H.P. Lovecraft’s Influence on Pop Culture

By Kathleen Fontilea | March 12th 2015

H.P. Lovecraft, June 1934
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

A dead man has been haunting your books, your movies, your comics, your television shows, and your video games for generations. Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), an American magazine writer from Providence, Rhode Island, redefined the horror genre by combining it with the dangers of the unknown and uncaring universe. There is no magic in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, only science that humans cannot understand.

Through his short stories, Lovecraft made it clear that Earth is not the center of the universe. People are nothing more than ants or specks of dust compared to the godlike aliens and cosmic monstrosities that rain down on their planet, pull all the strings and wreak havoc.

Lovecraft was a noted atheist yet he created his own mythology known as the Cthulhu mythos. The mythology was named after his most famous monster, Cthulhu, a “green, sticky spawn of the stars” that was as big as a mountain, had a squid-head, writhing tentacles, and “flabby” claws.

Lovecraft died poor and unknown but his work has spawned legions of authors, filmmakers and artists.

“Lovecraft’s influence is like a chthonic undercurrent that reaches its tentacles out under the surface to infect everything from T.V. to music, movies, games, toys, and anything else you can imagine,” said Brian Callahan, a director for the Portland, Oregon H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. “Lovecraft is so very influential in pop-culture that there is more and more every day.”

Stephen King, a bestselling horror writer whose works had often been converted into films and television series, has frequently cited Lovecraft as an inspiration. Lovecraft’s influence can be seen through King’s The Mist (1980), “Crouch End” (1980), and It (1986).

Musical artists such as the 80’s thrash-metal band, Metallica, had been influenced by Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraft inspired Metallica’s songs, “The call of Kutulu” and “The Thing That Should Not Be.” The late Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bassist, was an enthusiast for the Cthulhu mythos according to monsterlegacy.wordpress.com. Lovecraft and his beasts had also been featured in Black Sabbath’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” Poison’s “Yog-Sothoth” and more.

John Carpenter, a renowned American horror and science-fiction film director, is an admitted Lovecraft fan. Carpenter has incorporated Lovecraftian themes in movies like Prince of Darkness (1987), In the Mouth of Madness (1994) and his cult classic The Thing (1982).

Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican film director, screenwriter and novelist known for his dark, fantastical creatures, is heavily influenced by Lovecraft. Toro injected Lovecraftian elements in Pacific Rim (2013) and The Strain (2014). Toro has also directed Hellboy (2004), based on the comic by another Lovecraftian, Mike Mignola. Toro has been struggling for years to bring Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen but it was put on hold due to budget problems.

Lovecraft has a presence in cartoons and television. Cthulhu was featured in a South Park episode, “Coon and Friends” (2010) and the Scooby-Doo Mystery Incorporated episode, “The Shrieking Madness” (2010). Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report has mentioned Lovecraft and his creatures several times, including his interview with George Church about the Personal Genome Project in 2012.

There are many people who have been exposed to Lovecraft without having read his stories or even knowing who he is. But there is a rich and ever growing subculture of Lovecraftian enthusiasts. The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon was founded in Portland, Oregon in 1995 by Andrew Migliore “with the desire that H.P. Lovecraft would be rightly recognized as a master of gothic horror and his work more faithfully adapted to film and television,” according to their website.

Migliore stepped down as CthulhuCon’s director in 2010 due to family and career obligations. Brian Callahan and his wife Gwen has since taken over as directors. The Callahans have been involved with CthulhuCon since 2002 as vendors. They own Sigh Co. Graphics, a T-Shirt company that offers Lovecraftian and horror designs and an online “Lovecraftian boutique” called Arkham Bazaar at arkhambazaar.com.

“Those who know little of Lovecraft, or his most famous beastie Cthulhu, will be right at home,” Brian Callahan said. “It is a great introduction to an incredibly varied and complex genre.”

The festival offers a variety of attractions including independent films, animations, music, and panels. CthulhuCon attendees are not what many would expect from horror fans, according to Callahan. There will not be any gory, slasher movies. Most of the content is about humanity discovering what the world is really about through an uncaring universe, strange creatures and forbidden books.

