Weird Implications of the Horror Genre

I think most of us would agree that many horror movies are just made to be dumb fun and aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  There’s a movie called “Wish Upon” that’s coming out at the end of the week that’s about a magic box that grants people’s wishes.  But there’s a catch.  For every wish the box grants, someone close to the wisher dies!

Yeah…it’s pretty dumb.  But that’s usually the point.  These kind of blockbuster horror movies aren’t really about a story…they’re about spooks and scares and things going “BOO”.

Also gore…there’s a lot of gore these days.

But what if we took these movies more seriously?  It is true that some older horror fiction contained moral lessons or at least satirical observations on modern society.  So what would happen if we took these tales at face value?

Well…

 

Sex is bad

If you’ve never seen the show “Robot Chicken”, all you really need to know is that it’s a skit show involving action figures.  And it’s raunchy…oh so raunchy…

There’s a skit on the show that mashes together “Scooby-Doo” and “Friday the 13th”, with the crew of the Mystery Machine getting brutally murdered one by one by the masked killer Jason Voorhees.  At one point during the skit Velma complains that “the virgin lives the longest in these horror movies”.  And it’s true.  The virgin is the last one alive, particularly in slasher movies.

The excellent 2011 movie “The Cabin in the Woods” references this, stating that for things to work out, the virgin has to be the absolute last one to die, if at all.

But why is this exactly?  How did this become a trope?  Well, as it turns out, horror movies have a weird thing with sex.  Which is that sex is bad.  Very bad.  Unless you’re married.  Which is why in slasher flick movies, the promiscuous cheerleader and the football jock she’s dating are pretty much always the first targets.

The movie “It Follows” literally revolves around a monster curse that is passed on by sleeping with people.  It’s weird, but horror movies apparently grabbed on to this cultural fear of teenagers having sex.  The plot of “It Follows” reads like a paper-thin metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases.

 

You darn kids and yer unprotected sex!

 

It’s like horror movies abide by this strange, Victorian era sense of morality when it comes to sex.  Which brings us to our next topic…

 

Warped Moral Messages

The Sam Raimi movie “Drag Me to Hell” features a female loan officer who refuses an extension to an old lady, who subsequently turns out to be a gypsy or something and puts a curse on the main character which will send her to hell.

Seriously?  I mean, refusing a loan extension is a cruel thing to do, but even the IMDb plot summary points out that she only does it out of misplaced fear for her job:

“Christine Brown is a loans officer at a bank but is worried about her lot in life. She’s in competition with a competent colleague for an assistant manager position and isn’t too sure about her status with a boyfriend. Worried that her boss will think less of her if she shows weakness, she refuses a time extension on a loan to an old woman, Mrs. Ganush, who now faces foreclosure and the loss of her house. In retaliation, the old woman place a curse on her which, she subsequently learns, will result in her being taken to hell in a few days time.”

Given that this movie seems to take place in the modern-day, why not go after the people who caused the housing bubble to burst and created the economic turmoil that likely put the old lady in danger of being foreclosed on?  What about the politicians and the rich people who sat by and let everything fall apart?  I mean, if it’s that easy to curse someone, why not curse the people who deserve it?

But that’s horror movies for you.  They attempt to justify all manner of horrible things through the flimsiest lens possible.  Take, for example, the “Saw” franchise.

If you’ve never seen the movies, the basic premise is that a serial killer kidnaps people and forces them to play elaborate games involving deadly traps.  It’s a franchise that spawned seven different movies and is even spawning another movie later this year, seven years after the last movie came out.  But what bothers me isn’t how many sequels there are, but the motivation behind the killer himself.

In the second movie, Jigsaw tells a former police detective that he attempted to commit suicide after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Evidently, when his attempt failed, he was infused with a new appreciation for life.  And apparently, he was compelled to inspire that appreciation for life in others.

Inspiring an appreciation for life…by physically and psychologically torturing people until they have PTSD and nightmares for the rest of their lives.  And that’s if they survive.

Yep…seems legit.

 

Superstitions are not to be mocked

“There’s a logical explanation for all of this” – Guy who is about to be killed in horrific fashion

A great example of this trope can be seen in “Blair Witch”, the 2016 sequel to “The Blair Witch Project”.  It was…not very good.  Near the beginning of the movie, when the crew is first making their way into the woods, one of the characters makes their thoughts on the legend of the Blair Witch heard and mocks it for all it’s worth.  Then, on the second night, he is chased by some unknown entity and presumably killed.

