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When I was just a little kid, I was scared of a lot of things—wasps, Vigo the Carpathian, team sports, peer pressure, aliens, Aliens, witches, faulty parking brakes, the future, getting kidnapped—but nothing scared me more than Hell. That’s why I loved the omnipotent God that watched over my every move. The faceless deity I learned about in school and at Sunday mass could see what I did, hear what I said and know what I thought. He was always right above me ready to hear any little prayer I might offer up and make sure I didn't end up in a pit of fire when I died as long as I followed the rules.
Now, when I say I loved God, I really mean I depended on his good favor. I didn't know what love was when I was a child, I just understood reward, punishment and fear, all of which were amplified by an abundance of natural empathy. God was like the boss of all parents and teachers, the rule maker for the rule makers. To the tiny red haired Catholic with asthma on the Mary Phelan Catholic Elementary School playground, every authority figure was an officer in God’s moral defense force, higher up on the ladder to my supreme being's favor and ready to report me for bad deeds.
Sitting in a red plastic chair across from one of the priests I was made to confess my sins to during the school-wide sacrament of Reconciliation. The event would take place every few months. We would be called to the gymnasium over the school PA system, walk through the halls alone, and sit in a line on a bench watching the kids who came before us quietly talk to God’s executive marketing team. When it came my turn to talk, quietly watched by my peers who waited their turn on the benches, the offenses against my parents and teachers held a heavier weight in my mouth as I apologized to a stranger. Angry thoughts, yelling, swearing—sometimes I would make up ethical crimes just to cover my bases. It would be better to do penance for a made up F-word than go to Hell. (I now realize that this line of thinking was paradoxical, as lying to a priest must surely negate any good will garnered by praying away false sins).
I think it’s common for people who grew up in the Catholic school system to have a much more vivid vision of Hell than they do of Heaven. Heaven is a vague fantasy, with clouds, a gate, angels, all your dead relatives that weren’t Nazis and 24 hour church service. There is wiggle room when you imagine the Holy Kingdom, and so you can imagine it to be a personal paradise. It’s a powerful absence. I remember once hearing my younger brother tell our mom that he couldn't wait to die so he could go to heaven to see our grandparents and play video games.
Hell, on the other hand, is a detailed place of eternal thirst, fire and torture. Even the funny depictions of the media paint the Devil’s domain as horrific. There’s a Treehouse of Horror episode of the Simpsons in which Homer is made to spend a day in Hell, and the jokes in that span of a single minute of television haunted my dreams until I was 13. At one point, Homer is bound to an apparatus that force-feeds him literally all of the donuts in the world. The punchline is that he actually succeeds happily, confounding the demon assigned to delivering his ironic punishment. The humor was lost on me though. All I could think was being filled beyond the capacity of my everlasting soul, never against worthy of forgiveness if I died between one swear word and the next scheduled school gymnasium confession.
I didn’t die, though. I survived long enough to reject the church that threatened my soul for silly things like coveting goats and eventually came to embrace the void that will one day devour us all. Now, on the other side of fearing God’s retribution and the well defined Hell that he wielded with such menace, I realize that the vagueness of Heaven and it's King is WAY SCARIER.
It’s a very simple intellectual bridge to cross, and once you do it all sort of clicks together into a trans-dimensional, many-tentacled portrait of cosmic terror. We know that all human fears lead back to the unknown, and when comparing the good and the bad endings of a Christian life it turns out one is extremely well known. One has different strata and a well censused demographic; it has entire epic poems describing it and incredibly detailed paintings. The other is bright, but you left your eyes on Earth, locked behind a gate beyond which no one has returned to tell the tale; it is Heaven and it is as unhuman as a life without sin.
The supernatural staples of the horror genre are paradoxical. Monsters and ghosts and cosmic tentacled trans-dimensional abominations, while used to great effect in drawing fear from an audience, also affirm a comforting human desire for a reasonable narrative. Yes, the unhuman elements of a scary novel or film do emerge from an initial revelation that we, as a species, were wrong about the world, but by the end of the journey we are often left with some kind of explanation. Horror fiction produces in its audience a paradigm shift in terms of reality, but through its reliance on conventional storytelling structures, inevitably affirms that we were always right about one thing: everything happens for a reason.
