Series Info...Building Stories, Telling Games #31:

Exploring Genres: Horror, Part 2 — Fear Itself

by Travis S. Casey
April 12, 2002

Last time in this column, I talked about the genre of horror, and how it's about fear. The column was mostly about how we can't really feel afraid for a character unless we feel some sort of attachment to that character.

Once you have that attachment, though, what then? Well, the time has come to talk of fear. What makes you afraid? When you wake in the dark of night, clutching the covers about you, what is it that you hope not to see?

There are all the standard monsters, of course — vampires, werewolves, zombies, and such. But it's hard to scare gamers with those, when they've spent so much time hunting down those same sorts of monsters in fantasy games, and even in some games that bill themselves as horror. You can't really be afraid of something that isn't a threat.

You can, of course, go bigger and badder — tougher monsters, more monsters, etc. But that's the same direction that fantasy games take as well, giving more and tougher monsters as characters get more powerful. The players all but expect that — and what's known isn't frightening.

So let's take a step back for a moment and ask ourselves — what scares us? Stephen King writes in his wonderful book Danse Macabre that horror takes us back to being children — to when we were huddled in our beds, afraid of what might be lurking in the closet. Or even under that seemingly warm, safe bed. Our childhood fears are always with us; they're wired into us on a genetic level, built into us by nature to keep us from wandering too far from the safety of the cave, out into the dark where bears and tigers and other predators lurk. Few of us live in places with those things any more, but those instincts are still there — and we'll always be afraid of those things on some level, simply because that's the way we're made.

So what are those childhood fears?

  • Darkness. There aren't many people who don't feel a bit uneasy in the dark — and there's quite a few for whom it's simply terrifying. We can't really immerse players in an online game in the darkness, though — they're sitting at a computer somewhere. It's even worse in a text game, where you can't even directly portray darkness around the character — the most you can do is alter the descriptions of things.

    If you stop and think about it, though, it's not the darkness itself that people fear. It's not being able to see; not knowing what might be there, next to you, only inches away, listening to your breath, waiting for you to fall asleep, or to step out where it can reach you. Fear of darkness is the fear of lack of knowledge, of failing perception. And that we can work with online, even in text:

    It's dark here. You hear something breathing, and something smells like a dog here. Up ahead, you see a black shape that seems to be moving, but you're not sure.

  • Monsters. We've already talked about why monsters don't always work very well themselves, but let's take a moment to think about what monsters represent to a child. We could go off on various psychoanalytic paths, but I think it boils down to simple vulnerability. Children know that there are a lot of things out there that could hurt them. They may not understand it on an intellectual level, but on a basic, genetic level, they know. Monsters represent that vulnerability.

    And for both adults and children, one thing that makes us feel vulnerable is a lack of control. Statistically, we're told, flying in an airplane is safer than driving a car — but a lot more people are afraid of flying than are afraid of driving. Why? Because of lack of control. Driving a car, you have at least the illusion of being in control of what happens to you; in a plane, all you can do is hope that the people at the controls know what they're doing... and the mechanics who fix the plane, and... Well, you get the point.

    In an online game, you have to be careful about this. It's easy to take the players out of control — run them through a railroad, with no input or with their inputs being meaningless. Do too much of that, though, and the players will just leave. To frighten players, you need to take control away in little bits, just long enough to give them a scare, then give it back before it gets too annoying. It's a fine balancing act, and I recommend that anyone trying it be careful, and get some playtesters who will really tell you what they feel about the game.

We can bring almost all the themes of horror back to these two things — lack of knowledge and vulnerability. Consider the subgenre of conspiracy, as in the X-Files — it comes down to lack of knowledge (of what's really going on around us) and vulnerability (to Whomever's really running the show). The subgenre of "personal horror" as done in White Wolf's Vampire and Werewolf role-playing games, is about lack of control — lack of the ability to control yourself.

I mentioned Stephen King's book Danse Macabre above. In it, King talks about a couple of other things people fear — and one of those is what he calls The Bad Death. We're all afraid of death (which, I think, goes back again to lack of knowledge and lack of control — who really knows what death will bring? And who can really control when and how they will die?), but we're more afraid of some deaths than others. People say, "When I go, I want to..." — and none of them say, "... be eaten by zombies." Or, "... be chopped up by a madman."

To close out my thoughts on horror, I'd like to say that I think horror can serve two purposes: one is a catharsis — to come through something that scares us, and have things come out "all right" in the end. The other is to show us a vision of how bad things could be — to let us think, "You know, this isn't so bad after all."

Questions for the loyal (?) readers out there: How did you like this pair of columns, compared to the previous "Exploring Genres" columns? Is this approach better than trying to run down subgenres? Worse? Please let me know what you think, either in the forums, or by private email at Thanks!

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