The Allure of the Scare

Happy Halloween everybody!  Even though it’s not technically Halloween yet…it’s two days away still…um……STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT!

I figured that in honor of this holiday devoted to all things creepy and kooky, I’d take a look at why horror and scary things even has an audience in the first place.  It seems vaguely masochistic doesn’t it, putting ourselves in a position of fear and anxiety for the purpose of entertainment.  To someone on the outside, fans of horror must seem a little deranged.  So then, why it is popular at all?  Why do people enjoy terrifying themselves with gruesome and disturbing things?  What is the allure of the scare?

The abandoned train station.  (Dark Fall)

Dark Fall: The Journal

The simplest explanation is one of machismo.  Plenty of guys love being the ones that say “that didn’t scare me at all”.  They like being able to say that they sat through an entire horror movie or played through an entire horror game without even flinching.  It’s like a badge of honor for them, a testament to their tough skin.  It’s wish-fulfillment in a way, to be able to say that they looked into the eyes of the beast and didn’t blink.  Of course, this is only one of the possible explanations for the allure of horror.

The problem with trying to define what makes something scary is that it is by nature subjective.  One man’s phobia is another man’s hobby.  What scares one person will not even dent the psyche of another.  For example, some people are scared of spiders, deathly scared of them.  Others find them gross, but not terrifying.  And still others might find them cute.  The same subjectivity applies to why some people enjoy scary things.  Some people enjoy being scared.  Some people enjoy being able to say they weren’t scared.

But let’s go deeper than that.  It’s easy enough to say that some people enjoy the thrill of a scary movie, but it doesn’t go far enough in explaining why.  What is the appeal of horror?  What lies beneath the surface that gives people such a thrill out of watching them.  The people who enjoy saying they weren’t scared, the appeal for them is pretty clear-cut.  But for the people who enjoy the sensation of fear in a game or a movie, what’s their appeal?

It has a lot to do with the idea of helplessness.  Many movies and games out there are power fantasies, structured in such a way that it gives the audience a sense of overwhelming epic scale, a sense of being powerful when so many of them probably feel powerless in their daily lives.  But horror is different.  Horror doesn’t make the protagonist seem like a triumphant hero, legendary character, or all-powerful god in any way.  Instead, horror reduces its protagonist to a simpler and more pitiful form.  In many ways, protagonists of horror are far easier to identify with than any other genre.  They seem much more grounded and normal (although in some cases undeniably and unbelievably dumb).  This leads to a much stronger sympathetic attachment to them, which makes the ensuing trials the character must face much more poignant and affecting.

Penumbra Overture

Penumbra Overture

Part of horror’s appeal has to do with the novelty of it all (an ironic statement considering how cliché most horror seems to be these days).  It’s a change of pace to see a character in a position of powerlessness, or, in the case of games, to BE in that position.  We’re so inundated by tales of heroism and larger than life characters that it’s nice to sometimes see something that comes across as much more intimate and psychological.

This is nice and all, but let’s even deeper.  Why are these intimate portrayals of conflicted characters and devilish scenarios so popular with us?

I can chalk it up to two words: morbid curiosity.

Some of the most powerful and memorable horror stories in my mind are the ones that present us with the portrayal of a character who is driven to do horrible, unspeakable things.  These characters were normal and well-adjusted at one point in their lives, until some event or series of events started their downward spiral.  One of my favorite video game series, the Amnesia games, dances with this theme very often.  The two games focus on a central character who deals with extraordinary and devastating circumstances, and spend the rest of the game piecing their shattered memories back together and then coming to terms with the atrocities they commit.  It’s a tale of redemption, or at least attempted redemption.

Stories like these remind us of our darker side, that aspect of humanity that most people tend to shut out or ignore, for fear that acknowledging it causes it to flourish.  It’s this aspect you see on the news whenever they talk about a horrible crime or violence in some far off country.  You are reminded in those instances that humanity is not perfect, that we are far from it in fact, and that some people will give in to their baser instincts and act out of pure greed and self-interest.  And some people just like to cause pain and suffering for reasons unknown.