There are exceptions to this for sure. The labyrinth in Mark Z. Danielewski's beautifully haunting House of Leaves is probably the best example I’ve encountered, incomprehensible by nature and never explained through any device. But the shifting nightmare halls of the house on Ash Tree Lane remain haunting because the book defies narrative expectation: neither the characters in the novel nor the real life readers are given even a hint as to what has caused the tear in reality. Danielewski’s house is the void given only the barest of forms—what Darkness Mystics refer to as the Godhead—the only aspect of the truly unhuman we can comprehend.
More often, horror leaves us with enough of an explanation to build a mythology that allows us to retroactively justify the terrible journey we’ve previously experienced. This convention of explanation defangs horror. When I read Stephen King, for instance or when I watch a Japanese horror film, the best parts are in the middle. The ghosts, the massive invisible domes, the deathly visions, the spooky children—when presented as truly alien, are thrilling and truly scary. But when we see that it was just aliens, or are given obscure rules to follow that will lift a Japanese video tape curse, we might not feel safe, but at least we benefit from an emboldened sense of importance. The conventional horror ending is one that says, “We exist and we can understand!”
Reality, however, is actually the stuff of middle acts. We don’t know what will happen, or why, because life doesn’t follow a narrative structure. Rather, we impose coherence on the events that we experience, and we build our lives into stories. The symbols of supernatural horror and mythology, therefore, offer us a convenient plaster with which to cover the unexplainable cracks in our autobiographies. We can use the language of the genre to give reason to the unreasonable.
On Monday, a horror legend died. Shigeru Mizuki, creator of Ge Ge No Kitaro and master yōkai (supernatural monsters and spirits) historian, passed away at the age of 93. It is a miracle that he lived so long. Having served in the Japanese army during World War II and lived through his country’s worst poverty, Mizuki came face to face with death multiple times. He battled malaria, he lost his arm, he was shot at and hunted, and ate food contaminated with traces of human feces. Most unbelievably, though, he dodged the deadly scythe of random chance.
In his historical memoir, Showa, Mizuki depicts an encounter that brought him incredibly close to the most senseless of all deaths. While in Papua New Guinea, alone in the pitch dark of night, the young soldier encountered an invisible wall that he could feel with his hands. It compelled him to stop and he slept the night, only to awake next to a cliff’s edge. Mizuki credits the spectral wall, a yōkai called Nurikabe, for his survival.
“If the Nurikabe hadn’t been there,” he writes, “I would have run straight off into the darkness and died.”
Surrounded by the deaths of millions of other soldiers his age, Mizuki turned to a horror mythology to make sense of his brush with random death. Using the language of ghosts, he cuts off the the possibility of a nonsensical demise, allowing himself and his readers to explain away the pure chaos of Mizuki’s cliffside encounter.
It’s an example of horror lore being employed to usurp the real, incomprehensible reality of the border between life and death. Any one of us can die at any moment, but we like to think that if we do, it will be for some sort of reason, or fit into a larger narrative in our life. We want our stories to end with a complete thought. Those hopes are not often satisfied, but narratives are imposed by survivors, and sense is made out of the senseless. The truth is: death is as chaotic as the fragile life that came before it. To comprehend that frailty and the lack of reason behind our inevitable demises is the stuff of the void, and the supernatural symbols of horror are the gatekeepers who guard us from that madness.
There was a critical point in the mass adoption of the Internet where computers became less scary. It used to be that the general public ignorance surrounding Information Technology allowed for writers and creators of entertainment media to fill in the gaps with magic, but now that we are firmly in the age of Internet 2.0—with our Google and smartphones and personal websites—it is only with a great deal of irony that a TV show or film can get away with the haunted computer or ghost hacker scenario. What was once a cultural blind spot has become familiar, and the Internet just isn’t mysterious anymore.
This is problem for horror. Instead of a dark place of ignorance, the Internet has become a tool that we carry around in our pockets. It has become a trope of the genre, in fact, to disconnect protagonists so that the mystery of whatever encounters they have remains such, at least in places of paranormal activity. Storytellers need to artificially create shadowy corners for our nightmares to breed. Or, at least they did until we got the second Internet.
That's right: there is another Internet; a darker Internet; an Internet that has once again sparked the imaginations of horror practitioners. The Deep Web or Dark Web, depending on your taste in nomenclature (I prefer the latter), is a part of the information superhighway that you can’t find on maps. In order to access it you need to use a special software, called Tor, because the websites aren’t indexed by your average browser. While not evil in and of itself, promising the utmost privacy and anonymity to users, its reputation is one of a place for hackers and hitmen, drug trades and human trafficking, BitCoin and even the rumoured live snuff film. Instead of .com domains, places on the Dark Web use the suffix .onion. Chances are, you (like me) only know a little bit about it.
