Human beings, in general, can get terrified of the unknown pretty easily. On an evolutionary level, it makes sense. By avoiding risks and refraining from making uninformed decisions, the species will survive to reproduce. On the other hand, if you never go anywhere or do anything, your chances of actually meeting a mate and reproducing are pretty much in the tank from the start. So, as much as that fear is part of us, the need to figure out what’s happening around us is, too.
Nowhere does that odd dichotomy of human nature get demonstrated better than in science fiction films that take place in outer space. Space is vast and incomprehensible, dotted by points of light so distant from us that our atmosphere distorts that light making it look like it twinkles. It’s occasionally studded with planets, immense clouds of particles, and objects and phenomena both easily identified and explained and others that science is still trying unravel.
Of course, as humans, we send our best and brightest, the strong and smart out to explore space hoping that they’ll not only survive but help bring back enough pieces of the puzzle to aid in our search for understanding. In the movies, these are usually ruggedly handsome actors with phenomenal muscles and lithe, attractive women that can fit into impossibly small spaces on the ship that need repaired. And, somehow, in nearly any sci-fi movie that makes an attempt to be suspenseful, these poor characters end up subjected to that most horrible of psychological stresses, Space Claustrophobia.
Essentially, human beings, subjected to living in a small, enclosed space with the same people day in and day out with absolutely no means of actual escape that doesn’t involve death will all end up going crazy. It’s understandable, really. Lots of people have very stressful jobs and often have to deal with co-workers they don’t like. However, those people have the luxury of going home at night and decompressing from the everyday strain of cubicle walls or the shop or restaurant or wherever it is that they work. Lots of people also end up living with people they don’t particularly like. Again, if they need to, they can go on vacation, go for a long, aimless walk, drive somewhere, get divorced, or any of several alternatives, most of them only as permanent as that person truly wants it to be. In space, however, there is no such luxury.
Of course, I’m basing this on numerous examples, ranging from kids’ films and comedies right on up to horror flicks and psychological dramas. Some are classic, some are less so. Here’s a little warning for you, there’s no good way to write this column without having some spoilers. I apologize. If you haven’t seen any of these movies and you don’t like spoilers, you might want to avoid this one. I’ll do the best I can not to ruin the movie.
“The Black Hole” is a Walt Disney movie. I first saw it when I was a little, starry-eyed sprocket in the fourth grade. Oddly enough, we watched the movie at school. I’m not sure what our teacher was thinking, but I do remember the movie scaring the living tar out of me. A space exploration crew discovers that the USS Cygnus, thought to have been lost during its mission, is still functioning and inhabited on the edge of a black hole. The crew, naturally, makes contact with the ship. They discover that there is only one survivor, the scientist of the crew. He’s had robots and androids for company over the years that he’s lived by the black hole, but, unfortunately, mechanical companions don’t provide satisfactory humanoid interaction. The doctor seems, more than anything, to be sinister and more than a little creepy, but, considering what has happened to the rest of the crew, it seems understandable if not downright excusable. Of course, as the exploration crew continues to explore the Cygnus and keeps talking to the doctor, things go farther and farther downhill.
More recent takes on the toll space takes on humans psychologically have popped up with almost alarming frequency. In “Event Horizon”, Laurence Fishburne is the captain of a search and rescue crew sent on a top secret mission to recover a ship famously thought to have been destroyed during its maiden voyage (are you noticing a trend here? It definitely appears that going after a space vehicle thought to have been long lost is a very bad idea). Sam Neill is the man who built the ship’s remarkable and experimental gravity drive. He joins the crew on the recovery mission. When they reach the Event Horizon they discover that the crew of the ship died very gruesomely. When one of the crew members is injured in the engine room, the crew still stays to complete their mission. Naturally, systems start to fail as the crew gets closer and closer to discovering what actually happened to those aboard the Event Horizon and all of the crazy starts to really come out when hallucinations become a matter of course for everyone aboard. Tough decisions come into play as a point of no return is reached and the movie becomes a study in whether gaining the answers was really worth the price.
Abandoned or understaffed ships feature heavily in Space Claustrophobia tales. Take “Pandorum” for instance. Two astronauts, played by Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster come out of stasis on a ship that not only appears to be badly damaged and malfunctioning, it also seems to be abandoned. Quaid directs Foster through the ship to discover what repairs need to be made and Foster’s character quickly discovers that they aren’t as alone on the ship as they originally believed. Except, there’s a problem with that assumption and that problem is a common form of space sickness called Pandorum and one or both of them might be suffering from its effects. “Pandorum” plays heavily but skillfully on the “no good means of escape” plot point so commonly used in Space Claustrophobia films. They’re stuck on the ship, some or all of them might be crazy, and the terror of facing the unknown all alone overrides a good portion of survival instinct. Trust happens not because it’s earned but because it’s necessary.
The signs that someone is going crazy due to Space Claustrophobia are almost universal. First, there are hallucinations. They may start as auditory, often unexplained clanking or thumping sounds from deep in the interior of the ship or unsettling rustling skittery sounds that seem to surround the person experiencing them on all sides, even though the noise has no visible source. Then, the afflicted person starts to see things. They can usually hide it fairly well at first, but as the situation escalates, they devolve into jumpy paranoid messes. If other crew members are present, they realize there is a problem because they catch the afflicted party talking to him or herself, usually ranting at a near incoherent level, usually very angrily. Most often, this conversation with themselves is all about whether the person suffering from Space Claustrophobia should actually reveal the issue to their fellow crew members.