I’ve always loved getting into the head space of characters like that, people who either just enjoy mayhem and carnage, or people who are driven to such a point that they engage in morbid activities that their former self never would have even thought about.  Regret, pain, and suffering are all part of the human condition that we have to confront from time to time, and horror stories give us a glimpse into these aspects through a safety net that allows us to experience these things without dealing with the real world consequences.  In this way, horror can be extremely character driven.  However, it can also just be pure shock value, featuring teenage girls being chased down and brutally murdered by a masked man wielding a sharp implement of some description.  Some people like that kind of thing.  I tend to gravitate toward the former.

Horror serves as a reminder that we are not invincible.  Human beings are fragile, and can fall victim to so many different dangers in the world.  We might put on a brave face and say “I’m not scared of this” when we  watch a horror movie, but we are simply aware of the safety net that the movie throws up around us.  We are not there.  The situation is not real, and neither is the danger.  Are we really just that brave?  Or are we simply in denial because the character on-screen is not us?  Think about that next time you watch a movie.  Think long and hard about that, and ignore the shadow creeping up behind you in the dark, edged with malice, waiting for the perfect moment to strike and savor your succulent form.

But that probably won’t happen.  Probably…

 

And that’s all I got for this week.  Enjoy your Halloween, whether you be trick or treating, or just staying inside watching a scary movie or playing a scary game.  Until next time everyone.  Have yourselves a wonderful holiday and a great week.

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The Legacy of Gamergate: Hatred, Prejudice, and Stereotyping in Video Games

Earlier this year I published a post called “The Problem With Gamers”.  In it, I talked about how I don’t play many video games online with strangers anymore.  The reason for this was just the rampant amount of racist, sexist, and just generally hateful talk that can spew from whoever is on the other end of the microphone.  It got to the point where I just generally either mute people or choose to play only with close friends.  It’s a problem endemic to the gaming community, and it’s gotten some press as of late.

Some of you out there may know the name Anita Sarkeesian.  She is a feminist critic of video games, taking it upon herself to critique the portrayals of women within video games (as well as other forms of media).  She was recently scheduled to give a talk at Utah State University, but decided to cancel it due to certain threats that were made, specifically an email that threatened a “Montreal Massacre” style attack at her presentation.  Due to the state’s conceal and carry laws, they wouldn’t have been able to prevent anyone with a permit from carrying a gun into the event.

This incident shines a light on something most of us in the gaming community are most likely aware of.  There is a sizable number of people who play games that spout off this incredible hate and prejudice on a daily basis.  It’s hard to deal with, considering these people also tend to be the loudest.  It’s a sad truth, and it’s become part of what is known as the Gamergate Controversy.

Now, for my part, I have no issue with Anita Sarkeesian.  From what I’ve read, she seems like she takes a very measured and researched approach to her work, which is more than I can say for a lot of feminists out there, who tend to veer into misandry more than any legitimate avenues of complaint (also, bit of irony but the spellchecker doesn’t recognize “misandry”, even though it is a proper word).  I will say that I disagree somewhat with her assertion that video games are still a haven for sexist, female stereotypes.  I would argue that the video game industry has taken huge strides in that regard.  There are still some very questionable portrayals (look at Ivy from the Soul Calibur series…no seriously, LOOK AT HER), but on the whole I would say gaming has gotten much better in that regard.

There's a joke out there on the internet that with each edition of Soul Calibur the female characters end up with bigger breasts.  From what I've seen...that's not too far off.  (Soul Calibur 5, image taken from IGN.com)

There’s a joke out there on the internet that with each edition of Soul Calibur the female characters end up with bigger breasts. From what I’ve seen…that’s not too far off. (Soul Calibur 5, image taken from IGN.com)

The problem I have with these kinds of critiques is that they tend to single out video games as if they are the sole problem, which they are not (Sarkeesian has focused on more than just games, but her recent efforts seem to put video games squarely in the crosshairs ).  Like I said in my “The Problem With Gamers” post, the issue here isn’t the medium.  Anonymity is a very powerful idea.  It allows for some very angry and hateful individuals to spew their bile without any repercussions.  But we cannot simply erase anonymity because with freedom of speech comes the knowledge that we have to allow some bad ideas to exist in order to preserve the good ones.

