Miscellaneous Musings: On Horror Part I
So, horror in gaming.
It’s no secret that horror is my favorite genre, but at the same time, it is widely considered to be the hardest to achieve in gaming, the most difficult to write for. The reasons for this are pretty obvious: Sitting around the table, munching pizza and pretzels with your best friends doesn’t prove to be particularly conductive to creating fear.
This behavior brings me already the first issue I have with many a gaming supplement: We have been conditioned by mass media to associate different things with “horror”, to the point where the term has been almost robbed of any meaning. If we take a look at movies, for example, the asinine practice of jump-scares has been mistaken, widely, I might add, for horror.
It’s not horror.
It’s startling the audience.
It’s a dumb adrenaline kick. It’s why I LOATHE, with a fiery passion, the Paranormal Activity movies. They generate a great atmosphere and then break it for the sake of startling folks. Blergh.
In order to understand where “horror” came from and why it often doesn’t work in gaming, we should take a look at history: The first major canon of books we’d consider horror, as per the term used today, would probably be the canon of works that we nowadays consider to be “Gothic Horror” (which contemporaries would put in a completely different category, but that as an aside) – and here, things already are more complicated than one would assume.
Why? Because they don’t work the same way for us as they did for their contemporaries. Two very early examples of the craft would be Horace Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” (1764) and “Wieland” by Charles Brockden Brown (1798).
If one reads these books, one realizes two things pretty much immediately: They are not even close to what we expect from the genre nowadays, and yet, their aesthetics pretty much have coined the term – literally in the former’s case, as it visualizes perfectly the “Gothic” aspect: This hearkens to bombastic, monumental and larger than life architecture and its blending of realist and supernatural and fantastic fiction – nowadays, we’d read the book more like a fantasy novel than something that would elicit horror. The same holds true for “Wieland” – here, the aspect of sensationalist psychology and then current scientific breakthroughs take center stage.
Both novels are not exactly exciting by modern standards and can feel rather meandering, but I have chosen both for a reason: They both share things in common and radically diverge from one another. Their commonalities include that they observe a world that is on the verge of becoming incomprehensible, the weltanschauung, previously monopolized by book-religions, is subverted by science, and in the radical dogmatic and societal shifts, a sense of underlying unease with the experienced world suddenly became a topic for our species. As such, they observe developments and escalate them to supernatural proportions – it is not difficult to read an anxiety about the end of monarchy into Walpole’s work or a creeping realization of Freud’s claim that we are not masters of our own mind into Wieland.
Both observe societal and structural changes and cloak them into somewhat apocalyptic vistas; both would have been perceived by their contemporaries as somewhat scandalous in structure and theme, as somewhat transgressive – but, as literary criticism of both has shown, both also ultimately, at least from our perspective, buckle under the social norms of the age and ultimately revert to a reassertion of the status quo.
In the case of Wieland, reading the constant, ponderous reassertions of proper social mores that made the book palpable to its erstwhile audience makes getting through it a horrid bore – I actually managed to fall asleep while reading it. That being said, it is well worth slogging through, at least once. The plot centers on hypnotism, ventriloquism and from a gamer-perspective, can make for a really challenging murder mystery, but that just as an aside. We can assert, thus, that both create a sense of unease that never completely translates into wholesale shock – something that can be seen nowadays as well: Horror does not equal torture-porn or particularly disgusting visuals – those disgust us, they don’t frighten us.
Now here is my thesis: Horror always stems from the realization of a lack of control. Humans, as a whole, don’t deal well with realizing a lack of control. People that feel like they’ve been cornered by the decisions made in life are prone to despair and depression; whole societal structures, be it religions or an adherence to science and humanism or our very own government structures, are founded to a significant degree on the desire to explain the world and thus assert control over it. If you understand a problem, you can fix it – but to do so, you need control over the problem. You can’t fix a country you don’t control, you can’t fix another person…the list goes on. It’s a basic point, granted, but it is an important one.
You see, and that may shock you, we are actually not in control most of the time. Whether it’s society, daily interactions or even our own bodies and psyche – we can assert a *degree* of control over the respective area (how much control is very much a matter of contention and dispute – I’d personally argue that any control is an illusion and limited at best, but I digress), provided we have a sufficient understanding.
