Ran into an online conversation the other day discussing the feelings of dread and fear many recall from a variety of children’s movies in the 80s. The assumption was that such dread and fear is no longer in vogue – you couldn’t (or maybe just wouldn’t) make a Black Cauldron or Rats of NIMH today or, if you did, you would do it differently.
Now, in the first place, I can’t say with any authority that this is actually true. Granted, I can’t really think of any “children’s” movies quite as harrowing as the ones I remember as a kid, but they may very well be out there. In the second place, assuming it is true (or that people think it should be), I’d like to take a moment to defend such films.
Fear, Dread, and Horror
For starters, let’s define terms. I think fear, dread, and horror are different things and, while I am definitely advocating for the second of those, I am very much not angling for children to encounter the third. So, to be specific:
- Fear is an immediate emotional response – it’s the jump, the flinch, the nervous jitters. You can get this in any kind of story and its a momentary thing. Hell, it’s essentially the same emotional response generated as you crest the top of a roller coaster.
- Dread is a sense of unease and disquiet. It is a lingering feeling that things are not quite right and that hidden dangers may lurk round corners.
- Horror is the desolation that occurs when hope is extinguished and all that is good seems lost. Like dread, it can linger, but it bears with it not a sense of anticipation but rather a sense of helplessness.
As I hope is clear, both dread and horror involve fear. Fear is the drumroll, the squeal of terror, the crash and bang your heart goes through when it is surprised or frightened. Kids have this sensation often, as the world is large and strange to them, and there is nothing wrong with exposing them to a little bit in their entertainment. Probably the best example of this is the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: she shows up, she cackles, she says “boo,” and then she falls off a cliff. Scary, yeah, but not eliciting much dread and certainly not horror.
Horror, on the other hand, is when the xenomorph pops out of the guy’s chest in Aliens and runs across the room.
Not only is he dead (irreversible), but the thing is still out there, somewhere, on a big dark ship. And there is no help to be found. And they have no weapons. Horror is also the inevitability of death in slasher movies like Friday the 13th or the despair in the face of such monstrous things as the Holocaust or genocide in general. Horror is not for children because they lack the maturity or perspective to understand that what they are being shown is not, in fact, all there is to it. They even have difficulty differentiating between the real and the fictional. Show a kid Event Horizon or (God forbid) IT and, while I’m no child psychologist, I’d say you stand to do actual damage to the poor kid’s psyche.
That brings us to dread. Dread is harder to pin down than horror or fear, I think, because it is not as clearly defined. That is really the point of dread, I think – it is uncertainty, eerie-ness. The dread I retain from Return to Oz is not because it was necessarily scary (though it was), but because it seemed to strange and so alien. I could not understand how the world worked and it was…unsettling. You look at all those heads in cases and have to ask yourself “how are they still alive? What does it mean that they are? How can this be?” The kid watching is engrossed but also freaked out. They are scared, but also fascinated.
The Importance of Dread
There is a long list of movies that made me feel this way as a kid. The Rats of NIMH, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron, Labyrinth, The Last Unicorn, The Dark Crystal, and a lot more besides. All of these films were eerie and creepy to varying degrees. All of them had parts that frightened me. Nevertheless, I watched all of them constantly.
It should be noted that dread is not a new aspect of children’s stories. Hans Christian Andersen was a master of it, as were the Brothers Grimm and Washington Irving. You can trace that feeling – that unsettling, eerie prickle up the back of your neck – way, waay back to the earliest of folk tales. Of course, go far enough back and there wasn’t really a division between what qualified as “children’s stories” and what was meant for adults – they were just “stories.” The kids crowded around to listen to someone sing the Odyssey as much as anyone else. Our definition of what qualifies as “suitable for children” is a relatively modern invention in a lot of ways, dating back to around the turn of the 19th century, anyway.
But even in our modern conception of childhood, I think dread serves a real and important and enriching purpose for children. We’ve got to remember that children, simply by dint of their inexperience, live in a world full of the
frightening, unsettling, and unexpected. Experiencing dread in a controlled circumstance – as in a movie – gives them a chance to sort through and understand how to cope with this feeling. It instills in them a sense of caution (important) but also a sense of hope (the hero triumphs in the end). Beyond that, these stories are also wonderful fodder for their dreams and imagination. How much of my own imagination was fired by these films that I saw when I was young? A lot, I’d say. The Black Cauldron and the Rankin/Bass Return of the King are probably half the reason I became a fantasy writer.
Now, I am no child psychologist and I’m certainly not advocating forcing your kids to watch a movie if they’re screaming a crying with terror. But, I do think that exposing children to this content is not bad for them – far from it! We live in a frightening world full of mysteries and dangers, and stories like this have a lot to teach kids about how to manage such things.
Or, at least, that’s what I think.