From the way a lot of critics of the industry talk, it’s like video games are this festering ground of misogyny and hatred.  But that’s not true.  Look at Sam Greenbriar from Gone Home.  Look at Lilith in Borderlands 2.  Look at Samus Aran from Metroid.  These are all examples of female video game characters who don’t just adhere to traditional tropes and stereotypes (although the skin-tight suit Samus commonly wears these days is a little questionable).  It’s true that there are still overly stereotypical portrayals of women in games, but the same can be said of men.  If you look at a game like Gears of War, what do you see?  Hulked up, roid-raging testosterone sacks on legs.  You can see it in plenty of other games as well.  Men are commonly portrayed as over-the-top heroic, and in many cases, womanizing.  These stereotypes can be just as prevalent as the female tropes, but they don’t get nearly as much attention.

The point I’m trying to make here is that tropes are everywhere, and sometimes it is nearly impossible to create detailed characters in every situation, particularly ones where the character functions only as a background element.  In these cases you will see these tropes used to easily define their behaviors and their purpose within the setting.  It’s a sad truth that’s not just endemic to video games, but to books, television, movies, and so on.  The thing with video game storytelling is that it is often rooted in the styles of books and movies, which both have had their fair share of stereotyping.  So instead of just focusing on games in general, why don’t we widen the net?  There is still a lot of work that can be done, but we’re on the right path.

Another issue I have with current video game criticism is that so many of them just automatically lump all gamers in the same category, namely the sexist, racist, and hateful category.  Check out this tweet from Sarkeesian’s twitter account earlier this month.

Feminist Frequency Tweet

In particular, note the second thing she re-tweets here: “1999: gamers demand we stop blaming school shootings on videogames.  2014: gamers threaten a school shooting because videogames”.

Yeah because the same people who were saying that in 1999 were OBVIOUSLY the same people who threatened the school shooting.  Because you totally know that for sure.  And it TOTALLY represents the entire gaming community as a whole.  It’s just so LOGICAL to immediately assume that everyone who is part of a group behaves the EXACT SAME WAY.

What annoys me is this assumption that gamers have to stand up and say that the actions of these people do not represent all of us.  Why?  Why should we have to?  Shouldn’t it be obvious?  Or are some people so mired in their generalizations that they refuse to acknowledge the wide breadth of people who play video games?  The average age of video gamers is actually somewhere in the thirties, so we’re not all just dumb kids as some people like to assume.

Do we ever demand that Christians stand up and say that the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church do not represent all of Christianity?  Hell no.  We would never even THINK of suggesting something like that.  Yet, because it’s video games, the people who play them are automatically subjected to more rigorous standards than the rest of the world.  It’s stupid, not to mention unfair.

Is there an issue with hate and anger within the gaming community?  Very much so.  But these does not define gaming as a whole.  It’s far too easy to label the gaming community as spiteful and bad than it is to acknowledge the greater issue here.  Where did these gamers learn such hate?  Who told them it was okay to treat women as objects?  Who allowed them to believe that racism at any time is acceptable?  It certainly wasn’t video games, and even if it was, all I have to say is where the hell were their parents?

If we simply lump all the blame on games, we miss the underlying issue.  In order to stamp out the hatred on the internet, we have to find the cause.  Simply pointing the finger at video games solves nothing.  Kids shouldn’t be learning lessons from games, they should be learning lessons from their parents, from the people around them, from real life situations, which is not to say that games can’t engage on an intellectual level.  I mean if movies are allowed to show gritty and glamorous versions of the criminal underworld, then why can’t games?  But if there’s a kid five years of age playing a copy of Grand Theft Auto unattended, there’s something wrong in that household.  And I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t the game.

Sarkeesian does a good job pointing out the negative female stereotypes in games, but we need to be aware that these stereotypes aren’t intrinsic to games.  They have existed in other forms of media long before games really hit the scene.  It’s natural to be a little concerned, especially when games have skyrocketed in popularity over the last couple of decades.  It’s a multi-billion dollar industry now, but it’s still fairly young.  Dealing with stereotypes in video games is a worthy cause, but we need to work on the underlying social issues as well if we truly want to be rid of them.  Hatred and anger won’t simply cease because we took care of video games.  Hatred and anger will persist regardless of games.  Hatred has sparked wars.  Hatred has caused genocide.  Hatred leads to even more hatred.  It’s not just games.  It’s not just gamers.  It’s not just the internet.  It’s us.

It’s always been us.

 

And that’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next week for another post, and as always, have a great week.

 

Here’s a link to an NPR interview article with Anita Sarkeesian, if you’re interested.

