What makes good Horror? These past weeks, recording playthroughs with my good friend John Heatz and the 1001-Up crew, I’ve wondered about that, and I found the answer in Romance, Seduction and Sex; their principles and that of horror are similar, they just seek different outcomes; though interestingly enough, the physical side of them are astoundingly similar.
Atmosphere: A candle-lit dinner with music is a staple of romance, as is a picnic under the stars, be it on a beach, a meadow or even by a lake. These settings are meant to ignite the passion between the participants, to bring them closer to each other and prepare them for a moment of intimacy. For romance, atmosphere is everything, as the little details can enhance the experience, or derail it entirely, no matter how many good or bad intentions people might have.
For Horror, atmosphere is just as fundamental, and good Horror, true Terror, will make sure to capture you with it, to embrace and envelop you, leaving you no way out, but urging you to move on, to take its hand and let it show you all the surprises it’s prepared for you. Take the candle-lit dinner, Horror enjoys candle-lit evenings just as much as Romance does, but it shifts the little details. He doesn’t want you hot, but he does want you shivering…and ready. Horror will give you music, but a distorted tune meant to put your nerves on edge. If you are by the lake, then Horror will give you a dark pool of water, still as death but with the occasional and inexplicable ripple. And the stars? Horror, and you, have no need for stars. Utter darkness will do just fine.
Atmosphere, for Horror, will make or break what it intends to do with you. If Horror doesn’t manage a good atmosphere for your liaison, then no matter what tricks it has up its sleeve, it won’t work. But if he does, then your date can move on to the next and far more exciting stages.
Foreplay: Horror’s foreplay is meant to prepare you, just not in a comforting or a loving way. A scream in the distance, the howling wind, flickering lights that reveal a shadow, a door closing by itself, a whisper in your ear, a recording explaining how things went bad and how bad they went; each of these, and many more, are Horror’s tender caresses, each sending a chill down your spine and a shiver through your body, meant to build up, to bring you closer to the edge, to the breaking point. At this point, Horror doesn’t want you to scream. No, it’s too early for that, but it wants you ready for it, to moan and beg and even squeal for a moment.
It wants to break your defenses, one by one, leaving you at its mercy.
When it’s done with you, Horror will have left you sweating and panting, with your heart beating faster, and then, you’ll be ready for…
The Climax: This is the first encounter, the first moment you come face to face with one of the many moments Horror will have planned for you. It’s the first time you see the monster, or come across the first truly ghastly scene, that first maddening moment. At this point, you will undoubtedly and inevitably scream, the higher your pitch, the better Horror will have done its job.
The Climax doesn’t last long, the event itself taking a few seconds, never more than a minute, but while it’s happening, you’ll scream, and pant harder, and you heart will race, and when it passes, you are left sweating coldly, short of breath and trying to calm yourself down.
At this point, Horror will give you the chance to recover, for a minute or two, enough time to smoke a cigarette, if that’s your inclination.
True Horror, the good Horror, like a good Lover, will then repeat the sequence with practiced ease, making sure you never build up a resistance or numb to the scares it’ll bring you. Little horror, the bad one, the inexperienced one, will try with all its might to bring you back to that moment of climax, but for one reason or another, it will fail. The worst kind will never even deliver that first moment.
There are many horror games and films, but most have some performance issues in terms of bringing the Horror Climax about, and I’ll go through some of them. Do consider that, these games not reaching the level of Good Horror, does not mean the games are bad. In fact, some of the most disappointing of them are excellent games in broad terms.
Generally speaking, Survival Horrors fail at True Horror because of their overreliance on Jump Scares or mini-Climaxes without any foreplay, sometimes without even the proper atmosphere, depending on the “Fear of Death” to provide the tension. Sadly, in most of them, there comes a point where your arsenal makes you the top of the food chain, evaporating the game’s scare-potential. The Resident Evil series suffers from this, with Resident Evil 4 having the best performance, as disappointing as it is.
Having said that, there are Survival Horror games that make enough of an effort with the steps above to come close to being Good Horror, and a few of them actually achieving a Mastery of Scares.
Silent Hill 2, lauded as the best of the series by many, comes close to being good horror by way of its oppressive atmosphere and hideous creature design, as well as the psychological elements it brings to the table, changing elements of the story based on your actions. The character’s general unwieldiness and marionette-like movement further enhances the tension, as you are never quite good enough to survive with confidence. Sadly, it doesn’t reach perfection, as atmosphere is the only thing it has going for it, being rather clumsy at foreplay and fumbling most climax opportunities it’s given.
Dead Space 1 & 2 and System Shock 2 have the same problem, with a fantastic and chilling atmosphere on a derelict spacecraft; Sci-fi horror’s pièce de resistance.
Sometimes, they manage some moderate foreplay, but then fumble the Climax by repeated use of spawn locations for monsters, or becoming too predictable, effectively taking the surprise away and numbing you to whatever it had planned for your evening.
The Clive Barker Games, Undying and Jericho, have another problem, theirs being putting all their efforts into building that first chilling Climax, with the perfect atmosphere and masterful foreplay, but then seemingly losing all interest in keep doing it. It becomes a Lazy Horror, content with having giving you one Climax instead of working to give you plenty more.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem come the closest, among survival horrors, to being true and good horror with their use of sanity, hallucinations and overall manipulation of your perception, and between the two of them Eternal Darkness does the better job, carrying it on up until the final confrontation with Pious Augustus; though if the sanity effects get overused, the player will be left numb to future occurrences. The more goofy sanity effects ruin the effort however, undoing whatever stimulation the game had achieved. Dark Corners on the other hand, loses most of its horror appeal once you sufficiently armed; and once you are shooting at Dagon from a military vessel, there’s not much horror to speak of left in the game.
