Wednesday, October 26, 2005

More fear!

I may have mentioned a couple of times that I am a huge fan of horror movies and games.

Actually, that's inaccurate. I'm a big fan of terror movies and games, as well as psychological thriller movies and games. There's a difference. "The Ring" was a horror movie. I found it dull and pointless. Same with "The Exorcist". I'm sure they were good movies, but as far as I can tell, I'm immune to the drug they are peddling.

No, only two kinds of fear affect me: shock/impending shock and creepiness. "Horror" isn't a very good term, because it really doesn't discriminate between horror caused by fear of injury, horror caused by reality breaking, horror caused by seeing pure things corrupted, horror caused by seeing something incomprehensible... or any of the other myriad forms of horror. Horror movies are often enjoyable not because they are scary, but because they are campy - which is, of course, wholly NOT HORROR, but still falls into the same "genre".

I find very different things scary and have different reactions than most of my friends. This has made me extremely curious as to fear - how it can be caused, what kinds there are, why people feel it.

I've found that when I describe something that gives me chills, everyone I'm talking to says, "shit, yeah, that's freaking creepy/scary". On the other hand, when the situation is reversed, I rarely agree. I don't think my "this is scary, right?" routine will work over the internet - I'm of the opinion a lot of it is in the presentation - but I'll give an example or two. Tell me how scary/creepy you find the examples, or if you can even tell what the hell I'm talking about.

I think the last movie to creep me out was The Dark Crystal. After that, I haven't seen a single monster design that has impressed me. Seriously. The Skeksis, with their combination of weakness and brutal power, are the creepiest, scariest, most horrifying monsters I have ever seen. The scariest part of the movie? Two of them. One, when they suck life. Two, when the outcast says "Please... make peace. Make peace! MAKE PEACE!" (Actually, I may be misremembering. The scary part wasn't what he said, but how he said it.)

One of those is completely understandable. Hell, what kid wasn't terrified by the life-suck scene? But of the two, the only one that still gives me shivers in adulthood is the desperate screeching of the outcast.

There's something fundamentally different about it. Perhaps it's because the horror of the life-suck is something which you "get used to", but the conniving desperation of a sentient being is something we (or, at least, I) are hardwired against getting used to? I find it more likely that the screeching Skeksis is "too close for comfort", whereas the life-suck is horrifying but far enough from our realm of understanding to get comfortable with.

Anyhow, nearly all of my games in college had as much of the first kind of horror as I could really pack in. Some games couldn't fit much horror: METEOR!, for example, couldn't support any. Other games could really pack it in: running Nobilis, I put in things I considered mind-bogglingly creepy. I rarely trusted my acting abilities enough to put in any of the more personal kinds of horror. If you know me, you'll know I'm not real confident in my ability to physically pretend to be a tortured or scared person. Just a personal limitation.

I found that people have very different tolerances for how personal horror had to be before it creeped them out. If they are more personally-oriented people, they will think these creepy things are simply interesting. On the other hand, some people have a wide respect for any kind of this type of horror.

Example: In Nobilis, everyone plays gods. Not generic gods, but gods who have a deep connection to an aspect of reality. For example, the god of courage would not only be able to cause and drain courage, but also would be harmed if large numbers of people turned cowardly or strengthened if large numbers of people were courageous. In addition, powerful gods can even change the nature of reality. You can make courage a tangible object, or make it turn people blue. If the god of courage dies, courage never existed. If the god of courage is suddenly born, courage always existed.

Interesting? In the right hands, creepy as anything you've ever heard.

Start imagining. Can you think of anything horrifying?

How about the fact that humans inhabited the moon, Mars, Venus, and the fifth planet for thousands of years until a now-unknown god was destroyed, annihilating not only spaceflight but also the very fact that those planets were inhabitable in the first place? Suddenly, thousands of years of civilization are rewritten, and humans are stuck on earth!

How about the ancient god of Secrets? He keeps secrets from everyone - including himself. How about the fact that the color yellow didn't exist until halfway through the game? How about finding records of things that never existed and are mind-boggling weird but that shape the very face of reality itself? For example, the god of Things That Cannot Be Known, hiding the facets of reality that could be used to destroy reality so that nobody will ever discover them - and then hiding himself, so that the idea that things can never be known is something that cannot be known?

Sound outrageous? Where was gravity until Newton discovered it? In use, yes - but it was something that Could Never Be Known, until it was decided time was ripe to 'declassify' it, at which point it was instantly obvious. Of course, if you have a hard time comprehending that, it's just because it's something that Cannot Be Known. What other incredibly obvious things are there that cannot be known?

The answer was: Lots. Enough to discover that a few of the players really got creeped out by this kind of thing, a few of the players found it interesting but not creepy, and the rest didn't really understand it.

(The game was also creepy due to it's accurate, unforced prophesies and, if I do say so myself, the excellent way I played both the players and the characters. But, hey, I'm biased.)

So, anyhow, I'm still fascinated by the different kinds of fear. Is it just familiarity? Something familiar isn't scary. Something not-quite-familiar is always scary, and things which are unfamiliar are scary for a little while?

I'll write up some commentary on the matter later. There's a lot of interesting things to say about it. But, at its heart, horror is an art - and an artist needs to know his audience. The audience is vastly more diverse than most people think!

Don't forget to tell me what scares you, and whether any of the impersonal examples I gave have the potential to scare you, if portrayed in a less antiseptic media.


Patrick Dugan said...

Planescape: Torment

Textual Harassment said...

I can't bring myself to watch scary movies. I always imagine myself scoffing at the story and being extremely unscared. Or maybe I'll be scared and feel embarrassed about it afterward.

But I think what really freaks me out the most is extremely erratic human behavior--not like a psycho with a chainsaw, but normal people who lose all control and humanity.

Your "such and such doesn't exist anymore doesn't sound creepy to me, just more of a cross between an interesting philosophical discussion and a headache-inducing mindfuck.

I think if a game really scared me, I'd stop playing it. I'm a wuss like that.

Craig Perko said...

See, I don't really grok the "stop 'cause it's scary" type. I guess it's a wholly different experience for you folk than for me. I wonder why.

Patrick: what was scary/creepy about Torment, to you?

Patrick Dugan said...

You aren't yourself, you're morally responsible for things "you" did when you weren't you and people want to hold you to that responsibility. Theres a choking sense constantly reinforced on you that its going to be a hard trek before you become yourself. All the demons, the Lady of Pain, the skull piles, the undead; the literal horror you're steeped in is nothing compared to the basic identity crisis. I figure thats the closest a CRPG has come to your D&D campaign.