 

 

The Importance of Gone Home

For most of my generation, the 1990’s were a decade of innocence.  It was a decade when we were just kids, unknowing of the world and the harsh, real problems older people had to deal with every single day.  All we really worried about was getting our homework done (well, most of us anyways) and when we were going to hang out with friends again.  We didn’t need to care about anything else.  It was a peaceful time, a time to grow.  A time to relax and play.  A time to be a kid.

But time eventually passes, and we all have to grow up.  I sit here writing this post as a twenty-four year old adult who has to pay rent and student loans.  I work an early morning job at a TV station, and write fiction in my spare time.  I deal with groceries, the electric bill, and keeping things clean.  I have so many more worries now than I did as a kid.  It’s a part of growing up.  To get away from these stresses of life, I turn to different things.  But most of all, I turn to video games.

I’ve lately been drawn to the more experiential and exploration based games, due to my past affiliation with games like Myst, and my occasional desire to just relax rather than run through a hail of gunfire with a shotgun, getting close to anyone I see and blowing their brains out.  I love these types of games because they focus much more on atmosphere and telling a story.  Don’t get me wrong, I love getting my first person shooter on or whatever, but sometimes I like a simpler, more soothing experience.

Gone Home is a game that came out in August of 2013.  It features a story set in the middle of a June rainstorm in 1995.  You play as Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student who just returned home from a year abroad to find that her family’s new home is empty and a note from her sister begging Kaitlin not to look for her.  Of course, Kaitlin doesn’t follow the note, and you begin wandering through the house to discover why.

Insert clichéd phrase about going home here.

Gone Home

Gone Home

When Gone Home came out the summer before last, it had a polarizing effect on the gaming community.  It was a “love it or hate it” kind of situation I guess.  People either praised it for being a terrific example of a exploration-based video game, or decried it for being boring and overpriced.  Some even went so far as to call the game “complete garbage” or even deny that it was a game.  Honestly, arguing about whether something is or isn’t a “game” is a pretension that’s not even worth debating if you ask me.  Imagine the arrogance of the man who claims that he alone can define what a game is.  We live in a world with constantly shifting forms of media.  The definitions of games, movies, and books are being re-written as we speak.  E-readers, Netflix, digital downloads, and so much more have cropped up just in the last ten years of so, rapidly changing how we enjoy our favorite mediums.  When I was a kid, to get a game you’d have to drive all the way out to a video store somewhere and buy it, and that was back when they were cartridges.  Now you can just hop on Steam, Xbox, or Playstation, and be downloading your game within minutes.

So despite your opinions on the game, Gone Home is definitely a product its time.  It exists because of all these advances, this streamlining and interconnecting of our lives and our media.  Ten years ago, Gone Home would have never been made.  Even today, the developers made the game with their own savings.  It was quite the passion project for them, a game that they themselves wanted to make rather than a game shaped by market forces and trends.  I wonder if people would hate on them so much if they understood just how much they put into the game.  I’m willing to bet some people would change their tune.

Certain objects in the game will trigger a recorded journal entry by your character's sister, detailing some event or day in her life.

Certain objects in the game will trigger a recorded journal entry by your character’s sister, detailing some event or day in her life.

But on to the main point.  Gone Home, as I said earlier, is an exploration game first and foremost.  The entirety of the two-hour game (and yes, it is only two hours or so) consists of you wandering around this big house, looking at random objects until you find important ones that trigger a voice-over of the character’s sister.  In these voice-overs, Kaitlin’s sister Sam talks about going to school in a new place and trying to fit in with people.  In this way, it’s probably one of the most down to earth video game stories ever told.  It stands as a testament to the breadth of story types that a game can tell, from over the top stories of one man army space captains all the way down to a slice of life tale about a girl trying to find her own unique identity.

Now I feel I have to address this next part, as this seems to be something gamers begrudge the critics for.  Yes, the game does deal with themes of homosexuality.  It seems like most gamers who hate Gone Home have this conception that the only reason it scored so high was because of the fact that Sam was a lesbian.  It is a big part of the story, considering she falls in love with another girl at school.  But I feel that most of those types of people didn’t fully read the reviews, because if they did they’d realize that while the lesbian part did factor in (because as far as games go, homosexuality is rarely ever dealt with), the various aspects of the other game in tandem elevated the game to its status as an indie darling.  It’s an exploration based game in a sea of games that involve shooting, explosions, and gruff voiced or wise cracking characters.  It sticks out as something different, especially since it’s coming from a team of people who have worked on triple-A blockbuster games before.

