Michael Lutz’s game, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, is definitely one of the most dynamic iterations of a Twine game that I have played during my time in college, considering the limitations of the medium. The implementation of replayability as a key mechanic that creates a sense of intertextuality between each playthrough is something that felt as though it lent itself to Twine pretty well, since looping is one of the easiest things to do on the platform. Because of this, I want to think about the replayability in this game in three distinct ways: as it relates to the horror of the game, as it relates to reading the game itself, and as it relates to my own childhood. My goal is to flesh out replayability as not just a mechanic, but as a form of critique. As a reading practice. As a memory.
Michael Lutz’s game, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, is definitely one of the least terrifying games I’ve played. The implementation of horror within the game was most salient in its first playthrough, where the loud sounds were startling and I was not anticipating to “lose control” of the end scene through the Uncle seemingly taking over the game. But perhaps, there is something deliberate within the loss of fear within the game. The familiarity that is built over time through the visuals, the narrative, and the mechanics serve as a way of situating the player alongside the child visiting their best friend. Of course, the space would feel familiar and you would be able to guess what your friend would say, you know them. There is something powerful in the ordinariness of the game as it progresses, that I don’t necessarily think is captured by the ending where one finally overcomes the uncle because the mundaneness overpowers any affect that is evoked. And it is this unremarkable familiarity that makes the game stand out within the genre, because horror is evoked from suspense and the unknown not from what you do know. Because of this, I see the game more so as a critique of horror and our fixation on fear. Why do we crave it? Why are we critical of it? Why is it often indicative of the success of horror media? Why is it a genre that is tied so closely to affect? Why do we rewatch our favorite horror films? Why are we not frustrated by the lack of fear in our subsequent screenings? Why is there not a genre or term for horror that loses its ability to evoke fear through replay or rewatch?
Michael Lutz’s game, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, is definitely one of the games I’ve had to replay the most in my life, admittedly this is due to my inability to properly execute the steps in the guideline… But thankfully this allowed me to sit with exploration within the game longer. There is a tension that is brought to the fore through this replayability insofar as it does create this feeling of familiarity that detracts from its horror but also a sense of defamiliarization of the narrative. And by defamiliarization, I am referring to it as a reading practice that involves paying attention to the smaller details of things that would otherwise be performed without thinking. I believe that the specificity of distinct game paths through each replay conditions you to do this, as you try to track the changes that emerge from ending to ending. Oftentimes, not leading to much beyond expanding options and flavor text through the interaction with your friend’s inactive parents. Here, the replayability of the game pushes you towards wanting to feel estranged from the familiarity it evokes, as a form of making an otherwise boring experience feel interesting. This form of active defamiliarization as something the game conditioned me to do felt like a challenge from the game to see what would give: my desire to completely understand it or the content that it had for me to play through.
Michael Lutz’s game, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, is definitely a game that reminded me of my own childhood. Particularly, it’s position as being a game that contends with accessibility and affordability within the gaming industry. I can say that as a child, there was always a part of me, like any other gamer, that wanted to constantly keep up with the newest releases of popular games. Though this was not possible for my family and it was something that stuck with me as I grew up. As I began to be more cognizant of this reality, I found ways to reinvent how I related to videogames that I did have. This was often through replay, as a form of queering normative playing experiences to make the game stretch in between purchases. My replay was driven through my own desire for a new challenge, but also perhaps from a feeling of indebtedness to my parents; a feeling of making the most out of the game so that they know they didn’t waste their money on it. Therefore, replay is a key mechanic within the game that itself can be reread in multiple contexts, that can be a movement towards reflection and care, that serve as a reminder that there is no end to replay.
I, like many horror enthusiasts, have known about the wonders of Resident Evil for the majority of my media-filled life. With the release of Resident Evil 7, I distinctly remember setting aside time in my middle-school days to huddle under my covers and watch my favorite streamers play their way through the jump-scare filled medium. Yet, when it was finally my turn, I never experienced the same high that they seemed to emphasize.
RE7 served as a landmark for horror games. Deviating from the series prior iterations, RE7 took an approach more closely focused on puzzles, complex layouts, immersive graphics, and resource management. These attributes, when coupled with the ever-looming threat of what may-or-may-not kill you, made for an extremely compelling experience for myself as a child. This has changed now that I have gotten older, and as ‘horror’ games have navigated into the VR realm, it begs the question – within the format, can they truly continue to be considered horror games?
Cornelia Schnaars comments on a mechanical shift in Redefining Horror within the VR Genre, writing “The controllable camera enables a three-dimensional view that can constantly be adjusted, granting players more control over the environment. Combined with abundant weaponry and improved combat and aiming systems, the player no longer feels as helpless –even when facing hordes of enemies.” (182) This was distinctly notable within RE7, where I found myself now more focused on the challenging navigation mechanics and the rather…odd strategies needed to engage in combat. This disjointedness was felt both in and out of VR. Again, Schnaars comments on this, saying “These visual and mechanical features are essential to gameplay, as they “create a player-avatar relationship that sacrifices control and predictability for perceptual unease and cinematic horror.” (186) As the player, I was forced to rely on my sense of perception to navigate the spaces put in front of me. However, the actual presentation of the mechanics were counterintuitive and confusing, leading me to escape the sense of immersion to instead focus distinctly on how I chose to navigate. Enemies were also leveled in a startlingly different manner, they were incredibly easy to defeat within RE7 VR. What this meant, then, was that over a short period of time I was desensitized to their level of “threat” because given my resources, I could easily outmatch them.
With that, can VR horror really still be classified as horror? When talking to Emily about this question, she postulated “Well, what if horror games are limited to their sense of enjoyment because we don’t have enough genres to accurately define them…what if RE7 was instead a game marketed with a thriller context?”
