People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
Copyright 2000Christine Morgan
Part Ten -- Scary Stuff
The scariest game I ever ran was one based on Stephen King's novel, It.
I think the part that scared the players most was being told that they were to make up twelve-year-old kids as characters, on a lot fewer points than they were accustomed to getting (these were folks used to playing high-power Champions, Traveller 2300, and GURPS with starting point costs of 100 or more).
But I stuck to my guns, and soon we had our group assembled. Most of them made up ordinary small-town kids, though we did have one young inner-city punk with a variety of illicit skills. I'm afraid I had to draw the line at the blind adolescent Haitian apprentice voodoo priestess ...
The setting was the 1980's and the premise was the same as the book -- there's a monster that can assume the shape of whatever frightens its victims most. I still vividly remember little Jimmy chasing off the monster, in the form of a sleek, chitinous, pincered Alien, with his Lazer Tag gun.
Of all the campaigns I've run, and there have been a lot over the years, that one remains one of my favorites. Weird though it was. Or maybe because it was. The players really got into it, were drawn into it.
The youth and helplessness of their characters heightened their own sense of fear -- playing a superhero with numerous kick-butt powers or a wizard with an array of spells or a doughty warrior, it's easier to laugh off the threats. Playing a pre-teen, existing in that strange kid-space wherein adults dismissed their stories as "letting your imagination run away with you," was another matter entirely.
For a long time after that game, I noticed a pervasive lingering reluctance among the players to step on sewer gratings, an aversion to clowns ... and I bet that if I mailed out envelopes that each contained a single orange puffball, simultaneous screams would arise from points all around the country.
We got 'em good, Mr. King! Thank you!
Types of Horror
"I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
-- Stephen King, "Danse Macabre."
I experience each of these differently. When I am terrified, the sensation seems to center around the hinge of my jaw, the back of my neck, across my shoulderblades, and into my chest. When I am horrified, I feel it mostly in my eyes, my throat, and just below the heart. When I'm grossed out, it's the guts and gorge that are involved.
Terrify. For me, the perfect symbol of 'terrify' would be a Blair Witch stick figure. Nothing overtly monstrous about it ... a simple, ordinary thing ... made of sticks, right, how harmless can you get? But the context, the creepy squirmy "there's something really wrong here" ... it's the inexplicable, the unexplained, the not knowing what it means but being certain that it's bad, as bad as it can possibly get.
Horrify. When the top folds of the alien egg-pod open for the first time. Being horrified, for me, is a phenomenon of realization. Of being faced with something that should not be. Of seeing the monster and having to acknowledge that it is real. Of knowing what's about to happen, how little there is that can be done to stop it.
Gross-out. In GURPS Horror, one of the sidebars lists the amount of damage done by a sampling of psycho-killer weapons. One of them is "post-hole digger." Okay ... that's gross. That, for me, is the epitome of the gross-out factor. I've never actually seen that particular one done in a movie (I generally don't watch those kinds of movies, considering them fairly pointless blood-fests), but I can imagine it. Oh, boy ... can I ever! And wish I couldn't!
I've had some experience both running and writing horror, and I can fully agree with Stephen King.
Grossing out is easiest. In the game I mentioned in the introduction, I recall one moment as the kids and a teenage babysitter pulled up to a fast-food drive-thru, and the insane father of one of the kids leaned out of the McWindow and rammed a plastic drinking straw into the babysitter's eye. Blugh! That was gross! Nothing classy about it.
Horrifying is harder, it requires involving deeper emotions than gag-reflex revulsion. In one of my novels, "Black Roses," the horror comes when Theresa Zane begins to understand just what is happening to her, and to the women around her, and what really did happen to the little girl Glory all those years ago.
Terrifying is the hardest of all, because it is more subtle, more internal, more intensely personal. Another of the most terrifying things I've ever seen was an operatic version of the Henry James tale "A Turn of the Screw." Nothing gross in it, not much that could be called horrifying either, and yet it was brilliantly eerie and haunting.
Most horror stories and games will range back and forth between horrify and gross-out, with the occasional touch of terror.
An example from my personal experience would be "Poltergeist." The man tearing apart his own face in the bathroom mirror = gross-out. The tentacles coming out of the closet = horrify. The moment when Mom turns around and all the chairs are piled up on the table = terrify (fleeting, over too soon, but it was there, just for a moment).
Ways to Scare
In terms of cheap and quick scares, the ultimate is the "startle." This is what happens when someone is walking along (with or without eerie suspenseful buildup) and then Boo! something springs at them out of the dark (and nine times out of ten, it'll be the cat).