“There has been weddings hosted at the festival over the years,” Callahan said. “There are people who have been coming for a long time, who are now bringing their tween children to experience the wonder of Lovecraft’s creations.”

The Portland, Oregon H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in October 2-4 at the Hollywood Theatre. Their guest of honor will be Scottish author Charles M. Stross who wrote The Atrocity Archives (2004). There will also be performances from Lovecraftian punk rockers called The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets. They will also be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the award-winning silent film adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu, which will be featured with live musical accompaniment. Callahan has hinted that they are “planning something very special” for the 30th anniversary of Re-Animator (1985).

There is also an H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and CthulhuCon in San Pedro, California. They will be celebrating their 6th annual festival at the Warner Grand Theatre on May 1-3.

Although Lovecraft and the horror and science-fiction genres are widely received in today’s film, art and novels, it continues to be marginalized both critically and academically.

“Horror and science fiction and fantasy are ghettoized and considered low culture. There are some examples of film and books that sort of crossover and are considered to be literature but critics always take pains to describe them as not just horror, it’s more than horror,” said Jennifer Moorman, a film critic and analyst who teaches a class on the horror genre at Long Beach State University.

“Something can’t be actual horror and be taken seriously,” Moorman said.

Moorman guesses the reason why horror is not taken seriously is because it  is a “body genre” which evokes a physical reaction (fear, screaming, jumping out of your seat, etc).

“There is a classic split between the mind and the body in western thought [. . .] Reason and the mind is associated with men and the body and emotion is associated with [women],” Moorman said. “Ironically, although horror is associated with adolescent men it’s the association with the more feminized and less taken seriously realm.”

Zachary Locklin, a published poet and English professor at Long Beach State University, teaches the horror genre in most of his classes and is a horror film buff.

Locklin believes that one of the major reasons why horror is not taken seriously is because the ideas that come from the genre is, at it’s core “ridiculous.” Ghosts and ghouls are not real. Why should we take it seriously? Most importantly, Locklin asks, would we want to take it seriously?

“Part of the strength of [horror] is that it lives on the margins of respectability. It is the genre that is predicated upon pushing buttons.On showing us things that we cannot see [and] themes [that] are largely focused on things that we don’t like about ourselves [like racism],” Locklin said. “That doesn’t work if the things it’s trying to tell you are things that you don’t mind being told.

Robert Guffey, a published author and professor at Long Beach State University, is a Lovecraft enthusiast and modern day disciple. Guffey has read all of the stories in the Cthulhu mythos, some of them several times. He has taught Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927) in his literature classes.

Guffey has mentioned Lovecraft in his book Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form (2012) which discusses popular conspiracy theories such as the JFK assassination. He wrote a novel with Lovecraftian elements titled Spies and Saucers (2014) which includes a story of a dead nun found in a marijuana garden. Guffey claims his most recent book, Chameleo (2015), is “stranger than Lovecraft.” It is a true story about “invisible spies, heroin addiction and homeland security,” Guffey said.

Guffey has cutouts of people from the Victorian age and miniature paper dolls of Lovecraft’s winged and tentacled creatures scattered on on his office desk. They were gifts from his students.

Guffey was wearing yellow Hawaiian shirt with blue and green rectangles and a gray, newsboy cap. He called it his “spring hat” because he wears a different for each season. He wore a fedora for winter and a straw hat for summer. Guffey pointed at a blue tote bag with the cover of The Great Gatsby printed on the side.

“In the 1920s, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were the literary stars of the time. It’s mind boggling to consider that Lovecraft was writing at the same exact time [. . .] In Lovecraft’s day, hi style was considered to be archaic. And yet there are more people alive today who are reading Lovecraft than Fitzgerald of Hemingway,” Guffey said. “Lovecraft was underappreciated at his time [. . .] but in 2015, the situation flipped. Lovecraft’s writing speaks to people more than Fitzgerald or Hemingway’s writings because Lovecraft was seeing the future. He was writing about hyper dimensional physics and things we are just now coming to grapple with and understand.”

Guffey believes that academia is 50 years behind of its time and that it should not be taken at face value.

“Academics are this small masturbating incestuous little quantum bubble. They’re not real people,” Guffey said.

People in the real world do take horror and science-fiction seriously every time they buy a movie ticket, Guffey said.

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