Amateur hour at the haunted house

Hey, remember when this blog used to update? Remember when it was about fantasy books? Those were the days.

Anyway, for absolutely no reason at all I’m going to write about horror now. Enjoy!

I’d like to propose a law similar to the observation that a horror franchise will devolve in quality with each successive iteration, describing an inverse correlation between the amount of money spent on a horror property and the scariness of said property. This admittedly doesn’t apply much to books but it holds true remarkably well for movies and video games. For example:

I realize that this doesn’t hold true for many people, but I couldn’t sleep for three days after watching the first Paranormal Activity. The film has some serious problems when it comes to actually telling an entertaining or satisfying story (such as the characters being unlikable shits) but it very successfully tapped into the very common fear of evil shit invading your house at night and fucking with you. If you’re the sort of person who’s ever lay awake at night wondering if that creaking floorboard is an axe murderer sneaking down the corridor toward your room this movie will probably appeal to you.

Then the movie made a fuck-ton of money and Paramount decided to make three sequels, each with a higher budget than the last. Guess what happened after that (sequelitis is also heavily in effect here). The reason the first Paranormal Activity made such an impression is that most bigger-budget horror films released these days tend to fall into one of two categories: action heavy “horror-thrillers” that claim entry into the genre solely by virtue of featuring werewolves or vampires and horror movies that rely entirely on jump scares to create tension.

Meanwhile in the world of video games we have Dead Space, a horror game that arrived just as the genre was taking a nose-dive straight into the guns-blazing action pit that the entire medium seems to be spiraling into. I’m not going to argue that Dead Space is a perfect horror title, but it managed to build a relatively strong sense of dread and included some nice disturbing imagery. A few years later cue Dead Space 2, a much more high profile release. While improving on its predecessor in many aspects, Dead Space 2 also leaned way too heavily on fast paced action and jump scares, with the developers apparently believing that having shit constantly leap through walls at the player is all that’s required for horror. Now we’re getting Dead Space 3, which includes questionable gameplay elements like co-op and a cover system. Again, I have no doubt that Dead Space 3 will be a good game but it seems to be drifting slowly away from the strong horror roots it started out with.

Then we have my beloved Silent Hill, formerly the juggernaut of the “horror games that are actually scary” world. The series hasn’t made the most graceful jump to HD consoles, with a string of games that vary widely in quality but uniformly lack the sanity-eroding scariness of the older games. Resident Evil has strayed even further from the survival horror genre it codified- the last two games didn’t even seem to be aiming for horror, opting instead for straight action.

The point I’m getting to with all of this is that if you’re looking for real, genuine horror the realm of mainstream films and AAA games isn’t where you should be looking. Instead, indie developers and amateur creators seem to be taking up the slack. For the last few years I’ve been mining the internet for the best homebrew horror I could find and now I want to share a few gems with you for Halloween:

For reasons I have yet to figure out the Source engine seems to be very popular among horror modders. I’m not going to provide a list because there are seriously too many out there- do a google search and you’ll find enough to keep you bust until Halloween 2013.

The one mod I do want to talk about in detail is Cry of Fear, a Swedish Silent Hill inspired Half Life 1 mod that manages to out-horror pretty much every commercial release of the last five years. Centering around a troubled young man and his descent into a nightmarish alternate reality (OR IS IT?) filled with horrific monsters, this game goes to some truly grisly places, covering such light-hearted topics as insanity, depression, murder, murder-suicide and child murder paired with cannibalism. It’s not a game for the faint of heart, is what I’m saying.

If that scratched your itch you might want to also try out Grey, a Silent Hill inspired Swedish Half-Life 2 mod about a troubled young man and his descent into a nightmarish alternate reality filled with horrific monsters. Except it has better graphics.

Continuing with our “indie games inspired by Silent Hill” theme we have Lone Survivor (50% off on Steam!), a 2D side scroller about the last man on Earth following some sort of zombie outbreak (OR IS IT?). What I like about this game, apart from the fact that it’s awesome, is how it takes advantage of the “survival” part of survival horror by forcing the player to scrounge for food and supplies in order to keep the fragile protagonist’s mental health in balance. This encourages you to explore into more dangerous areas or confront optional enemies in the hope of finding a bottle of water or a precious, precious can opener. It’s an interesting gameplay mechanic that I’m surprised more horror games haven’t taken advantage of.