Just goes to show you kids: don’t mock superstitions.  Because they’ll come true and kill you dead.

And this a common character in horror movies, especially ones involving local legends or folklore.  They’re a skeptic by nature, so they loudly proclaim their disbelief in “silly” superstitions and the like, much to the chagrin of others.

“You actually believe in Bigfoot,” they’ll ask with a mocking chuckle.  “Bigfoot isn’t real.  He’s a myth and a hoax, sustained by people who have nothing better to do with their lives.”

And then Bigfoot will promptly stroll out of the woods, rip the person’s spleen out of their chest, and it so far up their rear end that it pops out their mouth.

Actually, that sounds pretty badass.  I’d pay to see that movie.

 

Archaeology is nothing more than grave robbing

This is a weird one.

I’ve gone on record before about how I enjoy point and click adventure games.  Well I have a couple in mind when it comes to this trope: “Barrow Hill” and its sequel “Barrow Hill: The Dark Path”.

In these games, the central plot revolves around an isolated gas station and motel set near an ancient barrow or burial mound.  In the first game, archaeologist Conrad Morse triggers the horrible events that trap you and other characters in the area because he digs up the mound, taking dirt samples and treasures.  The implication is that he disturbed some kind of ancient spirit by doing so.  And in the second game, which features the spirit of an ancient Wicca witch, goes much the same way.  In the game you find the diary of an archaeologist who dug up the grave of the witch and angered her spirit.

Now, “Dark Path” ends with a message from one of the main characters stating that “there’s a difference between archaeology and grave robbing”.  But the game never makes that distinction.  There’s no point in the game where it points out what would be considered good archaeology.  Because for archaeology to work, things have to be dug up.  But according to the “Barrow Hill” series, that’s a bad thing.

You could argue that it’s more a point about having respect for ancient cultures and tradition, but without any clear indication of how you’re supposed to have respect for these things it comes across as a harsh indictment of the profession itself.  Even if it’s just about not forgetting the past, if we leave it alone eventually nature will erase any trace of these things ever existing.  Even if Conrad Morse hadn’t dug up the barrow in the first “Barrow Hill”, nature would have eventually eroded away the rocks or overgrown the area, which means that people would have forgotten about Barrow Hill anyways.  Think about how many ancient cultures or cities we don’t know about, that we may never know about because nature has long since destroyed any evidence of their passing.

Maybe Indiana Jones could get away with it.  Who knows?

 

I hope you enjoyed reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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How I Got Back Into Point and Click Games

You might remember a long time ago when I wrote a post about my love for point and click games.  It was one of the very first posts I ever wrote actually.  One thing I barely touched on was the story of how I got back into those games.  It’s a story I don’t feel I did justice to, so I’m going to take this post to explore that story in greater detail.  So here goes.

I think I can trace the beginnings of my re surging interest back to the Penumbra games, a series of horror adventure games made by Frictional Games who would then go on to make Amnesia, a game series I have talked about quite a bit on this blog.  The first game, Penumbra Overture, was this engrossing horror adventure set in this abandoned mine in Greenland.  The ambient music and the environments were downright chilling (no pun intended…it is Greenland after all).  About the only part I didn’t like about the game was the strange combat system where you held down the mouse button and dragged the mouse back and forth to swing your weapon.  It was just a silly little mechanic which Frictional wisely took out in the next game: Penumbra Black Plague.

One of the first major areas in the game.  You spend a lot of time here, exploring...hiding...crying like a little wussy baby...good times man good times.  (Penumbra Overture)

One of the first major areas in the game. You spend a lot of time here, exploring…hiding…crying like a little wussy baby…good times man good times. (Penumbra Overture)

It was nice to be playing a game again that wasn’t all about shooting bad guys or being the perfect hero.  It was nice having a game that felt more like an experience.  But it wasn’t really until my second year up at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Let me set the year for you.  It was only my second year there.  I was living on campus in an apartment with three other guys, total strangers to me until that year.  They were nice people, but I didn’t really find much in common with them so I spent most of the year as the “quiet roommate”.  Because of this, and my growing tiredness for all the Shooty McShoot’emups in the gaming world, I really needed to find a different type of game that I could play in my free time, something a bit more laid back that didn’t need constant action and explosions in your face, something that wasn’t always throwing unlocks and experience points your way for every little thing you did.  Something that was more focused on telling a story and showing off an environment.

It wasn’t until I scrolled through the site Good Old Games (GOG.com) that I found my answer.