I just finished Stranger Things last night. Loved it – it’s magnificent television, some of the best I’ve seen in years, and you need to get your ass on Netflix and watch it yesterday. It’s Goonies meets the X-Files if written by Stephen King and no, that is not even remotely an exaggeration. It’s glorious. Not perfect, granted (there were a couple places it might have been *better,* but really I’d be quibbling), but crazy good.
Spoilers Below, by the way…
There are probably dozens of things I could write about this series and about the reaction to this series. Like, why the obsession with Barb? Why doesn’t anybody ever use the buddy system ever? Even when they do use the buddy system, why does nobody ever say “hey, look at this thing!” before wandering off, thereby defeating the purpose of the buddy system? Also: Does Matthew Modine live at the lab? Does everyone? If so, where the hell were they all when Hop broke in? If not, where do they all live, if not in the exact same small town as everyone else? Where do they commute from? I could also go on and on about Dungeons and Dragons, about that special kid-friendship that we have when we’re twelve but that melts away as we get older. I could even talk about the Acrobat and the Flea for a bit. About bullying (again), and on and on and on. But no – the topic I choose today is the tale of two moms, Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler.
This show deliberately and consciously poses for us a pair of mothers who are, for all intents and purposes, opposites of one another. On the one hand, we have Joyce – a harried single mother, barely able to manage her life and her finances. She’s a terrible cook, has a bad relationship with her ex-husband, works a crappy retail job, and looks like she hasn’t seen a hairbrush in years, let alone used one. On the other hand, we’ve got Karen Wheeler – sensibly dressed, classy, well-to-do. She makes beautiful turkeys, sits her family down to dinner on time, maintains a beautiful home, and seems to have this mom game all sewn up. On the surface of things (and, indeed, in the eyes of Hawkins, Indiana), Karen is the “good” mother, and Joyce is the failure. I mean, hell, Joyce has her kid kidnapped right from under her nose, right?
But that isn’t the case. In fact, I’d like to argue that Joyce is the very best kind of mother and that Karen is, frankly, a pretty slack performer. Here’s why: Joyce trusts and believes and is engaged in her children and their lives. Karen just has small people that live in her house.
Let’s start with Karen Wheeler, shall we? First of all, Karen seems to have absolutely no idea where her children are at any time. Granted, neither does Joyce, but she’s busy fighting nether-demons and one of her kids is on an alternate plane of existence, so she should be given a pass on that one. Meanwhile, Nancy sneaks not one but two boys into her room while her mother is home. At the same time, Mike is hiding a psychic wunderkind with a shaved head in the basement and Karen has no goddamned idea at all.
But, okay, kids at a certain age acquire a life of their own, sure – Karen isn’t going to keep them in the Panopticon, right? Consider this, though: Karen doesn’t knock on Nancy’s door, she just comes in. Because she doesn’t trust her or because she is unwilling to grant Nancy the right to privacy, in either case it doesn’t speak well of her. Jonathan, who’s got a whole different kind of mother, is surprised at this.
And further: When Nancy learns that Barb has disappeared and suspects that something terrible has happened to her best friend, what is the thing Karen wants to talk about when they get home? That’s right – did you sleep with that boy. Not “how are you doing with all this scary stuff going down,” no, instead it’s “you LIED to me!” Classy move, Karen. Now, should she discuss the fact that Nancy has embarked upon an active sex life? Yeah, sure – obviously a serious discussion has to be had – but maybe approaching the topic right then and in that way isn’t the wisest plan, lady. Look, we’re all upset that she decided to sleep with that douchebag, but maybe the disappearance and possible death of her best friend takes precedence. Maybe you shouldn’t make her feel like a villain in her own home if you want her to talk to you?
And here, here’s the final straw: When her son runs out the door in a panic saying “if anybody looks for me, I’ve left the country” and then creepy government agents start rifling through her house and start taking her kid’s stuff, she gets upset, sure. But when Creepy Scientist Guy sits down and says “trust me – tell me where your son is,” what does she do? She gives him up. Just like that. It’s only fortunate that she is so disconnected from her kids lives that she is unable to give him up effectively. She has no idea where Mike might be.
Now, I don’t think Karen is a bad person and yes, she obviously cares about her kids, but she also has no idea what caring ought to entail. She is focused on keeping her kids clothed and clean and well fed (all admirable) while totally failing to appreciate or even like the fact that they have independent lives and are actual people worthy of her respect.
Which brings us to Joyce.
Yeah, Joyce can’t be home all the time (she’s a single mom in 1983 – cut her some slack, guys!) and she had some pretty terrible taste in men, but think of all the interactions we see between Joyce and her kids. She encourages Will’s creativity. She is engaged in the emotional well-being of Jonathan. She does more than love her kids – she admires them, she is proud of them, and she has their back no matter what.
