Grey evening light drains the world of colour, of vibrancy, leaving it featureless, masked in grim shadows. A murder of crows approaches the suspended body with caution, their hoarse croaks echoing through the muted gloom.
A bitter wind howls across Hanging Hill, hunting away the hopping crows, setting the suspended corpse to swinging. The Hill itself is no more than a grassless mound rising bleakly from a rocky, untillable field. There are no gallows, merely a dirty rope affixed to the lonely, twisted tree that manages to grow here.
A solitary crow remains, unwilling to give up its feast. It appears injured, diseased, a scaly growth covering the left side of its face, this eye a blind milky pearl. The bird’s head sways from side to side in time with the carcass’s rhythmic swaying, its gaze cyclopean, unblinking.
Atmosphere is a critical, some might say the most critical part of a horror story. Creating atmosphere is more than the simple description of the surrounds and scenery, in a horror story the atmosphere must be crafted carefully, respectfully, believably. To create fear in your characters is one thing, but to create fear in your readers – or, if you are playing a RPG, your players – is another thing entirely.
What do I mean by atmosphere?
Simply put, the other name for a literary atmosphere is mood. From Wikipedia:
Mood is one element in the narrative structure of a piece of literature. It can also be referred to as atmosphere because it creates an emotional setting enveloping the reader. Mood is established in order to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative.
Even from this simple definition, you can see the importance of mood in any writing where you want your reader to have an emotional response (and no writer wants their writing to be read with indifference).
Ok, but what do these RPG’s teach us about mood/atmosphere?
Every role-playing game has some idea of mood. Classic D&D likes to position itself in a high adventure and fantasy, whilst Shadowrun (and urban fantasy game) works within a conspiracy, detective fiction setting. The ones I am exploring in this analysis (Ravenloft & Wraith the Oblivion) seek different atmospheres within the broad spectrum considered ‘horror’. I should note that nothing in these RPG’s cannot be gleamed from elsewhere by a reading within the horror genre – but a benefit of RPG rule books is that this stuff is spelled out for you. Someone has done the work, done the research, and it is laid out for you.
Ravenloft – gothic horror.
The lifeblood of Lovecraft & Poe. A subtle thing, gothic horror is all about creating a sense of danger, of foreboding, a fear of the hidden and the unknown. Twisted, mysterious, frequently supernatural, gothic horror this is the brooding fear of the dark where the characters are set against warped and sinister enemies.
Many of the villains in Ravenloft are clearly ripped from the pages of novels – Von Strahd is a clone of Dracula, Dr Victor Mordenheim and ‘Adam’ are copies of Frankenstein and his monster. These less than original bad guys are almost secondary to the setting itself, where the lands and nature themselves are animated against the characters. Fogs obscure both the monsters pursuing them and the paths to safety. Birds eat their bread crumb paths, wagon-wheels break and horses die mysteriously.
A gothic atmosphere requires many things, but I feel that subtlety and a focus on details are key.
Subtlety is missing in much of modern horror (not all, but much). The monster is exposed early (in a movie you might see the monster as early as the trailer), and hits hard, hits frequently. The Ravenloft book puts this as a question of “when” – when will it (the bad thing) happen – when does the next victim of the slasher die – when will the next shock leap out at me. Questions of ‘what’ are limited to variations on a theme – what specific garden power tool will be used to remove this victim’s kidney, what end will this person be placed in the human centipede?
In Gothic horror the ‘what’ is much more important, and is hidden for much longer (if it is revealed at all). There is a sense of building oppression, of increasing terror, a wrongness that grows. The lights don’t just go out leaving the cast in darkness, rather each lamp in the room dims, flickers, then fails, one at a time, and the shadows build gradually until they are left alone in darkness. This is when the characters hear the scratching behind them…
Details are important for gothic horror. Looking again at modern horror films, think of the use of ‘found footage’ in movies since The Blair Witch Project. This jumpy, jagged, filming is effective because it installs the viewer in the pursuit, it forcibly shares the fear of the character. But it does this by obscuring the details. All you can see is the shaking of lights, shadow, feet running, and heavy breathing. This fear, this panic, is great… but it is not gothic.
Gothic horror drips details.
Details, details, details
Colour, mass, texture, taste, temperature, odour, sound, sensation – all add meat to a tale, all bring the “unreal” to life. The audience wont believe in that world until they see it, hear it, feel it. The detail needn’t be gruesome. Often it focuses on the ordinary…
(Page 129 Ravenloft).
All these details, the ordinary, the skewed, the downright warped, all these add up to believable horror. Once horror is believable, then you get suspension of disbelief, and the character, the audience, your readers, they can personally experience the fear, the dread, the terror.
The gothic horror of Ravenloft is the subtle horror of a red stain on a white cloth (is it wine or blood?), it is the building dread of a stranger who comes to town late, and finds every door locked, every window bolted, it is the visceral terror of child who knows they shut the cupboard door, but it’s clearly open now and what just brushed past my feet…?