Within film, the genres “thriller” and “horror” are distinct labels that carry vastly different meanings. Neil Chase, a screenwriter, clarifies the two, stating “horror is focused on eliciting a feeling of fear in the viewer or reader, while thrillers are designed to generate suspense and excitement.” So, given the limitations of VR, RE7 may in fact fall into the thriller category due to its lack of true audience fear, instead opting to provide its layer with a new sense of intrigue, excitement, and suspense.
“Since VR is still in its technological infancy, it is prone to errors and glitches and, like early survival games, it is saddled with technological limitations.” (183) Then, how do these limitations break a sense of player immersion, and as a result tend RE7 from the horror genre to the thriller genre? One major note of compensation throughout RE7 VR was the amount of ammunition they provide you with, coupled with the scaled enemies that fall much quicker. And, alongside the increase in ammunition, I actually felt that the aiming mechanic was much more accurate within RE7 VR despite it being less realistic. With a crosshair situated on the center of your screen, your aiming was entirely up to how you chose to position your head, ignoring what direction your body faced in-game. Furthermore, although aiming with my head felt unnatural at first, after picking it up I was much more accurate than in comparison to when I used handheld controllers outside of a VR playspace.
RE7 VR, for myself, lacked that sense of fear that is integral to the horror label. Sure, at times the occasional jumpscare did get me, but it turned formulaic overtime, becoming predictable. I learned how to most efficiently navigate spaces, avoid enemies, and utilize the safe zones within the game to optimize how I chose to move around. My position as a player turned from reactive to active, and I gained the agency (and ammunition) to simply steamroll my way through sections without really caring about conserving my ammunition too stringently. This all served to change any residual fear into excitement, and I no longer found myself worried about what may or may not happen to me.
Finally, moving away from the mechanical nature of RE7, I feel the fantastical nature of the monsters significantly diminished any sense of fear I was experiencing, as their disjointedness and lack of humanity made me less scared. For instance, Jack was the most fearful entity throughout RE7 because he “appeared” as I did, that being human. His invulnerability, however, was a stark contrast from how damageable I was, and he was an ever present, unpredictable force within a space I felt was familiar. Only then was I afraid, because as I moved forward the enemies became less and less human and I no longer had a set ‘expectation’ as to how damageable they should be. For Marguerite, Evie, and even Jack III, their lack of humanity eradicated my fear, now amping me up and adding to the sense of suspense and excitement.
RE7, despite its downfalls within VR, is still a fantastic game that served as a landmark within the horror game industry. RE7 may be formulaic, but it is an immersive experience regardless of what format you choose to play it in, and I highly recommend you try out RE7 VR if given the chance. While it feels less like a horror game and more like a thriller, it still serves as a memory-filled game and one I will enjoy playing for years to come.
A Quiet Place starring John Krasinski is a movie that was critically and financially successful at the time of its release. But over four years since its premiere, the film is curiously most well remembered for a seemingly inconspicuous whiteboard that appears in its first ten minutes. The whiteboard is in the main character Lee’s surveillance room and it contains all of the information that they have gathered on the monster, questions they still have about the monster, and the keys to survival in the world they inhabit.
What has gone so viral about this whiteboard to the point of spawning entire articles is that the information written on it is blatantly for the audience’s benefit rather than Lee’s. Lee having inhabited the apocalyptic world of A Quiet Place for well over a year by the time would surely not need to constantly remind himself that the monster is blind, reacts to sound, and has armor, that medical supplies and sound proofing are important for survival, or that they still don’t know “WHAT IS THE WEAKNESS”. The whiteboard is just a way for the director to communicate the premise of the movie and the rules of its world to the audience without having to present it in a natural manner.
This whiteboard is indicative of a larger problem throughout A Quiet Place, that the movie seems both entirely proud of its world building and yet entirely unconfident in it at the same time.
In the movie’s opening scene we see some of the most subtle and effective world building in any movie. The family is exploring an abandoned convenience store taking care to be entirely silent while doing so. We see that noisy foods and pill bottles remain in the shop despite the clearly apocalyptic scenario. To this point in the film we do not know that there are monsters who are attracted to sound, but we understand and are intrigued by the fact that sound is for some reason feared by this family.
The family leaves the store and goes outside where we see the first glimpses of the movie’s lack of confidence in its world building as a conspicuously placed newspaper flaps towards the camera with the message “ITS SOUND” on the front page. The movie has already done an incredibly good job of communicating that something about sound is feared in this world, and yet it feels the need to spell the conceit of the movie out to its audience in the least subtle manner possible.Only moments later in the movie we would see the first large sound be made, and thus discover that there is a monster which is attracted to sound, and yet the movie didn’t seem to think this would communicate the premise of the movie clearly enough.
Throughout A Quiet Place there are so many instances of subtle story telling and worldbuilding that when the movie is so overt it’s all the more unsavory. We see Lee putting more sand paths we see the children playing Monopoly with felt game pieces, we see the mother cooking using a steamer, the family eating without cutlery on plates of lettuce. All of this, while not immediately obvious, shows us the life this family has created in a world where sound is a death sentence. It’s intriguing and sad and most importantly feels real.
This raises an interesting question: is it more important for a movie to be presented in a believable manner or for the audience to have a full and complete understanding of its concept?
I think this is a big reason for why A Quiet Place was incredibly popular upon its release but has looked on less favorably in recent years. While its lack of subtlety and restraint in communicating with the audience was beneficial for viewer comprehension and clarity, on repeat viewings it becomes all the more egregious. You don’t recognize that the chips and pills have been left behind or that the Monopoly pieces are made of felt, you just recognize how dumb it is to have a whiteboard that says “WHAT IS THE WEAKNESS”.
A moment where A Quiet Place finds a perfect medium between natural storytelling and direct communication to the audience is the scene with Lee and his son at the waterfall.After accidentally making a sound near the waterfall, the son is understandably fearful and tries to run away but Lee stops him and explains that it’s okay because the sound of the waterfall is big enough to cover up the sound that they made. The communication of this rule makes sense in the context of the movie as Lee is trying to reassure his son that he is okay in doing so.