Scratches was a game that as I mentioned in that post all those months ago, I had encountered before.  But the website that reviewed it gave it an extremely poor review, so I ignored the game at that time.  But I stumbled into it again on GOG and the user reviews were all saying it was extremely well done.  So I figured, what the heck, it’s only like five bucks.  What have I really got to lose in the end?

The game features a great atmosphere and some great details of decay on some of the objects.  (Scratches)  Note: picture taken from Steam store page.

The game features a great atmosphere and some great details of decay on some of the objects. (Scratches) Note: picture taken from Steam store page.

I remember my first moments with the game were middling and inconsistent.  The voice acting was a little stilted, but the music was nice and ominous.  I started exploring the house, reading notes and journal entries, wondering if I had wasted my money on it at first.  It wasn’t until the first nighttime section in the game (the game takes place over three different days) that I found that I had extremely underestimated its potential.

The first time I heard that surreal hammering sound, I shivered.  And I was playing it in the middle of the daytime.

Scratches quickly proved to me that the point and click genre still held some intangible pull for me, that there was something there that interested me greatly.  Over the next couple of months or so, I played the game on and off before I finally beat it (puzzles are hard sometimes man).  So then I started looking for more games like that.  I picked up the original version of realMyst off of GOG, revisiting a classic game from my youth whose impact on me I didn’t fully understand until later (I made a post on that too).

Much later on I went scrolling around GOG again for some more point and click games that had a horror bent to them, which is where I stumbled upon the Dark Fall franchise.  This time, I was living off campus in my own apartment with a buddy of mine, the same apartment I sit in right now writing this post.  Again, I wasn’t too sure about the game when I first began playing it, but it grew on me, and sure enough I found myself engrossed in the world and the atmosphere, trying to solve the mystery of what exactly happened to the Dowerton Hotel on that fateful night in the 1940s.

Welcome to the rustic Dowerton Hotel, where people check in......thoroughly enjoy their stay and come back another time.  Nah just kidding THEY NEVER LEAVE MWA HA HA HA HA...etc.  Well that was fun.  (Dark Fall The Journal)

Welcome to the rustic Dowerton Hotel, where people check in……thoroughly enjoy their stay and come back another time. Nah just kidding THEY NEVER LEAVE MWA HA HA HA HA…etc. Well that was fun. (Dark Fall The Journal)

Scratches may have been the game that got my mind thinking about point and click games again, but Dark Fall: The Journal (the first of three games) was the one that made me realize my love of them.  It wasn’t like one of those movie moments where the main character slowly realizes everything in a single moment, but rather a slow and steady realization over a long period of time.  And since those two games, I have played quite a few more.  Barrow HillDark Fall 2: Lights OutThe Lost CrownThe Darkness WithinOutcryThe 7th Guest, and more.  I’ve played a lot of them over the last few years.

What surprised me the most about the point and click genre was that it still existed in some way.  I had always assumed that point and clicks died out a long time ago considering I didn’t hear much about them aside from references to Myst every now and again.  But in reality, they just went underground so to speak.  There still exists this community of people who create games like these, with different twists and mechanics.  There still exist games that let you take things at your own pace, that don’t constantly cram things like experience points or weapon unlocks down your throat.  It was a nice feeling, knowing that there were still games that wanted to be relaxing without taking things to an extreme and almost pretentious point.  It’s really hard to put into words, which is probably why I feel like I’ve never done it justice.

But more so even than the atmosphere and the pacing was just the passion behind it.  Here were games that were obviously passion projects, games that the people behind them knew weren’t going to make them a whole lot of money.  These were games that felt more like a genuine experience than just a cash transaction (for sixty dollars you get this many hours of fun).  They felt like inspired products rather than just new iterations of the same thing.  That’s what makes them memorable.  They may have mediocre looking graphics.  The voice acting may be stilted.  And they may be beholden to a 1990s style of puzzle design at times.  But I can’t deny the heart that went into making them.  Of course, this is not to say that they are the only games with passionate people behind them, but it does feel like more and more that the video game industry has gotten to the point where developers prefer playing it safe than actually trying to innovate.  If it was actually working, that would be one thing.  But it isn’t.  Most of the games that try to emulate Call of Duty end up falling flat and failing.  A copycat can never be as memorable as the original.

In a perfect world, only the people with the passion for it would be making the games.  This is not a perfect world.  But it can be made better.  All we have to do is try.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week (hey look it’s December and I’m still talking about horror).  I hope everyone has a great holiday season and a wonderful time with their families.  I wish you all the happiest of holidays, the merriest of Christmases, and so on.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post and, as always, have a great week everyone.

