Horror is not a plot-line, an aesthetic or a monster. Horror is an experience. In much the same way that a game is not an event displayed on a screen, but rather an experience had by a player, horror is a perceptual trajectory. You start out feeling, seeing and thinking one way and you end up in an entirely different mental location. Once, I had a discussion with a writing professor about a story I was working on. He said he didn’t appreciate being tricked into thinking or feeling a certain way by the format of the story. Really?
We don’t read fiction because we want the truth. We read it because we want to experience A truth. The best way to read a book or watch a magic show is with the understanding that you want to be fooled. If the production is good enough, you’ll forgive the minor annoyances and obvious realities in favour of the grand design. We know magicians aren’t psychics. We know writers can’t control what we feel. At least, we know that as long as we don’t allow them to. Much like hypnotism, the trick is in convincing someone that, yes, they want to –and can– go along with things. It places a lot of trust in the hands of the entertainer (magicians, writers, hypnotists), but that’s part of our covenant as audience and performer.
Last post, I rambled on about the creation of an environment for eliciting fear responses from players in role-playing games. One of the pre-requisites of that was knowing what kind of horror you were producing. I didn’t elaborate too much on that particular topic, because it’s almost as complex as a person is. The fears that plague our nightmares are grotesque manifestations of our hopes and dreams. They are us, taken to an unbearable extreme. Pain plays a harsh solo on our most delicate, life-preserving senses. Claustrophobia is the comfort of enclosure taken to an extreme we are extremely uncomfortable with; it crushes our personal space with its invasion. Psychopaths are the delightfully unpredictable nature of humanity twisted towards an unpleasant end… for someone.
Well, that’s one way to look at fear, anyways. It’s by no means the only way, and it’s not even technically correct, but it will give you a window into someone’s experience of fear. For us, for today, that’s good enough, because, today, we’re going to look into horror within its medium. No curtain held, let’s start with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
This is an old one, and we’re going back this far for good reason. Over the course of your lifetime, television and movies have changed drastically. However, as you are part of that stream of televised evolution, you might not be wholly aware of how the small differences in production, society and design have changed the opportunities available to directors. Most of them are subtle changes, but two obvious ones that have occurred recently are high-definition and passable CG. You don’t have to look very far back to see some pretty terrible CG monsters, and I’m sure we can guess how that would ruin a good horror movie. However, high-def is an even fouler culprit. Now, we can see way too much of the shiny, bloody bastards, so they’re not as frightening. I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion that exposing the monster too much ruins its mystique and takes away from the element of fear (You know, unless the monster is cleverly designed to be seen, but we’ll get to that…). Not only do we see each and every imperfection on a monster’s body, but with high-def came 60 frames-per-second movies. 1080p, 60 fps movies –initially– look unusual to us, because for most of our lives, we watch the 30 fps movie standard. Ironically, things just move too realistically, too fluidly, in 1080p; they look fake, because we’re used to seeing things a different way. You can see how tweaks to the presenting medium can change an experience drastically. So then, why Caligari? Because, it was made before the introduction of colour.
Look at the walls in the scene, the way the lines on them flow towards a single corner. Notice how they twist your perception of the frame slightly. The entire movie is like this, giving everything a subtly-overtly off feeling. Without the need for canted-cameras, we get a sense of the obtuse. Even the make-up is stark, deliberately so. Shadows are deeper, eyes more sunken, wrinkles far sharper. These are techniques used to get around the limitations of the day, yes, but they are also marked advantages. The set, colours and tone allow the movie to be what it is. If you tried to paint a set in a similar fashion today, in high-def with colour, it would look like the bathroom at a rave.
Even the silent movie aspect allows for a sense of pacing and emotional reaction that would be impossible now. You don’t have to fill your voice with the quaver of convincing fear; you just have to look terrified. The fewer aspects you have to worry about aligning, the less likely you are to run into a detail that pulls the audience out of the experience. Also, not having to compete with dialogue allows the sound-track to do its thing at whatever levels are required by the emotional content of the current scene. I’m not saying that these things don’t also present their own difficulties, I’m just saying that this particular movie would not be experienced or created the same in today’s popular mediums. Thus, we’ll never again experience the sheer contortion that suffuses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in exactly the same way. (Incidentally, you can still find this film. I’d recommend giving it a watch!) But, let’s step even further back…
To the era of Lovecraft. No, not the 60′s, I mean the author, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and Stephen King are big names in horror literature, but, as you’ll notice, they each have very different styles. That’s influenced by many different things: personal style, type of horror, experience, society… yeah, almost everything plays into an author’s work, but some things that are easy to parse out are the places and things they describe and how they describe them. Stephen King, often, discusses very banal things. He works to reveal the insane with the mundane through the use of frightening events within familiar locales. Not only that, he’s often quite explicit. This is because the world King is writing for, our world, is bathed in the garish light of revelation. Now, the best way to frighten someone is to show them how terrifying that world can be. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was writing for a very different world.
