Horror & Hope

I wrote this article on my old LiveJournal a couple years back. I want to talk about it some more this week, so this Monday post will be reposting & editing that old article.


We’re awash in a sea of horror media in month. In an age of slasher flicks and tributes to the triplet gods of Gratuity, Shock Value & Special Effects, I feel that some people have lost sight of what something means to be “horror.”

I’m not particularly interested in the tropes & trappings of horror these days. Things like werewolves, gushing blood, creepy houses, etc., bore the hell out of me. It’s the themes of horror that turn my crank. Naked of the genre trappings, you could say it’s about fear. After all, characters in horror media are often afraid, and we as media consumers are often afraid for them.

But fear alone lacks meaning. I’m afraid of spiders–but my life, even a YouTube moment where I’m locked in a room with a tarantula (and if you try that, I will cane you), isn’t horror. In fact, it’s closer to dark comedy than anything else, very much schadenfreude.

So how does fear become something with meaning? When you couple it with hope. The core of a horror story is the turbulence of hope. And it’s not just character hope, but hope being built up in the media consumer.

The reason that my being scared of spiders isn’t horror (for anyone other than me, jesus man) is because there’s no hope displayed or at risk for the consumer of that that media. The reason that zombies trying to get to the characters in Night of the Living Dead is horror is because hope has built up and is being threatened.

Hope is not an instantaneous thing to ask of a media consumer. To build up a reader/viewer’s sense of hope, we have to see the character express two things:
(1) a sense of the character’s relationship to the world outside of an immediate crisis situation;
and (2) a sense that investing hope in a character would pay off if they survive.

Furthermore, you need two more elements to make it horror:
(3) a sense that the risk to the characters, and thus to your hope for them, is real and in a manner that is irrevocable;
and (4) for that risk to be somehow alien or mysterious, and thus be unpredictable

Let’s look at #1. Now, if you just start off a movie with a gruesome murder of a teenage couple necking on Secluded Murder Point, that isn’t something we’ve invested hope in. Hell, we’re probably expecting them to die. In a vacuum, that’s not horror, it’s just a snuff film. But, as an opener to a film, it establishes the sense of risk, the threat to our hope for these characters,especially if the early victims resemble our main characters. (And if they don’t, the filmmaker is fucking it up.)

To really get a sense of hope, we need to see the main characters interact outside of the crisis. In some films, you see that interaction in the first act, before the Threat has been presented as targeting the main characters. Other files, like The Cube, the threat is immediately dangled in front of us. Still, even though the characters start off in the crisis, there’s time for interactions with one another that we learn about them and are able to hook into hoping for them.

Which is to say: downbeats are way crucial for a horror story. (Of course, you could just read Hamlet’s Hit Points for a fantastic education on the subject.)

With #2, we need a sense that hoping for these people will pay off if they survive. This is where I see the biggest problem with some people who build games that focus on party death as the absolute end-state. If, going in, you know that all the characters are going to die, then you’ve completely cut the balls out from the sense that hope will pay off. If the characters are destined to die, it’s more akin to tragedy than horror.

That is, you have if the most important thing from a hope perspective is survival. On the other hand, if you know that a character going to die, you can re-shift back to horror by investing hope in them achieving something important before they do. (Or, to give some Lovecraft love out, hope they can achieve this before they go mad–the mental equivalent of death.)

(Aside: once you’ve seen a story, you know which characters are destined to die. Why then can you re-watch/re-read a horror story? Because of emotional memories attached to horror beats in it — because you know what’s coming, you can slightly re-experience it. But, it isn’t the same. However, that doesn’t turn it into a tragedy, because no one is building into the framework upfront that specific or all characters are fated to die.)

Now, the modern American horror movie makes the hope focused on survival, and my language shows that, but that needs not be the case. Indeed, hoping that you can do some good before you go insane or turn into a monster hope enough for horror. (My language also shows a bias towards film.)

That said, the most important part of #2 is that you have to want the hope to be justified. Some characters are set up as clear victims early on, that aren’t worth investing hope. When they die early, they tend to do so in order to serve point #3. (Though, when they don’t, that downbeat gives them a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of the audience, potentially creating a powerful sense of hope as guilt for wanting them to die or at least not caring is mixed in.)

I should make it clear that we don’t have to hope for what the character is hoping for. The classic B-movie T&A horror flick actually works on this–what the viewer is hoping for is to see topless the hot girl who is shy about taking her clothes off, and, well, to see it again. When they’re Threatened, our hopes for that (or for that again) is risked. Granted, this is actually a very low hope because the characters are being objectified rather than sympathized, but I think it’s important to note the distinction between character hope & consumer hope, and that it’s consumer hope that matters.

Of course, we can also hope *for* the demise of a character, and this sometimes works as well, especially when that hope isn’t fulfilled immediately because the character survives — but in this case, the hope continues to exist…until we’re made to feel guilty for it as I mention above.

Anyway…so we have downtime to invest hope in characters and justification that the hope will be worthwhile when paid off. And #3 has been mentioned–a need to see that the risk to the characters is real. Otherwise, we actually don’t need to hope very much, as instead we assume.

(#4 is something worth talking about in another post, because it’s the thing that separates horror from romance.)

In a sense, that’s another reason why the YouTube video with me threatened by a spider is not horror — we don’t know what’ll happen if I’m bit. But in Arachnaphobia (man the fuck alive I hate that film), we see what the spiders do to people. The sense of Threat is very real, which is the bit of magic required to make hope matter.

So, here’s the interesting part: by hoping, we’re actually doing something engaging with the work even though it can’t respond to us. Our hope for a broader thing, like “I hope the brother and sister survive” turns laser-focused with each scene and its immediate Threat, like “I hope that the sister doesn’t stop to investigate the noise she just heard!” Or, to call upon that classic stereotype, “Girl, get out of the house!” Yes, that classic stereotype of that dude yelling at the movie screen is a very clear example of this engagement at work.

Consider: even if you’re not yelling it, you’re at least definitely thinking it.

And that’s important, because it’s those little hopes being rewarded or crushed that make horror a roller-coaster ride. When it’s crushed, that’s both a disappointment and a relief, because you no longer have to continue putting your emotional energy into that hope. On the other hand, hope can string you along for scene after scene, and trick you right at the end. (Remember the part in Deep Blue Sea when Samuel L. Jackson’s character started to get his dramatic, inspiring speech on, only to be very quickly and unceremoniously killed by the shark from out of nowhere? That’s a dramatic example of this happening–admittedly not from a great movie, but that’s my go-to example. Deal.)

Spurned hope can turn into a lot of other things, like anger (“Motherfucking shark!”) or bargaining (“Okay, well, they can’t really kill any more characters, can they?”). But the problem is that, if the writer isn’t careful, they’ll spurn hope too often, which leaves us with the double-edged sword of the horror genre: it requires the threat of hope to work, but if that hope is threatened too often or taken too much, then the consumer stops putting energy into hoping and the emotional payoff of the story is lost.

That’s all for now. My plan for the rest of this week, should I choose to accept it, is to write about how hope in horror is injected in our games. (I may also talk about how cheap and weaksauce action horror is in gaming, because, hey, soap box.)

– Ryan