Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Discussion on Horror: Tom Scares Himself Silly for your Amusement

I hate all of you.

You all could have gotten a post about something really cool like kids whose parents decided to not give them a gender or about how I don't think Racism will ever truly go away, but no. No, you wanted to get a video documenting me scaring the poop out of myself. Of course you do. Really, I expected better.

And Tom.

But you did it. Well over half of you voted to hear a discussion about Horror and I get the feeling that most of you just wanted to hear me freak out on camera. Which I did. Thanks.Very little sleep was had Monday evening and as I type this, the hour and a half master track is 11.4% rendered. Once it's done I'll split it up into digestible chunks (probably about twenty minutes or so) and I'll post a link complete with a highlights reel embedded directly into this page. I'm going to put this in big bold text so none of you miss it:


The videos will probably be up some time later today/tomorrow, based on what I vaguely remember about YouTube's posting process.  Well that took forever.

In news totally unrelated to this, do you remember a few posts back when I was all "Hey guys, I'm helping launch a Minecraft server!" Well it's totally about to happen! We're nailing down some of the last few details (How towns are going to work, final plugin checks, final draft of the rules, where worldspawn should be, etc.) but as soon as we do that, we're totally launching that shit! WOO! I don't know if any of my readership actually plays Minecraft, but if any of you do and are interested, shoot me an email and I'll be sure to direct you specifically to the forum as soon as that's up so you can get whitelisted. 

I think that's all the business I have aside from you can expect one or two Bonus Posts in the near future based on essays I'm currently writing/revising. That's exciting. Don't expect anything super soon, but definitely before semester's end.

Now then, on to the show.

A Discussion of Horror
Tom Scares Himself Silly for your Amusement

Before we can do anything on this subject, we have to ask ourselves "What is fear?" Everyone knows fear; it's one of those basic, elementary emotions that we've felt almost since life began. So long as we've had eyes that see the dark, ears that hear the bumps, and skin that feels the tingles, we've known fear, but what makes fear up? More importantly what have the masters of fear in literature, film, and most recently videogames done to manipulate our fear to such a delicate degree? Make no mistake, gentle readers, there is a science to scaring, it's surprisingly well-developed, and that should scare you even more.

Crash! Lightning! Horse whinny!

On a biological level, fear is an extension of what is called the "Fight or Flight" reaction, or your body's way of  putting on some sunglasses and saying "Let's do this." Essentially, when something perceptibly dangerous happens, your brain floods everything with buckets of adrenaline and very quickly makes a judgement call on whether this is something you can stand toe to toe with or whether it's something you should run away from very very quickly. Once the decision's been made, your body reacts accordingly by spending all that new adrenaline in the appropriate way (kicking ass or running away, respectively) and afterwards, assuming you lived, it rewards your survival with some happy juice. Basically evolution's way of saying "Hey, great job on doing your part to preserve the species. Have some drugs."

Remember that last step, the happy juice step, it's important.

The actual fear comes in mainly during the flight phase of this interaction, but can also be found briefly in the pre-reaction stages while your brain is still figuring out what the hell is going on and is it dangerous, especially if what's scaring you is well-crafted.

So what actually makes horror so horrific? A lot of it actually has to deal with the unknown and humanity's almost pathological need to reveal it. The unfamiliar makes us uncomfortable, especially when the bits of it that've been revealed to us already don't paint a pretty picture. Any good horror experience will play on, and actively with, this by making this unknown thing clearly hostile, by making sure you know that the more you reveal, the worse it's going to get, but by also making the revealing of this so compelling that hopefully, knowing the whole picture will make things better. Think about The Blair Witch Project; how masterful was it at keeping all of the answers just out of reach? How much did it make you feel like faster than you were closing in on answers, the faster they were closing in on you? This was a film that was widely regarded as a complete success as horror and you end the movie knowing only a little more than what you started out knowing.

Another popular outlet for fear is taking the well known, even ostensibly friendly, and revealing a darker side of it.  Consider for a moment, some of the more popular horror tropes; Evil doctors, demonic clowns, corruption of the nuclear family. Consider their real-life counterparts; Doctors exist to help you stay healthy, a clown's entire job is to make you laugh, and a family bond is often a strong, emotional anchor which we base our lives around. So why have these been turned into some of the most popular things-which-are-scary? Because it takes what is known and implies that it is, in fact, unknown. It allows you to develop and then cultivates a paranoia that nothing is as it seems, that you can't trust anything, that you are never safe. The reason this particular variety of scary is so popular is that it both establishes that all important  "Dark Unknown" to act as the central point of your fear and comes with the sense of enveloping dread that is so all-important to developing a good horror experience overall. You want an example? Of course you want an example. Here's an example.

This picture is not scary, but it is very unsettling. Let's break down why. First of all, much about it is hidden or obscured. Much of the background is unintelligible, dark, and uncertain which leads you to more closely examine what you can see and if you do, you'll discover that it looks to be a pretty normal suburban house. Depending on your living situation, it could very possibly be a house like yours. If you look at the subject itself, much is obscured in a similar way and what is familiar still has a couple of touches which make it still "Not quite right." For starters, the makeup plus the dark lights obfuscates gender which can be unsettling for a whole host of reasons. The most unsettling things about this picture are the context-specific details though; Why is this person wearing makeup? It was obviously applied for a purpose, but for what?. Why is this person holding candles as opposed to using the lights? Why is the expression on the person's face wild and expectant? You may notice that these are all questions which no amount of examination can answer and that's the point. Scary stuff is scary because we don't know and scarier than not knowing is realizing we only thought we knew. This picture takes some common things, candles, makeup, a house, a person, and combines them into something not quite right and without explanation.

