The horror genre is one that has been around for a very long time. Pretty much since we’ve been aware that things go bump in the night, we’ve been telling stories about them. Some served a precautionary purpose, to keep kids from wandering around alone late at night. But some were just for fun, to frighten others or even to frighten ourselves. There is a morbid curiosity that draws people to the genre, one that continues to this day.
So for this week’s post, I wanted to dive into the strengths and weaknesses of different storytelling mediums, specifically three: books, movies, and video games.
Strengths: Books have a unique ability to tap into the human mind, making it spin an image of what it is describing on the page. Since books don’t have the same visual strength as movies or games, they rely on this ability to engage our imaginations, forcing us to come up with our own visual interpretations of events and places. And in that sense, books are very powerful. The mind can weave a web of macabre images much better than any movie camera or video game engine. Rather than being hamstrung by the limitations of visual production, books leave it up to the person reading to generate the movie in their heads while reading. This means that a person’s own fears or anxieties can feed into the power of the narrative, making something spookier than perhaps even the author intended.
Weaknesses: Unfortunately, this reliance on the imagination is a bit of a double-edged sword at times. The mind is a powerful thing yes, but if it isn’t given enough stimulation then it won’t generate as spectacular an image as it could. This makes it necessary for the author to be exceedingly good at descriptive writing, particularly in horror. If you can’t evoke emotions of fear or dread in the reader, they won’t buy into your story. You can’t just say “the house was creepy”. You have to show them the house was creepy, like saying “the old, dilapidated swingset creaked forlornly in the backyard, caked under years of orange rust.” That evokes some feelings in the reader. But it’s a tricky balance. Show them too much, and it gets boring to read. Show them too little, and they won’t be invested.
Strengths: The art of the visual medium is indeed a very powerful one. Cinematographers can use various tricks and techniques to draw our attention to something or make us feel uneasy. Strange, tilted camera angles tend to make a viewer feel slightly disoriented or anxious, and darkened lighting only aids in that effect. In older days, movies relied a lot on lighting and setting to craft its feelings of horror. As the technology only grew more and more sophisticated, so did the methods of scaring people visually. Music can also play a key role in this, as it tends to heighten certain emotions in people depending on the type of music playing (i.e. classical music makes people feel relaxed). Movies can also be sneaky. They can place something spooky just off the side of the screen, and whether or not a viewer sees it depends on them. Compare this to a book, which would have to literally describe said thing otherwise no one would know it’s there.
Weaknesses: I’ve bemoaned this a number of times before, but as movies became more and more sophisticated it also become more and more of an industry. And industries like trends. So when movies like Paranormal Activity hit the scene and were huge hits, cue the onslaught of movies involving cheap jumpscares and demons. As I’ve said before, I actually enjoyed the Paranormal Activity movies (the first three anyways). But the constant influx of similar themed movies gets pretty old. There can only be so many chapters of Insidious and so many movies set in the Conjuring movie universe before people start wondering “okay, but what’s next?” You can only do so many movies with characters being stalked in the shadows by some supernatural being before it falls flat. And then Hollywood is on to finding the next big trend.
Rinse and repeat.
Strengths: The interactive nature of video games are their greatest asset when it comes to horror. Things feel a bit different when you are controlling the character being chased rather than watching it happen or reading about it. There’s a whole new sense of dread that comes from being forced to enter an area you don’t want to go in. You know you need whatever is in there, but at the same time you know that something could be stalking around in the darkness, waiting to eviscerate you. Games have a dynamic factor to them that also makes them very enticing. Take for example, the game Prey from 2017. The game takes place on a space station that’s been overrun by alien entities. But some of them have the ability to disguise themselves as ordinary objects. One second you’re looking at a coffee mug, and the next some shrieking black mass of tentacles is attacking your face. It’s not scripted either. If given enough time, they will run away and disguise themselves again as a nearby object, lying in wait for you to come around again.
Weaknesses: Video games’ weaknesses are two-fold. First, there is repetition. Take Alien Isolation as an example. It’s a fantastic game that nails the atmosphere of the Alien franchise. However, your first time through the game will likely take close to twenty hours to complete. On top of that, since the alien itself is pretty much invincible, the only thing you can do is distract it or scare it off. This can lead to a lot of trial and error sections of the game where you are continually killed by the creature and forced to repeat that same section multiple times. Nothing sucks the life out of horror faster than frustration.
Secondly, it’s difficult to predict what a player is going to do. A lot of times, a player will miss a scare because they weren’t looking in the right place at the right time. Developers can use certain tricks such as lighting to draw a player’s eye to a specific spot, but even then it’s not guaranteed will look there when the scare happens. Even good horror games occasionally wrench control away from the player in order to keep them focused on a particular scary moment. This can backfire and annoy the player more than actually evoking any sort of fear response.
No medium is explicitly better than the other at crafting horror stories and scary moments. Instead, I prefer to see them as providing different lenses to view the genre through. I will definitely say that I consider horror movies to be the weakest of the three, but that’s more because of the multi-million dollar industry influencing what movies do and don’t get made. In terms of potential I think all three mediums have great power. It just takes the right mind to tap into it.
Thanks for reading! Check back next week for another spooky post, and have a wonderful week!