I am a man who finds different things to obsess over in phases, for maybe a month or two at a time. You may recall not too long ago it was Borderlands, but with Hallowe’en just passed and a few articles done on the subject of horror I have found myself chain-watching horror films of all types and listening to Librivox H.P. Lovecraft books.
This is almost certainly inaccurate and incomplete, but these are the sub-genres as I see them:
- Possession: Usually a little heavy on the religion, although there are varying dispositions toward religion throughout the sub-genre. The Exorcist is a fairly clear-cut case of good vs. evil, but increasingly exorcism and possession films toy with the idea of mental illness and psychopathy, and have gotten into the habit of leaving the viewer with questions about whether or not the subject is the victim or the killer. Possession films aren’t always dependent on demons and religion, they can also use aliens and the occasional other piece of “weird science” to great effect, such as in The Thing.
- Slasher: Classic fair of the 80’s golden age of horror is the serial killing immortal, ghost, or other sinister character. I am not a fan of slashers I must admit, they tend to be a little formulaic and reliant on jump-scares, and it really doesn’t matter how you change up that formula the end result is usually the same. There are some major exceptions, Alien being a definite winner in my book, for while it still follows the process of killing everyone off one by one, the xenomorph is so terrifying a creation that you can’t help but adore the series.
- Haunting: I love haunting films. Anything I can watch that leaves me afraid of the dark is a good job well done. Whether the subject is a house, an object or a person, haunting films play to the greatest fear we have: the unknown (as I mentioned in DMing 101 last week) and what forces live on after us once we die. They tend to lean on certain tools, the dark being the classic, but they can also toy with psychological effects in a way that others can’t.
- Monster: Zombies, vampires, werewolves and blobs from outer-space. Monster films lean more towards action than actual horror but creatures of the night and gargantuan kaiju can evoke fear by leaving us powerless, either by outnumbering, overpowering, or utterly dwarfing us. 30 Days of Night is a favourite monster horror of mine.
Why do horror films use children so much? The idea that children are more open minded and are therefore more likely to see ghosts is a nice theory, but the two ways children are used make them a rather easy weapon for writers and directors to use:
Where children are the enemy or monster in a film it is the juxtaposition that scares us. The innocent child turned knife-wielding butcher is so alien that it shocks us, and we dare not fight back because it is morally beyond rationalizing to harm children. The Shining, Sinister and The Ring are great films where the child is the agent of terror.
Where children are the primary victim or even the protagonist, we are meant – as we are with all protagonists – supposed to associate with them, and put ourselves in their place. By reducing us to the state of children we make ourselves more mentally vulnerable and fearful of simple things like creepy sounds and dark places. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark by Guillermo Del Toro is one of the best horror films I’ve seen, and Among the Sleep has a child as the Player Character, which is a cruel way to make us more afraid.
Horror films are full of similar psychological weapons, and these are often more effective in inducing a fear reaction than the actual content. Gore-fests have a way of making us feel uncomfortable through excessive use of blood and gore but they tend to over-saturate the effect through copious amounts of blood and torture. The original Saw film – for example – coupled the effects of entrapment, jump-scares, intense mystery and others alongside gore and torture to great effect, something the subsequent Saws could not muster.
Some of these tricks are pretty cheap. First-person perspective films are intended to put us right in the mind of the victim but more often than not it just makes for an unpleasant experience, although I actually enjoyed Cloverfield and the Dyatlov Pass Incident so check those out. Sound is often used to almost excessive degrees in horror, although the sound of viscera and bone breaking can be highly effective, high pitched squeals to emphasize jump scares ultrasound frequencies played over silences are frankly annoying, especially for the few amongst us who can hear a little into the ultrasonic.
I’ve been thinking about how to write horror and how to design horror games. I think the fact that I can still watch a horror film and leave it jumping at shadows makes me better at thinking about fear and how to induce it. I recently learned about the RPG game Dread which requires you to draw a block from a Jenga tower in order to pass a check, and that’s a particularly evil way to build tension at the table. I’ve watched two horror films while composing this entry! It’s safe to say at the moment that I am quite thoroughly hooked.
Of course, this week you voted to see the Top 10 jump scares in games, and I do not play a lot of horror games. I can’t even play Amnesia for more than twenty minutes.
To wrap up, I have two questions for you:
Can you write horror if you are incapable of being afraid yourself?
What are you geeking out about, right now?
Share your thoughts, and your nerdiness in the comments down below!