With ‘Stranger Things’ reopening the gate to excellent alternate dimension storytelling, we dig into some of the other best examples!
“Children, somewhere in South Park, something has created a door to the evil, parallel universe!”
Stranger Things is a love letter to ‘80s hard sci-fi in the best possible way. While it wags influences like John Carpenter and Stephen King in your face like a roving tentacle, it also decides to fulfill a very specific sect of science fiction. Stranger Things tells the story of a missing boy and the appearance of a mysterious girl, but it’s ultimately a series about alternate dimensions, more specifically, when doorways to those alternate dimensions open up in our own backyard.
Now just to delineate what is specifically being looked at here, these are not films or TV shows dealing with parallel realities, some what if? sort of exercise, or dalliances with alternate history. These are specifically instances where a rift appears in our universe and it’s a gateway into another dimension (meaning something like The Matrix would fail to qualify). There are far too many alternate universe stories otherwise, with this very specific qualifier being crucial here because it’s the sort of alternate dimension being depicted in Stranger Things. With Stranger Things delivering an immensely satisfying alternate dimension narrative, we thought we would explore some of the other more satisfying instances of alternate dimensions coming into play in horror. In no particular order:
10. Star Trek
Arguably one of the most beloved alternate dimensions out there, Star Trek’s “Mirror Universe” is Parallel Universe 101. This dimension is your basic swap job where the level-headed, pacifistic crew of the Enterprise are bloodthirsty, villainous conquerors in the “Mirror Universe.” Oh, and certain characters have a goatee because what better way to delineate that someone is evil? Star Trek’s original series opens up this can of mirror-worms, but it’s a concept that grew so popular with fans that it became a staple on Deep Space Nine, cropped up on Enterprise, and has invaded all sorts of other Star Trek media.
Now, I know that Star Trek isn’t horror, but I’m going to do some crazy dot connecting here and you’re going to go along with it because you trust me. South Park’s Halloween installment, “Spookyfish,” features killer animals, not to mention a goateed version of the cast, all of which come from this same “Mirror Universe.” This episode is full of some over the top deaths, not to mention the great gag that Mirror Universe Cartman is actually nice. Anyways, horror. There. Point proven!
Before Joss Whedon was creating superhero blockbusters that printed money, he was working on some criminally powerful television. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is rightfully heralded as the influential TV show that it was, but I daresay that its spin-off, Angel, is ultimately the better program. The vampire detective series’ second season chose to close things off with a three-parter that saw Angel Investigations traveling to the demon world of Pylea. Rather than some standard parallel universe, Pylea is the universe that Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan—otherwise known as “Lorne”—hails from; a medieval-esque dimension where humans are filthy slaves. Complete with its own vocabulary, Pylea’s differences are mostly played for laughs, but the series not only gains a lot of mileage out of the universe hop, they also acquire a new cast member out of the detour. Pylea might never be returned to in Angel, but its presence is felt through the rest of the series in the form of Fred and Lorne (and sure, Groosalugg too, why not).
8. Rick and Morty
When it comes to passing between alternate dimensions, Rick and Morty has very welcome become the preeminent master on the topic. Hell, it’s a concept so fundamental to the series that it’s even copiously depicted in the series’ opening credits. Largely aided by the fact that Rick wields a portal gun that opens up gateways to random alternate dimensions, this is a show that has shown off a lot of neighboring dimensions. This show covers so much dimensional ground it even checks in with C-list universes like a dimension where every proper pronoun begins with “schm-.” The series gets so invested in all of the ridiculous alternate dimensions that are out there that they’ve even made a yearly tradition out of an episode that is purely television from other dimensions. And it’s the greatest.
Again, maybe you’re getting all snooty and being like, Rick and Morty is comedy and sci-fi comedy at that! What in Universe R-221 God’s name is going on here! Well, Rick and Morty has happily dipped into the horror well a number of times (including a planet that’s a huge riff on The Purge), but additionally, Rick and Morty also “Cronenberg” their universe before jumping into the one that they currently inhabit. That’s got to get some sort of horror points. This cross-dimension interplay eventually becomes crucial to the series, with a Council of Ricks from various dimensions (our Rick and Morty are from universe C-137) making up a Time Lord-ish board of officials. It’s worth mentioning that Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon is no stranger to alternate dimensions, with Community and its “darkest timeline” only being absent from this list because we don’t actually see traveling between universes.
7. The Mist
Stemming from one of Stephen King’s strongest short stories, The Mist is not only top notch alternate dimension fare, it’s also claustrophobic, boiled down narrative at its finest. The film (directed by a very on-point Frank Darabont) sees a number of individuals get cornered into a supermarket together as a strange mist takes over their community. Mist would be one thing, but this troublesome vapor brings with it a heap of monsters that are a whole lot more menacing than condensation. While monsters are a considerable threat, The Mist delves just as deep into paranoia and the fracturing group dynamics of the survivors. It’s not long before dissent is bubbling up.
