You may have noticed I’ve been thinking about horror a lot lately. I don’t know if what I’m writing is a straight up horror novel, but the concept has gotten in my head, regardless. I find myself analyzing it over and over again, trying to figure what works, and why it works.
Horror hardly ever works on me as intended. My wife is something of a pansy, so I can’t often watch horror – even zombies, who aren’t so much horror any more, as they are fill-in chainsaw fodder. But for some reason, she’s all right with horror games. She actually enjoys watching me play them. We made it through the entirety of Resident Evil 4 together like that: Her internetting or knitting or interknitting while I mowed down thousands of ethnic stereotypes in the name of generic white guy justice.
Now I’m playing Dead Space 2, but I always wait until she’s around so we can go through it together. I’ve found something strange when she watches me play: The experience is actually, if not scaring me, then at least disconcerting me a bit. Even stranger because, although Dead Space 2 is well put together, it’s certainly no masterpiece. Lots of cheap jump scares, unrelated noises, repeating enemies. It’s not scaring me because of its content, but because of its audience.
Because she’s jumping, flinching, swearing and occasionally screaming — we’re talking a long, sustained fear-shriek that she made me promise to never tell anybody about — her behavior is influencing me. It gives me stakes. It’s triggering the protection matrix in my brain. I’m scared because my wife is here, and she’s scared, so I better get my shit together in case these necromorphs make it out of the TV.
I can play the same game by myself, in the dark, and nothing. It’s just a game. I’m jogging leisurely around space stations, casually mowing down undead aliens like it’s a nuisance. On my way to a meeting, necromorphs, no time to goof off today. But play it in the middle of the day in a well lit living room with my wife, and it’s a horror experience again.
That concept extends beyond gaming, too: I love horror movies. Seen more than I can count. But one hasn’t actually scared me, in the slightest, since the American remake of The Ring. That was an all right flick, yeah, but nothing outstanding. For raw, pale little kid terror, the Japanese version of The Grudge was way better.
So why did The Ring scare me? Because I watched it in a room full of friends – it was the last horror film I can remember that I viewed in a group scenario.
The group is scared.
You are a member of the group.
Protect the group!
The uncontrollable empathetic connection of a room full of friends augmented, if not outright created the fear scenario. I wonder what this says for horror books? I feel like they’re generally considered more effective in the genre than most other mediums. Horror books are widely perceived as scarier than horror movies or TV shows. But that’s all backwards, isn’t it? We can share every other media experience as it occurs except for books. We can watch movies together; we can play, or at least watch somebody else play, horror games together; we can go to an art gallery with friends and observe the works as a group. But reading books is a solitary experience. I suppose there are audiobooks and author readings — but that feels like different media than pure reading.
Somehow, in books, we recover the sensation of being lost in a strange and alien world, all alone. And it’s terrifying. But we don’t get quite as lost in games and movies. The fear response is weakened. We need the group, or some other raised stakes, to recover the experience.