I’ve always thought that I didn’t like the horror genre. And it’s true that I don’t like a lot of what I generally expect to see in horror. But since I’ve unexpectedly found myself enjoying a few works in the genre right in time for Halloween, I’ve taken some time to think about what this means. Specifically, that I don’t like a lot of the tropes I associate with traditional American horror: lack of focus on characterization, shock value deaths, the notion that characters need to be punished. I’m not necessarily enamored with a work of fiction trying to scare me either, or reveling in the helplessness of the characters.
Still, while those things make up a lot of horror works, they don’t have to. Horror (especially psychological horror) can be character-focused. Every death can mean something, or alternatively, the threat of death could replace actual death. And while the entire point of the genre is to pit the protagonists against something far more powerful than themselves, that doesn’t mean the story can’t also be about them looking for ways to fight back.
I’m probably never going to be a fan of the vast majority of horror media, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any out there that work for me. The ones that focus heavily on character, the ones that place interesting challenges before the protagonists.
This Halloween, I’m in the middle of watching/playing three such works (and I’m sure Stranger Things would be on this list, if I’d gotten around to the second season yet–I haven’t so far, but it’s coming):
Sagas of Sundy: Madness – So far, only the first episode is out. But that’s enough to know that this will be a heavily character-focused, atmospheric improv-horror show. The episode gives an introduction into each of the five characters, getting inside their heads and giving them just a peek of the danger around them.
I typically criticize pilot episodes left and right–and of course that makes sense, because it’s hard to introduce a new story and characters, to get the audience to connect. There’s so many more ways to mess up than to get it right. In a way, Madness takes a huge risk in giving each of its five protagonists their own short introduction, such that each segment has to hook the audience. But it pulls off what so many other shows fail to do, because it immediately delves deep into the characterization.
The last segment deserves to be highlighted, because I have never seen a show successfully pull off this kind of opening scene for a character. We’re introduced to Emmett, learning why he moved into this apartment building. And then–whether due to a ghost or a hallucination, we don’t know yet–he sees his dead ex-girlfriend, Sam. For most shows, this is a recipe for disaster. But Madness makes it so real, so fast. The pain that Sam unleashes on him, the quiet misery in Emmett. Both of their characters are on full display in that moment, their relationship vividly revealed.
We don’t merely get a small glimpse at the idea of a guy feeling guilty after his neglected ex-girlfriend died. We see the raw pain, the life that Sam had led and the hope that Emmett had given her. We see what it costs her to lose that hope. And we see Emmett as the kind of man who could connect with someone like Sam, who could drift into her life and treat her like a person, make her feel like she mattered–and then drift right back out. He’s left wondering, after her death, if it was his fault.
Madness doesn’t just show us this, it makes us feel it. All from a scene that lasted under ten minutes. I can’t wait to see what the protagonists will do once they actually start interacting with each other, running against the forces present in their apartment building–and discovering each others’ secrets. I’ll take more horror like this, please.
Jesse Cox and Dodger’s Let’s Play for the visual novel, The Letter – I’m contemplating playing the game myself–apparently, your choices make a difference–though I don’t quite know if I can handle playing this much horror without Jesse and Dodger’s commentary lightening the mood.
The visual novel itself is heavily character-based, focusing on a group of people whose lives are intertwined, as they run into a dangerous ghost in a mansion. All of the characters have relationships with each other, that can change depending on the player’s choices. Each of their experiences slowly reveals the big picture of the story, as one by one they realize something is wrong.
Adding to that is the Let’s Players–who never fail to poke fun at the absurdity of certain situations, to be appropriately shocked when one of the characters says something particularly offensive, and to keep the scarier elements from getting too heavy with their own reactions.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – I’ve only started playing this, but so far, I’m enjoying it. You take on the role of a fledgling vampire trying to survive. It reminds me of Fallout: New Vegas, but without the massive open world, and with vampires roaming the night.
I’m not sure whether the gameplay quite qualifies it as horror–you’re conquering challenges in an action/RPG way rather than running away from danger–but the setting does. Mysterious murders occur across the city. You can run into the aftermath, or find random serial killers, or investigate haunted houses. I remember being flat-out shocked when I visited this random guy for some information and found blood-splattered cells with surgical equipment in his basement.
I’m coming around to the same realization with horror that I did with romance, back when I found the Brothers Sinister series–just because the trappings of a genre don’t generally appeal to me, doesn’t mean none of the stories in that genre will work for me. They might be a smaller percentage–the genre does inform the story–but there’s still something for everyone hidden away in every genre.
This should be obvious. I mean, even in fantasy fiction, my favorite works are the non-formulaic ones. And yet, I’m probably always going to be wary of certain genres. Because statistically speaking, it’s harder for me to find things I enjoy in them. It’s always nice when something overcomes that trepidation, though. Which is why I’m considering another post, rounding up the character-driven horror I’ve enjoyed in the past–although maybe I should save it for next year.
Is anyone else watching/reading/playing any horror-themed stuff for Halloween?