Then there are those that while technically being Survival Horrors, focus more on the scares and not on the confrontation, even if you are capable of fighting off the threats. There are 3 prime examples in this category: Outlast, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Fatal Frame.
Amnesia & Outlast share the same principles, in that most of the tension comes from your helplessness, forcing you to run and hide, and making your adrenaline surge from the smallest stimuli, which serves to mask the lack of depth and vigor of their horror-making. Take all the small cinematic moments in Outlast, instead of enhancing the scares, or working you over with some foreplay, they manage to lose all the tension and buildup from minutes before, because you know that as long as you are not holding your camera and are capable of moving, you are safe. Amnesia on the other hand is far more effective than Outlast by way of its sanity mechanic, which constantly forces you forward, as being in the light is a bad idea when monsters are around, and staying in the darkness will drive you mad. Sadly, for Amnesia, it keeps bringing the same game, no variation or ingenuity and by the second half, you are already numb to its touch and deft at avoiding the creatures prowling the castle.
But before you conquer the fear because of their clumsiness, the atmosphere, foreplay and climaxes are spot on…too bad they couldn’t hold on until the end.
Fatal Frame, among horror games is the Master Class, showing that the Japanese are the best at making people scream. It does everything right, with a chilling atmosphere and one of horror’s classic settings: A Haunted House, more specifically, An Abandoned, Worn Down, Haunted House. The creaking floorboards and shuffling sliding doors and the ghastly rooms all keep you on your toes, breathing heavily, your eyes darting everywhere as chills run down your spine constantly, the game touching all the right spots for the entire experience, and never letting you get used to it by pulling the rug from under you more than once to keep you from getting too confident, such as changing the entire house from one night to the next, or escalating the threat level at various points, forcing you to retreat if you were getting too comfortable in your ghost-busting.
This is a game where at no point are you not scared, and it deserves the highest honours and praise for that.
On the film side, there are perhaps too many Horror Films to look at them all, so let us take a look at some recent horror endeavours, and some older classics, and see how gentle or deft their touch was on us.
Evil Dead, the remake of the 80s low-budget cult film that spawned the famous horror-comedy (an oxymoron if there ever was one) Army of Darkness, does a pretty good job and is one of this year’s strongest performers, with an eerie atmosphere and powerful foreplay moments and some very fast coming climaxes, though it depends a bit too much on the shock factor with its graphic violence, in some cases turning fear into disgust.
The Conjuring is, as someone I know put it, “a foreplay master that prematurely ejaculates all over you just as you get to the good part”. The Conjuring starts off very well, with one of the best “haunted house” settings ever seen in film, and an icy-grip atmosphere and masterful foreplay building up to that first powerful Climax with the ghost on top of the wardrobe. But then, the Warrens arrive and quickly proceed to explain everything, and immediately the film loses all its momentum, and not even its jump-scare moments manage to bring you back into its arms.
The Exorcist and The Omen, deserve special mention, as they are (or were) especially effective, not so much because of their use of foreplay and climax building, or even atmosphere, which in both cases isn’t constant; but because they knew what their society’s limits were, what sort of topics were taboo, what sort of imagery made people recoil, and delivered them in spades.
The Exorcist takes a normal family setting, mother and daughter, and turns it upside down and shocks you from start to finish. It takes perilous amounts of downtime from the scares but the shock-inducing imagery and language that follows brought people over the edge over and over again. It was a horror film for a more civilized time, a time before society grew numb of the types of scares it provided.
The Omen does something similar but also plays with the image of Innocence, forcing you, as the audience to accept that the small child, Damian, is the most evil thing in the entire film. The atmosphere is terrible, and ever changing, and there’s hardly any preparation or foreplay, but instead it turns family life, and normality, on its head at every point. The use of Gregorian Choirs throughout the film make the scary moments much more powerful, though they are double-edged swords, because once you realize they only play during scary moments, they become entirely predictable.
Changes in atmosphere, starting at a normal, happy life setting and suddenly spiraling down into a despair-ridden world, are what made the original Nightmare on Elm Street so effective. Each night also served as heavy foreplay as you never knew if someone was sleeping or awake, if the threat was real or imaginary, and when you did, it played with your expectations, stretching out the kills or making them sudden, and never letting you get used to Freddy’s pace. Sadly, the moment Freddy is pulled out and into the real world and is shown to hurt, to feel pain, the film loses all hope of finishing with force.
There is one film I will always fear in my heart, one film from which a single line in Latin, “Liberate Tuteme ex-inferis” is enough to bring back memories and send chills down my spine. Event Horizon. I find this film to be one of the best in terms of seducing you into screaming fits. The derelict space ship has a terrifying atmosphere, the hallucinations and shifting shadows and horrifying video logs all work you over, making the expectation for what comes next almost unbearable, but you’re never ready when it does happen. And it doesn’t stop there, the film continues on doing its work with such masterful effectiveness it keeps taking you with the same if not greater force. It is a truly horrifying film.
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into how good horror is made and what some of its techniques are for deriving pleasure from your fear. If there are more films or games you wish to see measured, from Horror’s eyes, please let me know in the comments.
Special thanks go out to V for proofreading and editing this piece, I couldn’t have done it without her!! You can check her impeccable writing skills on her verbose blog The Verbal Spew Review