One of the best things about The Mist is that it’s not clear that this is an alternate dimension story until towards the end (and The Mist is pretty much the poster child for pessimistic, bleak endings). The film amps up the mystery and uses the reveal of other worlds as a build up to the gut punch conclusion. It couldn’t be more startling. Here the rift between dimensions is a result of scientists experimenting too much and “breaking” reality, a trajectory that Stranger Things and a number of series explore. With an upcoming Mist television series currently filming, hopefully it will nail the same otherworldly mystique and danger that the film captures so well (and doesn’t end up turning into another Under the Dome…)
6. In the Mouth of Madness
In the Mouth of Madness is John Carpenter’s delirious love letter to H.P. Lovecraft, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining film, for better and worse. The film sees a beleaguered Sam Neill trying to figure out why people seem to be losing their minds after reading the latest horror novel by Sutter Cane. It’s not long before this insanity is spreading to pandemic levels and the film bringing into question if all of this is just an extension of Cane’s writing. There’s a lot to love in this movie, but the final act introduces the idea that Cane is receiving his power from some otherworldly Gods, which are all too eager to invade our world. The “tearing” scene is some of Carpenter’s best work, with the tastes of this demon world being incredible. The perfect conclusion tops all of this off too, with the reveal that these monsters have taken over the world and brought about the End of Times.
In the Mouth of Madness also forms one-third of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness, and it’s certainly the craziest of the bunch. Sure, the thing in The Thing is a gross delight, but getting that glimpse of the carnage that’s on the other side of the dimensional opening is terrifying in a whole different kind of way. It’s like a Thing family reunion going on over there.
5. South Park
So South Park might have had made a cameo of sorts earlier on while helping represent Star Trek’s “Mirror Universe,” but the long-running animated series also explores other dimensions in an entirely different way, too. While a lot of the choices here dig into an alternate dimension that offers up some slight variation on the “prime-universe,” South Park provides something different here. Instead, Imaginationland—aptly enough—is more a cobbling together of all the pop culture and fiction on Earth and throwing it together into one playground. South Park’s Imaginationland trilogy (which was originally set out to be the series’ second film) is some of the show’s strongest work and unsurprisingly turns this multi-dimensional tale into a biting parable about losing our originality.
The sheer amount of carnage that goes on in Imaginationland makes it feel like a selection that fits in just fine on this horror list. Besides, in all of the pop culture mash-up mayhem that’s going on, certain horror icons like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhes even show up. While the children of South Park might get to the dimension of Imaginationland organically, that doesn’t stop the government from trying to crack this science and build a gateway that allows them access to this world. This gate into Imaginationland might bear more than a few resemblances to the sort of dimensional tech that’s seen in Stargate, but they’re the first ones to bring up the fact (and that’s the most discussion you’re going to see here on Stargate—I’ll leave my Stars suited for Wars and Treks, thank you very much).
4. Silent Hill
The original Silent Hill film doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it deserves (it’s largely ignored, surprised-it-exists sequel is overlooked exactly as much as it should be). Christophe Gans’ adaptation of Konami’s popular survival horror series is clearly a labor of love on the director’s part, with the film lovingly pulling from aspects from the first four games in the series, rather than just doing a straight adaptation of the original game. This mix-and match approach retains crucial aspects of the series like a parent’s quest for their missing child, unsettling religious cults, and body-horror embracing monsters, while simultaneously having the liberty to indulge in the franchise’s most upsetting creations.
Silent Hill is another tried and true situation of “all the freaky shit is courtesy of an interdimensional rift” but the film is less about the trappings of this creepy town, but rather the haunting atmosphere that permeates through it all. The game’s aching feeling of dread is effortlessly recreated in Gans’ film and is only strengthened by the fact that the town’s alternate dimension is sneaking up on you. The “darkness” as it is referred to in the film switches on and off, taking the residents into the cursed version of reality. A complicated backstory on the town dealing with a history of witch burnings and rituals that distill the pure and evil essence of someone are ultimately responsible for the tear that plagues the town. This tragic history birthing a fracture in reality is a welcome dynamic to explore, with the one-way mirror-esque ending adding to the multiple dimension concept in an enriching way. Sometimes you can be staring directly at an alternate dimension and not even realize it.
3. Under the Skin
So Under the Skin might be a bit of a cheat—we never exactly see Scarlett Johansson’s alien surrogate cross through dimensions into her world of black—but this is just such a unique, masterful piece of cinema that it deserves some extra attention (and if you’ve yet to see this film, stop your reading and begin your movie watching!). Jonathan Glazer’s quiet, methodical film is different than any of the other horror on this list. The film operates with such a Kubrickian energy. Dialogue is sparse. Cinematography is sprawling. And Johansson gives the performance of her career as an alien that is trying to feed—but really, just make sense of this planet and survive. What follows is such an engaging experience with Glazer embracing naturalist filmmaking to a crazy degree (all of Johansson’s “passengers” in the film are non-actor, everyday Irishmen from the area).
