|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #94:
The Elements of Good ScaryTelling, Part One: Haunting Themes
October 31, 2002 - Welcome, boils and ghouls, to the Hallowe'en '02 edition of Trials, Triumphs, and Trivialities. As you probably know, here at Skotos we're in the process of creating our first truly scary game: Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night. Thus I've decided to take this year's All Hallows' Eve as an excuse to begin a few weeks of discussion on horror.
Before I get started, let me offer credit where credit is due. My biggest source this time around was a panel on horror that occurred at this year's WorldCon. It's participants included Lee Killough, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, a few other panelists who's names didn't make it into my notes, and any number of audience members. I should also offer appropriate credit to Travis Casey, who wrote a few articles on horror game design early this year, and has thus no doubt influenced my own point of view. You can find them at: Building Stories, Telling Game #30, Exploring Genres: Horror and Building Stories, Telling Games #31, Horror, Part 2: Fear Itself. Finally, thanks also to my wife, Kimberly, who helped me fill out my list of common horror themes.
With that all said, let's get started.
So, You Want to Build a Horror Game...
Or perhaps you want to write a horror novel, shoot a horror movie, or draw a horror comic. My discussions this week and next should apply equally to all those mediums, because I plan to be approaching things mainly from the storyteller's point of view.
When creating horror, you need to, at core, make sure your creative work meets one important criteria: it must be scary.
That might silly and obvious, but the honest fact is that the line between what's scary and what's not isn't entirely obvious. Little girl walking to grandma's house? Not scary. Little girl walking to grandma's house through dark woods? Somewhat scary. Little girl walking to grandma's house through dark woods in which hungry wolf is lurking, unseen? Terrifying.
The difference, I think, is theme.
The Theme Lark
Theme is a crucial part of creating stories that wasn't discussed much either in Kimberly's original The Elements of Good StoryTelling or my own The Elements of Good Mythtelling. If you think back to high school English classes, theme was that boring topic the teacher pulled out when she was trying to get to the heart of what a story was really about.
Subtext. Meaning. Topic. Message.
Call it whatever you want, but theme of a story any story is about what's truly going on. In the Little Red Riding Hood example that I offered as an example above, the text or story is about a girl going to visit her Grandmother, and the obstacle that she encounters on the way, in form of a large, scary, possibly rapacious wolf. The subtext, or theme, is about death or loss of innocence. It's about hidden dangers in a safe place.
Themes can be described in any number of different ways. One of the common ones you might recall from high school English was the immortal man-versus conflicts, including:
Another source I've read says that themes illuminate the nature of humany, society, ethical responsibilities, and our own relationship to the world.
To a certain extent, all of these listings are hooey, as are the listings I'll include below specifically related to horror. Themes are unique and meaningful to individual stories, and thus it's very hard to compartmentalize and itemize them. To get to a theme of a creative work, you have to simply ask, what is this work really saying. But, that wouldn't lead to a very interesting article, so I'll do some compartmentalizing and itemizing today.
Marrying Text and Subtext
In order to truly make a theme work, you need to marry text (the story) and subtext (the theme). That is, you need to figure out what your bite-sized theme is, and then figure out how to tell a story that looks at that theme from several different points of view.
I think the formulaic dramas that proliferate on television today portray this idea to its clearest (though perhaps worst) advantage. An individual episode's theme for, say, Felicity's Creek might be "the dangers of losing yourself in a relationship" (the subtext). So we end up with A, B, and C plots (for a better definition of which see, Thinking Virtually #24, Episodic Plots, Part One: Television) which each illuminate that plot in different ways. In Plot A, Felicity and Dawson are newly in love and ignoring all their other friends; in plot B, Joey and Ben are breaking up because each feels like they've lost their own individuality, and in plot C, Sean and Jack are enjoying their newfound relationship, and mocking the problems of their friends, not realizing that they're falling into a more subtle version of the same trap.
Trite? Yeah. When you start off with trite themes, and pair them up with trite plots, you end up with a trite marriage. On the other hand if you choose meaningful themes and pair them up with meaningful plots... well, then you do your High School English teachers proud. Television's The Prisoner, for example, offers a superb example of themes of alienation and societal repression and pairs them up with plots of trying to escape a repressive society to very good effect.
But Weren't You Supposed to Be Talking About Horror?
Yeah, I was, but there was a bit of groundwork to go through because I haven't really discussed theme before. But, finally, we're here.
If anything, the importance of matching up text and subtext is more important in horror than in any other genre. Sure we might feel some fear from a story when we've come to strongly identify with a character and where we think something bad will happen to that character. But to really appeal to a sense of fear you need to scare a reader/player/viewer for himself, not for the sake of some imaginary friend running through the pages of your book, the panels of your comic, or the bits of your computer. And you do that by introducing strong themes that the reader himself finds horrifying, then connect those up with the action of your story.
As I said before, it's meaningless to try and codify all themes into neat little groups, because they can be about anything. But I can offer some of the themes which are common in horror literature, with examples.
A Nod to Howard Lovecraft
As I said at the start of this article, one of the reasons I'm thinking about horror is because we're developing a game of Lovecraftian horror called Arkham by Night. It's thus fitting, I think, to take a moment to look at the subtext within Lovecraft's own stories.
The theme that Lovecraft hit most commonly was, I think, the Fear of the Unknown. He was sitting on the cusp of the scientific revolution, and he was both intelligent and well educated enough to understand what that meant. Thus, he created a universe full of unfathomable alien beings that we could not see or comprehend. Lovecraft was also, sadly, as racist as any in his time. In pieces such as "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" you can thus see a Fear of the Alien.
I think those two, the fears of the unknown and the alien, are the strongest themes in Lovecraft's corpus of works, though in individual pieces you could find other themes a plenty, involving changing into scaly monsters (Fear of Change, of Lack of Control), being taken over by ancient wizards or witches (Fear of Loss of Self), or finding corruption hidden beneath the normal (Fear of Destruction of Normalcy).
A good horror writer doesn't have just one trick.
Conclusions & Onward
In closing this week I'd simply say this: to write good horror games/novels/stories/comics/whatever, you need to more clearly delineate your themes that you'd have to in just about any other genre. Look at my list, but also consider the many other things that people might be afraid of. Then, move forward from there, creating text (plot, character, etc.) that mirrors that subtext in meaningful, non-blatant ways.
Next week I'm going to approach the whole horror genre from a different angle, by looking at what monstrous archetypes tend to fill it. We'll see the themes from today reflected, hopefully in interesting ways.
I'll see you in 7.