The Dark Web is rich and full of mystery, which is why the best modern horror is using it to deepen contemporary stories. The two best examples of this new trend in terror are Marisha Pessl's haunting 2013 novel Night Film, and the delightfully spooky Tanis podcast from Pacific Northwest Stories. Both of these media take the form of investigation horror, and each leans heavily on the occult nature of the Dark Web.
In Night Film, investigative journalist Scott McGrath embarks on a twisted journey to expose a legendary horror director named Stanislas Cordova. A famous recluse, Cordova has been linked to a number of deaths, including that of his own daughter, and McGrath sets out to find the mysterious auteur and expose him for reasons linked to revenge (Cordova ruined McGrath’s marriage and career when Scott last attempted to expose him).
Pessl’s great accomplishment with Night Film is her ability to build a massive amount of tension and fear without evoking the paranormal. Instead, she uses the occult to build a world that is alien yet familiar to the reader. Secret societies and underground film screenings make you question the world around McGrath in his search for Cordova, but nothing quite does this like how the author handles the Internet.
When McGrath takes his search to the Dark Web, the book switches to black pages. Reading them—presented as screen caps of hidden web pages that Scott visits—therefore has a weird physical sensation. With all of her real world action printed black on white, Pessl manages to make the Dark Web seem shadowy simply by virtue of framing it as shadow-like. The pages are literally dark, and that makes them feel hidden, as if they are in fact underneath the rest of the novel’s text.
Tanis uses the Dark Web in a similar fashion. One of the characters on the Lovecraftian radio show is a hacker who goes by the handle Meerkatnip, sometimes abbreviated to M.K. She serves a special role in the podcast’s narrative: she has the ability to navigate and understand the Dark Web, where a lot of the key information on the ancient and mysterious Tanis can be uncovered.
Just like Night Film, Tanis uses the Dark Web as a place filled with powerful occulted information, but rather than illustrating that by oppressing the audience through the application of darkness, the podcast shows that the horror-net is special through Meerkatnip. M.K. is a modern day dark sorceress. She is capable of IT miracles, especially when compared to the show’s other characters, and she is hyper-aware of certain types of creepypasta-ish spooky Internet lore. The connection is clear: by associating the most enlightened and useful character in a horror story to the dark web, an author implies that the places you can find on via Tor contain arcane knowledge.
Time may inevitably shed the light of common knowledge onto the Deep Dark Web, taking away its mysteries and therefore its power to birth fear. Already you can find news reporting online about Dark Web fueled misdeeds and, in a way, every horror story that uses a Tor browser as a spellbook depletes our collective reserve of ignorance on the topic. One day, everything we don't know now will be overused, cliche and familiar to the point of comfort. But for now the Dark Web is a blessing because popular ignorance is a border, beyond which there are monsters.
In the information age there aren’t a whole lot of blind spots, and thanks to that, a great number of fears have been dispelled. A combination of education and skepticism is a perfect remedy to the kind of terror to which we, as humans, are apt to attribute supernatural qualities. Now that we all have the internet in our pockets, connected to high quality video and sound recorders, we can share the spooky shit that happens to us with the digital world (about one third of the global population). Sadly, for those of us who wish the planet was a little more magical, this proliferation of high tech info-connectivity has killed a lot of the haunted house vibes that used to be so abundant on this ghostless space rock.
Last week’s alleged UFO sighting in California is a perfect example of this idea in action. Residents of the American West Coast collectively saw an unknown, brightly lit object in the night sky. Immediately everyone lost their minds and declared it a UFO—which, though technically accurate, has become shorthand for alien spaceship. Just as quickly, thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, the US military copped to the disturbance declaring is a sea to air missile test conducted by a submarine, confirming the dreadful reality onlookers were trying to escape: even if we aren’t alone in the universe, we don’t seem to have any company here.
The same thing has happened with ghosts and cryptids. We have an immense resource of scientific data and expertise right at our fingertips, only too ready to dash our horrific fantasies, leaving us with cold hard explanations and a sickening suspicion that nothing is truly special. Yet, for all of our digital knowledge and community, there still do seem to be blind spots on our map, and like all human borders, these blank spaces are ready for us to stamp them with the label “Here be monsters.”