We see another scene of the two, now directly under the waterfall, where Lee loudly yells out to demonstrate this rule further. Then we are shown the scene from far away where we see how the waterfall’s noise is able to drown out the sound of their yelling, cementing the rule in our minds.
Later in the movie when this rule comes into practice and the son drowns out the sound of the mother’s screams by setting off fireworks, we understand how this works, and why the characters know this works.
Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is unlike any horror game that I have ever played. The game takes place in a very cliché cutesy anime school setting, very unassuming for a horror game, especially one that has rave reviews. What starts off similar to a dating simulator with four girls, Natsuki, Sayori, Monika, and Yuri slowly devolves into a psychological horror game with the entire world and game literally breaking down. The game should be interpreted as a visual novel, which explains the 1% gameplay and 99% reading/clicking through text. The main gameplay revolves around selecting 20 words out of 200 to formulate a poem, with each of the words “favoring” one girl the most. Whichever girl the poem favors the most will change the storyline but will most likely lead to the same ending. The game ultimately “ends” when the player interacts with the game folder and deletes the Monika character file which is hinted at throughout the game.
The game takes an interesting spin on the concept of a horror game and haunted media as a whole. The slow start to the game in conjunction with the endless text is actually a very deceitful tactic, as it lulls the player into thinking the game is nothing out of the ordinary. However, when random events start to occur (such as Yuri’s eye drifting off the screen, the mouse being forced to choose a certain option, etc.) and the music gets faster, the player is caught off guard because the perfect world that the player once thought starts to slowly show signs of breaking down. The soundtrack actually plays a key role in both instilling calmness followed by fear. Then when characters start to suicide, it is clear that the game is not what it appears to be. This has a certain appeal to one’s fear of the unknown because they are unable to predict what is about to happen next because of the worldbuilding the game does and the randomness of certain events. In a seemingly perfect world; even the most gruesome and graphic events can occur. This was a genius idea on Dan Salvato’s part as he is able to drop subliminal messages throughout the game. He creates a sort of bait and switch tactic by making the player let their guard down before slowly unveiling the dark horror behind the game.
DDLC takes haunted to another level through the use of files within the game folder; not only is the game haunted but the computer it is being played on is haunted. The game is revolutionary in that it was one of the first of its kind to have the player delete files and actually break the game, which seems counterintuitive but that is how it was designed. It also has files appear in the folder throughout the gameplay, often cryptic messages that can be decoded through methods such as base64. Although they are optional and add nothing to the gameplay, it develops a sense of community because players who are engrossed in the game would want to uncover every easter egg and find every message. What adds onto this is the randomness of events, which makes every playthrough slightly different from the last. Furthermore, pictures such as a comic Sayori hanging herself appear within the folder; it is best to play the game with the game folder open to the side. The game breaking down makes the computer seem haunted with the screen sometimes violently shaking and the text appearing as illegible characters. One can delve deep into the game if they would like or they can simply play the game as is which is unique about DDLC. The player can interact with the game folder as much as they would like to, a true innovation.
The game breaking down on itself makes the once Euclidean world reveal itself as non-Euclidean. It breaks down the fourth wall between computer and game, blurring the lines between the two, sometimes making it seem as if the computer is haunted. DDLC appears as more than just a game, it is a “choose your own adventure novel”, a psychological horror, dating simulator, and a revolutionary “game-breaking design”. The ingenious behind the worldbuilding and storytelling portrays the game as a forked path with multiple paths, but it is more of a loop back/loop along until the Monika file is deleted. It is also interesting to note that Monika has a Western name as opposed to the other characters, throwing a hint about her outcast role in the game. A subtlety in DDLC is that the player has to choose their own name, which makes it seem as though the characters are actually talking to the player, tearing down the fourth wall and making one more engrossed. The non-Euclidean aspect of DDLC successfully portrays the device being played on as a haunted medium. This is achieved through the similar endings that are reached despite different renditions of the playthrough aspect. A shortcut to the game can be achieved by deleting the Monika file before playing DDLC, making the world appear normal. The haunting of Monika has a further reach than just the game, it reaches the vessel (computer) and therefore the player. It is relatively lifelike and has a similar effect to watching found footage because it gives the sense of “discovery” in finding the haunted aspect of the game.
Doki Doki Literature Club was very innovative in how it created a new way to interact with horror. The haunted medium, the breaking of the fourth wall, the unambiguous setting all have an additive effect on the horror of the game. It is definitely a game worth checking out.
A Hans Holbein woodcut from around 1497 (right) next to a version edited to depict a variant of Slender Man (left) (in Emery, 2017).
In the early 18th century, in the area of the German Black Forest, a desperate mother writes a tragic report in her journal. Her son Lars disappeared from his bed, leaving nothing but a piece of thick black cloth behind. The day before, he had panicked about being followed by a monstrous creature, Der Großmann (the Tall Man). Now, she prepares to leave her home, for she believes that she would be the next one to be killed by him, along with her whole family (Creepypasta Wiki n.d.).
This story must have been recounted in countless communities by numerous storytellers who altered it little by little throughout the centuries. And it has to be significant and authentic to be translated into English. However, none of this is true and this story is nothing but a part of the Slenderman Mythos, an internet legend that deliberately blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality (Boyer 2016, 31). It came into world in 2009, in the exclusive Something Awful Forum in the course of a photoshop thread that asked users to create paranormal images. On June 10, Eric Knudson under the username of Victor Surge, uploaded two at first glance unsuspicious images that portrayed children in the foreground. He added a text that talks about the disappearance of fourteen children, a library blaze and “The Slender Man“ in the picture. When taking a closer look, one can see a blurry figure in the background, a tall man, probably wearing a suit, with a white face without any features. On the other picture, the man stands farther away and his arms have the shape of tentacles (Chess 2012, 376-380).
