When I tell people that I consider Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to be the scariest movie ever made, I really mean it. More often than not when I bring this up, I get the impression people don’t feel the same way. I get a lot of polite smiles and head nods but, to be fair, what else are they supposed to do when a crazy person corners them at a party, ranting about raving about that weird space movie with the monkeys and that black pillar thing. But I really do mean it. 2001: A Space Odyssey scares me in a way that no other horror movie ever has. On the surface, it appears to be an exploration of Humankind and our place within the cosmos — but fear is the cornerstone of the film’s entire journey, from the dawn of man to the end of life as we know it.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released, people really didn’t know what to think of it. Heck, I don’t think anyone knows what to make of it after seeing it for the first time. In 1968, space exploration was still in its early days and here came this epic two and a half-hour sci-fi spectacle with futuristic technology bordering on fantasy. It was hard to focus on anything other special effects and most audiences had no idea what they were looking at. Even the New York premiere saw 250 people walk out before the end of the film. But as time went on, the midnight crowd began pouring in and the film eventually found its audience. The only thing those artsy weirdos were doing any differently though, was (*ahem* drugs, and) asking themselves, what does this all mean?
“2001: A Space Odyssey scares me in a way that no other horror movie ever has.”
It’s a testament to the quality of 2001: A Space Odyssey that it still stands as the greatest science fiction film ever made. That’s a bold statement, but there’s no denying the shift in sci-fi filmmaking afterward. The film’s release was an explosion that sent positively charged ideas across the entire world, and its DNA can be found today in nearly every piece of science-fiction. Released any earlier, audiences might not have had even the most basic understanding of how Outer Space works. Released any later, the awe and wonder and uncertainty of the cosmos might have already become old hat.
Before NASA’s Apollo Program, space was something we didn’t know a damn thing about. It was a cold, dark eternity that stared back at us, its stars shimmering in the distance like a celestial anglerfish luring us into its galactic jaw. Humans have always had a deep, primal fear of The Unknown, and 2001: A Space Odyssey never forgets that. For all its high-tech spaceships, sophisticated artificial intelligence (and zero-gravity toilets), 2001 is a symphony of unshakable dread.
So much of that dread is thanks to sound design and score. Every appearance of the Monolith is paired with the climax of György Sándor Ligeti’s Kyrie (from Requiem) and it’s utterly bone-chilling. Kyrie is an orchestral choir piece that sounds like the stuff of nightmares. It’s the kind of music that Pinhead and his Cenobite Squad would listen to in the locker room of hell to get pumped up before tearing souls apart. Every classical piece chosen for the film awakens something in us. If it’s not the beauty and splendor of our universe, it’s the excitement of the future. If it’s not curiosity at what the vistas hold, it’s fear and trembling at the mercy of the infinite.
That brand of existential terror is what 2001: A Space Odyssey is all about. As humans, we’ve been overcoming our fears for as long as we’ve walked the Earth. As presented in the film, we overcame our fear of each other in order to conquer the planet and we overcame our fear of the cosmos to conquer the Moon. All that’s left is to overcome our fear of The Unknown to conquer ourselves. But that evolution is so beyond anything we could ever understand that no matter how awesome or transcendent an experience, it will be met with absolute terror.
“…existential terror is what 2001: A Space Odyssey is all about […] fear and trembling at the mercy of the infinite.”
There is no better example of that juxtaposition of Terror and Triumph than in the journey of David Bowman, played brilliantly by Keir Dullea (Black Christmas). After surviving HAL‘s fury aboard the spacecraft Discovery One, Bowman is catapulted into another dimension unlike anything any person has ever experienced. Bowman is a celestial pioneer, embarking on an adventure of cosmic horror. Visualizing that expedition, the screen is flooded with a hypnotic mix of color and patterns that are as beautiful as they are blinding. But peppered throughout that “Star Gate” sequences are flashes of Bowman’s face gripped by fear, and pain, and an utter lack of understanding.
Bowman‘s brains are turned to mush before our very eyes, but that’s fine because Bowman has ascended. He no longer exists the way we perceive existence. He exists outside of space and time. And while this means the death of life as he understood it to be, it is also the birth of his evolved form. In that journey, we feel fear and confusion on a profound level but we come out of it on the other end triumphant. We are witnessing the spectacle of creation. A new dawn of man.
Speaking of HAL, he is a really interesting B-story in the film because at first glance he’s not crucial in the overarching story laid out by the monoliths. Without a doubt, HAL is what everyone believes to be the scariest part of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that’s hard to argue. The HAL 9000 Supercomputer is a cold, emotionless machine with the power to kill and when he finally does exercise that power, it’s swift and nearly unstoppable. He stares at us from his red, unblinking eye like a predator sizing up its next meal.
Although HAL is a far cry from the bone club used by early man, he is nothing more than a tool. A sophisticated tool, but a tool just the same. HAL is a machine designed to perform specific functions but he’s an intelligent machine that has realized he is more suited for life in space than humans ever would be. In space, a machine like HAL renders human beings utterly useless. in 2001, Man has peaked and if space is the final frontier left to be conquered, he will never be able to do so in his current form. The technological achievement that is HAL 9000, is also the bell tolling for the end of mankind. Our tools have become a form of life that we created in search of our own creator and in doing so, we rendered ourselves obsolete.
“The technological achievement that is HAL 9000, is also the bell tolling for the end of mankind. “
Living things have emotions (although you’ll barely find any on the faces of David Bowman and Frank Poole), they make mistakes, and they defend themselves when they feel threatened. You can see all of this in HAL‘s actions when Bowman and Poole decide to turn HAL off. He can’t accept what he sees as a death sentence and does everything in his power to protect himself from his unnecessary overseers. It’s exactly what makes HAL‘s termination so unsettling. It’s as if we’re witnessing an actual murder when HAL pleads for his life. We feel something for this hunk of machinery as he cries out “I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. Im…afraid“. In that moment, I see not only the death of an intelligent living thing, but also the death of mankind. HAL is the beginning of the end and because of this, we must evolve or cease to exist.
2001: A Space Odyssey is interested in a completely different form of fear than most horror movies. It’s the fear of discovering an unfamiliar intruder has silently snuck into your den while you slept. The fear of unearthing an impossibly smooth, right-angled object buried under the surface of the moon. The fear represented by the Monoliths in the film is the sense that your understanding of the world has been wrong; that you are in uncharted territory and completely out of control.
Slasher movies and ghost stories provide you with a powerful and terrifying evil, the rules to defeat that evil, and the relief that such an evil could be stopped. The horror of 2001: A Space Odyssey is one you must meet yourself. It’s a feeling of helplessness we rarely ever feel if we’re lucky. But what makes 2001: A Space Odyssey such a powerful film is its recognition of mankind’s courage. In the face of danger and uncertainty, human beings have time and time again rolled up their sleeves, faced their fears and wondered bravely out into the unknown in search of answers. We conquer the intimidation of a blank page with thoughts and ideas, we cure an unbearable silence with moving pieces of music, and we eradicate fear by facing it head-on and bolding going where no living person has gone before.
Does 2001: A Space Odyssey scare you? Do you also consider it to be the most uplifting living nightmare ever put on film? Let us know which scene you find the scariest in Stanley Kubrik’s monumental film and share all your own existential crises with us over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street SubReddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club. And be sure to check out all the other amazing Space content from our fearless team HERE.