When her kid talks to her from another dimension and everybody else thinks she’s completely nuts, you know who she trusts? Her. Kid.
When they show her a solid mock-up of her son’s body through a double glass pane from ten feet away, does she fall for it? Not for a second.
When an otherworldly monster rips a hole in fucking space-time right in front of her eyes and chases her from her house, you know what she does? Do you know what Joyce Byers does? SHE GOES BACK IN THAT FUCKING HOUSE AND SITS THERE WITH A GODDAMNED AXE ACROSS HER KNEES.
Why? Because her kid’s in trouble, she knows it, and even if the rest of the universe thinks she’s nuts, she is going to find him. Come Hell or High Water, she will be there for him. That – that – is true, pure, powerful motherhood. Not the birthday parties or the pretty house or the nice clothes. Not the quality of her mashed potatoes, but because of who she is to her kids: not a jailer or a disciplinary officer, but a lioness. Proud bearer of her children’s standard. Guardian of their potential.
All parents (God, don’t even get me started on the fathers in this show – a whole other post) should learn from her example. Believe in your kids, trust them, admire them, be there for them when they need you most, and they will return the favor.
The paperback version of No Good Deed comes out next week! On August 9th, be certain to pick up your copy in cold, hard paper! It’s a limited release, so don’t expect to see tons of them in bookstores – order online, from Amazon, B&N, and anybody else selling real, actual books.
Related to this, I will be doing a reading and book signing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA, on the evening September 8th, so mark your calendars if you want to meet me/get a book signed!
When I was a kid, I was legitimately afraid of Halloween night. As a problematically imaginative boy, I existed in a world wherein I had constructed an elaborate cosmology of evil spirits, monsters, and ghosts that stalked me each time the sun went down. While this peculiar obsession of mine likely brought to me to my current state (creating fanciful worlds for science fiction and fantasy stories/novels), it was somewhat stressful for pre-adolescent me. Any sight of the trivial horror tropes of Halloween stood to haunt my nightmares.
Remember those aisles in the grocery store which, around October 1st, would start to be lined with rubber masks? Yeah, I wouldn’t walk down those aisles. If I did, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look. Likewise those elaborate, gruesome displays some people set up in front of their houses – plastic skeletons, a severed arm of Styrofoam, fake blood dripping over plastic fake eyeballs – these places were fairly terrifying to me (though mostly after dark). Come to think of it, much of my young life involved strategically deciding when to close my eyes and not take in the “horrors” that would parade about each Halloween or, for that matter, in any given television show or movie I watched. Apart from the first time I saw it (around 1986), I didn’t actually see the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark until I was in high school, despite watching the movie about ten times in the interim. Same deal with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I remember being convinced that seeing things that were scary would harm me in some way. Initially, when I was little, I felt that the scary things were in some way actually real and might awaken if they caught me looking (it was for this reason, by the way, that I sought to dress as something with a weapon or natural defenses every Halloween – just in case, you understand). As I got older, I was just concerned about getting vivid nightmares (and I used to have very vivid nightmares). Halloween night, of course, was the metaphysical climax of this feeling of terror. I loved the candy, sure, but as I walked around my neighborhood, I kept my flashlight gripped tight and made sure my plastic sword was loose in the scabbard. My weight was firmly over the balls of my feet. I imagine I looked like a spooked deer.
But then it all changed. I can’t put my finger on it, but everything became less scary. I started opening my eyes, tearing back the curtain. I started watching more horror movies. Now? Halloween isn’t scary. If anything, it’s the opposite – a banal display of half-assed “horror” tropes ladled together in a kind of stew that, in juxtaposition, are more absurd than scary. Like, seriously, how am I supposed to interpret the fifteen apparently “severed” heads stuck on your white picket fence? And why are they in such wildly differing states of decay? And what’s with the one that’s smiling? Gimmie a break.
I don’t scare easily anymore. Yeah, a horror movie can get me to jump, but that’s less “horror” and more clever use of loud sound-effects and fast camera cuts. Losing sleep? Nightmares? It’s been years. In fact, I find a lot of things other people find terrifying to be simply…odd. How can you be afraid of clowns? They’re clowns!
Now, while this means I live a much calmer, much saner life than I did as an eight-year-old, I do think, sometimes, that I’ve lost something crucial. There is something magical in terror, isn’t there? That little spike of adrenaline I’d get as I ran into the house with the autumn wind and the skitter of leaves chasing me; that boiling feeling in my stomach as I put my hands over my eyes and refused to feel the “eyeballs” in the local haunted house – there was something special going on there, in that brain of mine. Fear forces your imagination to fire on all pistons. Not seeing what you fear is infinitely more powerful than seeing it. All those years with my eyes closed, I was constructing truly terrifying edifices in the dark of my own mind. Now that I’ve opened them, well, there’s no going back. Those eyeballs are peeled grapes. That guy jumping out from behind the haystack in the hockey mask is a volunteer actor from the local high school and, for that matter, is two inches shorter and about twenty-five pounds lighter than me. I’m not scared anymore.