Yesterday I encountered a man on the subway. He was the perfect embodiment of a modern unknown, a monster who had ventured onto my map from beyond the edge. Walking from one end of the train to the other where I was standing, he made popping noises with his mouth while pantomiming a gun with his fingers and pretending to blow his own brains out, spattering passengers with hypothetical grey matter and blood. His eyes smiled as he did this, and his other hand, hanging from a slack left arm, clutched a heavy looking but small black garbage bag.
The bag smelled terrible and, as the man stood across from me committing a million smiling suicides, I was consumed with the mystery of what could possibly be in that horrific black sack. There is no way of knowing what the man was carrying, as there are countless items - both named and unnamed - that have repugnant aromas. Yet my brain wanted so dearly to know the specifics. The obvious answer was feces, but what if it was a dead animal, or a dismembered foot still gloved in a sweaty gym sock? Maybe it was week old calamari or a pile of slimy nightmares. Maybe it was a portal to Hell.
The man himself was as unknown as his bag, as paradoxically repellant and intriguing as his strange accessory. The words he spoke to other passengers were English, but they made no contextual sense. I got the impression that nothing I could say to the man, or that he could tell me, would be any more enlightening of the contents of his skull, or his infernal satchel, than a Google search for “subway suicide street performer + mystery sack” would. He was the void incarnate, joyfully telling everyone entranced by the scent of his bag, though the universal language of physical improv performance, that killing yourself is an option.
Now, I’m sure that an expert in mental illness would be better equipped to diagnose what was going on in this paragon of the void’s brain. When this thought entered my mind, as he popped his invisible gun, I felt the usual pang of guilt. If not scared, I was at least apprehensive of the man who was clearly unwell. I had allowed my personal unknowns seed within me a type of prejudice against a less privileged human. It’s ugly, but it’s honest.
That guilt, I think, is the key to modern ideas of the fearful unknown. Horror is a visceral experience of encountering the borders where our proverbial monsters live. As we become super connected through technology, these drawn limits are disappearing on an interpersonal level, but internally they are still there. Ignorance is an unknown, and it can exist on a one-to-one scale. I can take a train in a world I know and be confronted with the limits of my comprehension, even if they are wholly my own.
Another Halloween has come and gone. I always get depressed on the first of November because, as you can probably guess, Halloween is my favorite holiday.
It’s not like I wait until October 31 to celebrate. I start decorating and listening to my Halloween playlist the first week of October. I often start planning my costume months in advance and I’ve been making my own costumes for well over a decade now. From my posts on this site, it’s obvious that I consume horror media on a near-daily basis. So why is it so important to me to celebrate this one day out of the whole year?
As much as I am OK with being considered a weirdo by some folks for being such a Halloween and horror junkie, it still feels immensely satisfying when so many other people are into the same things I am into, even if it’s only for part of the year. (And as someone who tends to choose esoteric or obscure costumes, all the positive attention I got this year for dressing as Papa Emeritus III from Ghost was even more immensely satisfying. That time that I dressed as Adam Ant and people asked if I was Prince? Not so much.)
Recently, I came across some social media commentary from people who didn’t understand why anyone would enjoy watching a horror movie. Different strokes and all that; besides, it’s certainly not the first time I’ve seen that sentiment expressed. I also came across a social media discussion, however, that was all about how seeing adults dressed up in Halloween costumes was disturbing or even scary.
This is utterly alien to me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in New Orleans and Mardi Gras is such a huge part of the culture there, maybe it’s because I took dance for ten years and costumes were an integral part of those performances, maybe it’s that I’m an exhibitionist at heart.
Now that so-called geek culture has become such a part of the mainstream, the cosplay community has been thrust into the world spotlight. Cosplayers, in some ways, get the side eye more than horror fanatics because they don’t even need the excuse of a holiday to get dressed up. Their lives are organized around which cons they’re going to attend and what costumes they are going to make and wear at these cons.
