Sunday, 27 March 2011

Breaking Tropes – Part 2 – Horror

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(Forgiveness is required for my lack of posts over the last few days – the ever present doom of keeping an academic and social face is pressing down on my creative side – which is never a good thing.)

Last article I talked about the breaking of tropes in the Fantasy Genre, which can be seen here. For this second article, however, I shall be discussing Horror tropes. I want to make this very clear early on: I am no master of Horror, and am ever trying to reach the high tones I talk about. However, even though I myself cannot hit the target, I know what it is, so that is what I present for you here.

The Standard
When you talk about horror, you talk about the works of Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Clive Barker, and Stephen King, and you talk about, especially in the case of Lovecraft, the supernatural. Specifically the fantastic supernatural. The supernatural is by far the most used (and rightly celebrated) trope in horror fiction, because it nicely blends the unknown and uncanny into one reusable archetype. But, unless you happen to be as genius as Poe, King, Barker or Lovecraft, then you might just fall short of hitting that same high note.

So, what can be done?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein whilst being a brilliant early Sci-Fi and very early Steampunk novel, is also one of the greatest incarnations of the mundane uncanny. The mundane uncanny is far easier to achieve than the fantastic supernatural, and is perhaps less scary but more unnerving. Consider Frankenstein, a man who searches for perfection (and ultimately immortality) who winds up creating a very obvious monster but is unable to see it until it is too late. Then consider that the monster turns out to be a far more human character than Frankenstein who hunts him!

This questioning of morality and questioning of ‘who is the real monster’ is your greatest weapon. Make the villain seem more accessible, and the victims seem ‘worthy´ of their fates, at least to the reader. The story may not be able to scare your reader whilst they read, but a good book will leave them with afterthoughts about what truly just happened, and where they stand on this issue.

That being said, don’t craft a story of such moral twisting horror that you create an army of homicidal psychopaths as your loyal fan-base. But make sure your story is open to discussion about who was the true antagonist.

As a more recent example of this question in fiction, we can look at Showtime’s Dexter (I have never read Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay, the book from which the show was created, so I have to go on the series instead). Dexter is a serial killer with a dark passenger which urges him to cut people up (but not ordinary people, just serial killers), all the while working alongside his adoptive sister, Debra (who on several occasions is unknowingly investigating Dexter’s handiwork) in the police department. Fuelled by a code given to him by his adoptive cop father, Dexter attempts to clean up the streets of Miami. Off the top, this sounds like a fair protagonist – a vigilante who wants nothing more than death for those who disserve it, right? But then the show delves into Dexter’s morality, and his sanity. This is a man who would kill scores of people were he so inclined, and then only reason he doesn’t is an ever fleeting memory of his adoptive father. Most episodes are followed with great online discussions about whether Dexter was right or wrong in his actions, as well as a divide between those who barrack for Dexter, and those who want to see Debra finally catch him and have his secret revealed.

Neither of the above examples use supernatural elements in their horror, but both evoke images of mankind at its worst, and leave people unsure as to who they are.

I hope to talk to you again soon,

Ben Scerri

(Note: For tips on how to run a Horror Campaign in an RPG, go to the following link.)