By Guest Writer Alan Holmes
*Potential spoilers for all major Star Wars properties. You’ve been warned. May the Force be with you.
It’s often said that life is a balancing act between two opposing forces: light and darkness. From light comes selflessness and love; from dark comes greed and hatred. And from hatred, monsters can be born.
In a galaxy far, far away, many stars have fallen into such darkness. Of course, even those unfamiliar with the worlds of the Star Wars saga have heard the term Jedi. The Jedi adhere to the concept of the Force, a mystical energy field binding all living things. Jedi are selfless. They serve the Light Side of the Force, only helping others and seeking peace.
However, there is another, more sinister order of Force wielders known as the Sith.
Unlike the Jedi, the Sith (for all intents and purposes) are evil. They worship the Dark Side of the Force, often seeking dominion over the Force and life itself. They think only of themselves and their pursuit of power.
Chronologically speaking, the first Sith warrior the Jedi encountered in millennia makes himself known in Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. You’d be hard-pressed to miss that smug smirk smeared across his face, not to mention the demonic horns that erupt from the top of his head or the red and black markings adorning his entire body. Yes, Darth Maul is intentionally presented as a demonic figure. While he gets precious little screen time in the film, he made a huge impact with audiences. Sure, the dual crimson lightsaber he wields is pretty cool, and who could forget the immensity of Duel of the Fates, John Williams’ genius operatic score that soundtracks Maul’s climactic fight against Jedi master Qui Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi.
But long before The Clone Wars television show expanded upon his character and other such lore introduced Dathomirian Zabraks as similarly horned members of his species, Maul was essentially a demon come to life. He was the signifier to the Jedi that their greatest enemy— long believed to have been wiped out—had returned. Maul also signified to the audience that the Sith is the ultimate evil, largely in appearance and demeanor alone. Here is the Devil, ready to strike.
When it comes to the Sith, there are always two: a master and an apprentice. Unbeknownst to the Jedi, Maul was merely the apprentice. And both the master and the real phantom menace existed as an aging human man. Sheev Palpatine was the seemingly kind senator from Naboo, pulling the strings from the shadows. Maul was a puppet and a mere pawn of Palpatine. While Palpatine’s looks may be deceiving, he had set into motion the events that would bring about the end of the Jedi Order, the deaths of billions, and his ultimate control over the entire galaxy.
Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the Star Wars movies and know the gist of the story. Ultimately, Palpatine’s plan succeeds. He sets the Clone Wars into motion, tricks the Jedi into betraying their own morals, orders the clones to wipe the vast majority of the Jedi out from existence, and establishes the Galactic Empire to replace the Republic, ruling over every being in the galaxy under a dictatorship. But the politics aside, there is a true horror story hidden behind the hope and grandeur that is Star Wars. It’s merely a side of the story overlooked in favor of heroism and adventure. And quite frankly, that’s okay.
George Lucas created Star Wars as an adventure based on the exceptionally cheesy Flash Gordon serial, samurai films, and the like. Whenever the series steers into darker territory, it never stays there for long. Lucas himself has described Star Wars as always being intended to be enjoyed by twelve-year-olds. It’s a largely family-friendly franchise, and it likely always will be, especially with the Disney acquisition of the franchise. With that being said, I’ve seen a lot of interest of horror in Star Wars. As someone who loves both Star Wars and horror movies, I have to say it’s an intriguing idea. Will it ever happen?
Cavan Scott (author of The High Republic: The Rising Storm) has said that “what I love about Star Wars horror is that most of the time horror is the absence of hope, most horror stories there is no hope of anyone getting out of that situation… But with Star Wars, you have horror, but because it’s Star Wars, there is a sense of hope.”
Even Rogue One (where all of the major characters introduced die) still ends on an oddly beautiful and hopeful note. As the heroes of that story, Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, kneel on the beach holding each other, waiting to die as the blast from the Death Star approaches them, they seem to be at relative peace. They accomplished what they set out to do. And because of them, there is hope for the future. There is now a chance that the Death Star can be destroyed; thus, billions of lives can be saved.
Does that mean that a Star Wars story can’t exist without hope? Not necessarily. But would it still feel like Star Wars? I don’t know. Lightsabers, Star Destroyers, and X wings don’t make Star Wars, Star Wars. They’re part of it, for sure, and we love those parts for a reason. But will we ever see a Star Wars story in the same vein as Hereditary, The Exorcist, or Alien? I doubt it. Could such a horror story exist outside the films, in a book or a videogame? Perhaps. Yet much powerful horror imagery does persist through the Star Wars universe. Oddly enough, A New Hope (while maintaining a relatively passive attitude to horrific things) does feature some of the starkest gore in the series (the charred corpses of Luke’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, anyone?)