An other indie horror game you might have heard of is Slender, which has been inducing premature bowel evacuation in people for a few months now. It’s a nail-biting game of cat and mouse between the player and an unstoppable paranormal entity that will literally make you scared to turn around.

However! Slender is but the tip of the iceberg. It’s based on a massive open source horror universe/story (see here and here) spawned by a Something Awful forum thread and now encompassing a vast array of ARGs, blogs, stories, comics and amateur movies. Like anything else on the internet 99% of Slenderman projects are complete bullshit but there are some real works of genius in there.

Probably the most well known is Marble Hornets, a serialized found-footage series on YouTube. It was made on a budget of approximately $0, which generally has one of two outcomes- either the producers try to put all of the flashy cinematic effects they dreamed of has teenagers and fail miserably, or the restricted budget forces them to get creative and do more with less. Marble Hornets takes the latter route. This is a series that takes place mostly in broad daylight and in which the titular creature is barely ever on screen and it still manages to be terrifying. It achieves this with subtly unsettling imagery and sound manipulation, creating an atmosphere of intense paranoia and dread in which a still shot of the sky or a forest becomes intensely threatening. It’s the sort of thing that scares you out of your mind but leaves you unable to explain what it is you’re afraid of.

Another broadly similar project is EverymanHybrid, a much more ambitious project that was originally posted masqueradng as a poorly made fitness video series. It’s much more an Alternate Reality Game than Marble Hornets, involving heavy audience participation and taking place across multiple youtube accounts, tumblr pages, blogs, twitter feeds and cross-overs with other projects. If you want the challenge of putting together the clues for yourself you can start at the trailhead video, otherwise it would probably be better to use this timeline.

One realm of horror I neglected in my opening spiel is books, largely because the issue of budget doesn’t really apply (although a connection could perhaps be made between the contents of an horror author’s bank account and the quality of their output). This is something I actually don’t have much experience with, but from what I’ve read the horror novel is in as much decline as any other medium.  Once again the internet comes to the rescue. I give you: creepypasta.

If you don’t already know, creepypasta are short horror stories, often no longer than a single blog post. A lot of them are complete shit but there are some real diamonds in the rough. The link above will point you toward some o the many archives out there, but I want to highlight one in particular. Penpal is a multi-part story originally posted to Reddit page r/nosleep and now self-published following a successful kickstarter campaign. I won’t say too much about it since it works better if you go in blind, but I highly recommend you give it a go.

A spin-off from creepypasta is The SCP Foundation, a collaborative writing project about a shady secret organization which collects and contains amonalous and paranormal objects/ creatures to keep them away from an unsuspecting public (astute readers may note that this is the exact same premise as Warehouse 13, which came out after the SCP Foundation project was already well established). The wiki I linked to collects user-submitted forms purporting to describe a particular object/creature/location and instructions for its containment, along with supplementary material such as research logs. At present there are over 1200 of these, along with a raft of short stories, in-universe documents and OOC essays. The project isn’t strictly devoted to horror but many of the entries have a strong horror bent. See here for some examples.

I’m sure I could come up with more examples, but this should give you a good overview of the amount of creativity that exists on the internet. There’s clearly a demand for good horror and in the absence of quality offerings from professionals amateurs and indie creators are starting to pick up the slack. Let’s hope their efforts are noticed by the people holding the purse strings.


6 thoughts on “Amateur hour at the haunted house

  1. Pingback: James Wan and how to not ruin your horror movie | Doing In The Wizard

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      1. MG

        I just find it fascinating that someone with your opinions could like these things. Not only is Slender poorly programmed, poorly optimized and about internet nerds pissing their pants over a photoshop effect being scary,but the SCP Foundation openly celebrates sexual harassment as fodder for horror, something you’ve expressed distaste about.

        1. ronanwills Post author

          Slender: hey, I guess we just have differing opinions when it comes to horror. The whole Slenderman meme has spawned mountains of garbage but I think there are a few gems in the middle of all that that make it worthwhile.

          As for SCP, I’m assuming I know which one you’re talking about and I do find it a shallow and distasteful attempt to be edgy, but that’s a collaborative project with hundreds of contributors and (from what I can tell) very little in the way of editorial oversight so I’m not going to damn the whole thing for the actions of a few idiots. If it was all the work of a single person that one entry would probably have put me off the entire site.


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