The most fun movies showcasing Space Claustrophobia are the ones that really play with viewer’s expectations and manage to keep the audience guessing as to whether or not anyone is actually crazy. “Apollo 18” does that very well. I would consider “Apollo 18” to actually be one of the best “found footage mockumentary” movies I’ve ever seen. It’s intended to be a story about the very last Apollo mission, one that was headed by the Department of Defense and kept entirely secret. The crew is supposed to go to the moon and set up several video cameras and some receivers near a crater. One member of the crew stays in orbit around the moon in order to stay in contact with NASA in Houston. The other two are supposed to set up the equipment and collect some more samples. One of the guys on the moon, Nate, swears that he saw something and up until the last few minutes of the movie it’s highly ambiguous as to whether he really did or if he is having issues due to shock because of trauma. I wouldn’t consider this one a really traditional example of horror-style sci-fi. It’s suspenseful and unnerving and really riveting.
Not every case of Space Claustrophobia has to end badly, either. It can be used to great comedic effect. In Disney’s “Rocketman”, Harland Williams’ character, who has somehow managed to bumble his way into the space program despite being a grade-A idiot, ends up being the only one who isn’t in stasis during the trip into space. As the loneliness and boredom set in, Williams’ character displays some of the classic symptoms described above, most notably talking to himself extensively and seeing things. To keep himself occupied, he makes the brilliant decision to use the ship’s food supply to recreate the paintings in the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of the ship. Fortunately, because this is a Disney movie, once the rest of the crew is awakened, his Space Claustrophobia abates immediately.
In “Moon”, Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell. Sam is on a three year mission living by himself on the moon overseeing the Lunar Industries operation to harvest Helium-3 for Earth’s energy supplies. The computer, known as GERTY (and brilliantly voiced by Kevin Spacey) is his only constant companion. He receives messages from Earth from his wife and from Lunar Industries, but live communication feeds don’t work and haven’t for as long as Sam has been stationed on the moon. He freely admits to talking to himself extensively at the beginning of the movie. He has named the plants on the station and very shortly into the movie, he burns his hand badly after he thinks he sees something that isn’t there. “Moon” uses both paranoia and ambiguity to its advantage very skillfully. Figuring out what is and isn’t all in Sam’s head is difficult at best until the truth eventually gets revealed.
As it turns out, however, not everyone who suffers from Space Claustrophobia is human. The best example of a non-human sufferer would have to be HAL 9000. Since HAL was actually an artificial intelligence computer system, he couldn’t really have hallucinations. However, his responsibilities to his crew and the statistical improbability that he could have made an error end up driving HAL just as psychotic as any of his human sci-fi counterparts. The fun all transpires, of course, when poor Dave has to figure out whether or not he’s the crazy one on the ship.
Given all of these examples, how can a space faring crew manage to avoid Space Claustrophobia? It seems to occur most frequently when crew members end up by themselves. So, arguably, the buddy system might be a very good thing to put into place. If no one goes anywhere by themselves then the chances of ending up infected by something or stranded and isolated should be drastically reduced. Of course, this might up the chances of crew on crew violence because nobody has any privacy anymore (not that they had a lot to begin with), but if the choices are a few well-placed beat downs instead of a horrifying, splattery death where everyone ends up as tiny, bloody fragments, well, what are a few bumps and bruises amongst friends?
Space Claustrophobia also seems to strike a disproportionate number of men. Much of this might be due to the fact that even now, space exploration in movies seems to be a primarily masculine occupation. I’m not going to go into gender politics or stereotyping in science-fiction, because I am a fan of the genre and, for the most part, for every simpering female ninny up there on-screen, there’s usually a Ripley or a Princess Leia to counteract her and there are often male characters that are even less suited for the perils of space travel that pointed to, as well. Wimps in space happen. They usually die. I’m actually quite good with that, thanks.
Back to the point. Even when the crew does include women, however, it’s not usually the women who are cracking up during the mission. The female crew members are, in many movies, the ones who get the first inkling that something is wrong with the crazy guy. They aren’t always listened to when they say something because that would end up making the movie about 20 minutes long and the audience would get really upset. So, possibly, including a higher proportion of women in the crew might help alleviate Space Claustrophobia issues. Then again, we just might end up finding out that when it comes to sex, Space Claustrophobia strikes both sexes equally, we just didn’t have the opportunity to verify it previously.
It’s also usually the smartest and most capable guy who gets struck down by Space Claustrophobia. The man in charge of the ship has the highest probability of displaying symptoms, and, in that perfect world of sci-fi movies, it’s usually a guy who’s brilliant and heroic. He’s in charge because he deserves to be. The one example I could use reliably for this column who successfully recovered from full-blown Space Claustrophobia was the character in “Rocketman.” So, maybe if we sent good-natured, well-meaning total idiots into space they could get Space Claustrophobia, recover from it, and then be studied to see what, exactly, it is that makes idiots seemingly immune. Of course, actually getting our idiots into space could prove difficult. If they don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll probably crash a multi-million dollar piece of scientific machinery and end up bringing the entire space program down around them.
Sadly, I can’t seem to find a good solution for the fictional problem of Space Claustrophobia. Instead, I’ll just have to keep watching Space Claustrophobia movies and see if someone else arrives at a solution that’s both satisfying and entertaining.