The Intricacies of Horror
Tea: Pumpkin Juice
A happy Halloween to all my beloved readers! The dark season is finally upon us and we have to make sure all the evil spirits are scared away, thus we have to play some truly scary games, watch frightening movies, and read horrifying books. Over the last month I have recommend some pieces of media to you, if you are looking for something chilling. Today, however, we take a close look at what makes good horror tick. Don’t worry, there will still be some recommendations buried among the word-corpses of this article. Turn off the lights, snuggle up under a blanket, because the most horrifying thing yet is about to come: Theory!
It is easy to point at certain things and label them as scary or not and while the feeling of horror, just like any emotion, is a subjective one, there are still a lot of little wheels and gears that can turn something from bone-chilling into comedy but also from mundane into blood-freezing horror. If you are looking for startling horror, meaning the jump scare heavy affair, then you might be disappointed as I simply do not take well to it. This is mainly due to two aspects: 1. I don’t enjoy it, since it does not frighten me, it is a mechanical response my body produces and 2. I get easily desensitised to it. Play Five Night’s At Freddy’s for more than 10 minutes and the jump scares will not bother you. But I won’t let you leave without a recommendation. When you have to do jump scares, at least do them right: Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion (formerly: Spooky’s House of Jumpscares) wears the main scare factor right there in the title as a badge of honour. The game has a lot more going for it than that though, as being scared by cute little cardboard cut-outs is just the start. The game has a great atmosphere, amazing visuals, and the cutest main villain in years. If you are looking for something like Five Nights at Freddy’s, but you know it is shit, then Spooky’s will definitely be enjoyable. On top of that it is free on Steam, so there really is no reason not to try it at least for the fun of it.
– Aside from the base-game, Spooky’s has probably some of the best minigames within a game. –
I went back to the very first Resident Evil, a game which started the survival horror trend back in the day and I can easily see why. Zombies are no vital part in it, neither is the convoluted and frankly ridiculous plot (the guy wears sunglasses at night in-doors, come on!), but the location and how it is used. To achieve horror, the true bone chilling horror that will stick to you like gum at the cinema sticks to you shoes, you need suspense. To create this, many simply strip the protagonist of any means of defence, meaning no guns or anything and this is a big mistake. Survival horror does not hinge on the fact that you are desperate to escape, but to survive. If you take away weapons the character does feel more vulnerable, but this feeling is constant and thus never changes. Give him weapons and the element of managing the inventory, number of bullets etc. becomes tension-bearing. A perfect example for this mistake is Silent Hill Shattered Memories, a great game ruined by the fact that you can predict the horror sections and while in them you are only able to run. Any amount of suspenseful atmosphere is ruined this way. Compare it to the grand master Silent Hill 2 which gives you a weapon at the very start, you feel capable of defending yourself, but will still dread every encounter as you cannot safely enter combat without the chance of taking damaging. The gun is a safer option, but requires you to manage the limited number of bullets accordingly. Taking the easy kill may result in a more difficult situation later on being made even more difficult. On the other hand, taking damage now could potentially be dangerous as well. You get the idea. If you do not have weapons the best and only option is either running or hiding, both requiring little to no effort and building equally little to no tension.
– There may be a day when I will stop praising Silent Hill 2, but today- Got you! I will never stop praising this game. –
So now that we know that a horror protagonist must be capable of defence, the environment is the next puzzle piece. Creepy environments are pretty easy to find, some are inherently scary due to the social connotations and you can make them even scarier by turning them into and abandoned/haunted version of it. Hospital, asylum, school… you name it. While horrible medical experiments feature high on the creepy scale, they are neither very creative, nor effective. Just like the jump scare, creepy environments wear out pretty fast. Seen one abandoned hospital seen them all. No, what is more terrifying is the mundane. The huge success of titles like P.T. and (once again) Silent Hill 2 show us that a slightly twisted version of a familiar environment can be truly haunting. Looking back at Ringu, all the scenes take place in urban houses or offices, no bloody beds with the worn-out straps on the side. Turning a familiar environment around has the effect of attacking a weak spot. We feel safe in locations as these, seeing as we visit them every day, making it the dangerous place full of murderous nuns has the effect we aim to achieve. Why nuns you ask? Well, the next recommendation (apart from Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2, since those are absolute classics everyone should experience) is a short game called One Late Night. You play an office worker on one (you guessed it) late night. Nobody seems to be there except you, however, it soon turns out that this is not the case. It is a great example of horror in an otherwise mundane area and shows the potential such a setting can have. This is another game which is free right now.
