The Horror of Mundanity (The Not-So-Fun Scary)

MGibster

Legend
Content Warning: There's some discussion of harm to children here. There will be no explicit descriptions of harm to children in this thread, but it's part of this opening post because I'll briefly discuss a new campaign released for Delta Green called God's Teeth. It's possible we might discuss the inclusion of other unpleasantries in this thread, but we should avoid anything explicit out of respect for all participants.

I'm not a Potter head, but I've heard from fans that Dolores Umbridge is hated, despised, and loathed to a greater degree than even arch-villain Voldemort. And one of the more commonly cited reasons for the hatred is that Umbridge is a more down-to-Earth villain compared to the cartoonish Voldemort. Umbridge is a character with a little authority who makes decisions designed to hurt others and we've all known people like that in real life. Maybe it was a teacher who went out of their way to make you feel like crap for getting an answer wrong, a boss who deliberately gives you the worst assignments because they don't like you, or maybe it was a police officer who detains you for twenty minutes for jaywalking. People hate Umbridge because they've met her many times while they've never met a Voldemort.

The other day I picked up God's Teeth, a campaign for Delta Green. For those of you unfamiliar, Delta Green was originally created for Call of Cthulhu back in the 1990s, and to keep it brief, was kind of like the X-Files meets Cthulhu. Let's be clear, it didn't copy the X-Files, it was actually created a few months before the series came out, but DG taps into the same UFO conspiracy theories that were part of the zeitgeist at the time. In God's Teeth, the PCs deal with some pretty horrific child abuse, and while the worst of it happens off screen, what happens during game is still pretty bad. For the first time ever, I've encountered a scenario I'm not sure I can run for my group.

I thought to myself about why I wasn't sure about running this particular campaign and it made me think of Dolores Umbridge. While I don't have any personal experience with child abuse, like Umbridge, it's too real. (I had a similar problem with Twilight 2000 once the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced.) Here in the United States, And I'm okay with the product existing, I'm even okay with running it, but I'm going to have to run it by my players and if they don't want to participate I won't hold it against them. But now I'm thinking of the nature of horror.

Horror is most effective when it's touching on your fears or anxieties. Old horror stories don't always frighten us because we don't necessarily have the same anxieties people did in previous decades or centuries. I don't find a some cultist trying to ressurect an ancient god in their bid to end the world scary anymore than I do a comic book villain like Dr. Doom. It's just too silly to be scared. But that same cult tapping into the supernatural to rip people off by selling medical quackery for cancer treatment? That's scary. So I find horror more effective when it's tapping into something I find scary or disturbing.

Of course you should always talk to your players about what is or isn't okay to include in any horror game.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
In the movie Inside Out, we explore the emotions of a young girl as a representative human being in a manner that is both deep and cartoonish. Inside her head, she has five primary emotions that drive her actions. Two of them are fear and disgust. She is afraid of falling down the stairs. She is disgusted by broccoli. It's important to note the difference, because too many horror writers seem unable to distinguish them.

Child abuse isn't frightening. It's disgusting. My catch all term for things that provoke disgust is "squick". Squick is everything that provokes disgust or squeamishness. It includes all sorts of filth from dirt to raw chicken to vomit and all sorts of things which provoke feelings of disgust because they violate social norms about morality or violate spiritual taboos - cannibalism to child abuse.

What I find is that it's very difficult to generate genuine fear or horror or anxiety through writing and that in struggling with this problem most writers seem to migrate to trying to solve a much less difficult and much more solvable problem in their writing - provoking disgust. Actually provoking horror is hard, but it's easy to fill a story with "squick" and provoke disgust.

I was never interested in HPL's "squick". The man was neurotic and sensitive and had all sorts of violent revulsions from seafood to having neighbors who weren't Anglo-Saxon, but it's not his squick that is interesting or worth exploring. And IMO it's not even really interesting exploring our own squick or trying to use squick to provoke disgust in others.

Doleres Umbridge is not frightening because of squick, and so I think you are missing the point. Doleres Umbridge for the most part is anti-squick. She likes china plates, the color pink, and cats. The opposite of squick is cute, and Doleres Umbridge is trying really hard to be cute. But Umbridge is frightening quite aside of the fact that she's not squicky.

