Hey, it’s Friday the 13th in October 2017! Let’s do something cool about it! Nope. Let’s be sick instead and read about urban legends, why don’t we. I suppose we could talk about horror! That’s always fun, to look at intention behind some art and see what it means.
Let’s go over two different kinds of fear, first. Physical: harm to self or others; and Emotional: psychological stuff. These two in tandem work to create masterpieces of suspense, pacing, and dread.
The Friday the 13th films deal not with psychological, not at all. But movies like The Babadook definitely do! Is one better than the other? It’s sort of in what you go for!
No one watches Friday the 13th for complex plot developments or deep character arcs. People watch them because they want to see what Jason does to a bunch of hapless counselors intruding on his place of death. Wonderful little urban legend stirred in, add some special effects, and make the antagonist a ruthless, brutal machine of hatred and you’ve got some real popcorn cinema!
The Babadook, though? Oh, that’s an entirely different beast, and one that really gets to me. It’s about the paranoia of action and the downward spiral of a person’s mental state. Over the course of the film we see our protagonists go from slightly okay to not okay at all whatsoever, as they feed this growing menace with their internal anguish. It’s not about what the monster does, it’s about what it doesn’t do. That’s pretty nice. Make the characters all go into hysterics and kill themselves. Not like Jason, who would rather smash spines and punch heads off.
Both are effective in their means, but if you’re not afraid of gore then he won’t freak you out much. Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street tackles this problem in a different way, for the entire reason he exists is because people have nightmares about him. That’s pretty good! Literally one of your most vulnerable states, and you have to blame your subconscious for thinking about him while you can’t do a thing to stop it from doing so! Awesome! That’s pretty psychological with an element of flesh ripping!
Yet there are even creatures that can be scary just by existing. Their very appearance or idea is unsettling enough for the observer to render themselves into a frenzy.
To that effect, I point to one thing. And I know I’m gonna get some groans and people calling me out, but here it goes. The Slenderman.
Yes, that great craze that swept the internet in the early 2010’s is a concept I still find terrifying. Not exactly in the execution of said idea (back then, anyways), but the concept is a good one.
Take a thing and run it through the uncanny valley, and have that thing do nothing but creep closer to you when you’re not looking. This can be literally anything as long as it’s uncanny enough. There can be a hat on his head, he can be wearing polka-dot pajamas, but if you take his appearance and his movement alone, it can be fantastic.
It’s about setting up expectations. Lovecraft did this when describing and naming his creatures. They were so unnatural that just looking at them would make you go insane, trying to understand how it existed. Makes you want to imagine it, huh?
But in the expectation of a creature such as the Slender Man (SCP-173, to a lesser effect), it comes with its own legend and the whole ‘why you’re supposed to be afraid’. In his case, it’s because he kidnaps you, takes you up into tall forests and impales you on the uppermost branches. That’s reason enough to be afraid of something getting you, and the anticipation of that happening adds to being fearful of him.
In execution, let’s say in his game (since that’s his most popular appearance aside from the awful MarbleHornets series), we do not at all see that happen. We only have the forest to roam around, collecting bits of paper, and we know he’s out there. Atmospheric music, loud booming footsteps, and we can’t look at him for long or else he gets you. The fear is in trying to survive. Not knowing where he might appear next, and knowing that he looks so unnatural that you will bend trying to understand what he is. It hits quite a number of good levels. Shame the games do it only that justice.
We can look at this idea in a different interactive medium. In Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, there is an easter egg on the new Nuketown map. One of the most popular maps in the series, actually. But this map has an odd feature about it in that it’s a nuclear test site, built up to represent a small neighborhood. As such, there are cars, mannequins, houses, and everything you’d find in a normal cul-de-sac.
The terror starts when you enact the easter egg in this particular game. When you do, the music stops. The mannequins all disappear. Then you’re being followed by them when you aren’t looking. when you turn to face one, you turn back and another has closed another ten feet to you. Never seeing it move. And then you get hit by one, turning again, and suddenly there are three right beside you.
A zombie-genre kind of terror, where the creatures are honing in on your position, all the while when you’re not looking at them. Although in Call of Duty you can fight back, still you eventually succumb.
That’s a great segue into zombie stuff! I liked World War Z and the survival guide by Max Brooks. Even liked Left 4 Dead, which both have the option to fight back. Apocalyptic type stuff is always good, but we always more focus on the survivor’s stories more than the actual zombies. The zombies are just a background to what happens when society breaks down and humanity has a common enemy. The Walking Dead has a great run of its survivor characters and their dynamics, but the zombies aren’t really part of the action (besides the actual glorified action scenes). I think it falls flat, the TV series, because it just keeps running with a rotating cast that die. Nothing interesting.
What Left 4 Dead did is give a payoff and satisfying ending to the entire saga. One member of the original cast ends up sacrificing himself during the group’s ultimate escape, facing down a horde the likes that had never been seen and zombies the size of tanks. They ended it with the character arcs resolved, everyone changing, all while developing bonds over a short period of time and escaping the apocalypse. It’s cool to see. Still, you could argue that isn’t really horror as much as it’s a drama, and I agree on that side. Zombie stuff isn’t horror.
Unless you want to roll with something intelligent like the infected from 28 Days Later. The zombies in Left 4 Dead have a similar thing, where they run and scratch and claw as well as bite. They flank, cut off routes of escape, and are overall more entertaining to watch than a horde of stumbling undead. They’re intelligent, and that makes them terrifying. The action isn’t about having a nice jog away from a bunch of zombies, the action is about staying quiet and getting by these things unnoticed. And if you are noticed you better hope you’re equipped to fight it, because it’ll probably eviscerate you before you can do anything.
Let’s go back to a series real quick, the SCP series who’s sole purpose is to pump out monsters and describe them in a docudrama style report. One other creature from that series is SCP-087, which is an endless, increasingly dark staircase. Upon which is a ghost or wraith of some variety that attacks people that descend too far down. There’s also the sound of a girl crying, always seeming like it’s about 20 flights down. Incentive, lure, intelligence.
Fiction about possessions or things of that sort never really got to me because it’s just a ghost of a person in a person. This equals out to be one person, with the intelligence of a person. That’s kinda horrific, but at the same time I’m pretty sure I could hurt a ghost with a baseball bat if I really wanted to.
Let me ground all this in something that I’m doing for Halloween. My family loves Halloween, doing a haunted house in our garage down in California every year we lived there. It became quite an attraction, and as I got older I was more interested with scaring than trick-or-treating. I’ve always enjoyed the Slender Man easy jump scare tactics because they work wonders on people just walking around.
I own a ghillie suit (see: sniper suit), because one year all I did was pretend I was a bush until someone walked by, to which I would then stand and freak them out by simply being. Suddenly watching what is supposed to be an inanimate object rise and start surging towards you isn’t a great thing.
My costume from the last few years has been using that Corvo Attano mask I made (in the Sculptures section of radioreality.city) and what I call the “mannequin tactics”. To move when your target isn’t looking, and simply stand there as an imposing figure with a freaky face.
Might break out the ghillie suit this year and do that, but I don’t know where I’ll be Halloween night this year. See, on Halloween night there’s an expectation to get scared but you don’t know when that will be. It’s the suspense in being afraid that helps in media like with the Slender Man, but the actual scaring is where it’s at in practice. When you’re not actually a demon pinning people to tall trees.
You ARE the tree! And you’re freaky!
Thanks for tuning in to another long-winded journal. It turns out I think a lot more than I let on about intention behind writing. Who knew?