Sometimes, though, I wish that I still was.
Author’s note: What follows is some teaser text for a gothic horror RPG campaign I’ve been running and am currently attempting to restart. I hope you enjoy it.
Life is cheap on the slopes of Mount Radu.
The boy has heard this from his father, spoken in bitter tones over cups of vocht, after the concertina ceased to bluster and old Nirri had fallen to snoring before the fire. He hadn’t ever really known what he meant. Now he think he knew.
The boy’s sister had found the crack in the basement wall. She, being a good girl, had run to tell father, and father had gone down with mortar to seal it. The boy had gone to sleep before father had come up, and then next thing he knew he was being shaken awake and had a beaverskin coat thrust on him and they were out in the bitter cold of the night, the snow crunching beneath their feet. Mother and sister would not answer the boy’s questions, and father was wild, crossbow looped over one shoulder, torch clutched in one white-knuckled fist, waving the flame at any shadows that looked suspicious.
They were to walk all night to the neighbor’s house, Veldavaya. The fir trees seemed to shuffle closer to them at night, and the boy breathed into his hands to keep them warm. His eyes darted towards the pale gray shapes the snow made on the tree trunks. Did that one move? Was that a light? An eye, like in old Nirri’s stories, red and hateful, gleaming in the flickering torchlight?
Where was old Nirri? The boy had asked, but no one had answered. Mother’s mouth got tight at the edges and she shook her head. The boy didn’t know what to make of it.
“Shhhh!” Mother hissed, but it was pointless–no one was talking. They did stop walking, though. Silence fell on them like a quilt. They huddled around the torch, eyes searching the dark, mouths open.
kruch-kruch…kruch kruch kurch kruch kruchkruchkruchkruch…
Little feet. Little hands. Scrambling through the snow like a hoard of greedy children. Coming at them from all sides, closer, closer, closer…
“RUN!” Father yelled. He seized the boy by the collar and dragged him, the boy’s legs flailing as he tried to get himself upright. Father wouldn’t give him the chance. He dropped the torch and tucked the boy under his arm like a hen. The pale glow of the starlit snow whirled before the boy’s face, pine-needles and icicles brushing by his raw cheeks. He heard his mother scream. He heard his sister shout his name. Father did not stop.
The sound of the little feet in the snow had become a stampede. It was joined by shrill cries and sharp little laughs, and the boy closed his eyes. Here they would die, just like in the stories. Dragged beneath the mountain, to be thrust in the stew-pot at the table of the Goblin King. The fate of bad little boys and bad little girls, just as old Nirri had always said. The boy wept and shouted he was sorry, but he didn’t know for what. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want father and mother and sister to die for what he had done, whatever it had been.
Father fell to the ground and the boy landed face-first in a snow drift. He scrambled out in time to hear the cry of a horse and the thunder of hooves as they galloped past, huge and somehow blacker than the night. There were riders with torches and sabers. They dove into the underbrush without call or trumpet; the boy heard shrieks of dismay from the darkness and, somehow, he knew the goblins had gone. They were saved. The boy got up, trembling. His father took him by the shoulders and hugged him close.
Then the riders came back. There were six of them, clad in silver mail with snow-white cloaks. Their faces were covered by a mask of alabaster, showing an angelic face, serene and at peace, with black, vacant holes where the eyes should be. The riders surrounded the man and the boy and looked down at them both with those empty, black eyes. For a long time, no one stirred.
Father knelt before them. “My regards to Prince Ladislav, and my thanks. You saved us.”
“There is a price.” The voice came from one of the riders, but the boy couldn’t say which. It was thin, cold whisper, like rainfall on snow.
“Take me.” Father said.
One of the riders shook his head slowly, once to the right, once to the left.
“He isn’t old enough.”
“He will be, soon enough.”
“There is no other way?”
“Are you refusing the Prince’s protection, woodsman?”
Father bowed his head. “Never.”
The rider nodded. “Then follow us.”
Father rose and took the boy by the hand. He did not look at his son, though. Not again for that whole night.
This was how the boy learned just how cheap life is on the slopes of Mount Radu.
The last good television show I watched was Lost. Yes, yes the last season wasn’t ideal, I know, but even with that caveat, the last season of Lost is better than the first season of pretty much any other show to come out since then. There have been things that are watchable (Defiance,
for instance, along with a laundry list of crime procedurals), but nothing that I saw and actually felt motivated to see more of. I would point out that I am aware Mad Men is supposed to be awesome and lots of people love The Walking Dead, but given my distaste for zombies and soap opera melodrama, the prospect of watching either of those shows sounds a lot like going to the dentist to me: good for me, and probably not that painful after all, but hardly something I’m rushing out the door to experience.