It makes me wish that Halloween cosplaying was a thing, although for a lot of people, it kind of is. When you attend any horror-related events like film screenings or conventions, you’ll notice that there are a lot of people wearing horror movie T-shirts. If you can make a valid case that cosplayers are just transforming themselves – via costumes - into characters that they feel represent their personalities, can’t we also argue that horror fans are doing the same thing, via Frankenstein tattoos and black clothing? Perhaps it’s not exhibitionism; perhaps it’s just letting the outside match the inside. (There’s a Morrissey quote in there somewhere…)
I feel the fear all year long, but that feeling is heightened at Halloween. On top of that, dressing up as someone or something else is empowering and exciting. I love that there is a day dedicated solely to both of these things. That’s why Halloween will always be my favorite holiday.
The audio horror geniuses at Pacific Northwest Stories and Minnow Beats Whale have once again made something special. It’s called TANIS and it expands the universe of the extra popular podcast The Black Tapes, bringing the new wave of weird fiction to the Internet audioscape.
TANIS is the radio drama that H.P. Lovecraft never made. If The Black Tapes Podcast is The X-Files for your iPod, TANIS is Call of Cthulhu by way of Stamps.com (not a confirmed sponsor of TANIS). A serialized fictional investigation into a myth of an undefinable ancient thing called Tanis, the podcast follows PNWS producer Nic Silver as he navigates the missing pages of history and the obscure corridors of the dark web. His sleuthing unites him with an anonymous hacker who goes by the handle Meerkatnip, and eventually sets him in the sights of a seemingly malevolent interest that, at this point in the series, remains faceless.
The narrative in TANIS is more focused than The Black Tapes. While the latter mirrors the paranormal investigator procedural format, pitting its protagonists against new phenomena each week, Nic Silver’s podcast solely deals with information on its eponymous entity-place. Much of the show deals with found texts and old interviews, revisionist history, and a sci-fi story from an old magazine, all of it serving to give Tanis substance and atmosphere without definition. Combine that well crafted historical revisionism with some grade-A creepypasta – like a ritual you can do in an elevator to access another dimension or a House of Leaves style cabin with uncanny measurements – and what you have is genuinely spooky weird fiction.
The name Tanis is simply one of many labels that has been given to Silver’s professional obsession over its thousands of years of alleged existence. Sometimes it’s a place, sometimes it’s a state of mind, but like the Great Old Ones of Lovecraft, or the celestial god terrors of William Hope Hodgson, we can only know Tanis through the humans who obsess over it. It moves and transforms, it inspires, and like a certain tentacled dreaming menace it builds a following.
As Nic chases down leads, researching, interviewing and connecting the dots, Tanis begins to gain atmospheric substance. We know Tanis through him. That’s why it’s so exciting when something inevitably starts to reach back from all the anecdotal evidence and historical blindspots.
The Lovecraftian horror tradition is largely built on the concept of alternate history built out of unknowable bits of past. As such, weird fiction can sometimes run the risk of being over expository and dry. If world events we normally take for granted are different in a story than in real life, it’s difficult to get that point across without lengthy explanation. Thankfully, TANIS dodges this pitfall by having fun with its research segments.
There are points in the show when Silver acknowledges the process of having other people reading text or compelling them to speak their experience out loud for dramatic effect. Such moments of self awareness help ground the presentation of contextual information in the present. The podcast format also helps turn the exposition into a tool for suspense, allowing Silver to frame the more chilling and active story points happening in the moment with relevant factoids from out of time. It allows for tension to build in the present day timeline while making sure relevant aspects of the dense mythology are ready at hand for when they are most needed in the story. Most importantly, it keeps the sense of discovery fresh.
TANIS is a strange story, well told. Tonally distinct from its sister podcast, The Back Tapes, Nic Silver's podcast shares one key similarity: it feels as real as I want it to be. The conspiracy at the show’s core is more interesting than mundane reality and the deadpan presentation is such a good imitation of NPR that some gullible first time listeners might mistake it for journalism. Tanis may be an undefinable entity out of time and space, but TANIS is a world I want to live in.
I love the theatre.
I think there's still a certain stigma attached to it in Canada (albeit one that I hope we are weaning off slowly), that theatre must come with a degree of pretentiousness or artistic strangeness or a thick wanky British accent going THEATAHHHHH.
But the stigma is wrong. Theatre in Canada is at times challenging, accessible, entertaining, bizarre, wonderful, terrible, and everything in between. When people say to me "there's nothing to do in (insert Canadian city name here)" I challenge them to hop online, check their local arts listings, and tell me once again that their hometowns are boring.