But again, I digress.  This post isn’t really about why a lot of the gaming community hated the game.  I mean they’re wrong but that’s not the point (by the way, sarcasm…just thought I should make that clear).

Gone Home is important not because it features a lesbian character.  It’s not important because it’s indie.  It’s not even important because it’s artsy.  It’s important because it exists.  It shows us the potential and breadth that games have.  Common culture has this preconceived notion that all games have to involve shooting and killing and general mayhem.  But that’s not true, and Gone Home stands as proof to that end.  I’ve talked about how I became re-acquainted with point and click adventure games in the last few years.  I was surprised that these games still existed in some form, because I had assumed they died out a long time ago, considering how Myst was initially released in ’93, two decades ago.

When someone from the outside looks at video games, they probably see things like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto first and foremost.  While I love the latter franchise, it is true that games have a reputation for violence and mayhem.  But I would argue that Hollywood movies are the same way, showing off big spectacles and explosions for the pleasures of their audiences.  It’s just that games haven’t been around as long, and are therefore looked at more skeptically.

Games are capable of so much more than violence and mayhem, and have already proven that if you look beyond the surface.  Also, yay X-Files!

Games are capable of so much more than violence and mayhem, and have already proven that if you look beyond the surface. Also, yay X-Files!

This is where Gone Home comes in.  It proves that games can be more than just interactive explosion simulators.  But it’s not the only one.  Look at Papa & Yo.  Look at Journey.  Look at Papers Please.  All of these games are unique in their presentations and in their meanings, but they all prove the same thing: video games have power as a medium.  They can evoke feelings in ways that books and movies only dream of.  I’ve trumpeted this tune before, but only because I firmly believe it.

Whatever your personal feelings are on the game, you can hopefully at least agree that Gone Home is something unique, a bit of fresh air in a market that has become over-saturated with multiplayer shooter games.  It certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay.  The point here is that game developers shouldn’t be focusing on a game that appeals to everybody.  That’s how we got to where we are right now.  Some of those shooters got immensely popular, and everyone else began scrambling to copy them and outdo them at their own game (pun not intended).  Instead, game designers should be making games that they truly care about, games that they put their heart and soul into.  It’s not always easy in a world where money is the bottom line, but to find true happiness, one has to take a risk every once in a while.  And besides, as long as you make something worth playing, it will be played.  It might not achieve the success of the Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or other big blockbuster franchises, but somewhere out there, someone is waiting to play that dream game.  All that remains is for you to make it.

 

And that’s all I’ve got for this week.  Next week’s post will feature gratuitous nudity and explosions.  Until then, have a great week everybody.

 

The Creative Process: Writing a Story

Anyone who likes to write has a process, a series of steps or phases that they go through when they want to tell a story.  Everyone’s process is different in some way, but we all go through the same basic series of steps from the initial idea all the way to the finished product.

But as anyone who has written a story will attest, the process can be difficult.  Some people get hung up on the initial idea, unable to come up with something or unable to turn their idea into a cohesive story.  Some people struggle with writing the story, finding it hard to begin their story, end their story, or even just get from point A to point B within the story.

So I thought for today that I’d give you a look into how I do things, my specific creative process.  If you do things differently than me, don’t worry about it.  Writing is not a formula or an equation.  There is no one correct way to do it.  I am showing my process merely as an example, with the hope that seeing it all laid bare might help you gather up your ideas and jump-start your own process.  So here we go.

 

Phase 1: Initial Idea

When an idea hits me, I usually don’t expect it.  It can come at any time: while I’m at work, taking a shower, watching a TV show, or even when I’m sleeping.  It doesn’t really matter when or where it pops up, just that it does.  I have brainstormed ideas before, but I feel that the best ideas come naturally, when you’re not trying to force it.  Once I have the idea, I begin the process of shaping it into a cohesive story.

But before I even get to the outlining part, I run the idea over in my head.  I ask myself some questions.  Would this idea make a good story?  Is there room for this idea to expand and change?  What kind of characters should I have? I ask myself these questions and more to make sure that the story I want to write is one that is worth writing and one that I feel strongly about.  Because if I don’t feel good about the story I’m writing, then who will want to read it?