Under the Skin has a lot to say, but its scenes that take place in its alternate dimension are frightening on such a gut level. This isn’t a world marked by an apocalypse, monsters, or giant slices of anthropomorphic pizza, it’s just a void of black that Johansson is in complete control of. It’s almost like this alternate dimension is her feeding tool. What follows are some of the most evocative images to come out of horror in the past few years.
2. “Parallel Monsters” from V/H/S: Viral
Say what you will about V/H/S: Viral, but Nacho Vigalondo’s (Timecrimes) impeccable dimension-crossing segment is worth the price of admission alone. “Parallel Monsters” is the very best sort of short that begins with such excitable glee and concludes with paralyzing terror. The short depicts a budding inventor perfecting the science between creating a doorway to another dimension. Not just any other dimension however, but rather one that seems to be parallel to our own. The inventor even sees a duplicate version of himself waiting on the other side. Naturally, the curiosity of these two seemingly identical scientists gets the better of them and they decide to swap worlds in a bizarre sci-fi take on The Prince and the Pauper.
There’s such an efficient simplicity with watching this outsider slowly explore this new world. With each passing moment of something in this new world seeming identical to our own, the anxiety gets higher over when the differences are going to begin. “Parallel Monsters” paces itself well and when those differences do rear their heads you couldn’t be more surprised over how these dimensions are different. The phrase “genital monsters” might not spell out the entire picture, but it’s at least a commendable start…
Fringe is a series that is constantly amazing and whenever I merely think of the show I’m filled with a feeling of joy. Here is a series that for all intents and purposes reinvented The X-Files, while managing to arguably do a more satisfying, consistent job at the same time. It’s the most efficient series I can think of in terms of perfectly marrying together standalone episodes with larger mythology fare and each of its gamechanging five seasons completely stick the landing.
There’s a lot to unpack with Fringe and simply classifying it as satisfying monster-of-the-week fare would be an injustice to the intricate, larger story at hand. While I implore you to dig into every nook and cranny that Fringe has to offer, in the end this comes down to a series about a father and son and how one’s inability to let go of the other causes a steady destruction of two worlds.
You see, yes there are monsters, anomalies, and “fringe science” events that keep happening here, and it’s all because one man traveling between parallel dimensions and upsetting the balance has led to a steady chain reaction of instability between these two worlds. This idea that is merely hinted at originally eventually becomes so crucial that large spans of season are spent within this Earth-2. In fact, you full out begin to empathize and care about all of the Earth-2 counterparts of the show’s main cast. With the series progressively spending more time in Earth-2, it’s surprising how much enjoyment is gained from charting the simple differences between worlds. Earth-2 has an Eric Stoltz starring Back to the Future, 9/11’s tragedy involved the White House and not the World Trade Center, and coffee is a priceless rarity. Yes, there’s a lot of science to explore with the show’s alternate dimensions, but there’s also just as much fun to be had. Seeing the differences between Earth-1 and Earth-2 characters never ceases to be entertaining (and something that is currently seeing a lot of success as The Flash wallows in similar territory currently).
Fringe more or less turns into a war between Earth-1 and Earth-2, with the losing dimension being destroyed in the process. Believe it or not, this development becomes even more complicated as time goes on, with even more realities and dimensions being thrown into the mix. Fringe brilliantly begins to signal which universe its episodes are taking place in depending on whether the episode’s opening credits are presented in “red” or “blue.” As the show continues though, a wealth of alternate title sequences and accompanying dimensions start to be sorted through. The credits even act as an efficient way of informing you which universe this episode is taking place in.
All of the selections on this list deal with alternate dimensions in creative ways, but Fringe truly bakes it into its DNA and uses it as a storytelling device. It’s a love letter and the standard to follow moving forward.
With Stranger Things not only reopening this sub-genre in a very exciting way, but also showing that it can connect on a mainstream level, it should be interesting to see if more pieces of fiction tackle the topic. Stranger Things is also only getting started, so who knows what a possible second season could hold on the topic of a rift between worlds. But what say you, intrepid readers? What are some of your favorite examples of when a hole between universes appears? AND YEAH, YEAH, I KNOW ABOUT SLIDERS, IT JUST FELT A LITTLE ON THE NOSE. IN SOME OTHER UNIVERSE, THIS LIST WRITTEN BY DANIEL KURLAND CR-47 ONLY HAS SLIDERS ON IT, SO YA’ HAPPY? GO TO EARTH CR-47 AND LEAVE ME ALONE ABOUT SLIDERS WILL YA’!?