The "startle" elicits shrieks, but they are of pure adrenaline rather than real fear. A reflex reaction, usually followed by relief. So you do it again. And again. And again, until the reader or player is coming to expect it ("somebody put out the darn cat!").
Then you do it again ... only Boo! this time it's the monster!
This sort of thing is easier to do in gaming, where the GM has the use of his or her tone of voice, pace of speech, and timing. It's not all that different from the spooky stories we all used to hear as kids, the teller speaking lower and softer, softer and lower, until the end when all of a sudden he or she would yell, "Take your old bone!" or whatever the ending happened to be.
In writing, you have to do it all on paper. Typing "Boo!" isn't going to make someone jump. But you can still reply on pacing and tone. When the action in a story is intense, readers tend to pause to breathe at periods or new paragraphs. Don't give them any! Keep the action flowing along, no breaks, no pauses, a steady stream of one thing after another.
In terms of this sort of gripping intensity, the best example would be Dean Koontz's book by the same name, "Intensity." There is no good stopping point in the entire book! The first time I read it, I had to read straight through, three hours without moving from the couch, my eyes feeling hot and bright as coals in my head, unable to put it down because there just was never a break. The reader has to keep going, has to know what happens next. Not later, not tomorrow, not after dinner, but now.
In games, I have used lighting, background music or sounds, and props. I did this even back in the days before the Goth-vampire thing took off (I went through my vampire phase and was over it long before it became "cool," story of my life, always either ahead of the times of behind them); nowadays LARPs and storyteller-based systems make excellent use of surroundings and atmosphere to create a mood.
One of my best efforts was in a fantasy game. The real world consisted of a hot and sticky summer day (it doesn't always rain in Seattle; it was sunny and 90+ degrees). But in the game world, the characters were deep in the winter woods, being tracked by wolves -- my Silvermoon adventure, which was published in last February's issue.
I had a CD of sound effects, so I closed the shades, dimmed the lights, and put on a low but continual replay of shrill whistling wind interspersed with wolf howls. The internal chill brought on by this overpowered the external heat, so that people were actually shivering.
Props are a wonderful tool in gaming. Actually being able to hand the players the treasure map, a pouch of fake coins and gems, or even an orange puffball <g> can make the moment seem much more "real."
You can even do this with gross-out props if you want; depending on how invested you are, there are ghoulish accessories available now that leave the frozen grapes (these are the dead man's eyes!) and rubber glove filled with Jell-O (this is the dead man's hand!) in the dust. Try not to get too carried away, though, or you might find yourself with messes to clean up.
Horror and Humor
Sometimes, it's laugh or scream. Sometimes it's both at the same time. Finding scary things funny is one way the mind has of coping with fear.
Laughter defuses the frantic energy that might otherwise make us faint or go crazy. It helps redirect our inner reactions, preventing us from having to deal with the awful reality of what's happening.
I watch a lot of Disney and other childrens' animated features, and one thing I've noticed is the way they use humor to break up and lessen the effect of the scary parts.
In "Beauty and the Beast," the scenes cut back and forth from the dramatic Beast-vs.-Gaston encounter to the comical efforts of the household appliances battling the rest of the invading peasant mob. In "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," it's the same sort of thing as Quasimodo is desperately trying to save Esmeralda, while the gargoyles wage war on Frollo's soldiers.
Horror can be purposefully played for laughs, nowhere more tellingly than in the "Evil Dead" movies. One scene I'll never forget involves a flying eyeball trailing its optic nerve like a kite's tail ... it's like a choice between barf or laugh, and most of us just have to laugh.
But it's that eruptive, horrified laughter ... not unlike the kind we experience when someone takes a golf ball to the groin on "America's Funniest Home Videos." It's not funny, but we have to laugh anyway. Almost as if by laughing, we're knocking on wood in hopes nothing like that ever happens to us.
"The Mummy" is another example, though not quite as successful a one. The impression I had was that it was a little too scary/creepy/gross to be funny, but too funny to be really scary ... it landed in an uneasy middle ground. It's a terrific gamer movie, though, because the stuff the characters do is exactly the sort of stuff that PCs do. Shoving the cat in the mummy's face, for instance.
I'm reminded of something that happened in one of my games, in which I attempted to introduce vampires but it turned out that my players were not in the mood to take such things seriously. One of them went out and got himself fitted with a chin-to-collarbone device made of fake skin (leather; it was a fantasy game) and filled with holy water. When the vampire showed up and went for a bite, the fangs went into the bladder-collar contraption and he slurped in a big mouthful of holy water. The results were pretty spectacular ... and very, very messy!
Horror and Sex
These also go together, and always have.
