That’s not really scary
It’s Halloween! By which of course I mean it is October, which might as well be a solid month of Halloween for all I care. I say this while also having a wedding anniversary and a professional anniversary in October. Halloween all day every day, from October 1st to October 31st. Possibly a bit further in either direction, too. I like Halloween a lot is what I’m getting at.
But as I settle in for another annual trip through every horror-themed movie, game, and novel I can find that I had held back for October, I know I’m going to run into some of the same stupid and tired crap that I find every single year. There’s a reason that for a long while I disliked horror in general and survival horror in games, and it was simply a result of getting so accustomed to crappy half-baked non-horror stuff that gets shoved along with it that I sort of tuned the whole thing out as terrible. I’m better now, but let’s be frank – what’s following is not really scary.
Resident Evil is called BioHazard in Japan and A Tribute To Bullshit Jump Scares in my house. The first time I played it, I was repeatedly startled, but I wasn’t scared. Mostly I was annoyed because I was waiting for the next horrible thing to jump through a window or a closet or a commemorative plate display, followed by trying to shoot seven zombies with six bullets. But the jump scare has sadly become a go-to for horror, where something suddenly jumps out look aren’t you super afraid now?
The purest form of this is the ridiculously stupid “screamer” bits on the internet, wherein a static picture displays or a calm video plays or something like that, then all of a sudden there’s a screeching sound and something jumps out from behind the bushes or whatever. What is missing, of course, is the part where your asshole older brother takes off the costume mask and says “ha ha, I scared you.”
Because that is, ultimately, all that a jump scare accomplishes. It startles you, but it doesn’t really scare you. It puts you on edge, but it does so in the sense that you know something else is going to jump out at you without any real rhyme or reason. Being startled, by itself, isn’t scary, it’s just a way to make someone flinch, which is a sign that someone is capable of responding to sudden changes in the environment. Not scary, just tedious.
Big muscle monsters
Dragons are not scary. They are not horror monsters. This seems kind of obvious, but there’s a good reason for that, despite the fact that they’re assembled from a laundry list of standard horror tropes – huge, claws, sharp teeth, horns, etc. It’s the fact that when it comes to a dragon, you’re dealing with what amounts to a very larger, very unpleasant beast. It’s smart, it’s determined, it’s probably evil, and you deal with it by swording the crap out of it or being eaten.
Not every monster of this type has big muscles, but all of them fit into a certain type, the monster whose main threat is that it’s going to beat you and kill you. Which, let’s face it, is not a difficult task. Horror relies, in part, on a sense of powerlessness, but having a huge monster ready to tear me limb from limb is not really scaring me any more than a guy with a gun and an intent to do me harm. Both of them are going to leave me equally dead. I’m scared of both, but they’re not very interesting from the perspective of horror fiction – either the guy in question catches me and I die, or he doesn’t.
Making a horror monster big and tough and hard to kill is not, by itself, a terrifying thought. Make it spindly, only a bit taller than a human being, wearing draped bits of clothing and having perfectly formed tiny human mouths instead of eyes, and it’s a lot scarier. I know what the dragon is going to do, which is fight me and/or kill me. I have no idea what that scarecrow-looking-eye-mouth thing is going to do once it gets its hands on me, and that makes me want to be sure that I don’t let it do so while simultaneously wondering what the hell it is.
Darren MacLennan once said that the central problem with trying to do horror in Dungeons & Dragons is that the characters are too damn powerful. Tell the players they hear something scuttling on the roof and they’re going to whip out twenty different scrying spells on cue, resulting in a party that knows everything about the adventure’s central monster up to and including its favorite Beatles album. (Don’t trust a monster that doesn’t at least like Abbey Road.) There’s still ways to make the formula work, of course, but that does tie into a major issue with horror.
I said some of this back when I talked about Silent Hill as a Hard Project, and it’s true for all horror media. Once you understand what’s going on, it becomes much harder to really be afraid. The whole purpose of horror is that, on some level, the world you understand has come unhinged. Maybe it’s because you’re being stalked by a beast that you find horrifying, that shouldn’t exist, that defies all logical explanation. Sometimes it’s knowing that there’s someone out there who means to harm you for reasons you don’t understand. Sometimes it’s even a perfectly normal situation that suddenly turns horrifying when you realize one piece of information that changes everything else.
But it disturbs you. It throws you off your stride. It doesn’t make sense the way you understand the world to work, and it unsettles you. That part is absolutely key.
Far too many horror movies have a moment wherein the monster is explained and then defeated by the heroes, and it always feels like a cheap cop-out from a film that might have been enjoyable up to that point, because it turns the supernatural and the fear into a problem to be solved. The stated goal of good horror games isn’t “defeat the evil you find here,” it’s “save yourself and/or others from something incomprehensible.” It’s about confronting terror and, at best, pulling yourself through it, never having the clearest picture of what’s going on.
Telling me what the monster is just turns it into an end boss, and those aren’t scary. No matter how many tentacles you slap on.