I have really given up on CoC for a lot of reasons and have no further intentions to run games with the system. One problem I have is that it's not clear how we explore the interesting parts of HPL's writings in a productive manner. Personally if I can't have cosmic horror then I'm not interested in his work. It's that that makes it interesting, and which just barely justifies tolerance of his squick in his writings. He is himself a pretty disgusting individual, however pitiable he may be. Like to me the real focus should be on something like the insolvability of Diophantine equations, Godel's incompleteness theorem, and the other things which were shattering the 19th century world view and with it HPL's fragile mind. And that's I find hard to capture in this modern era. I think for example that it's no coincidence that "Three Body Problem" with its foundations in cosmic horror was written by someone who could grasp emotionally Mao's cultural revolution, and that if you talk to an American he'll say something like "Godzilla isn't scary because we could just build giant mecha to defeat him." as if the comfortable solution to everything is just waiting to be implemented.

You have to be a particular sort of person to be afraid of child abuse and not disgusted by it. But regardless of the consumer of the media, maybe that's not a subject worth exploring in this manner. Somethings may be taboo for a reason, being too important to breach in a light hearted manner.
 
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MGibster

Legend
It took an entire three months for someone to reply to the OP. And here I thought this thread had gone over like a lead balloon.

Child abuse isn't frightening. It's disgusting. My catch all term for things that provoke disgust is "squick". Squick is everything that provokes disgust or squeamishness.
I'm going to have to disagree with you here quite vehemently. In the mid-1980s when many parents were horrified over their belief that the ritual sexual abuse of children was rampant. They weren't grossed out by it, they were horrified by the idea that it was happening and fearful of what might happen to their own children while they were at school or otherwise out of their parent's sight. A pile of vomit gross, there's a squick factor there, but it isn't horrifying. I don't want to be a jerk here, but I just can't express just how difficult I have seeing your point of view that child abuse isn't frightening. We are very far apart on this.

Doleres Umbridge is not frightening because of squick, and so I think you are missing the point. Doleres Umbridge for the most part is anti-squick. She likes china plates, the color pink, and cats. The opposite of squick is cute, and Doleres Umbridge is trying really hard to be cute. But Umbridge is frightening quite aside of the fact that she's not squicky.
We also don't define squick the same. So I don't think I'm missing the point here, I just think we have a fundamentally different outlook on these things. Squick to me is gross. Umbridge wasn't gross nor did I argue that she was. I argued one of the reasons she was particularly loathed is because most of us have encoutered people like her in real life where as we have little experience with Voldemorts.

You have to be a particular sort of person to be afraid of child abuse and not disgusted by it. But regardless of the consumer of the media, maybe that's not a subject worth exploring in this manner. Somethings may be taboo for a reason, being too important to breach in a light hearted manner.
I don't know how you define horror. I typically go with horror as something which inspires feelings of dread or fear. Something which inspires dread or fear might be disgusting of course.
 



GMMichael

Guide of Modos
This thread has me wondering how all those people whose relatives were killed in sword fights feel about D&D combat.

I'd be hesitant to check with my players about how they'd react to certain scenes. It might spoil the surprise. I can throw an X Card on the table though. That seems fair enough.
 

MGibster

Legend
This thread has me wondering how all those people whose relatives were killed in sword fights feel about D&D combat.
You don't find many Highlanders playing D&D.

In all seriousness, I don't think of knives or swords as weapons. i.e. If I see a dude with a knife on his belt, a sword, or even walking around with a spear I'm not going to be worried in the least unless he starts actively threatening people.
 
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MGibster

Legend
I'd be hesitant to check with my players about how they'd react to certain scenes. It might spoil the surprise. I can throw an X Card on the table though. That seems fair enough.
I pitched the God's Teeth campaign to my players without and explained that child abuse played a central role in the game. But I emphasized that we'd mostly be dealing with the aftermath of abuse and wouldn't play out any such scenes in game. They opted to play Deadlands instead.
 

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