On June 19 user ce gars announced that he has received videotapes by a film school friend Alex who had become increasingly antisocial while they were filming their project Marble Hornets and who had asked him to burn the tapes before disappearing. Already in the first episode of what was to become a web-series, Slender Man appears. (Chess 2012, 380f.)
The play with fact and fiction not only motivated other users to contribute to the mythos, which resulted in a wide variety of backstories and diverse accounts for the creature‘s specific characteristics, it also lead to real world acts of violence in the name of, most notably the attempted murder of a twelve-year-old Wisconsin girl by two girls of the same age who stated that they committed their deed to become so-called proxies of Slender Man that are supposed to be in his favor (Tolbert 2018, 94). In this act, Boyer (2016, 35) writes “[t]he monster has become real, not only in the girls‘ minds but in the collective cultural consciousness as well.“
Overall, Jeffrey A. Tolbert’s (2018) description of the Slender Man Mythos within the framework of the “folkloresque“ as proposed by Michael Dylan Foster (2016) convinced me. Since this myth makes use of narrative structures and stylistics from folk tales, it can be described as folkloresque. The paper had me convinced that there could be little difference between the Slender Man mythos and traditional folk tales – besides its extraordinarily transparent origin story and its medium of origin – since the author concluded that the real world crimes committed in the name of the monster blur both the boundaries of fiction and reality, and of the folkloresque and folklore. The clarity of this conclusion made me wonder, whether this myth is really the result of a “hyper sped-up version of storytelling“ (Chess 2012, 390) that otherwise strictly follows the mechanisms of the development of folk tales, or if there are arguments that contradict this attribution in the case of Slender Man.
Notably, the use of fictional historical documents is fairly common in Gothic fiction (Zarka 2020). For instance, the first Gothic novel “The Castle of Otranto“ by Horace Walpole (1764) was described in the preface as rediscovered and translated medieval manuscript. Bram Stoker‘s “Dracula“ (1897) and Mark Z. Danielewski‘s “House of Leaves” (2000) use seemingly authentic reports and text excerpts to convey an authentic atmosphere. The true origin of the Slender Man myth is obscured by the release of Marble Hornets on YouTube, a platform far more accessible than the Something Awful forum, where no link can be drawn to the photo-editing thread and by the release of “creepypasta” – short scary stories that are meant to be shared online that are often written anonymously – about Slender Man, first on January 14, 2010 (Zarka 2020). Hence, a variety of new accounts of the story outside of the forum enhances the authenticity of the myth. These variants can be regarded as multiple traditions of the myth.
In a study of oral traditions of folklore, Otto Holzapfel notes that the identity of the author is practically irrelevant in folk tradition (Holzapfel 2002, 12). In the case of Slender Man, authorship makes the classification as a folk tale particularly difficult. Although the crimes that were committed in the name of Slender Man, were most likely performed by people who were neither aware of the myth‘s original author nor of its fictionality in general, the story‘s development can be traced almost perfectly. Also, Eric Knudson registered Slender Man as a trademark in 2010 and sold the rights to Sony who produced a big-budget movie in 2018 (Gardner 2018). Knudson (IMDb n.d. (b)), as well as the men who produced, directed and acted in Marble Hornets, Joseph DeLage (IMDb n.d. (a)) and Troy Wagner (IMDb n.d. (c))were later involved in the production of several Slender Man games and movies. Therefore, the transparency of Slender Man‘s creation was related to claims of authorship. Holzapfel furthermore explains that there is no such thing as an “original” in folk tradition – yet, Victor Surge certainly produced an original depiction of Slender Man with his first edited photos. Still, variants of the Slender Man mythos which e.g. allow the woodcut above to be interpreted as a depiction of this monster, show that the apparent original one has become merely one of many possible portrayals. Therefore, Chess’s description of the debugging of the myth through the community of the Something Awful forum, makes the development of a folkloresque story appear teleological, even though several variants can easily coexist (Chess 2012, 375).
Overall, the Slender Man myth could only become a folk story by finding its way into creepypasta and thereby being linked to tragic real life events. While the creator of the character and the makers of Marble Hornets commercialized Slender Man, creepypasta and similar kinds of folkloresque storytelling keep the mythos alive. Although there are valid reasons to regard Slender Man as a media phenomenon, the myth went through a similar development as traditional folk tales. With the traceability of its original authors, it does not comply with the typical characteristics of folklore, however Slender Man’s history has shown that his origins can be obscured through deceptive means of online storytelling.
Boyer, Tina Marie. 2016. “Medieval Imaginations and Internet Role-Playing Games.” In American/Medieval. Nature and Mind in Cultural Transfer, edited by Gilian R. Overing and Ulrike Wiethaus, 27-46. Göttingen: V&R unipress.
Tolbert, Jeffrey A. 2018. “”Dark and Wicked Things”: Slender Man, the Folkloresque, and the Implications of Belief.” In Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet, edited by Trevor J. Blank and Lynne S. McNeill. 91-112. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Zarka, Emily. 2020. “Slender Man: How The Internet Created a Monster | Monstrum.” Uploaded May 14, 2020. Video, 10:13. https://youtu.be/JBVn4SzvImo
Inscryption is a very unique game. It found a way to make a found footage horror/haunted media/card game hybrid that’s both mechanically and narratively fascinating. In this post, I’ll be diving into the horror of Inscryption as expressed through its mechanics. And as a structural note, I’m going to be primarily talking about the game’s first act, as the game’s 3 acts are very different both mechanically and narratively. I will be discussing act 3 to an extent near the end, but to cover the game’s entire story and mechanics in a satisfactory, holistic manner would take a whole lot more words than 1 blog post’s worth.
