Thursday, June 22, 2017

Side Trek: The Three Great Horrors

(CW: elements of horror fiction which may trigger sensitivities around trauma, anxiety, and mental health)

I'm not really a fan of horror movies or games that are just spooky-scary werewolf bat mitzfah flavor fare. When a DM says, "You see a ghost," it doesn't feel substantively different than seeing any other monster with hit dice and a thac0. I don't mind it, and I can play up my character's response to that experience, but it isn't going to affect me. That said, I am a big fan of great, unmanageable, existential terror--stuff that leaves you anxious and fretting over real emotions, either churning up the higher functions of our reasoning (Roko's Basilisk, anyone?) or drilling deep down into the lizard brain to shake us up (there's a thing outside my shelter and it wants to get inside and eat me).

I have a standing tradition around Halloween of running a one-shot "ghost story" for some friends who don't really play RPGs, and I occasionally think about breaking out Call of Cthulhu and trying my hand at weaving something really chilling, to unnerve a bunch of players who are familiar enough with gaming that even great old ones are just another Big Bad Evil Guy to try and thwart. I've managed a few real winners, and there is a common thread between what has worked for me as a game master creating horror tales over various systems, and what has worked in film to fill me with that good, gloomy despair that I so enjoy. I call this thread the Three Great Horrors, and I have found that one or more of them is always present in virtually everything I've found genuinely scary. They are as follows...

1) The compulsive hedonism of biological hungers, unchecked by reason or taboo, reducing people to a biomaterial resource that satiates some grotesquely base need. Particularly when the emulation of love or sexual attraction is bait employed passively by an emotionless or mindless creature for purposes of ensnaring and consuming or otherwise using and discarding a person. Often such a predator exploits the prey's own baser hungers, but just as often it simply overpowers, immobilizes, and uses its victim. (Alien, The Blob, spiders, vampires, venus fly traps, angler fish, sexual cannibalism as per the Praying Mantis. Begotten.)

2) The existentially terrifying implications of a god, an afterlife, and/or spiritual world that doesn't value us--particularly when the truth has parallels to our traditions that suggest that our entire history has been shaped by some kind of glancing and accidental contact with a higher being that didn't notice and wouldn't care, or one whose motives are suspect and whose values and desires are hopelessly and incomprehensibly alien. Also, the suggestion that the spiritual world is not for us and will be hostile, painful, frightening, or psychologically confusing. (Lovecraft mythos, Event Horizon, The Messenger (the Jean d'Arc one), Begotten, Hellraiser, The subway scene from Ghost. Heaven as depicted in Preacher. The afterlife for suicides in What Dreams May Come.)

3) The condition of being trapped in a trajectory toward some miserable outcome or dreadful eternity, with the ability to fully understand and fear what is happening, while being powerless to change it. Being conscious and aware in the body after death, particularly leading up to the autopsy or embalming; being buried alive; trapped on a spacecraft gone adrift, or in a water-safe cabin on a sinking ship; being paralyzed or restrained on the beach as the tide comes in, or where vultures or other animals can eat you. Being aware of one's own mental deterioration, particularly violent madness and the looming inevitability of your harming or killing a loved one. (Black Mirror's "White Christmas" episode; Twilight Zone's "Time Enough At Last" episode; Star Trek Voyager's "The Thaw" episode; The Babadook; 2001: A Space Odyssey; the pig scene from Hannibal; On the Beach. Pandorum.)

In short, any great piece of horror provokes our anxieties about sex; the shame of our bodily functions and the filthiness of our sweaty, mucous-dripping, eternally consumptive biomass, contrasted against the elegance of the inert and lifeless; our cosmic smallness; aggressive, malicious meaninglessness; existential isolation; and helplessness in the face of dread or agony. If you want to scare someone, either as a writer of fiction or as a master of dungeons, you can't go far wrong stirring up these elements in different combinations.

It should go without saying, but games that do this probably merit a content warning for players who might have psychological trauma, and who come to the game for escapism rather than exposure therapy.

Did I miss anything? Can you think of other examples where these elements were used to great effect? Can you think of other base building blocks of horror that you would add to the list?

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