(A version of this piece originally appeared in my “Scrapings, Etc” newsletter)
Not only have I been thinking a lot about mysteries these days, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about horror and suspense. In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about how horror works, what’s scary, and what it is that makes me really like something scary.
I’ve been a big fan of weirder and weirder things over the years, like the movies of Ti West, for example (House of the Devil is still one of the best movies I’ve seen in ages, and The Innkeepers was pretty great too), and my girlfriend and I watched the 1977 Japanese arthouse horror weirdo movie House (aka “Hausu“) recently, which was wonderful in its fucked-up visuals and sheer ridiculousness. Most traditional horror doesn’t really do much for me, and I find myself feeling particularly bored at gorefests and jumpscare-stuffed remakes. It’s why my recent video game experiences like Firewatch have been so good, because in there (for example) the brightness of the setting combined with the intense loneliness of the game’s story makes it, when playing, intensely fucking scary. Zombies and weirdo ghost children jumping from the shadows aren’t really that interesting anymore. I want to constantly be on the edge of my seat, wondering what is coming next, and why am I in a constant state of dread.
So that being said, I’ve been seeking new ways to challenge my sense of self, which is something I feel horror definitely should be challenging, with audio podcast dramas and story readings (as I said before, Limetown was great & I’m enjoying Alice Isn’t Dead, and once in a while No Sleep has some great stories), as well as those really messed-up [Adult Swim] infomercial/experimental horror movie things they do, which, honestly, are so oddball and shocking that I feel like they’re pretty genius, in the vein of the first two V/H/S films, which I adore (the third I can take or leave, but the second one’s ode to Fire In The Sky is amazing).
On the other hand though, when it comes to more “modern” horror, I’m on the fence about the web horror “phenomenon” of Creepypasta, mostly because it tends to be either oddly derivative of pre-Internet urban legends, or just not all that original or good at times in general. However, you can’t really deny the power of Slender Man, and I know that the whole point of these stories is to be web-based and web-sourced unreliable “rumors,” in a classic urban legend/modern horror form…anyway, yeah. I’m a fuddy-duddy.
I recently read this piece at Kotaku though, that is probably the weirdest scary story from that corner of the Internet done right, about traversing an abandoned MMO alone and encountering one single lone person in there, which is probably weirder than just going through the whole thing completely alone. It also brings to mind something I saw William Gibson address in one of his books briefly, about abandoned websites (as well as this piece on unseen/low view YouTube videos). It embodies the things that I really find interesting in a modern web-based scary story, which is that there are voids out there that can cause deep self-reflection, and in that self-reflection (or in people who dive deep into it) we can be disturbed in what we find. Just what are the limits of empty abandoned ether out there? Is it a world, in a concrete sense, that’s alternately overcrowded and abandoned in huge swaths? The idea of being alone save for one other person in a whole world, and that you only periodically will cross paths with just strikes me as so intensely scary.
Who is this other person? What role are they playing in this world/MMO? Also, how can you trust whether or not you really are alone? what if they’re out of your visual range but you’re in theirs? What do you say when you’re the only two players in a world that’s meant to be heavily populated? It just strikes me as a perpetual dream state, and the dream state is both a place to get real deep in your own head, as well as get the shit scared out of you.
The scope and implications of realizing the size of an empty world is something cool in an almost Lovecraftian way. One of the things I enjoy about reading Lovecraft is the sense of a greater world we aren’t aware of as humans, and that sometimes it’s better to not know what else is out there.
Sometimes, it’s better to not think too hard about it.