Lovecraft’s horror is slow-building and ominous. His descriptions of strange, alien places, in themselves, make his work off-putting, in a fashion similar to the way The cabinet of Dr. Caligari used its backgrounds. I was actually discussing this with a colleague the other day. Aside from mentioning that the directorial style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was perfect for a Lovecraft movie, she also mentioned something I found singularly enlightening. One of the passages in Lovecraft’s work describes an extremely exotic locale, full of fantastic sights and peculiar peoples. When she read it, she said she stopped for a second and said, “Wait, Lovecraft, that’s just Hawaii. I can hop on a plane and go there right now.” And while I envy the notion of freely travelling, I agree that the world of Lovecraft was still full of incredibly foreign notions.
At the time, English society was still enthralled with the mystic Orientals, the exotic Amazonians and the mysterious Egyptians. Of course, today, we can zoom around these locales on Google Maps, and I attend classes with people from each of these locations. The mysticism has faded from the world’s far reaches in our post-modern age. The strangest, most alien place that impinges on our everyday existence is space. The threats to our well-being are quite well-known, though, so the best way to scare someone now is to simply show them their home in a way they’ve never seen it. And, that could be why Lovecraft is still horrendously, awesomely readable.
Aside from being very well written, Lovecraft shows us our world through the eyes of a profoundly different society. It makes the world itself alien. I once wrote a work that ended up being similar in tone and style to one of Lovecraft’s works. It was criticised for the style of its language because it didn’t feel right next to contemporary references. Yet, it’s that very alien nature that makes the story readable. This comes back, in part, to what I was saying earlier about allowing yourself to experience something. As a contemporary author, people are pulled out of an experience I create with any linguistic style other than my own, but we are ready to accept Lovecraft’s tone because of his time, so we do. This alien acceptance and separation from our own society only magnifies the content of his work: the Eldritch and the Otherworldly. Things that are so absolutely beyond the scope of human experience that experiencing them rends our minds, or, failing that, are so far outside of our grasp that we can’t even perceive them properly. They’re indescribable. Strange, otherworldly geometries. Experience-induced madness. These are roads well-travelled by Lovecraft. This content resonates with the style of his work, amplifying its effect, regardless of the era you’re reading in. Hmm… but, let’s jump from one literary generation to…
The wide-world of creepypastas! (If you like the picture, check out the watermark, it’s only fair). Creepypastas are horror stories for the age of the attention derelict. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love creepypastas; they’re a great way to fit a horror experience into a short span of time. This might sound like a challenge (and it can be), but, again, it’s also an advantage waiting to be exploited. Remember how I said that seeing the monster often reduces its fear-effect? Well, that can apply to many fear-experiences. It’s like porn, most of the time, once you’ve seen the money-shot, the rest is just clean-up. Creepypastas are great for this in that they are almost all pay-off. They’ve got a short establishing section, then it’s right into the horror. Doing this properly can be a real challenge. I know, I’ve tried writing my share, and it’s difficult work.
Each and every section of a creepypasta is incredibly dense. Characterization, motives and monsters are squeezed down into an essential presentation. Yet, since it’s being read by someone ready to accept the world the story quickly presents, these essential elements don’t seem hastily executed on. They’re not being rushed; that’s the format. Even more advantageous, the quick-and-dirty characterization leaves lots of holes for people to fill with their own gooey ego-brains, making it much easier for readers to project themselves into the story. Convincing people to buy into a story, to think about it, and to search for meaning within it, is half the battle when crafting an experience. People reading short-form stories already know that they’re going to have to do just that, which is a huge bonus for any author. Enough foreplay, let’s skip over to games.