Then there are the Nightsisters of Dathomir, a coven of witches with the power to reanimate the dead. In the Clone Wars animated series, Yoda is taken on a spiritual journey to the Sith world of Moraband. There he’s confronted with nightmarish visions of a shape-shifting serpent formed through a mass of wriggling worms and the ghastly specter of Darth Bane, a long-dead Sith Lord who comes to Yoda encompassed by hellish flames. After the Clone Wars ended, rogue Jedi were hunted down, some horribly tortured and even mutilated into submission, turned into Inquisitors. As broken and lost as the man who leads them, they’re left with nothing to lose and nothing but suffering to share. Are these things strictly horror in and of themselves? Maybe, maybe not…
Regardless, the horrors of the Sith persist, perhaps in none more so than the big man himself, Darth Vader. Recognized as one of the greatest villains ever made, Vader is often held in the same esteem as such horror icons as Freddy Krueger, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, need I go on? And yet, Vader himself does not come from a horror franchise. So why do people find him terrifying?
Like many horror villains, he is a “monster” in a mask. Ever the commanding presence, his mask portrays a skull-like façade, his breathing a warped strain of something not quite human, glimpses of his rotting flesh sending imaginations into spirals. Before his unmasking in Return of the Jedi, even after his reveal as Luke’s father at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, there remains an element of the unknown. What exactly lurked inside the suit wasn’t fully clear. Was he a man, a machine, a monster? Something else entirely?
Beyond that mystery, we saw that he could choke people to death with just his mind. He tossed grown men aside like pieces of garbage. Laser blasts? Deflects them with his hand. Limbs? Dismembers them with his blood-red lightsaber. Yes, some of his monstrosity is eventually stripped away to reveal the true story of a man led astray, seduced by darkness. And yet, the monster Palpatine created stalked people’s nightmares for years. Like a space-age Frankenstein, Anakin Skywalker was so desperate to save everything he loved he ended up destroying it all in the process. He was left with nothing. And with his own body mutilated and burned alive, he was rebuilt into more machine than man. He left his identity behind and tried to convince himself and the galaxy at large that he was indeed a monster to be feared.
And here is where the real root of horror in Star Wars lies. In the Light Side is love, peace, serenity. But in the Dark, that very love is swallowed alive by a desire to possess it, to control what cannot be controlled. It’s in that tragedy Anakin manages to destroy everything he once held dear. While he may try to convince himself otherwise, it’s now what he’s left with, all up to his final dying breaths. For the rest of his life, he tries to supplement that love with power. By doling out pain and death to others, he seems to think it’s a pain he can rid himself of. Or, at the very least, a pain that others deserve on behalf of his own suffering.
Somewhat ironically, that suffering is what keeps him powerful. It’s what all the Sith are fueled by. But their power comes at the cost of misery. They sell their souls for a hollow shadow of greatness. And in terms of the Skywalker Saga, Palpatine has positioned himself as the Devil. Anakin sells his soul to him. The entire galaxy willfully submits to him with thunderous applause.
Much like demonic entities featured throughout supernatural horror movies, Palpatine and the Sith at large seek to consume everything. To what gain, besides such power, is hard to say. Does the darkness exist merely to snuff out the light? And the light merely to pierce through the darkness? It’s ultimately never enough. How much are you willing to lose for nothing.
This is the truth behind Palpatine’s offer to Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. Together, they can discover the secret to cheating death. Something that Palpatine pretends to offer so that Anakin can save his beloved. By taking this offer, Anakin ends up killing her and everyone he ever cared about. It’s a variable Monkey’s Paw. Palpatine essentially gives Anakin everything he was promised, with some nasty fine print attached. Anakin (albeit not literally) sacrifices his soul and is possessed. With his new power, his life is no longer his to live, but his masters’.
Years and years down the line, after his Empire both rises and then falls, Palpatine succeeds in offering the fallen Skywalker, not to Anakin or his Sith alter ego, but to himself. Yes, the decision to have Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious, cheat death and return in The Rise of Skywalker was and continues to be a controversial decision. A decision largely absent of explanation of exploration in said film, Palpatine returns from the dead, reduced to an ironic Frankenstein himself. His animated corpse hangs suspended from a mechanical crane. The body which houses his spirit knows he is dead, and the body is a rotting shell as a result. Despite his power, he has nothing.
Exegol remains a pariah of the unknown regions. We know it was lost in an unknown space for ages. A cult that worships the Sith Order lurks there, festering experiments to serve their Lord. The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural. Even in death, there is no peace.
“Peace is a lie. There is only passion.
Through passion, I gain strength.
Through strength, I gain power.
Through power, I gain victory.
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.”
Such is the code of the Sith. But can such chains ever be broken? Can such freedom ever be found through power alone? What lurks behind the veil of the unknown? Can even your wildest nightmares hide there for long? Or are they just waiting for you to step forward and take their hand? To lead you down a path those you love can’t follow.
Step out of the light and into the darkness. Let the stars disappear and leave behind nothing but agony. Such is the true nature of the Dark side.
Staring into that darkness, may you find serenity.
May we take power. May we rise. Always two there are. No more, no less.
We are Sith.