And there's a reason why filling horror with so many unknown variables is such a successful formula; horror is cathartic. For those of you not in the know, a brief explanation. Catharsis was a thing thought up during the era of Greek Tragedies which revolved around giving people an emotional outlet when their life didn't have one for them. Playwrights like Sophocles wrote about sad stories which people could relate to and use to help work through their own tragedies, large and small. There's actually a lot more to it, and the concept has developed a lot over the years, but that's the gist. Horror works in a similar way though; by allowing so many gaps to exist, the story forces us to insert the darker pieces of ourselves into it and, by extension, as we are wrestling with experiencing the story as it's presented, we're wrestling with ourselves. That's part of why horror tries so hard to hit close to home, so you can relate to it, insert yourself, and become closer with the material. Additionally, once you're there, you're a lot easier to scare which results in more happy juices. 

She just played Amnesia.

So now you know a little bit about the mechanics and about what actually scares us, what are the components of horror? If you know anything about a basic story structure, every (good) story ever has at least a few rudimentary parts; an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and epilogue. A good story is an emotional roller coaster, taking this path up and down several times in smaller versions over the course of the narrative. Structurally, horror is much the same, only with pants-wetting terror in place of literary devices and symbolism.

In this picture, I am the Chihuahua.

Any good bit of horror starts with a sense of dread. Something about the setting or the foreshadowing that might illicit discomfort by itself like a hospital, an abandoned building, or just anywhere which seems unfamiliar and unfriendly. This is horror's exposition; it's preparing you to be scared, setting up the scary context, and filling you with dread. This sounds like a simple step, but you'd be surprised how many horror movies or games mess this up. Setting will make or break a horror experience. This can very often happen in the process of trying to defy your expectations as described above. Sometimes the transition isn't perfect and something that was supposed to come off as sublimely scary is really just kinda stupid or even goofy, like the entire plot of Quarantine. 

Terrorists set up in a tenement building and somehow develop a particularly awful strain of rabies which actually goes so far as to mutate the infected and of course gets loose and kills everyone and you're supposed to figure all of this out in a half-second pan over some news clippings. Seriously, fuck that movie.

After that, horror moves on to its rising action. We've established that something is off and things crank up from unsettling to distinctly hostile. Horror is actually kind of unique in the sense that, both in the case of individual scares and the movie/game/book as a whole, it spends way more time here than almost any other genre. Horror will do anything it can to keep you suspended for as long as possible, even if that means retarding the structure back to the exposition again. This is the part where stuff starts disappearing, moving, or rattling, when the characters are stupidly going into that room that you just know has a serial killer inside of it. You feel like you're progressing through the story, peeling back the layers of the unknown, of yourself, from the narrative. 

Finally, we get to the exposition. In the smaller context of the individual scare, this is your "Holy shit!" moment. In the larger context of the narrative, this is the "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit" moment. This is when everything that's going to be revealed either already has been or is being opened up right now. Ideally, this is when the experience is at its most hostile, as if you've uncovered its hiding place and it'll only come out kicking and screaming. In the best horror narratives, this is when it feels like the unknown factor which you've spent all this time uncovering and inserting yourself into is actively gunning for you and you personally. 

After that...usually not much of anything. It's pretty common for horror to have little in the way of conclusion or resolution and part of that, I think, goes back to catharsis. The whole draw of it initially was an unknown which you could insert yourself, your fears and baser natures, into. The more you remove that and replace it with concrete, written story, the less room there is for you and so effectively, the less scary it is. Video games have run into this with the advent of high definition graphics. Everyone wants to render everything in such minute detail that all of the unknown disappears. There's nothing left for you to connect with and all you have left are cheap jump scares. This is actually a problem that I ran into personally with a game called Dead Space. Don't get me wrong, the first fifteen to twenty minutes or so are truly horrifying and I had to take a break. It's not long though before you figure out that if there's an air vent, a necromorph's probably going to come out of it at some point and once you learn to fight all of the different varieties of enemies, it devolves into an especially gory action game. I actually never finished it or even made it to the first boss fight (are there boss fights in Dead Space? I don't know!) not because I was so scared, but because I went in expecting to be scared and was utterly bored to death by the lack of being scared that was going on. 

I was going to punctuate how not scary Dead Space was with a clever picture of something failing to be scary and so typed "Not Scary" into google. Don't do that. You get the exact opposite of not scary. Now I'm too scared to try anything else.

So let's wrap this up with one last question; why do we seek to be scared? Well, I'm sure that personal reasons vary from person to person, but the basic biological mechanic is pretty much the same every time. Remember those happy juices you get at the conclusion of a fight or flight scenario? The ones your body pumps into you as a reward for surviving a scary situation? Those are endorphins and they rock. Generally, once people figure out how to trigger an endorphin reaction, they'll seek out the experience again, even if that means doing something scary. This is the same reason why we play sports and masturbate; it triggers an endorphin release that makes our brain happy. That's right. Fear masturbation. It's a thing. Really though, it's more like taking a toke off the fear joint. 

"Dude, that is some good fear. Where'd you get this shit?"

And that concludes a discussion of Horror. I hope you all learned something, even if it was just "Tom will do terrible things for page views" As always, if you found this interesting or know someone who you think will, please share it with everyone you know, and be sure to vote on next week's topic!

Now let me share a little bit of what my week's been like so far.

Don't scroll down.

You were warned.

Thank You, Goodnight.

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