5 Things I Would Change About Modern Horror

In one of my previous posts, entitled “The Frightening State of Horror” (I know, puns right), I talked about how I feel that the modern state of the horror genre is severely lacking.  There’s an over-reliance on too many of the same types of scares, plot lines, and enemies, which leads to an overabundance of eye rolling.  I’ve talked a lot about the things I feel are wrong with the genre, but I haven’t talked much about ways where the genre could make itself better.  I’ve made my problem clear, now it’s time to start generating solutions.  I got the idea for this post from a Youtube video which you can watch here.

And so follows a list of five things I would change about the modern horror genre.

1. Jump Scares

Modern horror seems to be having a love affair with these things.  To put it simply. jump scares are those moments in horror movies that make you…well…jump.  It can be anything from a loud noise in the darkness to a creepy, white-faced man jumping out at the main character and screaming.  They usually do their job, soliciting a knee jerk reaction from the viewers, causing them to tense up and flinch.  But the real question remains, is it actually scary?

Such a question is a hard one to answer, because what is scary depends on the person.  Plenty of people found the game “Slender: The Eight Pages” to be one of the most frightening things they’ve ever seen.  Me?  I found it incredibly dull and ineffective, focusing way too much on sudden, loud musical blasts into your ears than anything overtly frightening.  It’s the difference between believing that there’s something out there in the dark stalking you, and your annoying friend standing behind you banging two frying pans together.

Which is not to say that jump scares don’t have their place.  One of the most effective I’ve ever seen occurred in a video game called Eternal Darkness.  In it, you have a brief vision of your character lying dead in the bathtub in a pool of her own blood.  It’s shocking and gruesome, but the thing that truly made it scary for me was that it happens during something so mundane as just clicking the “B” button to examine the tub.  All the prompt is “examine”, leaving you woefully unprepared for the scene that confronts you.  Not to mention that examining objects in this way is something you do many times throughout the game.

Modern horror uses jump scares far too often.  Dark hallway?  Jump scare.  Creepy music?  Jump scare.  Dark hallway AND creepy music?  What do you know, another jump scare.  It’s all become so artificial and obvious.  Horror movies and games tend to rely on the same bag of tricks far too often, which quickly makes things stale.  If they changed things up a bit, utilized jump scares a bit more like that one in Eternal Darkness, they might actually be more effective.  Jump scares work best when they catch people truly unaware.  Building your entire game or movie around jump scares is not a good way to go.

2. Setting

Dark mansions, spooky castles, and abandoned mental asylums.  All places we’ve seen many times before.  All places we’ve grown plenty tired of.

There’s nothing wrong with the familiar, but as with the jump scares, overabundance of them leads to weariness.  We can only traverse the same environments so many times before they lose all meaning.  Not to mention that many of us have no connection to these types of places.  I know I’ve never had to wander through an old mental asylum or creaky mansion in the dead of night.  And yet, I consider myself an old pro at exploring these places, at least within the realm of video games.

But with familiarity comes loss of power.  This is why horror movies and horror games aren’t as satisfying the second time through.  You already know what’s going to happen, so it doesn’t affect you anymore.  It’s the same thing with horror settings.  Unless you do something inventive or new with it, it quickly becomes stale.  While it is true that nothing is one hundred percent original, a creative touch here and there can go a long way.  Part of the reason why I liked the game Amnesia: The Dark Descent so much was that while it took place in a cliche, creepy castle, it did something rather novel in not allowing your character any weapons.  Your only defense was to run and hide in the closest closet you could find.  It’s the same with horror settings.  Old settings can find new life if they are handled correctly.

The video game Outlast takes place in a creepy mental asylum (gasp) where crazy experiments happened (double gasp).  Picture taken from Steam store page.

The video game Outlast takes place in a creepy mental asylum (gasp) where crazy experiments happened (double gasp).  Picture taken from Steam store page.

3. Demons

Seriously, enough with the demons.  That is all.

4. Character Development

This is something I feel like horror movies don’t really do.  Horror movie characters are usually two-dimensional, fulfilling stereotypical roles to serve as the exemplar of the “everyday”.  While this is fine in some circumstances (such as the movie “The Cabin in the Woods”, an excellent horror movie satire), mostly it leads to a kind of Schadenfreude, or “shameful joy”.  We come to enjoy watching certain characters get killed off because they’re annoying, unlikable, or just plain boring.  By developing the characters more, by giving them a better back story than just being the football jock or the nerdy kid would allow us to identify with them more, which would make their plight that much more tense.