Theatre is happening all over, and bringing stories to life in real time before your eyes in a way that you simply can't get at the movies.
Take, for instance, horror.
That horror is performed on stage with fair regularity these days probably comes as a shock to some people. These are not, however, the typical stories of Hollywood with hockey masks and chainsaws (with a few exceptions).
This is not to say that gore has no place in theatre. Indeed, violence on stage has its roots in the very heart of modern western plays: in Ancient Greece. Euripedes' Medea, even at its premiere in 431 BC in Athens, was considered shocking (though the reasons for the audience's dislike of the play likely lies in the titular Medea's murder of her children receiving a lack of divine comeuppance, as opposed to distaste for the murder of children in general). Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus remains to this day one of the most violent, unforgiving plays I have ever had the pleasure of being nauseated by. The French Théâtre du Grand Guignol flourished in the early 20th century by pissing on the boundaries of good taste. The Parisian audiences who dared pass through this tiny theatre's doors found themselves subjected to actors murdering, raping, and even, in some bizarre instances, decomposing. And, like modern fans of the "torture porn" genre of film, they loved it (until the experience of actual horror in two World Wars drove them away for good in the 50's and 60's).
Still, perhaps because of pure, animal instinct, gore on stage is difficult to handle, and all too often can stray into the comical. In some cases this works in the play's favour: the wildly successful Evil Dead: The Musical (a Canadian original, thank you very much) prides itself on its gallons of fake blood sprayed out into the audience (who happily and enthusiastically pay a premium for "splatter zone" seats).
Ultimately though, horror in the theatre is at its best and brightest in its restraint. The plays we see on stage are tales in the best vein of the psychological, the supernatural, and the suspenseful.
In a dark theatre, with the performers on stage, flesh and blood, breathing the same air the audience does, things become frighteningly real. At times during such shows, I am reminded of the fascination with seances and the other world in the Victorian era. Packed houses of well-dressed men and women of means, all leaning forward in their seats, eager to see if they could summon the spirits of the beyond. The medium would urge them all to join hands, for only through a group effort would they be able to succeed.
This is the promise of the theatre in its horror: a shared experience, not just with the people beside you, but the people in front of you. A well-acted, well-written, well-produced horror play draws the audience in completely, so that when the shoe does finally drop, and the ghosts start banging the windows and slamming the doors, the actors jump, and the audience jumps with them. I have been to plays where a scary moment will seize people in waves. First one person will shudder, then another will scream, and that sets off someone close by, on and on through the rows of the auditorium like the chill of a spectre passing by.
There really is no moment quite like it.
So won't you join me at the theatre tonight?
I can hear them calling to me from Hell
There is nothing pleasant about playing P.T. - the playable teaser for the now cancelled Silent Hills video game - at least not on the surface. The game, which can be completed in 45 minutes if you know the solution, places you in the never ending halls of a house haunted by a dead woman, a talking fetus, and a self aware swarm of cockroaches. It is the scariest, most uncomfortable virtual experience I have ever had, and while I admit it is thoroughly disturbing to to point of costing me sleep, I can’t stop playing it.
I have had P.T. for over a year. I know it inside out and backwards, and if you were to watch me play through it you would likely make the same observation that my partner Emma has: I traverse the virtual halls clinically, without a sense of suspense or performance. It is much more thrilling to watch someone else play P.T., like my brother, for instance, who has a sense of direction when playing horror games that can best be described as Craven-esque. No, when I play P.T. I play it wholly for myself despite my passion for sharing it as an experience. I steep in the dread and explore my own way, which sometimes runs contrary to the media's atmosphere.
My sixth or maybe seventh time playing through the game, after it was profoundly clear that there was nothing left for me to discover outside of the occasional bone chilling glitch, I began to question my motivation. Why subject myself to this unpleasant spiral descent into despair time after time, fully aware that no reward awaits me at the game’s end? The answer, I realized, was deeply personal, and when I told Emma about it I had to hold back tears.
I play P.T. because it makes me feel safe.
There’s a monster inside of me
I am a victim of gun violence. When I was 19, my father and I were held up at gunpoint on a pier in Costa Rica, he was shot in the chest, and I carried him to safety after the gunman fled. As a result of this incident (about which you can read more over at Dork Shelf) I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The best way I can describe my disability is to say that it’s like every yesterday was the worst day of my life. The memories of that brutal, bloody life event follow me around very closely, and in a way, I am obsessed with them. I have walked the streets of Costa Rica with a bleeding man on my back every day for almost ten years in my mind. As such, certain stimuli – popularly referred to as triggers – can send me into a paralyzing state of extreme panic.