In Inscryption, you’re trapped in a cabin in the woods, forced to play a card game against a mysterious, shadowed arbiter. You travel across an ever-unfurling map on the table, building your deck and upgrading your cards. Cards have blood costs, usually between 1 and 3. This is the game’s most immediate gimmick beyond its genre. To get blood, you must sacrifice squirrels, the game’s only readily-available free card. Thankfully, the corpse-blood exchange rate is 1:1. Inscryption’s battle win condition is also unique. In most other card games like it, your goal is to deal a net number of damage to your opponent (often 20). In Inscryption, you need to deal a net total of 5 more damage than your opponent has done to you. Every point adds a tooth (yes, a human tooth) to a scale next to the board. Swing it 5 in your favor and you win.
There are a number of different relative items and systems also worth discussing for the topic of mechanic horror. The most relevant are pliers. If you use pliers, you get an extra tooth added to the scale for you. Of course, to obtain this tooth, you must retrieve it from your own mouth, shown in a gruesome first-person fashion. The knife, an item you get near the middle of the first act, is even more powerful ‒ it allows you to instantly win any single round of your choosing by putting a human eye on the scale. You can imagine where that eye comes from. Beyond these consumable items, there are also events on the map you can choose to engage with. You can come across campfires surrounded by hungry adventurers. You can warm a card by the fire to enhance its power, but the longer you keep it there, the higher the risk you run of the adventurers losing their patience and devouring it. There are also mycelium surgeons, who will happily cut two of the same card (2 grizzly bears, for example) both in half, stitching them together and combining their power.
Horror as Mechanic and Player Reactions
Inscryption is very different from most horror games. In most horror games, including many discussed by other students on this blog, you as the player are surrounded by horror. The game may be scary and atmospheric, but the gameplay is nearly always sneaking around, shooting guns, hunting for keys, solving puzzles, taking pictures or some other non-fantastical task. In Inscryption, meanwhile, you are a direct participant in the horror, and more interestingly, much of it is optional. Even if you never die in your playthrough besides functionally-scripted deaths (as I did, not to flex but entirely to flex), you necessarily sacrifice dozens of squirrels, and using the knife at least once is required to beat the game as well. But using the pliers on yourself, risking cards to starving adventurers or handing them over for brutal experiments? Those are actions you choose to perform.
In a discussion, I asked other students if these actions lost their horror or became second nature over time. Every student who played the game admitted that they did, because of course they did. By the 8th time you use the pliers on yourself, you’re not even considering the action anymore ‒ just its strategic implications for winning the fight. I then asked if they thought the repetition trivialized or contributed to the atmosphere. Interestingly, they said it contributed. One student was put off by these mechanics at first enough that she chose not to use them. But over time and as she kept losing, she forced herself to engage in the horror, and began using the pliers, knife, etc. Even if the mechanics individually lost their bite over time, the decision of whether or not to use them, and her eventual capitulation to optimal play, hung over her for the rest of her playthrough, contributing to the atmosphere.
A different student had a similar experience grappling with the repetition and cyclical nature of Inscryption and its mechanics. There is a mechanic where when you die, you pull stats from many of the cards in your deck to create a “player card” that you can then find in future runs. This student, when she realized she probably wasn’t winning the whole campaign in a particular run, would choose cards she otherwise wouldn’t in the hopes of their specific stats getting put into that run’s player card. However, she was mortified when, in the final boss of the act, some of those player cards came back… in her opponent’s deck.
This is a different kind of mechanic horror, a more longform action-consequence dynamic that builds up over an entire playthrough of Inscryption‘s first act. Many students expected to see this kind of consequence come from squirrel sacrifices or pulling out so many teeth from their heads. However, Inscryption is a little more clever than that. The consequence of engaging with those mechanics, which is inherently horrific, is simply to witness that horror. However, the face card system seems tame at face value, making it the perfect target for the endgame twist it sets you up for.
Self-Sacrificeand Inscryption’s broader narrative
Clearly, Inscryption’s first act squeezes themes of self-sacrifice or horrifying action-consequence out of nearly everything the player sees. A few of the cards in your deck talk to you throughout the playthrough, and it’s pretty clear they’re people trapped inside of cards by the arbiter across the table. Your overall goal is to set them free, which you eventually do. However, one of those people goes on to become the game’s actual antagonist, taking control of the software, reshaping it in his image and manipulating you into his meta-scheme (he wants to upload this corrupted version of the game to the Steam store). In the third act, where this plays out, themes of self-sacrifice continue. One fight has you look through your real-life hard drive to find large files the game then threatens to delete, and in a different fight, you have to fight and kill enemies that take the form of people from your actual Steam friends list. While less visceral, these more personal actions are effective continuations of the game’s overarching themes of self-sacrifice and self-imposed horror.
Inscryption, especially in its first act, is a game that challenges you, the player, to answer a question more explicitly than most others ‒ “To what degree are you willing to engage with the game?”
Ringu presents a confounding counterforce to Sconce’s technologist Spiritualist theory in Haunted Media. While Sconce portrays the Spiritualist movement as a derivation of initial technological advances, Ringu presents a logic-defying specter that goes against the logic of VHS tapes. This difference comes from a key perception in how the technology is perceived and the role it plays in society.
