What is Horror?

Classic horror movie moment: It’s early morning and I haven’t really woken up yet. I wash my hands, use the hand towel, and feel something hard crush beneath my fingertips. A large beetle falls dead to the floor. I admit I don’t handle bugs all that well, or at least not when they get up-close and personal like that. So finding out that there were three more bugs in the towel really didn’t make me any happier (I’m pretty sure I made a squeaking noise somewhere in there, but I’d never admit to it in court). I can’t tell you how glad I am that it was the hand towel, and not the one I dry my face on.

Horror is a powerful thing. The new T-shirt of the Horror Writers’ Association has a quote on the back by Douglas Winter that begins with “Horror is not a genre” and ends with “horror is an emotion.” Horror carries a whole load of emotional implications that science fiction and fantasy don’t. It’s a much narrower field in some ways, because it must involve this emotion. In other ways it’s broader, because it can encompass other genres–science fiction, mystery, and fantasy can also be horror, if they just evoke the right emotion.

Why does horror from a certain distance fascinate us so, yet cause us problems when it gets up-close and personal? Why is it I can enjoy movies about swarms of bugs killing people, yet finding oversized beetles under my hand turns me into a complete wimp? What’s the dividing line between horror that excites and horror that panics?

It often seems to me that distance dictates whether horror thrills and excites or panics and disgusts. Material on the silver screen is farther away than our own bathroom, so the distance protects us. This distance is enough for some, not enough for others. The imaginary experiences of a roleplaying run are closer than the screen yet farther than the hard, flaking body of the bug under our fingers. So it has less distance than a movie (thus removing another segment of audience, presumably), but more than our own experiences.

Of course, I’m just throwing random thoughts around, spurred on by a handful of beetles. (Amazing how it grows with every retelling, isn’t it?)

In The Industry

Certainly horror is a big draw in the roleplaying industry. Many of White Wolf’s lines make use of horror, as well as such well-known games as “Call of Cthulhu” and some smaller ones like “Principia Malefex” and “Zero.” What makes one game more horrific than another? What makes one game’s horror more acceptable than another’s? Is up-front in-your-face horror more horrific or less than creepy psychological horror? To a certain extent it all depends on the person. Some people will get more scared by “Rosemary’s Baby’s” barely-seen terror; others find gore-fests like most of “Dusk Till Dawn” more horrifying.

The horror of “Principia Malefex” is primarily that of the modern world; it’s meant to be a low-supernatural game. This removes some of the element of distance, and with it, another layer of potential players. Is it too depressing? Maybe. Is it too dark? We all have our own idea of what “too dark” means. Take White Wolf’s “Wraith: the Oblivion,” for example. It too contains a strong theme of the horror of reality, and many people felt it was too dark. It also contains a certain element of distance: the player characters (PCs) are dead, and much of the game takes place in the land of the dead. Horror needs to hit close to home, but it also needs to leave the audience with at least a little personal comfort, a way of feeling distanced. Where that magical zone lies depends on the individual audience-member.

Are Your Players Up For It?

Horror usually gets a single small section in the bookstore. This is because a lot of people don’t feel comfortable with it. Before you consider trying to frighten your players, make sure they’re comfortable with being scared.

Sit down with each of your players in private and ask them about their thoughts on horror. What do they consider to qualify as horror? Would they enjoy dealing with horror in an RPG? Are there any subjects they want you to avoid?

If you can’t talk to them in private you can deal with them as a group, but let them know that they’re each welcome to call or email you afterward if they have any personal concerns. Some people may have trouble telling you what bothers them in person or in public. Make it clear that they don’t have to explain why a subject bothers them.

It’s particularly important to ask about those subjects your players want to avoid, and it’s why you should talk to them in private. One of your players may have had a particularly bad experience with something and may be unwilling to let you go there in an RPG, but may also be unwilling to bring this up in front of other players. If someone tells you not to bring something into your roleplaying game, do the both of you a favor and don’t pry.

Again it comes back to distance: if you hit too close to home for someone then you remove that distance, and you turn things from horror-that-excites to horror-that-panics. This is a good way to lose players, and quite possibly friends. Talk to your players enough to get a feel for where their tolerance zone lies.

It’s also important to ask that first question: what they consider horror to be. If someone doesn’t like or enjoy “horror” but doesn’t consider “psychological horror” to be horror, then you can still play with that. Other people are fine with blood and gore but can’t handle suspense.

Safety Valves

If anyone needs a time out let them have it. You’re trying to give your players a good scare, not a bad one. Make sure there’s somewhere else for the players to go if they need a break– the next room, the kitchen for some extra pizza, out on the porch, etc. Tell everyone ahead of time that if they need a break they’re welcome to take one at any time.

Tell them you’ll just find a way to go on without them unless they specifically ask you to wait for them; this allows them to go out for as long as they need to, without worrying that they’re holding the game up. Also let them know that they can ask to speak to you privately at any time. Sometimes people don’t know ahead of time what will bother them, and you need a way for them to tell you in-game to back off.

Movie Protagonists

I’m sure you’ve noticed it too: protagonists in horror movies do such stupid things. There used to be a humor post floating around by email entitled something like “horror movie advice.” It was a long list of all the things any halfway intelligent person would do if caught in a horror movie. Horror movie characters always go into the dark basement alone, even though they have friends. They leave the flashlight behind or drop it at the first sign of danger. They turn their backs to open windows, closets, and every dark shadow in the room. They back into rooms. When Fluffy comes back from the dead, they decide he’d still make a nice pet. When the walls bleed, they decide they’d rather stick around than get the Hell out of Dodge. When they stumble across a deserted town, they’d rather poke around one by one and open the coffins than keep driving.

Usually people excuse it with, “well, if they were smart, then there wouldn’t be a movie. It would be over after ten minutes.” It takes more work to create a horror plot that doesn’t rely on people being dumb. Do not create a plot that relies on your party being stupid. Most parties have well-honed survival instincts. They may do dumb things sometimes, and some of them let their curiosity be their guide, but they’re unlikely to go along with things as easily as your average horror movie protagonist. And you shouldn’t expect them to.

Spend some time coming up with ways to make sure your party gets involved. Does the plot come and force itself on them, rather than relying on them to be dumb? Does something trap them with the plot, so they have no choice but to get involved? Does something require them to put the plot before their own concerns about survival? Perhaps it becomes clear, for example, that they have to choose between dealing with the problem or watching the people they care about die. The last thing you want is to proudly introduce your new plot, and have it disappear ten minutes into the game.

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