Oh, right, and there’s Game of Thrones, but seeing how I read all the books only to become disenchanted with the story at the end, the only reason I’m watching is to see Peter Dinklage tear up the screen. I’ve got the first two seasons on DVD, and I haven’t worked up the motivation to keep watching through season two. I mean, I already know everything that happens.
This brings me to my delightful discovery of the past week: Not one, but two shows whose pilots looked sufficiently interesting and fun that I am probably going to watch them both! Yes! Crazy, right?
Under The Dome
This is based off a Stephen King novel. I would imagine if you read it, that might suck some of the fun out of the series (much as happened to me and Game of Thrones), but beyond that, this show looks pretty awesome. It isn’t just that there’s a magical force field that’s cut off the town, it’s the completeness with which this idea has been imagined. King has thought of all the implications, here, and it shows. I know it’s been thought through because right at the end of the first episode (spoilers, sort of), I knew Duke shouldn’t touch the Dome, I yelled it at the screen, and I was right. Why? Because the Dome is operating under consistent principles and, therefore, can be anticipated. It also means there’s a lot more to discover, too. Throw in the devilish array of quintessential King small-town weirdo characters, and there is enormous plot potential running around here. So much has been set up and, goddammit, I want to see what happens. That hasn’t happened to me for the longest time.
This one snuck up on me. It just kinda came on the television just before bed, and it is just so gloriously new and interesting that I can’t help but be sucked in. If you loved Lost and its weird, mystery vibe, there is no reason you shouldn’t love this show, too. That, though, is basically similar to a lot of attempted shows since Lost, and the majority of them have fallen utterly flat. What gives Siberia the edge? Well, it’s filmed like a reality show. It’s a show about a reality show gone horribly wrong; it’s the Blair Witch Project on steroids with actually good actors and a better special effects budget. Besides, if you loathe reality show contestants the way I do, why wouldn’t you want to watch some of those self-absorbed assholes get devoured by monsters in Siberia? Throw in a series of creepy mysteries on top of it, and I’m sold! I’m in! I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I can’t wait until the next episode!
It’s such a relief to say this, since I was worried I was becoming jaded and cynical towards the world of television science fiction. I’ve either been indifferent or hated almost all of it for years, and now, all at once, I’ve got two shows I am seriously interested in watching. So, kudos, tv executives, for finally stimulating that bug in me. Now, off I go to On Demand…
Yesterday I finished reading Johannes Cabal: Necromancer by Jonathan L Howard. It was an entertaining read about a necromancer, a haunted carnival, and a deal with the devil with a wry wit and some interesting characters and concepts – I recommend it if you’re in the mood for some tongue-in-cheek horror/adventure.
As the chief setting of the book is a carnival of the damned, however, it got me thinking about certain things a broad swathe of our society finds frightening that I don’t quite understand. Carnivals are among them, generally – I always had fun at carnivals, was never all that creeped out by carnival folk, and the only thing that scared me was the haunted houses, and that only because I was a kid and, having never gone in one, my vivid imagination made them seem MUCH worse than they actually are. In practice they’re relatively boring, honestly, but maybe that’s just adult me talking, and I’m not easily scared anymore.
Of course, I’m not talking about children being scared of things in this article – kids, particularly imaginative ones, are scared of all kinds of things. It’s actually not such a bad evolutionary trait for children to have, either. No, in this article I’m talking about grown adults and their pet fears that I find perplexing and confusing. So, to start:
Why are people scared of clowns again? I mean, they’re just people in face paint. Face paint and funny clothes. Brightly colored face paint and funny clothes. Meant to entertain children.
I mean, I guess the makeup makes them look a little corpse-y, but is that it? I’ve heard that people feel like they ‘can’t trust them’, but, then again, I don’t feel like I can trust a lot of people. That doesn’t mean they’re axe-murdering cannibals that populate my nightmares.
I saw an interview with the Insane Clown Posse once, and they were ‘asked ‘why clowns?’ The answer was ‘we’re fucking terrifying, that’s why.’ I wanted to explain to the gentleman that the thing that made him terrifying wasn’t his face paint, it was that he genuinely seemed to be the kind of guy who might commit a felony. Even without the facepaint, I wouldn’t be keen to spend time with him.
I totally understand that clowns are odd and a bit overly jolly to make me want to hang out with them. I get why kids might not like them (but kids also are afraid of bizarre stuff like cracks in the sidewalk and the letter ‘T’), but there’s just no reasonable explanation for a grown person to scream in terror at the sight of a clown. Of course, reasonable is the operative word, there. Fear isn’t reasonable by definition.
