For the past year, I have been studying the philosophy of horror in a fruitless attempt to understand it. I have asked myself countless questions like “what is horror?” and “why is horror?”, and like with most of the questions I have asked myself when philosophy is concerned, I haven’t reached any answers. But to be honest, I’m pretty tired of this, so I searched for a question with a concrete answer, and I have found it. That question is: What is the scariest horror story ever told?
Before answering it, I have to make some things clear. For starters when I say horror I refer to the fear of the completely unknown, the completely incomprehensible. The horrific object would be that which freezes or almost annihilates our faculties of understanding. In addition “scariest” in this question refers to that which presents itself as the most incomprehensible, that which presents itself as the furthest from our conception of reality.
Now that we have all that cleared out let me present you with the scariest horror story ever told, a short story written by influential science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and published in 1956 titled The Last Question. That’s it, the most horrifying tale in all of horror fiction
Anyone who has read this tale would tell you that this is a science fiction tale, and probably nobody would ever call it a horror story. There are no monsters, no mystery, and no apparent danger. There is nothing we commonly associate with the horror genre, but no other artistic experience has frozen my soul and left me in a state of complete horror.
The Last Question is a small tale encompassing billions of years. It starts in 2061 just after humanity has achieved a way to cultivate all the sun’s energy. To engineers all the doors this new achievement has opened, all the growth that is now possible. Nevertheless one of them is sure this growth can’t go on forever, energy is not infinite, it has to run out at some point. While discussing this they decide to ask the most advanced computer (that one that made possible the domestication of the sun) if there is any way to reverse the process in which energy is spent (or in more scientific words: if entropy can be reversed), but the only answer the computer can give is “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER”. Each next part of the tale is a massive jump in time where a new person asks the most advanced computer the same question, and the computer always answers the same thing: “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER”. At the end of the tale, humanity has gone extinct and the only thing that remains is the last of the computers built by humans, it finally has an answer to the last question, and to answer it the computer creates the universe, starting the endless cycle of death and rebirth of everything.
What I find horrifying about this story is that it makes the reader confront the most incomprehensible thing in our reality, a world without us. In other words, in this story we are not confronted with death, instead, we are confronted with the inevitable and absolute nothingness. When everything runs out, when energy is completely used up, when everything we have built can no longer sustain itself, we can no longer talk in terms of life or death because there will be no one to talk to. At this point there is no movement, no change, there is (in the most literal sense) nothing. What is scarier than this? What is scarier than that which is completely unthinkable? And how do we think of absolutely nothing, about no life, no universe?
We are at a point in history where people are starting to notice that maybe we are consuming faster than we can manage. Suddenly resources that once appeared inexhaustible like water or petrol are starting to lack. Suddenly we have to confront the idea that we can not go on forever, that things end. But from what I have seen not enough people are scared of this. The world is ending and no one seems to care. Even when people seem to talk about this crisis they either talk with a hopeful tone or talk about a massive amount of years, but no one seems to be screaming. We need to be scared, we need to open ourselves to horror, and we need to let this impossible situation change the way we view reality.
Asimov wrote this story in the 50s when the resource and climate crisis were nothing more than another science-fiction tale. The ending of The Last Question seems to give us an answer in computers, but we are no longer in the 50s and it has become less likely that we end up inventing a super god computer before our time runs out. Without this last hope this tale becomes not a warning, but a prophecy, there is no light at the end.
Some time ago a writer told me that horror is something that we can not explain, but it’s still happening. The impossible somehow became possible. The end of all things, a universe without life, a reality without existence is the most incomprehensible and impossible thing any human can confront, but every day it’s becoming more of a reality. The end of all things is happening, and we should be scared because it’s not until we feel the horror that we are going to start doing something about it.