Thursday, January 4, 2018

Horror is a Living Thing

"The kids'll love it! The kids fucking love Slenderman!"
- a Sony executive between cocaine binges

(I started watching season 2 of Stranger Things last week. This post has nothing to do with the content of that show, but it is inspired by it. And by the fact that there's a Slenderman movie coming out nigh on a decade after the character first appeared and certainly after it's been run into the ground.)

Horror is dynamic. It has to be, in order to frighten us - there has to be some sort of violation of the status quo, some toppling of our constructions of how the world around us works, some transgression of what we know or think we know. The placid world is shattered by something that ought not be so, and we are no longer safe.

All fine and good.

But the world is not static. Time passes. People adapt. Events occurring cause other events to occur.

For the purposes of a single horror story, this isn't an issue. The narrative is only dealing with the initial event and its immediate aftermath.

But if the scope is broadened (by the development of a larger mythos or an interminable string of sequel films, for example) we can run into a problem: time is passing, and nothing is changing. All the monsters are named and known, but we still linger on the moment of impact. The horror element, introduced with such a complacency-shattering bang, is now left with nowhere to go. Actor and acted-upon go through the motions.

To an extent, I think this is inevitable. But just because horror (being the genre of sudden and terrible change) cannot remain horror, doesn't mean this has to have a negative outcome. If the scope of the work is wide enough that the ripple effects will come into play, I think it by far the better option to let the changes play out.

Now, in terms of game usage this schema can be used for just about anything that would constitute a dramatic, dangerous change: a Cthulhu cult, a certain school of magic, an invading army, coming home to find the dog writing WELCOME HOME HUMMAN on the wall in blood. You don't even have to start with stage 0 / 1, the horror could be at any point along its development and you have a built-in helping hand at both background and where things might be going.

0. Everything is Normal

The world is acting according to consensus. Our troubles are those we can wrap our heads around. Everything is working as it is supposed to.

1. Discovery

The status quo is shattered, an outside element is introduced. We have no idea how to respond. There is confusion and chaos, injury and death. We attempt to escape, our countermeasures are hurried and desperate. The greatest damage is done in this stage, and there is the highest chance of death.

There are occasions where survival of the discovery is the end of the path: the horror is a single instance, and either defeated or departing, it will not return. 

2. Engagement

Those of us who are able to survive the initial encounter with the horror, and those who engage after the initial event, are able to regroup and further engage with it. Ground rules will be falling into place at this point ("it's afraid of crosses", "it only comes out at night", etc.). There is evidence of what the horror is capable of. Expectations form, though at this stage they are incomplete and may lead to further danger.

The threat of being overpowered is still very much on the table at this stage. Engagement with the horror is still very dangerous.

3. Learning

Engagement and observation of the horror has allowed us to codify the base rules, expand upon them, and make hypotheses of potential properties. We know enough at this point that the horror can be treated, prevented, or the effects blunted. New information may be revealed that invalidates the previous stages, kicking us back to stage 1.

The horror may not be stoppable, but at this stage it will become a known factor.

4. Growing Pains

There is now enough understanding of the horror to begin experimentation with its principles. Primarily reactive action can now give way to active action. The primary danger of this stage is blind spots - properties unknown or poorly understood that allow the horror to once again break through our defenses.

5a. Integration

The horror is now understood well enough that it has been woven into the fabric of society. Any remaining danger is either distant or improbable.

5b. Equilibrium

The horror is effectively contained, separated from society at large. It cannot be mastered or integrated, but a balance between the horror and the world around it is manageable, and becomes the new status quo.

6. Mastery

The horror element is now so well understood that it can be replicated, modified, and built upon. Further threat would come from uses of the horror in unorthodox ways, rather than the horror itself.

The Pithy Example

0. Everything is fine, no xenomorphs around.
1. Currently being attacked by a xenomorph.
2. Realizing that the blood is acid, eggs are bad news, it's scared of fire and weak to bullets.
3. Can deal with xenomorph infestation with minimal casualties, bringing samples back to the lab.
4. Experimenting with breeding, taming, controlling xenomorphs, with predictable results.
5a. Domesticated xenomorphs used as guard animals, cereal mascots, and anime protagonists.
5b. Wild xenomorph populations are kept under control by specialists, livestock deaths are down.
6. We can create new xenomorphs, safely integrate xenomorph DNA into humans, uplift xenomorphs. Dangerous traits have been removed or significantly weakened.


  1. Frankly, they should be making some generic looking romantic comedy that slowly devolves into madness, revealing only in the final shot that the Slendy was there in the background the entire time.

  2. My dogs always welcome me when I get home! But they write in shit, and it's on the floor, and it doesn't spell anything.