Okay, fine – maybe grown men in makeup are unnerving. How, then, do you explain the terror some people experience from dolls. You know the ones – the dead stare, the weird prerecorded voice, the neat, staid clothing.
Here the problem is, ultimately, that they’re tiny and inanimate. Even if they are animate (e.g. Chucky), they’re still up to your knee. Possessed by the devil or not, just pick it up and lob it into the nearest woodchipper or trash compactor – there, crisis averted. This is another instance of things made to look adorable or attractive somehow becoming terrifying. I don’t understand this. I mean, sure, again, a little weird, a little creepy, but not really scary. Anything that can be overpowered by one hand and destroyed by a pair of scissors isn’t on my list of fears.
So lets move on down the list until we get to ‘creepy children.’ This one blows my mind. Really.
I like kids. I have a kid (soon to be two). I’m a teacher and, in my career, I’ve taught small children. They aren’t scary. Ever. Ever ever. I can’t even conceive of an instance where a child under the age of 10 could ever be at all creepy. They could say anything they want and my response would be somewhere between ‘ain’t that adorable’ and ‘that’s inappropriate, young lady.’ Can kids make you angry? Hell yes. Can they make you sad? Certainly. Can they be weird? 100%. Scary? No. Not to psychoanalyze in abstentia, but part of me feels like people freaked out by children aren’t so much afraid of the kids as much as the presence of those kids somehow reminds them that they are growing up and older and becoming adults, which in turn frightens them. I’m probably 100% wrong on that one, but that’s just the first thing that comes to mind.
Here, I’ve got a creepy kid story for you. Let’s make this a litmus test, maybe, for whether you ever find children scary: A coworker of my wife has a little girl of about three. Said little girl was informed by her parents that the reason her grandmother was so tiny is that, as people age, they get smaller. The little girl looked straight at her mother and said this:
Yeah, and when you get old you get tiny, too. You gonna be this big. I gonna keep you in a cage.
The mother responded with ‘oh, don’t be silly.’ The girl’s response, dead serious:
No, I keep you in a cage. I lock you inside. You stay there.
Did you chuckle, or did you suddenly get a chill down your spine? If it’s the latter, may I remind you that it’s a toddler. She isn’t a threat to you. Honest.
I could add to this list – throw on zombies and the Borg and spiders and other things I don’t really find all that frightening – but you get the point. Of course, stuff I’m scared of might not scare you, so we’re probably even. Fear, as I said above, isn’t rational, and so explaining it or understanding it in another is very difficult. This psychological distance, however, is ripe for storytelling and adds a great deal to the experience of being human.
And I’m sure the psychiatrists of the world don’t mind, either.
Let’s just get the obvious out of the way and start with HP Lovecraft, shall we?
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
As a side note, I’ve always found this quote to be richly ironic coming from Lovecraft, as I’ve never found his stuff terribly frightening with one or two possible exceptions (“The Whisperer in the Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark”). Usually his stories consist of a weirdo, a monster, and the monster coming to eat/claim/drive mad said weirdo. Once you’ve read one or two of them, you’ve got the formula down (with rare and important exceptions–“The Call of Cthulhu”, “The Shadow Out of Time”, and others, but those stories were always more ‘cool’ than ‘scary’, anyway). The ‘unknown’ and the fear thereof becomes significantly undermined if you already know, in loose detail, what’s going to happen.
At the heart of it, though, Lovecraft is spot-on. What is really, truly frightening is not knowing what you’re up against or how to combat it. If you doubt it, ask yourself this: if you saw an elephant walking down the street, would you be scared? Now, would you be more or less scared than if you saw an elephant walking down the street and had no idea what an elephant was at all? The second, clearly, and Lovecraft understood this. It’s just that his ability to plot didn’t quite keep up with his understanding of what makes something frightening.
In the end, if we’re trafficking in horror quotations, I prefer one by Stephen King:
The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.
~from Night Shift
So, here’s the challenge in horror: to get your readers to believe, even for a moment, that there’s something there to grab them by the ankle. That’s more than simply the unknown. That’s the unknown that knows about you. That’s the unknown and the immediate. Lovecraft’s characters, who go wandering off over hill and over dale to seek out their madness, they’re asking for it. By contrast, that VHS tape in The Ring is right there, on your living room table. You just need to pop it in and aren’t you curious about it, after all? I can not know about elephants, but I won’t be scared of one until it’s stomping through my neighborhood. I need to believe that it’s possible. I need to draw the shades to keep the man-eating giant from looking inside.
I am not, by self-identification, a horror writer. I think part of it is because I’ve never had a horror book scare me, so I don’t quite get it. I’ve been told that things I’ve written and done have been creepy or scary, but I confess to not really understanding what they mean all the time. That said, I like horror. It’s fun to scare people. It is a rare and unique challenge.
