Horror is hard. It can be amazing when it works, and laughably terrible when it doesn’t.
We’ve all read or watched (or in some cases played) horror that didn’t scare us. There are two main reasons why horror might not “work” 1) the horror is poorly executed or 2) the premise of what is terrifying about the horror is something you don’t personally fear.
It took me a long time to understand the second of those. It often gets mixed up with the first one, because it’s very easy to make crappy horror. I’d argue that it’s even easier to make crappy horror than it is many other genres of fiction, because the pacing and structure are so different from most of the fiction we produce in western culture. (If you want a quick primer on why some other cultures may find horror easier, this is an awesome article about Japanese story structure and how it meshes with horror.)
Culture aside, lots of people everywhere create badly made horror. It’s easy to think “oh this is just junk” when you run into something that doesn’t resonate for you. Sometimes that is what’s going on, and sometimes the horror is about things that other people fear, but you don’t. The burden is higher on how well horror has to be written to reach you when the fear it’s built on is not one you already understand.
And I don’t mean relatively simple fears like spiders. I mean things like types of body horror, certain kinds of social dangers, or internal psychological dangers that some people fear and others don’t, often because culture has or hasn’t reinforced how much they are personally at risk. A number of these fears are also taught to children as dangers along gender lines, which leads to a whole different realm of confusion in both understanding and feeling those sources of horror in stories.
A good example in the mainstream would be the Alien franchise of movies. They took a pretty good shot at taking the body horror of pregnancy and translating it so that people who can’t physically bear children will understand why it’s frightening. The monsters in Alien leverage the more common fears of things like pain, mutilation, and death to explain why carrying a child can be terrifying.
Another good example might be the Bluebeard’s Bride RPG which has been getting very promising reviews from male gamers. I haven’t yet played the game, but it seems to have translated a certain kind of feminine horror (to do with social and marital dangers and powerlessness) into something that resonates strongly for men as well as women.
These are the examples I think of first, because horror based on predominantly feminine fears is less common in our media, and these shine through as big achievements. There are also some interesting parallels to be drawn here with male specific fears and the horror that can come from them.
Please bear with me in this next bit, I grew up a girl, so some of this may be explained in a rather painfully slow way for people who understand these fears more viscerally.
There is a subset of American Christian culture that puts men in a very nasty position when it comes to sex and desire. The argument runs that men are weak and women are responsible for making sure that they are not tempted to impure thoughts or acts by dressing or acting immodestly. By contrast, people with this belief system do generally think that self control is a thing that humans can have, and it’s often expected of people far less mature than an adult man.
From the point of view of a woman that belief system is horrifying because it frames anything sexual that a man does with you as your fault, your sin, and the result of your actions, regardless of what happened. You are told that all men have the potential to be monsters, and if you can’t behave yourself, you can ruin not only your own life, but theirs as well.
The thing that I don’t think we consider quite as much is that from the point of view of a man in that belief system, it is even more horrible. Men are essentially essentially being told that they are inherently lustful with no hope of restraining themselves. If a woman arouses them, they are powerless to do anything to stop it. It’s all on the women in their life to make sure they don’t become monsters. The vast majority of men don’t use this as an excuse to prey on women (rather they just feel twisted up and super terrible about themselves), but it does explain the attitude of many conservatives in the US toward unsupervised contact between adult women and men. Because if a man is left alone with a woman who is not modest and good, what can he do? He’s clearly doomed to betray his principles and vows.
This is an extreme, but it’s an extreme that exists among a certain subculture of people. A less extreme version of this belief that “all men want is sex” is far more pervasive, and the fear that as a man you may not be in control when your genitals takes over your brain is something we teach boys in less extreme circumstances too. Not all men in the US are taught that by their parents, obviously, but a lot of them are exposed to that logic.
Why did I go on that digression into male sexual psychology in America?
Let’s go back to my teen and college years playing White Wolf’s World of Darkness (WoD) games.
I graduated from high school in 1999, which was the height of the era of explosive popularity growth for WoD and specifically the Mind’s Eye Theater LARPs set in WoD. I played quite a lot of Vampire and Changeling (and a little bit of several of the other WoD settings) during this time and it was relatively apparent to me that each of the World of Darkness games was centered on different horror themes. Each setting tried to explore different sorts of tragedies and fears.
The thing is, to me most of the settings seemed like only that: tragedies. They were super sad and terrible, but I failed to see the horror in them.
To be more specific, in Vampire of that era you were encouraged to be afraid of the “beast” inside you that could take you over and make you give in to your inherently predatory nature as a vampire and do evil and terrible things if you didn’t have the willpower to stop it.
Does that sound familiar?
It didn’t to me until much, much later. Teenage me mostly though, “that’s a stupid idea, I just don’t do things I know are wrong no matter what I might want” (and for the most part I didn’t). But I’m guessing that for some of the men at the same table that was not “a stupid idea” it was a very real fear about their own control over their sexuality.
Vampire clearly failed to convey to me why the beast was meant to be terrifying, but as an adult I can at least understand what they were going for. It also makes me very curious what else I’ve missed. I’ve played plenty of tabletop horror games that didn’t seem scary to me beyond creepy settings or vaguely startling jump scares.
Were they just mediocre games or was I missing different fears that I didn’t understand?