Realistic TV gun violence, images of guns similar to the one used by my father’s assailant, humid weather: these are my most common triggers, and they have the effect of sending me into various states of distress. The world is a haunted house for me, and at any moment some spring loaded jumpscare is ready to turn my into a jibbering mess.
The feeling of being triggered is not identical to the dread induced by horror media, but it is close. When the humidex is particularly Costa Rica-like the dread I feel in the pit of my stomach, the ache I feel in my joints, and the pin-cushion hypervigilance of my senses is as if I am immersed in horror, but without the safety of a fourth wall.
This game is purely fictitious. It cannot harm you in any way, shape, or form.
When I boot up P.T. and cross its first threshold into the eternal virtual hallway of the damned I start to sweat a little. Just enough that I get a bit of a chill when the air around me moves. I know every terrible thing that is going to happen to me for the next 45-90 minutes, and there is nothing I can do to stop it short of turning off the game.
All these heightened feelings produced by the P.T. – terror, guilt, life or death urgency – they are intimately familiar to me, but when I experience them outside of a game world they are immediate, dangerous and wholly of the present tense. I can't remove myself from a panic attack. But in those computer generated halls I can feel the familiar physical symptoms of horror, dread and panic while also being granted a distance to analyse them.
It is thanks to horror media that I can access my symptoms from a safe distance, allowing me to treasure the thoughts and images that keep me up at night. The screaming of reality is eternal, harsh and too in-the-moment to truly deconstruct or understand. In these safe places, haunted by the worst nightmares we can share with each other, we are permitted to think about what scares us so that we might better accept the real horrors of a world indifferent to suffering.
One of the base pleasures of horror media is voyeurism. The audience is a curious observer to another person’s very bad day and usually even more terrible night. No matter how painful the events are on the screen or page, you can rest assured, no matter how invested and empathetic you might be, you aren’t where the screaming is.
The role of the audience is a key aspect of horror, and one that’s been played with by storytellers throughout the genre’s history. Novels posing as found documents existed over a century before The Blair Witch Project, implying that the terrors within are matters of reality. The relatively recent subgenre of meta-horror - popularized (maybe invented?) by Wes Craven’s Scream films and finally done to death with Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods - frequently trades in a balance of self-reflexive “aren’t movies funny and safe” humour with indiscriminate murder. The audience is safe to observe, and horror authors use this as a tool for thrills, laughs and scares.
In the recently concluded season of NBC’s Hannibal a sizable portion of screen time was spent deconstructing the responsibility of observers when it comes to watching horror. In the show’s season three premiere, Hannibal Lecter makes a big show about murdering a dinner guest in front of his captive beard Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), and before delivering the fatal touch asks her pointedly whether she is participating or observing. When the number of souls in the room goes from three to two, it’s clear that the question was meant to illustrate a point: to observe a horrific act is to participate, and to participate is terrible.
The relationship we have to the horror media we consume, therefore, is one of enablement. By turning on Carrie and watching all those teenagers burn to death, we are implicitly responsible for the on screen horror. When we watch Kubrick’s The Shining, we are agreeing to watch the poor old psychic groundskeeper to get axed right in the back. We watch the horrible things happen and we don’t do anything to stop it.
Obviously this is not a moral indictment of horror fans. The fantasy of horror is enabled by a safe space. We allow anything to happen on screen under the tacit agreement that everyone, including us, is safe despite what movie magic might imply. And that’s why it’s so goddamn chilling when works of horror challenge that contract with a threat.
There is a trope in horror that never fails to make my stomach turn and inspire in me an urge to climb up a wall in search of escape: when a supernatural force breaks the fourth wall. Two examples of it come to mind, The Ring and the playable teaser for the now cancelled video game Silent Hills (also known as P.T.) which was in development by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro.
I could describe the instance of threatening wall breaking, but it will be much more effective to show you. Pay close attention around the 35 second mark of the following clip.
The woman brushing her hair in the mirror looks into the camera, which effectively means she’s looking at you the viewer. There is a great deal of imagery in the famous Ring tape that could be called more frightening, but none are nearly as threatening.