Very soon I’m going to be starting up a gothic horror RPG (Ravenloft is the setting, for you nerds out there, and I’m using the FATE system), and I’ve been wracking my brain on how, when, and why to scare my players. One of the basic tricks is, of course, keeping them in the dark. You need to keep the enemy unknown to keep it scary; as soon as it makes its first on-screen appearance, it loses it’s magic. In RPGs, where players are so often obsessed with the minutiae of statistics, stunts, and dice, this is especially important. I can never describe something as a ‘vampire’ and have it work as a terrifying foe. I need to keep it’s identity in the dark for as long as possible, giving the players the sense that something is going to grab their ankle without actually making the swipe. It’s at that moment–at the moment when the scaly, taloned hand grasps the ankle, that ‘horror’ evaporates. We are then, at that precise moment, in an action scene.
The world is a frustrating place. There are times, when in the midst of shaking my fist in rage at some perceived inequity, that I wish I had the god-like force to make things right. At these times, I am prone to mutter “If I had an army of the undead…”
Let’s face it: once you get past the ‘ick’ factor, there are few underlings more reliable than the undead. Granted, they aren’t much for improvisation or abstract thought, but they follow orders, they require relatively little upkeep (you know, provided you get the ones that don’t eat brains), are hard workers, and are even recyclable, provided you’re a necromancer of passing talent.
See, I don’t think of the undead as some inherently evil plague to be visited upon mankind. The dead are just dead–they don’t hate the living or wish to destroy life or anything. Dead things have no opinions; they are precisely as good or as bad as their master makes them be. Just imagine if you could marshal a large force of undead minions and put them to work for the public good! Think of it: legions of brightly clad, well-perfumed skeletal creatures on every street corner, insuring public safety and guarding the public trust. Ahhhh…utopia.
Here would be some of the tasks to which my army of undead would be routinely assigned:
- An auxiliary of zombies clad in flame-resistant shrink wrap would be on hand for the fire department to dispatch into burning buildings judged too dangerous for living firefighters to enter. Rescues would go up, firefighter injuries would go down!
- Much of the staff of the MBTA (bus routes excepted) could be quickly and easily replaced by skeletons with, I imagine, little notable loss in the quality of service.
- I would employ wraiths and other ethereal creatures to serve warrants and pursue fugitives. The odds of folks running when they know the cold, dead hand of death is liable to follow them would be rather low, I imagine.
- Need a lot of volunteers to systematically search an area for a missing person or body? Hmmmm…I seem to have a couple thousand zombies sitting around with nothing better to do…
- Disaster relief? Well, seems to me my legions of skeletons can carry plenty of water and supplies just about anywhere, given enough time. They don’t mind much if they’re getting electrocuted by downed power lines or covered over by sewage-filled water.
- Bomb squads suddenly have anthropomorphic bomb-defusers that can be commanded via remote. If the bomb goes off, who cares?
- Need Witness Protection? Want to secure your property from vandals? Want to scare the crap out of those punks painting swastikas on your synagogue? Boy, have I got the ghouls for you!
Sure, sure, I can hear all the negative nellies now–something is bound to go wrong! What if the dead get hungry? Stuff and nonsense. I know exactly what I’m doing, okay? Nothing is going to go wrong, and when a zombie pulls you out of your burning car wreck because I had thoughtfully stationed a team of them on the shoulder of the Mass Pike, picking up litter, you can thank me later.
(Or, for that matter, you can thank your Great Aunt Patrice, whose corpse I reanimated and put to work)
A long, long time ago I ran a campaign in the Dungeons and Dragons setting, Ravenloft. For those of you who have never heard of it, it’s a gothic horror themed campaign setting–werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and creepier things, all stuck together in one of the most depressing worlds in existence. It was in that campaign, run between 1992 and 1995-ish, that I really cut my teeth on how to make RPGs scary (for more info on how I did/do this, see here).
I never felt, however, that I really got the most out of the campaign setting. For one thing, the high-medieval fantasy tropes of D&D don’t fit very well into a gothic horror setting. I had druids and dwarves and paladins running around stabbing things with long swords or casting ‘Cure Light Wounds’ and it kinda tanked the mood. For another, I wasn’t quite as talented a GM then as I feel I am now (well, to be honest, I wasn’t very talented at a whole lot of things–I was 14). I read a lot of the fluff text and adventure ideas and I couldn’t quite see how to make them work, and a lot of this was because I still felt the urge to make pen-and-paper RPGs work more like video games, which is a bad idea (and part of the reason I dislike 4th Edition D&D).
