Revisiting the Horror Genre for Halloween

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.  

A woman with fangs stands in front of a dark, empty city street. The words read "Vampire, the Masquerade, Bloodlines."
Image: Troika Games via Steam

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.

Conclusion

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?

 

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7 thoughts on “Revisiting the Horror Genre for Halloween”

  1. Bit late to the party, but hey. Got to say, I feel similarly about horror as a genre in general – the cheap “things jumping at the camera” scares are kind of annoying, and you put in much more general terms what I have until now formulated as “the characters always have to be stupid, because if they were smart it wouldn’t be horror anymore” – my personal pet peeve bleeding through there, but you are quite right about flat characterization and a cultivated sense of helplessness, I think that is a big part of what tends to put me in the “vaguely poking fun at the movie concept while people get horribly murdered on screen” category if I ever watch horror.

    That being said, I can think of quite a few things that I found genuinely thrilling in the “oh god, this is terrifying” kind of horror – I’m not sure if you allow links, but there is a short story called ‘Muse’ on the internet (just tried to google it, hard to find so lets try that link: http://alicorn.elcenia.com/stories/muse.shtml ~6k words) that certainly did it for me, and a bunch of other science fiction works as well – Solaris, allthough it’s been a while since I’ve read it, and recently a novel by Peter Watts named Blindsight. Didn’t really read that one for Halloween (the holiday is not really a thing where I live, at least for my generation) but it certainly brought a generally bleak attitude with it that fit quite well with autumn. Maybe less Horror, more subtle Dystopia that hit a few key notes in my worldview, but I’ll count it in. Currently I’m re-reading worm, that definitely counts (as do the other wildbow works), and there are probably a handful more works that I can’t remember off the top of my head.

    I notice that all the things I listed are settings far away from the real world, and I think that might be relating to the helplessness issue above – one needs something deeply alien to create that feeling while maintaining standards for protagonists, and I have a deep-seated belief against things that are intrinsically incomprehensible, so anything close to reality kind of doesn’t fit. I like to think that if I found the necronomicon, I’d probably end up getting eaten by tentacle-demons while trying to figure out how to break thermodynamics. automatically incomprehensible is not something I tend to accept as any sort of explanation.

    Thanks for the recommendations, Sagas of Sundry is already on my list, but I will check out vampire. sounds interesting.

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    1. If you were late to the party, I was super late, given how long it took me to respond (in my defense, a change in how I get notified made me not see the comment until just now.)

      Good to hear about more works that break the mold of what I don’t want from the genre–the only thing you mentioned that isn’t new to me is Worm. Interestingly, I’ve never actually thought about it as horror rather than superhero. But I do suppose it gets way darker than even the grimmer stuff in the comic movieverses, at least.

      You mentioning characters not making smart decisions kinda makes me realize that part of my problem here is agency. My personal conception of how the horror genre usually works has characters being more reactive than proactive, even while fighting back. And I guess these things all kind of tie into each other. Characters who can’t be proactive are automatically more helpless, and without an array of possible decisions, we don’t get too see much development to their personalities.

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      1. [SPOILERS FOR WORM/PACT/TWIG]

        Well, admittedly I’d consider worm the furthest from horror of wildbow’s works because it has the inherent power fantasy aspects of the superhero genre, but it certainly has its moments in the later arcs. This actually makes for a great example of character agency and reactive behaviour, if you think about it – the Endbringers are a great example of forcing everyone to be reactive, and are precisely the insurmountable hostile entity that horror stories thrive on. At the same time, once the PoV characters stop reeling and start acting proactively again, the mood changes away from horror. Similarly the slaughterhouse 9, they are introduced as extremely scary, nigh-indestructible calamity and stay that for quite a while, but again I think the mood gets much less bleak once the undersiders go on the offensive.

        I have re-read worm recently, so these things are fresh in my mind, but I think it is quite fitting with what you are saying about being able/allowed to fight back. now pact and twig I’d call less and more subtle about the horror aspects respectively, but I think they all have their moments. psychological pressure and mental decay, inevitable, creeping doom, characters having their agency crippled or outright stripped away, it’s all there. at the same time, lots of characterization, creativity and changes in tone to offset the thrilling and horror parts. I wouldn’t call any of the stories primarily horror, but at the same time, they all contain key elements of it, and all are works I consider very thrilling, in a good way. Or would you disagree?

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        1. I can’t comment on Pact or Twig, because I haven’t actually read them–I remember starting one of them, whichever came immediately after Worm, and it coming off as straight-up horror. But that was just my impression from the very beginning.

          I do agree that Worm isn’t primarily horror but at times has aspects that can overlap with the horror genre. It isn’t afraid to be dark and gritty, or to send the protagonists against something way over their heads. Still, there’s kind of an inherent promise in the story even when facing the most overpowered enemies, that the main protagonist isn’t powerless. She has to be smart and creative and sometimes she barely scrapes by–but she never stops looking for the next thing she can do. Her actions have power over the story. From the perspectives of the non-capes, though, the genre would probably be horror all the time.

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        2. oh, sorry about that, I thought you had read all three for some reason. Pact, the one after worm, was certainly the one closest to “traditional” horror, although I always had it pegged as urban fantasy until we started this discussion, but that might just be bias because I generally consider myself not-a-horror-person. I’ll also admit that it was my least favourite of the three, but I am not quite sure why exactly. Unlike worm, I’ve never re-read the other two in one go, so details get a little hard to pin down, being spread out by the serial format. I will recommend twig, though, while it certainly has a whole grab-bag of monsters, the actual things I would call horror are not really some sort of monstrous enemies like in worm (or even pact). It is more, mmh, introverted? Self-reflective horror? hard to say without spoilers, but definitely worth a read, and in fairness, it is also incredibly funny and heart-wrenching in all the good ways, and takes place in a most fascinating setting. In fact, I should probably re-read it now that it is finished.

          Interesting point about the protagonist vs. bystander pov, allthough through the eyes of a bystander, I’d say a lot of stories would be horror stories. This was sort of mentioned in some of the recent marvel movies, how some superhero battle looks to those caught in the splash zone…
          As a not entirely unrelated sidenode, have you by chance read “the metropolitan man”?

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        3. No problem. For most superhero stories, though, I think the perspective of the bystanders would be more disaster movie than horror. The difference being a force of nature that doesn’t care about you one way or the other, versus an attacker completely out of your league that’s actively coming after you. And no, I haven’t read The Metropolitan Man…

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