 

Phase 2: Outline

Now we get to the outlining, which many people take for granted.  I used to never outline things at all when I wrote papers in high school and so on.  But over time, I learned that outlining generally makes a paper or a story go much smoother than it would otherwise.  An outline allows you to draw a road map of your project, showing where you want to start and where you want to go.  How deep you want your outline to be depends on you.

My outline consists of four parts: title, setting, synopsis, and major events.  The first part, title, is pretty obvious.  I use this part to write out what I want the title to be.  If I currently don’t have a title at the moment, I use this space to brainstorm until I pick one later.  Setting, the second component, is also pretty clear.  This is where I write the setting down that I plan on using for the story.  This is usually more of a check to make sure that I keep myself consistent.  I plan on expanding this section at some point, and use it for greater purposes than I do now.

The third part of my outline is the synopsis.  For this, I like to imagine that I’m writing a pitch or the description for the story.  It’s a brief overview of the story, introducing the main character(s) and the setup for events.  I write it like I’m trying to entice, like I’m trying to get someone to read my story.  That way, if I ever do pitch it somewhere, I have something written down that I can draw from.

The final part is the major events.  This is the meat of my outline.  This is where I write down all of the major events that I can think of in the story, and describe them in detail.  It also serves as a general chronology of the story, showing where it begins, where it goes, and where it ends.  Once I actually begin writing the story however, these things are subject to change, either slightly or completely.

You may outline your stories in a completely different fashion, yours more in-depth than mine or less.  It all depends on the person and the situation.  I have sometimes wished that my outlines were a little more in-depth, but I have trouble thinking of a good way to do that without creating excess busy work.  As for right now, I’m fine with my outlines.  I may change my method in the future, but that’s the nature of writing.  It is fluid and ever-changing.

 

Phase 3: First Draft

This is where most of the work for me takes place.  After outlining the story, I usually wait a day to let the outline sink in before I begin writing.  And then, I just write.  There’s not really much to say about this part, other than that it often takes a period of days, weeks, or even months depending on the size of the story.  The most recent story I finished took about a month to write, and ended up being nearly fifty pages.

The most important thing to remember during this section is that this is only your first attempt at the story.  When you read it back after you’re finished, it may and probably will seem very rough.  You’ll find spots that you don’t like, sentences that you can’t believe you thought sounded good.  You’ll find spelling errors, grammar mistakes, and just general logic issues abound.  If it makes you despair, just remember.  You will have a chance to fix things.  It’s not like this is the version people are going to read.  The next part of the process is where I make the version I want people to read.

 

Phase 4: Revisions

Once I’ve finished the first, or “rough”, draft of a story, I like to let it sit for at least a day before I go back to it.  Trying to immediately revise a story after you’ve finished it is a fool’s errand.  You will only glaze over obvious mistakes in your writing, because you’ve become too close to it and spent too much time with it.  The most important part of revising is to let some time pass before you take a look at your work again.  It gives your mind a chance to refresh itself and let go of innate biases.

I used to wonder how many different revisions of a story I should do, and the answer is simply that there is no answer.  Like I said, writing is ever-changing.  There is no concrete method or answer for it.  You have to make your own path, which I understand is incredibly difficult for some people.  Some people want a basic formula or an equation when they do things.  They want there to be one correct way of doing it, with the only obstacle being the journey to get to the predetermined end.  People like that usually don’t do too well with writing, not that they’re failures or anything for it.  They’re just built a different way.

I learned recently that when it comes to revising, it is a good idea to try to focus on one particular aspect of your work for each revision.  For example, on one revision you could focus on spelling and grammar.  On another you could focus on character consistencies.  On yet another, you could focus on logical issues with the story, asking yourself “does everything make sense within the world” and so on.  So that’s what I try to do now with revising.  I used to just read over the story and change anything that popped out as wrong or odd to me, but now I’m trying to do it differently.

Revising is a tough job, because you aren’t always sure how much you’re really doing to it.  This is the part of the process where it’s a good idea to get other eyes to read your work.  Send your story to a friend or two to read, and have them tell you what they think and point out anything they don’t like or that they think doesn’t make sense.  You don’t have to do everything they say (because then it would be more their story than yours), but do take their criticism to heart, and use it to create the best possible story that you can.

And sometimes, you may want to even scrap the story you have, and start all over.  I know I’ve done that with a couple of stories before.  But most of all, write what you feel and never apologize for it.

 

That’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for a new post, and until then, have a great week everybody.