Amnesia A Machine for Pigs is a game I’ve referenced several times for being an intriguing and unique horror experience.  Part of this was the character that you play as.  Oswald Mandus is a man who has done terrible things.  But his reasoning behind them is what really gets me.  Rather than just being some guy who selfishly wants to survive (as in the character from The Dark Descent), Mandus goes about his path because he feels a philosophical depression.   He doesn’t want to save himself, he wants to save everyone.  The way he goes about that is horrific, but his motivation is at least noble in a twisted sort of way.  It’s more than you get from a lot of horror protagonists, who usually just go mad and start doing things because hey, they’re crazy and all.

Ellen Ripley from the Alien movie franchise is another good example of a well-defined character in the horror genre.  She’s incredibly brave, considering all she has to go through in those movies, but at the same time she reveals her vulnerabilities at key moments.  She feels fear just like anyone else, but she rises above it to do what has to be done.  This is especially true in the first movie, Alien, where she is constantly at the mercy of the vicious alien stalking her as well as the government conspiracy underneath it all.  It’s a very psychological movie, which is something that a lot of modern horror lacks.  It’s too much about the physical onslaught of some horrific beast these days, and not enough about the psychological aspect.  With more well-defined characters at the center of these stories, psychological horror will become natural.

5. A Light Touch

A brief whisper in the night can be just as powerful as the slamming door.  We’ve all had that experience of a door mysteriously slamming in the midst of the night due to the wind blowing through an open window.  It makes us jump and scares us, but that feeling leaves after a moment.  The thing that frightens us most in that situation is the uncertainty, the unknown.  For that one, brief moment we experience pure terror before our senses return to us and logic overrides our irrationality.  But it’s that brief moment that’s so powerful.  And it’s all because of one little thing.

All it takes is a light touch.  Drawing back on the over the top music or noises, just for a little bit, can frighten far more than a monster barreling down the hallway at you.  In those situations, your imagination takes over.  At least if there’s a monster chasing you down, you know what you’re up against.  But in those moments when a faraway door creaks or a piano starts playing by itself, you have no idea what you’re about to run into.  You start feeling like a helpless child, knowing that you probably shouldn’t go towards the spooky noise but at the same time driven to know what it is.  These moments are so far and few between in modern horror that it is truly a shame.

This is why I like the Paranormal Activity movies a lot (aside from the lackluster fourth entry).  They build you up, taking their time before they unleash anything truly bizarre or horrific.  It gnaws away at your nerves, making you wonder when something big is going to happen.  You drum up your expectations for the inevitable drop, and when it does finally come, it’s far more intense and powerful than it would be if the movie started off with it.  I’ve preached this a lot in my other posts on horror movies, but it’s true.  There is a lot of power in the build up, the suspense.  And all those little touches (the brief flicker of a shadow, the far away door creaking, and so on) go a long way towards building up this suspense and atmosphere.

The video game Barrow Hill is another great example of horror that utilizes atmosphere more than anything else.  In fact, I don’t recall the game having any jump scares at all.  It merely uses creepy sound and music to draw you in, telling a creepy tale of people disappearing near some ancient burial mound.  It’s very similar to the Dark Fall games that I’ve mentioned before, which makes sense because the guy who made those games assisted in the development of Barrow Hill.

Despite the game not looking super amazing graphically, it still managed to immerse me in its creepy atmosphere.  (Barrow Hill)

Despite the game not looking super amazing graphically, it still managed to immerse me in its creepy atmosphere. (Barrow Hill)

But sadly, most video games have become truly bad at this, as many of the independently made horror games rely far too much on these sudden images popping up accompanied by a loud noise.  It goes back to the jump scares that I talked about at the beginning.  They can’t be very effective if you aren’t given time to appreciate the setting or the atmosphere.  In good horror, your imagination does most of the work.

Closing Thoughts

I truly do love horror as a genre (as you can plainly see), but I regret the path that it has gone down in recent years.  While these changes I would make may not be to everybody’s liking, they were by no means meant to be a comprehensive “here’s how to fix horror” guidebook or anything.  But I do feel that these five things could go a long way toward bringing horror back to the days where it was truly powerful, back to those days when it was a cavalcade of fears and not just a broken record.

Most of these things I have talked about at some length beforehand, but I just wanted to consolidate everything and create a list of things I think would change the modern horror genre for the better.

That’s all I have for this week.  Next week’s post will hopefully NOT involve demons.  Because seriously, demons suck.

Until then, have a wonderful week everybody.