Netflix’s Bird Box is, by all reports, one of their most successful original films ever, and has become a bit of a sensation, sparking people to take on dumb challenges that involve blindfolding themselves in the real world. But what’s stuck with me the most, beyond the great performances and intriguing set-up, are the cosmic implications. Susanne Bier’s film, adapted by Eric Heisserer from Josh Malerman’s novel, presents the mysterious creatures in several possible forms (which we talked about here). They may look like your greatest fear, or a long, fat baby, but what they do to people points to the kind of cosmic horror H.P. Lovecraft wrote about a hundred years ago.What causes the pandemic and where it comes from is the subject of a lot of debate in the film, and honestly a lot of the explanations sound a bit too much like The Happening for my tastes. However, the film shows us very definitively what the creatures do. While most people immediately kill themselves when they see the beings, othersâ€”perhaps those who were already suffering mental illnessâ€”retain relative sentience and seek to show everyone the greatness of entities. So sane people go mad, and mad people become servants.In Lovecraft’s 1922 masterwork, “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft illustrates the very ethos of “Cosmic Horror,” or the horror of realizing we (humans) aren’t the center of the universe.
â€œThe most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.â€
Learning too much about the Eldritch Truth of cosmic entities can lead to madness. That’s why in any Lovecraft game, your knowledge and madness meters are intrinsically linked. You cannot understand without losing your sanity.The creatures in Bird Box are visible, but incomprehensible. Upon seeing them, people immediately go mad and kill themselves, for the knowledge of these beings’ true form is not worth living through. This is cosmic horror at its most primal. There are deities in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos that require followers to worship them, and Cthulhu specifically has a cult of fanatics that worship him and do his bidding, even if he physically lies dead and dreaming at the bottom of the sea.But we more or less know what Cthulhu looks likeâ€”there’s an uncharacteristic amount of detail in the story about that the massive god with the a head of a cephalopod, massive wings, and a body not unlike a human’s. The great majority of Lovecraft’s greatest deities and scariest monsters are “indescribable,” usually amorphous masses of tentacles and eyes, but perhaps not.This idea is explored in Bird Box via the character of Gary (Tom Hollander), who is able to “pass” for sane, but who is really a worshiper. He unveils a dozen or more hand-drawn images of the Great Ones, and none of them look the same. Some are orbs or floating eyeballs, some are monstrous beasts, and some look like demonic human faces. They are truly indescribable and unknowable. This is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s most prolific deity, Nyarlathotep, an Outer God and an acolyte of Azathoth. Nyarlathotep can take a seemingly infinite number of forms and has been nicknamed, among other things, “God of a Thousand Forms” and “Faceless God.”Part of the terror of Lovecraft, and Bird Box, comes from the unknown; in fact, Lovecraft’s most famous quote says in part, “the oldest and most powerful type of fear is fear of the unknown.” The fact that Malorie and the children know the creatures are out there, wanting merely to be seen, is enough to take her into tactical survival mode 24 hours a day. It/they are everywhere, and just looking at them is too much.Unlike many of the great Lovecraft entities, however, the creatures in Bird Box only have power in physical sight. The school for the blind, which becomes Malorie and the children’s refuge, is an idyllic and untouched Garden of Eden, free of fear from the creatures. They cannot, like Nyarlathotep and others, infiltrate the dreams of their victims.And that might truly be where Bird Box fails to be truly cosmic. While the creatures have many attributes of such a threat, it’s their unknowable physical visage that causes the irreparable insanity; merely knowing about it, or even seeing the artist renditions, has no ill effects. Even them “speaking” and enticing people to look is not enough. So in that way, luckily, there is some safety.If you’re further interested in cosmic horror, check out all the Lovecraftian references and allusions in Annihilation, a truly “cosmic” cosmic horror movie.
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!