry goes awry and they get stuck on the ghost ship. The original crew have disappeared, but the ship is inhabited by... mutant dinosaurs. There’s an evil scientist who’s behind everything.
Doom3 (2004): Really an update on the first game, but using better story-telling. Plot is pretty much the same, but more fleshed-out. Not only is there an evil corporation, but there’s an evil scientist who’s actually in league with the forces of Hell. Makes copious use of walking-nervously-in-dark-corridors.
Dead Space (2008): Massively successful game that spawned a successful franchise, despite all of its elements being pretty derivative (the protagonist is called Isaac Clarke, for crying out loud. He should have been called Ridley Cameron). The USG Ishimura, sends out a distress call. Again, the rescue attempt goes tits up and the crew get stranded on the ghost ship. They wander around the deserted ship for a while. Crew are dead. Turns out that the ship is infested with some really nasty alien contagion that reanimates the dead and turns them into monsters in order to propagate itself. Again, they infect the ship with meat moss and form a hive mind. Instead of some evil corporation being responsible for the horror, it turns out that the government deliberately sicked an alien artefact on a colony world to monitor the effects, and that’s what started all the trouble. One of the crew is actually a government operative who’s in on it.