Thursday, October 24, 2013

Abject Horror

As Halloween approaches, I feel obligated to discuss a genre that has never really endeared itself to me.


I have never liked the Horror genre.

I have read the likes of Poe, Shelley and Lovecraft, and while I was indeed fascinated by their works, nothing in them made me feel the desire to read more beyond what I had.

Oh I've read King and Koontz, Barker and Rice, but with the exception of a few books from each, I just don't care for the type of story they tell. Except Koontz. I've really never read a great Koontz book..

I've seen numerous classic horror films, from the cinema's golden age to the Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary's Baby and The Shining, up to the more modern fare such as Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Blair Witch Project. I know, those aren't all that modern. There is a reason. I grew tired of watching those kinds of movies by that point.

I don't find it fun to be scared, or grossed out without purpose. That, in a nutshell, is the key to my issue with the genre. Horror, not to put to fine a point on it, seems purposeless to me. What it is, and what it does, just doesn't grab me as there seems to be no reason for it. There is no arc for most of the characters, as they are just there to die. There are no highlights to the story, as it's all just a grind to reach the end, where there may be one survivor, or there may not be.

I prefer a story with an obstacle to overcome, characters who may, or may not over come it, but ones that grow, and accomplish something, even if it is just a minor understanding of who they are, and what their universe is all about.

Lovecraft approaches this, than the character dies or goes mad and well, who cares.

As an element added to other genres...Horror is awesome.

Alien. Ghostbusters. The original versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales.

I also love ghost stories, and tales of the strange and unexplained. Not horror per se, but creepy and mysterious thrillers. Ah, that's the stuff.

One of the reasons for this feeling I have about the genre stems from its use in RPGs. For an RPG to emulate the genre with any real authenticity, nearly every PC must die before the story's end. Depending on how you set it up, there is not a lot of long term play value there.

Furthermore, there is often no hope of survival. Call of Cthulhu, the penultimate example of a successful, and popular horror RPG, is essentially about the world being inevitably consumed, and your PCs dying, or going mad. There is not going to be a real end game victory. The 'heroes' are not going to 'win'. They have no chance of doing so.

While some may love this, and from a literary and philosophical point of view I can see the appeal, I don't really get it for a role playing game. To me it's a GM railroad of the worst kind. It doesn't matter what you do, I am the GM, I am running Call of Cthulhu, so ipso facto, you lose.

When I have run horror...what? Yes, I've run horror campaigns, or campaigns with a major horror genre slant to them. How can I run horror if I don't like it? Have a little faith...

Where was I? Oh yes, when I've run horror, I've run it more from the angle of 'There are frightening, and unnerving things in this world that may very well be from the next one. If left unchecked, they can cause a lot of pain and misery. The PCs are here to prevent that.'

In the words of Prof. Trevor Bruttenholm from the first Hellboy film, "There are things that go bump in the night, Agent Myers. Make no mistake about that. And we are the ones who bump back."

I've run Chill, Stalking The Night Fantastic and a rather creepy Ghostbusters campaign (a little more horror, and a little less comedy than the default version of that particular Horror Comedy). In each instance, I was able to allow the players time to like, and eventually love their characters, and some of the NPCs around them. Threatening them with harm or death at the hands, fangs, or tentacles of various unnatural opponents generated plenty of terror.

In addition, since I adhere to the idea that ghosts are trapped in the in-between place that is neither life nor death for a reason, getting rid of a ghost doesn't always require zapping it with proton streams, or banishing it with the proper incantation. Sometimes you need to get to know why it's still here, and doing what it's doing. To that end, I actually made one of my players in our Ghostbusters game cry (The player. Real tears.) because the ghost's story, and it's affect on her living relatives was so sad.

I am actually really looking forward to running my kind of horror again.

It is not the horror of more blood coming out of the Human body than we even have. It is not the obvious, in-your-face monster that better fits a D&D game. It's not the unstoppable hockey masked killer who seems more at home in a Superhero game as it is able to survive anything short of a nuclear warhead.

I like chilling, hair-raising, edge-of-your-seat strangeness that is disquieting because you don't know what is going on. I like the idea that you can fight back with knowledge and ingenuity. The shades of night are coming for you, but if you're careful and crafty, you can take back the night, and perhaps shed a little light on them at the same time.

I like smart horror.

Happy Halloween everyone.

Barking Alien

1 comment:

  1. Late to the party, as always, but I just wanted to say - this is why I like reading your stuff. You've pretty much hit the nail on the head there as far as I'm concerned. You've either got to run Gothic, or run horror as an extra to another genre (which is one of the reasons I love steampunk and urban fantasy - the horror elements fit in nicely).

    One thing to note: Cthulhu games aren't necessarily "you lose". Recreating the stories would be pretty dull, I agree. A lot of newer scenarios focus on staving off the doom for a little longer, usually by stopping the cultists that are about to unleash the apocalypse (The Laundry RPG for example). That way, you can still have the triumphs, but there's always something else to do - sooner or later the PCs' sanity wears out and someone new has to step up to the crease to take on the battle. There's always the hope that future generations may come up with something better...