– As if office jobs were not scary enough already…-
What is horror without the shadowy figure right behind the next corner? Designing the central bad guy of the story is a double edged sword. One the one hand you want him to stand out and show him off, but that is a mistake: restraint is vital here. The design should be weird and puzzling, but not overdone. You will want people to wonder at what they are looking at and not question how many skulls one can possibly strap on one’s belt. I already mentioned Junji Itos amazing designs which make you question what you have in front of you without much effort. The human element is important. The monster must always retain some human appearance to make it relatable yet at the same time this turns the metamorphosis into a scary process. The perfect example is Pyramid Head, a guy with an iron pyramid for a hat does not sound scary, but boy is he. He seems human, but his movements are twisted and grotesque, you wonder what his clothes are made of, how he sees anything around him and why his hands look like they are in a skin glove. After the creepy design comes restraint in the showing department. You really don’t want to see the monster all the time. You want the audience to crave seeing the monster, but a lot of them lose their lustre fast after being paraded around in light. The bets example is Michael Myers from Halloween (1978). You can sometimes see him, but out of focus and in the distance, you can see little parts of him up close, his shadowy figure lurking in the neighbour’s garden, but only during the climax do you get to see the white faced killer. The combination of a monster worth seeing for the fright and restraint in showing it will make the reveal not only fulfilling, but also a meaningful climax. This has been expertly done in Ringu and as I mentioned: Halloween.
– Broad daylight, not even that hidden, and still creepy: Distance and restraint makes all the difference. –
The most important piece to any story is the ending. And here the key word again is: restraint. Stephen King once said that the unanswered mystery stays with us the longest and is what will be remembered. And the man is right. The worst thing a horror movie can do is overexplain itself. This little detail breaks so many good pieces of horror that I cannot stress it enough. The remake of Halloween by Rob Zombie explained Michael’s lust for blood through his shitty upbringing in a broken family. Thanks, I really needed to know that. You don’t even have to go that far. Halloween 6 explained that Michael was driven by some runes, fucking runes! The mystery surrounding him is part of the fun; we seek answers because we don’t want definitive ones. A good example to play is Condemned which has you fight crazy homeless people, but it is never explained why they went crazy and that makes all the difference. One of the masters of this kind of leaving-it-open is H.P. Lovecraft who basically tells us that the truth would drive us insane. And if Lovecraft is your thing and homeless people scare you off, I have one last recommendation for you: Darkest Dungeon. A game that hates you as much as you will come to hate it, or at least the RNG.
– Lovecraft would have been proud, this game truly drives you insane. –
In summary: Good horror knows restraint most of all, be it in the environment, the tools at the disposal of the unlucky protagonist, and the monster. In the end horror is all about evoking emotions, be it true terrifying horror or just slight unease. All of this works and is what is so fascinating about this genre. Little other pieces of entertainment can conjure up such a strong response. Sure there is a lot of garbage out there, but you need to wade through it to find the gems. A lot of games could not make the cut, mostly due to time constraints, but I still want to recommend the following titles, even though I could not cover them: Dead End Road, Eternal Darkness, Anatomy, Forgotten Memories, Until Dawn, Cry of Fear, and many more. Some of these will definitely get a review at some point, but as for now I can only recommend them without much to back it up. Just trust me.
– You can never go wrong with skeletons. Never. –
And that is it. Mr. Spooky Teatimes Spooktober now ends. I hope you had fun, scratch that, I hope you were scared. I had a lot of fun writing these little bits of horror fun for you. I hope you found something to spend this night of bats and Jack o’ lanterns with. Don’t run into any killer clowns on your way home and have a frightening Halloween. Stay safe until we meet again, for the night is dark and full of terrors.
Image sources in order of appearance:
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- http://www.onelatenight.com/res/screenshots/set9/oln3-set9.png (Last date of access: 26.10.2016)
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- http://cdn.escapistmagazine.com/media/global/images/library/deriv/1257/1257410.jpg (Last date of access: 26.10.2016)
- https://wondersinthedark.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/skeleton-dance-1-copy.jpg (Last date of access: 26.10.2016)