In honor of the month of October and it’s rapidly approaching holiday, HALLOWEEN, the next few Friday Features will be Late-Night Double Features. Which is, of course, in honor of another Halloween tradition.
This week I’m going to feature two works that really exemplify something that can make or break a scary story: Atmosphere!
Atmospheric horror is to modern horror gore-fests what a subtle fine wine is to a bathtub full of grain alcohol and kool-aid. Both will get you there (being scared – or maybe drunk), but one feels like a journey and the other feels like a punch in the gut.
Atmosphere isn’t really so much about what happens in a story, but the environment and setting. It’s less often about showing the audience something horrible, and more about showing them evidence of something horrible. We won’t see the gruesome death, but we’ll find the smeared blood from where the beast dragged away its prey.
In visual art of all kinds, lighting also plays an important role in setting the “creepy” tone that we’re talking about. In movies, tv, and video games, lighting and sound play equally significant parts – a mysterious growl from off-camera, suspense-building music, the wet sounds of chewing coming from the darkness.
In written art, the right atmosphere typically comes from the reader experiencing the same sorts of uncertainty, confusion, and fear-for-one’s life that the characters experience. That can also mean making some serious use of sights and sounds, of course, but the nature of written stories adds a barrier between the writer and the reader that actually has the potential of making things more terrifying (because when there’s a lack of clarity about just what it is we’re afraid of, it’s even scarier).
So without further ado – two exemplars of ATMOSPHERIC HORROR!
First and foremost, I have to pay homage to one of the progenitors of the horror genre as we know it today, Howard Philips Lovecraft. Lovecraft was truly a master of atmosphere. Behind nearly all of his stories were creatures (of his own creation) that defied the imagination. Lovecraft’s most infamous monster, Cthulu, has so saturated our culture (particularly geek/internet culture) that it’s easy to forget how inconceivably terrifying it would be. It’s supposed to be a creature nearly 300 feet tall, humanoid in shape but with gigantic wings and a head adorned with writhing tentacles like an octopus.
But even in the story “The Call of Cthulu,” it’s not until the very end that the monster awakens. Most of the story is spent building the suspense and mystery about what Cthulu might really be (Spoiler Alert: Giant Space Monster), based on newspaper clippings and insane ramblings from people who’ve interacted with the “Cthulu Cult.” Lovecraft gives us evidence of something terrible, but doesn’t show it to us until the very end – and by then it’s too late.
But actually “Call of Cthulu,” influential as it may be, isn’t the subject of this feature. It’s actually not that high on my list of favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories. Another of his Weird Tales I ran across recently has quickly moved to my personal top-tier of written horror: “The Whisperer in Darkness.”
I don’t want to spoil anything about the story, so I’ll be scant on the details here. Suffice it to say that “The Whisperer in Darkness” is a case-study on atmospheric horror and that the first time I read it, I did so immediately before trying to sleep, and that was a hilariously bad choice.
Next up for this week’s (Late-Night Double) Feature, I want to talk about Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
This is a really scary game.
It does what many other Horror-Survival genre games won’t: takes away your gun. What games like Dead Space, Resident Evil, and Doom 3 manage to do is fun and scary (and sometimes relies on good creepy atmosphere), but at their core these are still action games with a horror flare. You’re still playing a slightly-more-serious Bruce Campbell versus the Army of Darkness. If Dead Space had cars, you can bet there would be some of this.
Amnesia takes away all of those “action” elements and replaces them with pure terror, and the inability to take on the evil that you’re up against. Much of the early segments of Amnesia are devoted to revealing that you’re being hunted by some kind of “living nightmare” but not showing it to you. Sometimes you’ll hear it dragging around on the floor above you, sometimes you’ll catch it rounding a corner, but you won’t see it fully for a while.
That whole time the suspense and mystery and terror just build. And then when you finally DO see the monster fully, you can’t do anything to stop it! You’re only hope is to run and hide!
There are loads of “let’s play” videos featuring unsuspecting people playing Amnesia and screaming for mercy when they hit on one of the really scary moments, but for the real experience, check out the game for yourself on GOG.com or Steam.
Don’t forget to play it in the dark! And use headphones!