Urban Legends: The Scary, the Disturbing, and the Ridiculous

Here’s a familiar scene, a group of people out in the night sitting by a campfire.  One of them has a flashlight in his hands, and he shines it up at his chin, illuminating his face in a pale, white glow.  He lowers his voice as he begins to tell a story, beginning with “it was a day like any other day”.  This familiar re-telling of spooky stories was a bit of a pastime for us.  And no stories got circulated in this fashion more than urban legends.

Despite the name, urban legends are not confined to an urban setting.  Rather, the term “urban legend” is a slang term for “contemporary folklore” or “contemporary legend”, as the experts prefer to call it.  You know the type, those tales told by a friend who insists it happened to a “friend of a friend” who is then either identified by first name only or not at all.  It’s like when Fry from Futurama insists that there are alligators in the sewer.  He says that its true because his “friend’s cousin’s case worker saw one once”.

Urban legends are those stories that are told as if they were true, when the reality is that their truthfulness is debatable.  Personally, I feel like the vast majority of them are false.  They are told or written with very little specific detail, which strikes me as a way to dodge efforts to confirm the story.  Nevertheless, these stories are prevalent in modern culture, due to their aspects of horror, mystery, and occasionally humor.  Many of them also take the tone of cautionary tales, such as the “Kidney Heist” story, where someone goes to a party and after heavy drinking passes out, only to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with stitches on their side.  Soon enough they realize that, you guessed it, one of their kidneys is gone.  Such tales are common, and will slightly change to better fit the time and place.

I have a book chock full of urban legends somewhere at home written by Jan Brunvand, a professor from the University of Utah.  These urban legends were of great fascination to me when I was younger, despite the fact that I never really believed them (it’s the same with ghosts and the paranormal, something I touched on in my very first blog post).  I remember I used to retell the stories in the book to friends of mine at school (without the “friend of a friend” business of course).  I simply found them to be interesting and engaging.  And their popularity hasn’t waned in recent years.  More to the point, they simply evolved.

The internet has developed its own breed of urban legends, such as those chain emails that tell you about some horrible thing happening in your area.  Or there are those chain comments that say “re-post this on X amount of pages/videos or you’ll die in X amount of time”.  But more frequently, and more intriguingly, are those tales which are known as “creepypastas”.  Creepypasta stories are internet horror stories that are circulated in a similar way to urban legends.  They are designed to explicitly shock or unnerve a reader, and are typically much more supernatural in nature.  It got its name from “copypasta”, an internet slang term for a block of text that gets copied and pasted over and over again from website to website.  In much the same vein as urban legends, creepypastas are written as if they were true, usually happening to the person telling the story or happening to someone close to them.

The most notable example of a creepypasta (and something that I’m sure many of the internet-fluent are familiar with) is the Slenderman.  The Slenderman originated from a picture contest on Something Awful, and has since grown in popularity.  The Slenderman is a demonic-type entity who appears with abnormally long limbs and has no face.  He is usually depicted as wearing a black suit and tie.  The story commonly goes that he appears only in photograph form, stalking his victims (who are almost always children).  The impact of Slenderman has been so great that two girls in Wisconsin  tried to stab another girl to death because they believed that if they did they would become his disciples.  This case shows just how much the Slenderman myth has spread since its inception.  It’s one of those rare cases where something made up got spread around long enough that people started to believe it.  The story became the myth became the legend.

Whether or not you believe in any of these urban legend type stories, it cannot be disputed that they have their effects on our culture.  They are often used as a practical joke or a game in an attempt to frighten people.  Sure, we may not hear the story of the hook hand, the story of the kidney heist, or the story of the babysitter getting strange and threatening calls much or at all anymore, but urban legends have not died.  They are still around.  They evolved like any organism would, adapting to suit the conditions of their time and the area they reside in.  They live on in new forms in new ways with new details.

It’s true what they say: legends never die.

And that’s all I have for this week.  Before I go I would like to recommend a Youtube series to you called Seriously Strange.  It’s a video series by a man named Rob Dyke, and it covers a lot of creepy and weird things, sometimes delving into stories involving the fantastic and the supernatural (see the Haunted Dolls episode as an example).  It’s a well done series that’s perfect for those fans of horror and urban legends, those who like reading about mysteries and all things weird.

Well I’ll see you next Wednesday with another post.  Until then, have a great week.