But total control, whether by us or a deity, is an elusive concept. Successful horror deprives us of our illusion of control and puts us into a context, where we have to face, to a certain degree, our own impotence and how exposed to machinations and interactions far beyond our own means to influence we truly are.
In general, there are two strategies, exemplified by these early works, which employ this truth in radically different ways.
The first of these, exemplified by “The Castle of Otranto”, deals with the world as an unknowable and hostile place; not only does the labyrinthine architecture of the castle represent our minds, it also mirrors our quest for knowledge in an existence deprived of simple solutions and comfort.
This school of horror, if you will, asserts the environment and treats the external stimuli encountered as a representation of the inner world; however, even this perception is not accurate, as it is filtered through our sensory apparatus. The horror is generated from encountering a world that is literally, beyond our understanding in its structure, even before we project our interpretations on it. This school’s culmination and most popular representation would obviously be the Cthulhu mythos, quoted ad nauseum by the gaming community, often without understanding even a fraction of what makes it work.
The sense of an unfeeling universe infinitely stranger, wider and beyond our control serves as a humbling and the breakdown of laws of nature as we know them, exemplified in many a book and game (like Silent Hill) unnerve us, because they contextualize our whole species, not just us, as subjects without control.
Wieland, on the other hand, exemplifies the second school of horror that works well, a school that is nowadays more associated with the term “gothic horror” than the above: Here, we instead experience horror on a deeply personal level. Our inability to control our minds and bodies, the internal anxiety, can be found here. To a degree, the psychological and body horror subschools are both heirs to this strategy: The horror stems from a personal, rather than an all-encompassing, loss of control – over our faculties, our bodies, our thinking, our perception – and what that means for us as a species, as society.
We do know that our morals penalize those that violate common, structuring principles thus; hence, the fear is amplified by the anxiety of punishment. At the same time, unlike the all-encompassing loss of control exemplified by “cosmic horror”, there is a lure in this, one that partially stems from our biology. It is no wonder, then, that this school of horror is often intensely sexually charged.
This may seem obvious nowadays, but the “beast within man” exemplified by lycanthrope represents just such a fear: We have freedom, loss of control, cannibalism, power, raw instinct all blended together; similarly, there is a reason why vampires have so incredibly successfully been sexually charged: When these fictions were first released, their subtext enforcing the virgin-whore-dichotomy (in short: An inability to see a woman as anything but either angelic and pure or vile and slutty, something many males nowadays unfortunately still exhibit…) has backfired spectacularly. In the most famous example of the craft, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, we encounter a rather unattractive vampire (read or reread Dracula – the guy’s UGLY!) who can set free women from the bonds of society, replacing their bonds with others, sure, but still – the carnal nature of blood and sexuality, set loose from Victorian morals. While the end is obviously once again a kowtow to re-establishing the status-quo and “proper” societal order, it is never the protagonists, never the reassertion of normality that capture our interest. It is the monster, a monster that lurks in us all. And do we really *want* to retain control? Particularly when it comes to our instincts?
That’s the horrific aspect of this school – perhaps it’s the vampiric, perhaps it’s another fantasy, but we all harbor some component in our psyche over which we cannot exert full control – so matter the psychological model you subscribe to. This type of fiction thus internalizes horror, it makes it personal – and this is the reason that, while it can work perfectly at your table, it is VERY hard to write for regarding gaming supplements, because it requires, to a degree, a personal connection. It’s why many supplements delegate these experiences to other characters. One of my favorite supplements of all time, Ravenloft’s “Bleak House” boxed set did just that in a nigh-perfect manner, taking a universally beloved and well-characterized NPC and undermining him; particularly the first part “Whom Fortune would Destroy” ranks among my all-time favorites.
The problem that these observations pose for the gaming table are quite evident – loss of control over a fictional character, who acts as a proxy in a shared world of make-belief, sounds dangerously like GM-fiat and not like fun….and this brings me to the second part of these essays, where I take a look at gaming and horror in particular. See you there tomorrow!
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