As we discussed in class, Ringu provides insight into the anxiety of raising your kid on a TV. Yoichi, Reiko’s son, is our primary manifestation of this anxiety. Many of the conversations Reiko and Yoichi have are over the phone, one of which is her telling him that she’ll be home late again. The language and presentation of that conversation indicates that this is a common ritual they perform. And this culminates in a very serious moment – Reiko wakes up and finds Yoichi watching the cursed tape, condemning him. After what has likely been years of absentee parenting, Yoichi’s actions are completely alien and unrecognizable to Reiko. Why would he watch the tape? His cousin’s ghost made him do it. Within the scope of the film, that’s completely believable. However, in a larger context, this isn’t really different from this quote from Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society:
There are kids who commit suicide who are heavily involved in the occult and parents don’t even know it,” he says. “Kids’ bodies are found, and you look around their room and see duct tape on the walls shaped like the inverted crosses that represent the antichrist. Parents have no idea what these things mean.” (Tipper 122)
Yoichi lives much of his life alone, even as a kid. He’s seen walking to school alone, answering the phone alone, etc. For most of the film, he is separated from his primary caretaker and living instead with his grandfather. Is it really that unfeasible then that he is a victim of this sort of stuff? He could be seeing all sorts of things on the TV and going to a school where rumors of the tape run rampant. This feels like such a far cry from the possibilities that technology could offer, or could have offered:
InHaunted Media, Sconce presents a straightforward argument: If the telegraph allows us to communicate in a disembodied fashion, then we could use the same technology, or similar technology, to talk with other disembodied people, i.e. dead people (they don’t have bodies because they’re y’know, dead.) There’s a little more nuance to this, but it offered opportunities to women that “would use the idea of the spiritual telegraph to imagine social and political possibilities beyond the immediate material restrictions placed on their bodies.” (Sconce 26) Maybe this new technological paradigm could offer opportunities to women and change the opportunities offered to them.
However, as time went on, these options were restricted, and “the empowering model of telegraphic technology would eventually be turned against the Spiritualists, leading to a new articulation of femininity and electronic disassociation that would serve to restrict drastically the autonomy of women (often quite literally).” (Sconce 51) Similarly to the Industrial Revolution, these technologies offered a vision of a utopian society, only to instead further cement control over individual’s lives. The consequences of the Industrial Revolution led to child labor and dangerous, horrid working conditions, and technological revolutions led to the articulation of control and overreach in today’s society. Modern technologies have been heralded as revolutionary and let into our lives from the market without much thought of what it will do or its larger effects on society. These technologies have radically changed our lives, some certainly for the better. Hopes and dreams of a society where all labor is automated and we can live our lives in pleasure are certainly not going to be a reality anytime soon. Innovations such as neural networks and AI have glaring flaws, with many preliminary attempts inheriting the same hateful beliefs many people have, such as racism and sexism. Even the dream of a paperless office has been thwarted by very foreseeable challenges. And we are left with the consequences of these revolutionary technologies.
This brings us to Ringu – a movie that deals with the consequences of this oft-heralded technology. As computers have been introduced into the workplace, and parents have gotten busier with their jobs, television provides a helpful support system for these struggling parents. These kids can now watch TV to keep them entertained, but what are they watching? Maybe it’s baseball. Maybe it’s a cursed tape depicting the murder of a young girl by her abusive father that will then haunt them and kill them after seven days. Who knows.
What I want to highlight here is what appears to be a misleading plot: Reiko and Ryuji embark on a quest to uncover the secret behind Sadako’s Wrath, and lay her body to rest from where it was so callously disposed of. It seems like none of it matters! But this is in line with the historical development we’ve been tracing – hauntings and connections with spirits, once something that was logical like the telegraphy that enabled it, has become gnarled and disjointed, reflecting the mess of technologies that constantly undercut each other and complicate our lives. Instead, the simple message of compassion has become garbled and virulent, instead becoming a message that cannot be understood before it’s too late. The standard “rules” of a haunting do not apply to this instance, instead the values of the medium take precedence. What happened to Sadako cannot be replicated with someone else, however the VHS tape can and must be. In fact, this is what makes VHS so great, is that tapes can be mass produced and spread widely. The film points to this in fact, with the story beginning with conversation about the VHS tape (and ending with it.) Reiko connects the story of her niece dying with the tape rumor, but she fails to remember that as the medium.
This is not to say that their actions were for naught. Ultimately, Ryuji and Reiko DID uncover the injustice done to Sadako and laid her body, and some part of her at least to rest. Although it didn’t stop Ryuji’s death, they did something that was good and had some connection to Sadako. When Reiko is in the well and finds Sadako’s body, her body grips Reiko and pulls herself up, after which Reiko embraces her decaying corpse. Notably, this element of reanimation indicates that Sadako’s corpse had some sort of animating spirit, it just wasn’t the one that killed them. What is instead suggested is something that goes beyond the scope of just Sadako, and just Reiko and Ryuji. The technology obscures and contorts the possibility of survival, creating a misleading path that they follow instead. This is not a deception, because what they do has spiritual ramifications, rather it is not enough. What they should have is confounding, and does not fit within the logic of Sadako’s story. Is the conclusion of the film totally nonsensical and feel jarring? Yes, but it’s akin to the nonsensical and jarring role technological “improvements” have played in our lives.
What leads someone to believe in ghosts? Perhaps a spooky encounter that can’t be explained. But if ghosts are supposed to be scary, why does it seem like so many people wanted to believe in them with the spirit photography craze of the latter half of the 1800s?
William Mumler was a jewelry engraver turned (spirit) photographer who claimed to have taken the first “ghost photo” in 1862. According to Mumler, he was alone in his studio taking a self portrait, and when he went to develop the image, a ghostly figure resembling his late cousin appeared in the frame. Mumler went on to self-promote his abilities as a medium in various newspapers to attract people to his studio with promises that he could coax their dead relatives to appear in a photo with them. He charged $5-10 per photo, roughly $150-300 in today’s dollars, and quickly became quite wealthy with the high public demand for pictures of people’s dead family members.
However, Mumler’s rise to fame came about as quickly as his fall from grace. From the beginning, Mumler had vocal skeptics. Though no one was ever able to exactly recreate his photographs, photographers and scientists at the time gave at least a dozen different plausible explanations for ways the images could have been faked in Mumler’s 1869 fraud trial. But photography was still a new medium, having only been invented in 1822, and was expensive so the mechanisms of the technology were not widely understood by the general public. It was argued that the limits of photography were unclear, so perhaps ghosts could really be captured on film. Damningly though, there were multiple instances where someone who was still alive was captured as “ghost” by Mumler, including people he had recently photographed in the studio. Not only that, it was alleged that Mumler broke into people’s houses to steal photos of dead family members prior to sessions they had scheduled with him.
