Horror. It’s difficult to actually even define what it actually is, and it overlaps into so many other spheres that it isn’t really easy to define what it is not. I’ve talked about a few horror-themed games, and I’ll be talking about some more later, so now is as good a time as any to talk a bit about it.
Many of the masters of horror have managed solid efforts, without shocks, scares, or blood. When I think of horror, I think of it not as something that frightens us, but something that unsettles us.
Good horror (in my personal opinion, yours may well differ), never makes me jump or gasp or scream. It does make me really, really want to find a brightly-lit, busy cafe and calm my nerves for a while. Good horror doesn’t have to frighten you, it can just change your perspective on the world for a little while.
A skilled writer/director can lay everything out in front of you, and – if anything – it can be even more creepy due to its inevitability. That’s largely a stylistic thing, of course. Controlling the flow of information to the viewer/reader is just one of the tools in the horror-creator’s arsenal. Sometimes you get more horror the second time around.
Western and Eastern horror have very different core themes, though there are edges where the two styles overlap, and Eastern horror has been scoring some points with Western audiences of late, either as Western remakes or in their original (albeit subtitled) form.
Eastern horror tends to be much like SF (that’s Speculative Fiction, not Sci-Fi). Water, fluid and dampness are strong, recurring themes in Eastern Horror, and the physical and spirit worlds follow an inviolable set of rules. We, the viewers, and indeed the characters in these stories may not understand what these rules are, but the notion that they are there and that they cannot be bent or broken is a strong Eastern theme.
Western horror often takes us to strange places; jungles, temples, the mountains of madness, Innsmouth, deserted and abandoned places. It less frequently brings horror to the familiar.
The balance is different in Eastern horror, where the horror is more likely to come to you, in your home or apartment, in your street or building, through your television or mobile-phone. In Western horror, we’re more likely to invade the unknown, and pay for our hubris.
In Eastern horror, forces we do not fully understand come to us. They deliver.
Likewise, Western horror tends to explain things to us. Rarely, at the end, are we left actually wondering about the whys and the wherefores (unless, we’re talking about, say, The Birds). Usually, everything is explained, and perhaps even over-explained.
Eastern horror rarely does you the favour of explanation, and you’re left to your own devices to try to make sense of it. This may even extend to time, where the scenes we see may follow along no human linearity of time, but instead follow the time of a spirit. This may mean that we may jump between characters and time in pieces. Now we are in the present day, now a week later, now yesterday, and now five years before.
Eastern horror generally tries to work your brain this way, following its fixed rules and unbreakable logic, and refusing to baby you by providing explanations and insights that you could come up with on your own. By doing so it makes you a participant in horror, even in an otherwise passive medium, like film.
In the 2002 film Honogurai mizu no soko kara (director: Nakata Hideo), just finding an apartment, negotiating a divorce, finding a job, and day-to-day living take on the sort of creepy tension that you’d normally associate with waiting for the supernatural bad-guy to drag an overly promiscuous teenager screaming into hell. In Nakata’s film, distinctly supernatural events barely occupy ten percent of the film, and there’s only one brief scare. Nakata, however, gets us to do all the hard work of giving ourselves the creeps.
And that brings us to why I’m talking about the distinctions between the two broad philosophies of cinematic and written horror to begin with: Games.
Western horror is primarily passive horror for the viewer, and Eastern horror is primarily implicitly a form of participatory horror. Video games with horror elements have those participatory edges to them, though we rather like to think that there’s better to be had than Doom 3, whose primary horror trope is the dark room, with a bunch of beasties that effectively leap out from cupboards at you.
No, go have a look at The Path, or Project Eden, or S.T.A.L.K.E.R, or Penumbra, or F.E.A.R. There’s some mighty good Western video-game horror efforts right there (there’s also some darn fine Eastern ones too – but we’ll get to those another time).
Good video-game horror has, somewhat inevitably, some of the flavours of Eastern horror, because we’re a participant, rather than a passive observer with popcorn, and we’re actually quite a bit more effective at creeping ourselves out than actually having someone do it for us.