Aha! You thought I was going to talk about the graphical limitations of the Playstation 2 as it applied to Silent Hill 2! Well, no, I’m not going to mention that the feeling of the oppressive nightmare world was enhanced by the fog that was implemented, in part, in order to deal with the limited draw distance of that generation. Not this time! (DAMMIT! >.<) Silent Hill 2 basically has its own section in this blog. Actually, I might eventually give it its own section, but, until then, we’re going to talk briefly about Fatal Frame, the FPS game about a small, ghost-busting Japanese girl. And, by first-person-shooting, I mean with cameras. Capturing the soul and all that. Sort of. The gist of its inclusion here is that Fatal Frame’s graphical limitations, and the graphical state of the industry in general during the PS2 era, allowed for vague, half-seen shapes and half-loaded polygons to flit, uncriticised, across the screen.
What do I mean by allow? Well, we could certainly create games that looked like PS2-era games, but they wouldn’t be received in nearly the same way. If horror is an experience, then it’s readily affected by expectation. You’ve seen that theme running through this entire post. Like the greater frames-per-second of high-definition, we’re influenced by what we’re used to seeing. What we’re used to seeing becomes what we expect to see. We’re pattern-reading beasts, after all. So, while we can still play excellent games like SPC-Containment Breach, Slender and Penumbra, they feel much less immersive than they would have in the year 2000. Still, if you’ve played Outlast, I’m sure you’ll agree that fantastic visuals aren’t all there is to a game, either. Speaking of, I thought we’d round this out with a brief discussion of the high-definition future of digitaining horror.
We may not have the advantage of iffy hardware excusing shadowy figures, but we do have the advantage of visuals that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Look at Outlast. That game looked amazing, and it was only a little bit of writing and some more organic game-play away from being unforgettably awesome (Still good, though). Even so, the graphical fidelity allowed for some pretty chilling visuals (Horror set-pieces, if you will) and a fantastic initial level of immersion. We can now create horror experiences that are eminently visual in nature. Yes, many horror experiences are ruined by the monster-money-shot, but, sticking with the metaphor, what about bukkake? By which of course I mean, what about horror based around the form of the terror? High-definition visuals don’t have to ruin an experience; they can enable it, too. Look at Uzumaki, the horror story about the spiral. Look at… well, just look at spiders. Clowns. (Getting your finger cut off in Outlast). There are plenty of things that scare us because they’re frightening to look at. We just have to find a way to make players see them as horrific in all of their high-definition glory. Also, we have to remember that it’s not ALL about visuals. Hell, you could copy-paste the game-play of Slender or SPC-CB into a game with better visuals and get positive results.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but it takes that simple idea to shift your focus from hiding the monster to displaying it proudly. It’s the same sort of shift that happens when you go from Lovecraft to Stephen King. They’re both clearly writing horror stories, but it would be difficult to derive one from the other. We need to learn from the wisdom of the past, not try to emulate it. I’ve got faith in our devs; they’re up to the task. That’s not idle speculation, either. This era of video games has several other advantages besides high-definition that developers are taking advantage of.
For instance, our physics engines are on another level compared to where they were only a decade ago, and they’re being utilized by games other than Dark Souls to scare our pants off. Paranormal owes its organic haunting experiences, in part, to its physics engine. Thus, paranormal experiences, bloody telekinetic murders and horrific deaths are entirely possible in today’s industry. While it’s still difficult to translate a physics engine into a decent horror story, our current technology can be used to improve the elements of horror that surround the central narrative. Even so, no one ever said that every horror experience had to have a plot. Sometimes, it just has to have a monster.
That’s enough for a multi-player experience and, relative to history, our multi-player infrastructure is second-to-none. Look at Damned. A game like Damned (on Steam) would never have been able to exist in the pre-broad-band era. Yeah, we had large StarCraft, Quake and Counter-Strike communities, but that’s because… well, that’s most of what we had, besides a few MMOs. We didn’t have gaming platforms designed specifically to bring people to game lobbies. Okay, it’s a little annoying that the next-gen consoles are pushing the open-world, on-line, multi-player aspects of their games so hard, especially for those of us that want a tight, coherent narrative, but that set-up is also enabling some pretty awesome experiences. We just have to design them and find them.
The gaming landscape is changing, so horror experiences have to change with it. That doesn’t mean we abandon the past, though. No, it’s the best source of information on how we can adapt our current understandings of horror to the Eldritch world of next-gen gaming. Some people may say that horror is dead, but they’re just pessimists (When has that stopped a shambling grotesquery before?). Maybe the type of horror we once knew is fading into the shadows, waiting for another day to rend our flesh with its dripping jaws, but horror itself will persist as long as we do. From my perspective, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the terror we can render in 1080p.