Some of the things I did (and do) like, however, is the structure of the world, its rules of operation, and the dramatic potential contained therein. For one thing, I LOVE the idea of the Mists. The Mists, you see, are the faceless, inhuman power that shapes Ravenloft–you wander into them, lose your way, and find yourself in some new, terrible place. They suck people in from other planes of existence, trapping them within Ravenloft with no hope of escape. These travelers are forced to wander the dark roads of the Realm of Terror, saving others and themselves from evil or, even more likely, slowly succumbing to evil themselves. It’s a kind of Quantum Leap, but in reverse. Maybe, someday, they earn their ticket home. More likely they, like Sam Beckett, remain in Ravenloft forever.
My favorite character in this campaign was Jim Bob–played by my friend Ryan–who was a Confederate soldier from the American Civil War who got sucked into Ravenloft right off a misty battlefield in Virginia. He added just the right kind of flavor to the campaign, and the drama surrounding the use of his rifled musket was absolute gold (can he load the silver shot into the muzzle before the werewolf finds him? Can he? Oh god, it’s getting CLOSER!).
I’m considering, as of this moment, running a new Ravenloft campaign. As is my wont, however, I’m not going to take it as-is–it’s getting a face lift. For one thing, in tribute to Jim Bob, I’m going to let players bring in characters from any world, any time, any place. Furthermore, the reason the Mists have sucked in these characters is because they have darkness in their soul–the Mists want them. It becomes the players’ objective to see if either (a) they can tame or purge that darkness and, therefore, earn their escape from Ravenloft or (b) succumb to their darkness, embrace it, and become one of the Dark Lords of the Realm of Terror. This is a horror RPG, but with characters with agency (not Call of Cthulhu, with its pathetic weaklings doomed to death and destruction).
The problem, however, becomes selecting the system best suited to running such a game. I’d like something that focuses on internal character development (like Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, etc.), but also maintains relatively simple gameplay (in accordance with the rules of horror RPGs). I was thinking of, perhaps, adapting Hunter: The Reckoning, but I don’t remember the World of Darkness system well enough to say whether it’s a good fit or not. I don’t mind writing in additional mechanics, if need be, but I don’t have the time to write up a whole new rule system. Anybody have any suggestions for me?
Anybody want to play?
There is a distinct and important difference between being afraid and being disgusted, and modern horror seems to forget
this all too often. Graphic scenes of torture or gore are not, by their nature, frightening so much as they are gross. If I decline to eat live cockroaches, it isn’t because I’m ‘afraid’, it’s because I imagine the experience will be unpalatable.
When I go to see a movie or watch a show that is intended to be frightening, there seems to be a 50/50 chance that their idea of horror is going to be pretty bloody and graphic, but the film won’t be frightening, really. Exciting perhaps, but not scary. Fright comes from a different place, at least for me. I don’t have nightmares about gore and violence. Hellraiser didn’t so much scare me as gross me out. I slept fine that night, though I can’t say I had a huge appetite for a rare steak afterwards.
Ah, who am I kidding? I always have an appetite for rare steak. Hell, I felt like meatloaf right after seeing Julie Taymor’s version of Titus Andronicus in the theaters. Mmmmm…bloody.
What scares me is the idea of helplessness. Alien scared the hell out of me, and you know why? Not because the critter burst from that dude’s chest, but because they were all stuck on a spaceship with a monster and there was no way out. It wasn’t as if there was no way out because they were idiots, either–the characters in that movie were operating at the top of their intelligence; the idiot ball was not in use. There was no way out because there was no way out.
That’s scary. The inexorable approach of doom is frightening. The unavoidable slip into madness is frightnening. Stephen King knows this better than anybody. Most of his truly terrifying works are based on that idea. In It, how can the kids possibly defeat Pennywise? In The Shining, Jack is terrifying primarily because his wife and kid are stuck with him while miles and miles from any kind of help. Misery works on the same concept, and on and on and on. It’s not the gore, folks, it’s the isolation, the removal of agency, the horror of helplessness.
If you want proof, try transposing. If Pennywise were to pick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, how would it go? If a lone alien got loose on one ship among a fleet of ships, how hard would it be to solve the problem? If the crazy dad from The Shining chased his wife and kid into a crowded shopping mall, how dangerous would he really be?
A lot of horror movies like to cheat by creating artificial isolation by throwing around the idiot ball or breaking the rules
of reality just for the hell of it, but I’m not buying it. It’s all too easy sometimes to explain how to escape the dangers of a horror movie, and that’s a sign of a bad horror movie. House seems haunted, but you’re only visiting? Dude, just go home. Crazy killer in the woods? Drive away. Being chased by some slow-moving zombie monster? Just run away.
So, in conclusion: Freddy Kreuger was scary (you can’t get away), but Jason Vorhees isn’t as much (he can’t realistically ride the bus or catch a cab so, you know, just leave). Likewise, cutting off some guys nuts and tossing them in a blender isn’t scary. If he’s made to do it because he has a brain worm that he can’t get out, that is scary. It’s all about setting, it’s all about agency, it’s all about character.
It isn’t about the blood.