So, with all this evidence against Mumler’s claims, why did so many people go along with Mumler’s claims that he could communicate with those beyond the grave? Looking at Mumler’s photography today, it’s clear that they were faked. Many of the ghosts in the images have the exact same silhouette with no clothing details, only different faces.
Noticing this immediately, I was initially baffled at why anyone would have believed Mumler or believed in ghosts in general. However, times were different back then. There was no internet, no database of every photo Mumler ever took for people to compare and scrutinize. Upon further investigation with this in mind, I argue that in this period of rapid change and uncertainty, people were desperate to hold onto any semblance of constancy. For many, ghosts were comforting because they represented a continuity of life after physical death.
The 1860s was a period of rapid change and uncertainty in the US with the Civil War spanning the first half the decade. The country was split and families were separated as men went off to fight with no guarantee of returning home alive. News traveled slowly, so people waited anxiously for weeks to hear from their loved ones and no one knew when the fighting would end. This war brought an unprecedented number of casualties. Grief was overwhelming and there was widespread mourning across the nation.
The mid-1800s was also a period when new technologies were constantly being invented and changing vital aspects of life multiple times throughout a person’s lifetime. Notably, the invention of the telegraph in 1844 fundamentally reshaped communication and peoples’ relationship to and understanding of the body. For the first time, the human voice could be disembodied from the corporeal. With this new concept of disembodied communication, Spiritualism rose in popularity as a religious movement that proclaimed communication with the dead was possible because the soul and body are separate entities.
With the Civil War’s devastating aftermath and the rise of belief in spiritualism, ghosts became a source of comfort rather than fear. Death is horrifying. Losing loved ones fundamentally alters how someone looks at life. Processing death is difficult and painful. How do you begin to process a loved one’s death when all you get is a letter that says they were killed in battle, knowing that you will never get a chance to see their face again?
While Mumler was a savvy businessman who capitalized on mass mourning, it was clear he understood the power of nostalgia. Seeing the smiling faces of their dead relatives one last time, even the form of a hazy translucent figure (that most certainly was a photo from when they were alive), allowed many people to feel that their loved ones were still with them on the other side. Although death is inevitable, the existence of ghosts means that life still exists past death. Spirits do not die because the soul is eternal. Mumler’s spirit photos gave his clients a physical reminder of this, that just because their family members are dead doesn’t mean they are completely gone from their lives.
Death leaves many questions that will forever go unanswered and brings on many fears. Perhaps the greatest fear that death brings is whether that person’s presence will continue to be felt in the mourner’s life, or whether their memory will eventually fade to nothing. A ghost photo serves as a permanent memorialization of the dead, a memory physically externalized so that it cannot be completely lost. Grief never fully goes away, but those grieving eventually learn to live with that uncertainty. When the unknown becomes the only constant in a sea of change, it becomes a source of comfort.
Kōji Shiraishi’s film, Noroi: The Curse (2005) is unlike any other found footage film – maybe even horror film – out there, and I swear that I’m not being dramatic. Unlike other found footage horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), REC (2007), and the Paranormal Activity franchise, Noroi is different as it introduces the audience to a fear that they themselves have never thought of before: the fear of the authentic.
Now, it’s not to say the other found footage films out there aren’t “realistic” or fail to present themselves as actual events. For example, The Blair Witch Project does an excellent job with its acting and camera work, delivering a hauntingly real performance. It also helps that because of the film’s creative marketing team, many people walked into theaters genuinely believing that what they were about to witness could perhaps be the last living moments of this missing group of college students.
However, by the time the end-credits rolled, almost as if lowering the curtains after the end of a show, the audience is reminded that none of this supposed “real-life found footage” is actually…well real. In fact, I was surprised to hear from Professor Ian Jones how audience members groaned in the theaters after the viewing of The Blair Witch Project. Perhaps it’s because of how intricate and highly successful the film’s marketing was that allowed some people to walk in a with a deep sense of immersion that honestly hasn’t been seen since, which as a result led to some leaving with some sort of annoyance being reminded that it was just a film.
While other found footage films haven’t come near the level of marketing success as The Blair Witch Project, if we take a step back, they all stand at the same level of the level of horror they rely on and deliver (i.e. shaky cameras and jump scares). Again, it’s important to once again state that I’m not saying these films don’t feel real or whether one found footage is more “scarier” than the other. However, what all these films fail to do and which Noroi does so well is present itself as authentic, and this authenticity might prove to deliver a different kind of untaped fear that hasn’t been seen in many films and, in my opinion, needs to be explored more.
Authenticity in Found Footage
I’ve already gone off and labeled the other found footage horror films mentioned above (and honestly most found footage outside of Noroi) as inauthentic with very little explanation as to why, so before I start to gush over what makes Noroi work so well, I’m going to quickly define what I mean by “authenticity” in horror films – specifically in the found footage genre.
In the majority of found footage films, the “found footage” itself is presented to us through us as something we weren’t supposed to see or was never meant to be recorded in the first place. A film that unintentionally captured something that was never meant to be seen, but through some third party it was made public either way. In Paranormal Activity, it can be inferred that it was the police that discovered the footage of what happened inside the couples house, and the whole point of The Blair Witch Project centers around the idea that perhaps in their search for the missing students, someone stumbled across the tapes and put them together to raise awareness.
Either way, all of the contents found inside this footage was captured on accident. Even if the original filming was done on purpose such as for a documentary (Blair Witch) or to confirm if anything unusual is going on (Paranormal Activity), what ended up being captured was never meant to be released, mostly because the people who were originally filming ended up deceased.
At times too, it feels like this theme of being “hidden” continues on with the content itself of what little is shown in the majority of the film. Most of the horror in these films doesn’t come from the idea that any of this could be real or actually happened, but instead from the actor’s realistic reactions of their environment along with the combination of the shaky camera and loud noises that produce momentary jump-scares. It’s usually near the end of the film when the climax begins and what was hidden begins to be shown, causing us to raise our alertness as we see everything madly unfold as we reach a point of no return. And finally, once has happened: the credits roll and we are reminded that it’s not real.