In P.T. the threat is slightly different. By virtue of its being a game, the options for meta-horror in the teaser are different. The entire experience is presented in first person perspective, so when an unhuman entity in the virtual world looks into the camera, the character actually shields you from the same uncanny effect in the above clip. Your access point for observation acts as a human shield. That said, the reality-threatening effect of Samara's mother looking at you through the screen is summoned by Kojima and Del Toro through their use of scripted crash screens.
At a point in the teaser the screen begins to glitch and it leads to a threatening crash screen that, more than anything else, acknowledges your presence.
On paper the effect sounds campy and perhaps a bit tired. Popular games have been pretending to crash for dramatic effect since the mid 90’s. But in P.T. The event occurs well before you’ve come to the game’s completion, and so you as a player have been forced to remember yourself while experiencing the most horrific parts of the interaction. It’s as if the game, aware of its malevolence, pauses halfway through to say, “Hello, I know you’re there.”
The threat is tangible, even if it’s all in the name of unsavoury entertainment. Media that breaks its fourth wall like this understands that you are invulnerable as an observer, but asks you to test how confident you are in your safety. Even the most compartmentalized horror is created knowing that it will be experienced, so when you are made to stay up all night because of an idea in your head made by a scary book, that’s because someone did that to you. Horror is a sanctioned and safe act of cruelty, committed on you by an author. Sometimes the beast delivering the pain likes to say hi.
Horror is a genre of paradoxes. Contradiction creates dissonance and breeds in our minds dark possibilities. We know horror media to be fictional and yet in the deep dark nights after watching a particularly affecting scary movie or reading a disturbing passage in a novel, the possibility of the imaginary becoming real can terrify us. It is this balance between the world of story and the world we live in that we see the versatility of all genre, but horror teases us like other modes of fiction rarely can. While fantasy and science fiction offer us wishful escape, horror presents us with a more exciting reality that we would rather not see come to pass.
I admit, there are a million different possible fictional worlds I would chose to live in before I even entertained the thought of cenobites being real, but there is a thrill in horror that presents itself as fact, Blair Witch or House of Leaves style. The key to enjoying horror intellectually is through critical distance so you can see the allegory, but the thrill of it comes in the visceral experience of a darker possible reality. And that’s why I’m in love with The Black Tapes Podcast.
The Black Tapes Podcast is a paranormal investigator procedural presented as an investigative public radio series. A direct parody of NPR’s Serial, Black Tapes uses the long form radio journalism format to frame modern horror stories as if they were real. Eight episodes exist so far, with 12 having been announced for the show’s first season, and they cover topics ranging from a Babadook-esque shadow person, to a back woods abduction, to a sound that is actually a portal to Hell.
The podcast centers on a central pair of characters that fit the paranormal investigator duo archetype, albeit with a twist. Alex Reagan is a radio journalist who is well known for her work on Pacific Northwest Stories (the show’s equivalent to This American Life), and serves the voice of possibility. She is accompanied by Dr. Richard Strand of The Strand Institute, the prototypical skeptic. The twist on the format is interesting, as Strand, who is the expert in the paranormal, is also the show’s most devout skeptic. Reagan, meanwhile, is in the role normally reserved for the Scullies of the world, but has a Mulder-esque ‘anything might be possible’ attitude.
Outstanding production quality and loving attention to detail make The Black Tapes a pleasure to listen to, but the real key to its success is in its tone. The show doesn’t shy away from parodying Serial, with musical cues and structural flourishes clearly inspired from its NPR inspiration. Clear references to Serial are made throughout the show, offering a wink to veteran podcast listeners. This tongue in cheek referencing of a real life media sensation gives humour and distance to the proceedings.
Despite it’s self-reflexive nature, however, The Black Tapes never gives up its disguise, a stoicism that provides an air of the uncanny. The show’s website even keeps a straight face billing the program as non-fiction and its cast as real people (and some of whom I think might even be performing with their real names, further blurring the boundary between reality and horror). This gives the whole thing a Blair Witch effect, making suspension of disbelief natural. When listening I often wonder if I could play this show for my parents (who haven’t heard Serial), tell them it was real, and have them believe me.
The combination of parody and dogged realism works to great effect, producing humour one moment and legitimate scare-chills the next. The Black Tapes Podcasts gives listeners a unique experience balanced between the fantasies we sometimes wish was reality and the safe distance of clever laughter that we hide behind when we can’t take anymore screaming.