The short piece of writing at the top of this blog is an attempt at pure gothic atmosphere. Nothing happens, there is no story here – at its core its a few birds on a hill with a dead guy, but in creating the atmosphere, I have tried to focus on the details, on the skewing of the normal, on the subtle descriptions. The wind is not cold, it is bitter. The crows do not leave, the wind hunts them away. The last crow is not just sick, it is twisted, half-blind, mutated by the disease….
Wraith: The Oblivion – Existential (Personal) Horror
Ah, Wraith. I loved this game, so unique, so personal… so difficult to play. It was a bugger of a game to do well, and I’m pretty sure I was inconsistent at best. But when it worked… it was excellent. I call Wraith ‘existential horror’, as it focuses on uniqueness of the individual player or character’s experience in a hostile universe. Each character’s horror is both external and fundamentally internal – the character must face an overcome the darkness within themselves as much as the harshness of the environment.
The setting of Wraith is an unusual one – the character has already died, and now exists as a ghost or wraith, trapped between really living and complete oblivion. These wraiths are chained to the real world by the things and people who connected them to the world – family, homes, cherished toys, even the character’s murderer. The wraiths themselves and the whole oppressive wraith economy are fuelled by passions – the emotions, the hopes, the hatreds that drove the person while they lived. The setting is one of melancholy and sadness (of death and loss), violence and fear (rampaging monsters and tyrannical government).
The characters are forever separated from the people and the passions that still give them meaning, that keep them from slipping into nothingness, and yet these same fetters bind them to a half-existence, preventing them from ‘moving on’ (transcending). It is their personal ties that empower and trap them.
The wraith world is highly populated – and brutal. Government is militant and oppressive, slavery (possibly for eternity) is a common punishment. On the extreme villainous side is Oblivion, served by the Lovecraftian Neverborn, and the fallen spectres. The atmosphere of horror in Wraith comes from the individual’s battle against the external forces seeking to destroy or subdue them, whilst simultaneously having to face the demons they carry with them.
Facing these challenges is what brings around the core concepts of what I am calling ‘existential horror’ atmosphere – Confusion, passion, and despair.
Confusion is important for this sort of horror. Is the character really experiencing this, or are they dreaming/hallucinating? The movie Jacob’s Ladder is an amazing example of what I mean here – until the end of the movie, Jacob cannot be sure if his experiences (which are uniformly horrible and certainly not subtle) are real or not. What is going on, and why is the character/characters the only one affected? Confusion can make your narrator unreliable, and keep your reader questioning. Did Patrick Bateman kill those people in American Psycho, or is he fantasising? Why can’t I stop thinking about Huey Lewis and the News?
Passion is what drives a Wraith story. Passions are the connections between one character and another. They drive a character’s actions, they provide reasons for your character to keep going forward, going forward even when common sense would dictate they stop. In an 80’s slasher film, the teens all die, seemingly pointlessly and randomly. They do things that are stupid, like deciding to have sex when half their friends have been gutted, or ‘going out to the boat house at night’. But in other movies, these decisions are not simply poor choices, they are explained and the audience can see the necessity. For example ‘Aliens’ – Ripley shouldn’t go back to the Alien hive, she’s free to leave, but the story has established her daughter died some time ago, and she has taken Newt on as a surrogate. Ripley could no more leave Newt to the Aliens than she could leave her own daughter. Her fierce motherly drive compels her to walk into to danger.
In writing, passions can form motives, build on themes, and explain actions, all of which are essential for believable characters. This holds true for believable villains too – indeed a villain may be driven entirely by passions, by desires, and heaven help any who get in their way…
Despair. Hopelessness, and more than that, a loss of self. In Wraith, as the character’s connections to their old life are severed, or die, the wraith gradually looses connection to reality, to existence. A singer who loses the ability to sing will experience despair as their view of self is fundamentally changed. Imagine the poor wraith then who exists on memories, as a memory, and can only watch as their wife remarries, their children fall to drugs and crime, their murderer goes unpunished.
In writing I consider despair as the next stage of passion. In a horror novel, despair might hit the character immediately before the last scene, when everything tried by the lead has failed and there is nothing left for them to do. If Newt had died, Ripley would have been crushed by grief at her loss, by guilt for being unable to protect another daughter, by despair – if she cannot protect her children then what good is she? This is again, a wholly internal type of horror.
So using the Wraith horror example, the dread, the fear should be personal to the character being dealt with. It may be a unique hell (Shout at the Devil), it may be an individual haunting (King’s The Dark Half).
Wow, this was a long one (over 2000 words)! I hope this makes sense – it’s almost midnight here, and I’m not necessarily at my most coherent. Of course there are many elements of a horror atmosphere, and it doesn’t all need to be gothic or personal, and indeed these can and should be mixed with straight up gore and slasher-fests.
That said, I really feel that trying to get the atmosphere right is important in horror, and I’d be interested what you think. Did you find this interesting? Useful? Do you prefer a different type of atmosphere? Did you like my little piece on the Hanging Hill?
Thanks for reading.