I mean, were we ever supposed to believe what we were shown was genuine? Even with the incredible marketing that came from TheBlairWitch, the end credits remove any suspicion we may have had on its authenticity. In addition, the fact that most of the technology that was used to capture this footage is relatively a very simple and widely available technology, and in a way because of it’s simplicity and poor video quality causes this footage to cast a shadow of unreliability. Anyone with a simple handheld camera could go out and replicate the same effects, and with some careful editing and staging can present their own “real” haunted footage.
All these factors prevent most found footage from being viewed with any degree of authenticity, and they tend to rely on other forms of horror such as jump scares or the actors’ terrified reaction to deliver their scares. While effective as a horror movie, I think it’s unfortunate that they don’t really deliver anything new. I mean absolutely no disrespect to the genre and impact these movies have had in shaping horror films, but in the end they’re still bound to the rules we’ve all have gotten used to seeing in other horror films. With such an interesting medium and concept, it’s a shame to see these films rely on the same scare tactics of common horror films instead of pushing the boundaries in horror to discover new ways to deliver some unexplored fears within the human psyche.
And that’s where Noroi comes in.
The Uncanny Realness of Noroi
On the surface, Noroi: The Curse has the same concept of any other found footage film. The movie centers around paranormal investigator and journalist Masafumi Kobayashi who has recently started making documentaries of his investigations of the occult with Noroi being his current work in progress. However, what really differentiates Noroi and allows it to branch out onto different territories no other film has gone before is in the way they present the found footage.
Unlike other films, Noroi presents its footage not as an accidental discovery but with purpose: everything was meant to be seen, and they make sure you know it. For starters, there’s very few footage in Noroi that are hard to read or follows the normal found footage format of the shaky camera. Instead, everything is professionally shot and clearly captured since this is a documentary being filmed for a publishing company. Albeit granted it’s a fake document for a fake company, it genuinely feels like an actual documentary you would see in the real world. In fact, the only people who are credited when the movie ends before its end credit scene are the characters of Kobayashi and the cameraman. Even when the final act ends, there is no mention of the real-life actors who portrayed these characters. Only Kōji Shiraishi and the producer are credited in the beginning of the film, but for the rest of the movie, it’s quite literally treated like its own separate film.
With the fake production company to the narration in the beginning and end of the film, we know that everything that is about to be presented with us is done so with purpose and not by accident. Someone within this in-film universe looked through the entire footage, selected what clips were going to be shown, and organized them to form a coherent journal of Kobayashi’s last investigation before his disappearance.
Probably one of the most notable examples of this are the multiple freeze frames that occur when something supernatural is captured. It might seem annoying to rewind and replay something that just occurred, focusing on something most of us might’ve already spotted the first time, but this actually is what allows for a new terror to blossom within us. By forcing viewers to examine let’s say a ghost that stood in the background, the viewers are forced to stare at an unnatural phenomenon straight right into its eyes.
This level of visibility is unheard of, especially in found footage. Shiraishi is removing any possibility of unclarity and make it very apparent that these outside entities do exist and are living within our world, silently standing in the back unnoticed until they are made noticeable. We get to see characters react to this footage, and like we’d expect any person to react to this information, they express their anxieties of not noticing these supernatural objects the first time, only left with the dread of now knowing that it was there.
Now that’s the emotion that Noroi exposes us to and opens the possibilities for other films to explore: dread. Early on in the film, we are made aware and are shown clearly that these occult beings do exist and have an effect in this world. And as Kobarashi continues to go deeper into his investigation, all we’re left with as he continues to uncover and present us with more evidence is dread for what’s about to come when he eventually gets too close to these out-of-our-control entities. This fear of the unknown is innate and natural, and throughout the years many horror films have delved into the themes around it. Shiraishi, however, comes and adds more to this fear by making the unknown extremely known. We can’t ignore it or pretend we saw it wrong, but instead we have to confront it. The scariest part though is that not only do we have to accept the occult exists, but that in the end we don’t know anything about it, bringing us back to square one of being at a disadvantage when dealing with the unknown.
Other ways that Noroi creates this veil of authenticity is through its multiple sequences where it uses outside sources of information and clips it into the documentary footage Kobayashi is recording. Although seemingly random at first, with these clips ranging from previously aired variety television programs to unused television footage or interviews clips, the inclusion of these segments build a sense of grounded reality in this world. The occult is not only occurring within what Kobayashi has already captured, but also apparently on a constant basis outside of his view. This once again builds into that fear of the unknown because if all of these instances exist and are recorded as proof, then one can only wonder how many other supernatural things have happened but we don’t know because nothing captured it. This is where Noroi peaks and really drives home that what is being presented to the viewers is not a trick or fake footage but a real haunting that led to the tragedy of the investigators’ disappearance.
By stepping outside the found footage format and editing clips that make us stare into the occult, providing outside “sources,” and giving up jump scares to build up exponential dread and fear throughout the film, Noroi opens up a window to look into what really makes us afraid when it comes to horror that I believe films need to begin exploring more. It’s not how scary a monster appears or the loud “BOO!” that’ll make anyone jolt in shock for a second. It’s something much deeper and more natural; something that can only be represented if done so carefully. With found footage specifically, a medium that relies so much on selling that what we’re seeing has actually happened, Noroi has taught that this genre needs to start going outside the constraints of the normal horror formula and focus and what makes the authentic so terrifying. How if you carefully set up your film to stand on its own as truly a genuine recording of some unknown happenings, people start feeling the true fear of this footage being “found”. It raises the truth that if any of this footage actually was real and these beings do exist, we would be completely left the dark, unprepared, and afraid. We’d be helpless, unable to do anything about it with the only having control being that which we do not know anything about.