Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written about the horror genre and I thought that I’d talk about it today because I ended up re-playing the early parts of a really scary modern survival horror game from 2018 called “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” – which involves sneaking around a mansion and hiding from various bloodthirsty killers.
Although computer games and novels are completely different mediums, I was surprised to notice that this game contained some interesting lessons for writing scary horror fiction.
This article may contain some mild-moderate PLOT SPOILERS for this game though.
1) Use darkness carefully: One of the most well-known elements of the horror genre is darkness and gloom. After all, a fear of the dark is one of the oldest and most common fears. Yet, darkness only really “works” in horror stories when it is used carefully and with an awareness of how it works.
Darkness itself is an entirely neutral and non-scary thing. All it does is to make it more difficult to see things. Although this is commonly used to suggest scary things lurking out of sight and heighten the audience’s feelings of fear, I recently had a reminder that darkness can sometimes actually make situations less scary.
When I started replaying “Remothered: Tormented Fathers”, I messed around with the game’s brightness settings. I’d initially set them fairly high in the hope that it would make the game “less scary”. But, it was only when I ended up lowering them that the game actually became less scary. I was a bit puzzled by this for a few seconds before I realised why the added gloominess lessened the fear. It revealed lots of extra shadows that I could hide in if I needed to. And, although the game’s villains also use sound to find you, the darkness at least gave me the reassuring feeling that my character was harder to see.
Here’s a comparison to show you what I mean. The darker of the two images looks scarier, but actually feels less scary in-game.
In other words, darkness works both ways. So, don’t be afraid to show your characters using it to their advantage in order to hide from scary things. Conversely, if you really want to scare your reader, create a power imbalance by giving the adversary in your story better night vision than your main character (or, like in the game, very sensitive hearing). Without this, darkness just “levels the playing field” between your main character and whatever is scaring them. So, if you’re going to use darkness in a horror story, be aware of the power dynamics of it.
Likewise, scenes of horror that take place in brightly-lit locations can be more frightening than you might think – because it’s harder for your characters to hide and because it gives you an excuse to describe everything in lots more detail too. And, talking of descriptions…
2) Locations matter: One of the most important parts of any horror story is the setting. The more unique and interesting it is, the more memorable, scary and re-readable your story will be. Why? Because a concrete sense of place (created through vivid descriptions of a small number of unique and/or recurring locations) will linger in your reader’s memory longer than anything else will.
Not only that, if the story takes place somewhere interesting, then your reader will probably feel curious enough about it to want to revisit it – even if they are frightened of doing so. This tension between curiosity and fear is one of the best ways to create scary horror.
For example, although the “creepy mansion” setting isn’t exactly uncommon in horror games (it goes back at least as far as 1992’s “Alone In The Dark“), “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” does a few interesting and unique things with it. For example, everything in the game (eg: the technology, costume designs, colour palettes, interior design etc..) has a subtle “1970s/80s horror movie” atmosphere to it and the mansion contains lots of random everyday clutter that gives the place a “lived in” feeling.
Here are a couple of examples. The CRT televisions, retro fashions and muted colour palettes instantly make this location a bit more distinctive and unique.
This feeling of place is also improved by the fact that the vast majority of the game takes place within a relatively small number of locations, allowing the player to memorise everywhere and build a mental “map” of the mansion. Likewise, at the beginning of the game, you get a chance to explore part of the mansion without any danger. Not only does this mean that, when new locations are revealed, they feel creepier and more unfamiliar, but it also evokes a tense feeling of claustrophobia (despite the mansion’s long corridors and wide hallways).
But, what does any of this have to do with fiction? Well, although novels aren’t interactive or visual, a focus on a few well-described recurring locations can be used to heighten the reader’s sense of fear in a number of clever ways. They can be used to evoke feelings of claustrophobia. Changes to familiar locations can unsettle the reader. Unusual locations make your story feel unpredictable. Seriously, don’t underestimate the value of good, well-described settings in horror stories.
3) Silliness and scariness: The first killer that you have to evade in “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” is an elderly character called “Mr. Felton”. Felton is dressed in nothing but an apron and a pair of wellingtons and will occasionally grumble about random things like mouldy food in the kitchen or sing various nursery rhymes. This character sounds more amusingly silly than frightening.
Yet, although Felton sounds like a “silly” character, these are some of the scariest parts of the game. Why? Because Felton is presented as a genuine threat to the player (Felton cannot be killed, can run surprisingly quickly, carries a sharp sickle and will also shout menacing insults at you). Plus, if you’ve completed the game before and know the backstory, then some of the earlier “silly” details actually make total sense in context and will become considerably more “realistic” and/or chilling as a result.
For example, the nursery rhymes hint at the later reveal that a traumatic event left part of Felton’s personality “frozen” at an early age. Although the game doesn’t tell you that this is why Felton sings nursery rhymes, it is a realistic and practical extension of this character’s tragic backstory that rewards astute players who actually pay attention to the story.
So, what does this have to do with horror fiction? Horror, by it’s very nature, is silly. Monsters, zombies, ghosts, vampires etc… don’t exist. If you actually want to make these “silly” things scary, you not only have to think about them in a more “realistic” and “practical” way, but you also need to present them as a geniune threat to the characters too. Plus, although the monsters themselves might be more silly than scary, the suspense and feeling of danger surrounding them are what scares the audience in well-written horror stories.
For example, the scariest parts of “Remothered: Tormented Fathers” aren’t when Felton charges at you with sickle raised. They’re the moments when you can’t see Felton. When you’re hiding behind something and you can hear footsteps getting closer or a door opening. When you haven’t seen Felton for a while and just know that this won’t last for much longer. A lot of the game’s scariness comes from the suspense surrounding Felton rather than the moments when Felton actually appears.
So, if you want to make something “silly” actually scary, then think about it practically, make it clear that the main characters are in danger and be sure to focus on suspense.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