For one thing, a lot of the physical cues are the same when a person is afraid or aroused -- the pulse picks up, the breathing quickens, the skin tightens, the mouth goes dry, and there is that fluttery anticipatory feeling that seems centered just below the bottom of the sternum.
For another, it's a matter of conditioning. Sex and sensuality, especially one's first experiences, are fraught with fear and risk: Will I make a fool of myself? Will he/she reject me? Will it hurt? Will I get a disease / get pregnant / make her pregnant? Will we get caught? Will my parents find out? We're trained to be afraid of sex, afraid of our own sexuality, told not to do it, threatened with dire implications if we do do it, told that it's wrong, made to feel guilty and ashamed for even thinking about it.
For a third, one of our instinctive reactions to a frightening situation is to attempt to deny the prospect of death by a life-affirming activity. On a purely biological level, the most life-affirming options are eating and mating. These prove that we're still alive. The sex urge on the heels of danger might also be the body's way of saying, "Whew, that was a close one, better reproduce now while I still can!"
So sex and horror are linked, and this is reflected in nearly every horror story. The vampire is the classic example; "Dracula" is highly sexually charged, and the image of the suave, irrestistible-though-deadly person of the night has persisted ever since. We humans seem to be cursed with an attraction to "bad boys" or "bad girls," dangerous and sexy and not at all good for us. Perfect description of a vampire.
An even more extreme case is that of the incubus and succubus. Male and female aspects of the same basic idea, these are demonic spirits that steal not life's blood but sexual energy and life force. My horror novel, "Black Roses," is an interpretation of the incubus legend.
The werewolf usually get a somewhat shabbier treatment, being depicted as brutish and bestial and uncivilized, more of a raw and savage power. That, or they'd be Larry Talbot-tragic ... more the type that you'd want to give a comforting hug.
"Cat People" helped move shapeshifters into more of a sexy role. "An American Werewolf in London" combined horror, sex, and humor. It's all in how the legend is treated (and sometimes with the choice of casting; with all due apologies to Mr. Nicholson, I couldn't find much of sensual interest in "Wolf" or "The Witches of Eastwick.")
Romantic horror is a popular theme. A subset of romance novels and television shows involve vampires, ghosts, and other mournful doomed angsty evil beings as the objects of love.
This also works well in games; one of mine saw a PC fall in love with a sorrowful and innocent half-demoness.
The scariest things are not from beyond the grave or shambling Lovecraftian monstrosities from out of time and space. Our fellow people can be monsters even worse than anything rising out of the swamps.
It is when the frightening intersects with the ordinary that true terror is born. Strange terrible things happen to regular folks that take the wrong turn at that signpost up ahead. The mundane with a twist. The intrusion of the weird into our 24/7 world.
I've been reading horror novels since I was ten. I started with "The Shining" despite my mother's warning that I'd never want to go on the Small World ride at Disneyland again for fear of the hedge animals; Stephen King has been my favorite ever since, though Dean Koontz comes close to dethroning him and Robert McCammon makes a good showing.
I once got a nearly pants-wetting 'startle' when I looked up from "The Amityville Horror" -- it was the precise moment when they see the glowing red pig-eyes peering in at them -- to have my black cat outside my window with his glowing green cat-eyes peering in at me.
I went through a phase of reading "killer-animal" books: rats, dogs, birds, sharks, even slugs (major gross-out, that one). I got into John Saul's "a hundred years ago in a small town something horrible happened to a child and now the strangers have moved in" stories. I even, with a sort of sick fascination (and I admit this with considerable shame) collected the twisted-incest novels of V.C. Andrews.
I read Lovecraft every now and then, and even once deliberately steeped myself in it for a full week in order to attempt a short story in the Lovecraftian style -- a week was all I could stand because I started getting a little twitchy and having objectionable dreams.
But there are some things that even I can't bear to read, and it goes back to what I was saying about everyday horrors. I will not read medical thrillers in the style of Robin Cook; I did read "The Hot Zone" and it freaked the bejabbers out of me; I won't read novelized biographies of serial killers.
It's a form of cowardice on my part, perhaps, that I'd rather face a whole bookcase of ghosties and ghoulies than read about "real" stuff. The world is already full of enough of those sorts of horrors; why create more?
On the other hand, I have a perverse fascination with urban legends, those ubiquitous and oh-so-plausible tales that never seem to die out, and keep turning up in Dear Abby or on Jay Leno's monologue.
Next month, November, is the start of the American holiday season (though the Christmas stuff is probably already starting to appear in the stores; it's only almost Halloween after all, and time's a-wasting!).
In this joyous time of giving, togetherness, and most of all greed, my column will be focusing on treasures and rewards.
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