So here’s my start point with horror in LARP: it is incredibly bloody hard. It may even be unworkable. (I should say at the outset that I am aware that one could run special events that get around any of the individual limits that I’m laying out here, but for the sake of the argument I’m defining here, I want to take what I think can reasonably described as a “regular form” LARP – a minimum of a dozen PCs, in a place where we worry about people’s physical and mental safety, and the goal is to have fun in some form.)
I’m not saying you can’t scare people. I’m not saying you can’t given them a terrific, adrenaline packed hour, two hours, weekend, whatever. But scaring people is scaring people. It’s not horror. I could pack a LARP time in with jump scares and special effects to frighten people, but that won’t make it horror.
The absolute essence of horror, when you boil it right down, is lack of agency. It is hopelessness, it is the evil you cannot defeat. It’s the zombie horde, representing the inevitability of death. It’s the vampire who is simply more powerful than any of her mortal prey. It’s Lovecraft’s vast and unbearably hostile cosmos. It’s the unstoppable serial killer. It’s the deluded protagonist suddenly coming face to face with their own madness and learning they they’ve been the monster all along.
Horror is the thing that cannot be defeated.
Any horror movie that has a happy ending with the heroes triumphant, while it may be a scary movie, is not a horror movie. The most one can really hope for, in a proper horror movie, is that the protagonist survives their encounter, at the cost of their loved ones, their normal life, their sanity, and that it is obvious that this is the cost. If they walk off into the sunrise, bloodier, sadder, but unbowed and able to return the real world, then they’ve had a terribly scary experience, but that “horror” movie is copping out badly at the end, in my view.
Yes, I could run a LARP where everything the players tried was doomed to fail. Where the universe was cold and uncaring and there could never be a happy ending. (Indeed, a number of my players might argue that I already do, although I’d contest that.) But having said that scary is not the same as horror, I’ve got to recognise that without it, horror is pretty much indistinguishable from plain old misery.
So how do we make scary work?
Scary is the cold hand on the back of your neck. The monstrous whisper out of nowhere. The door that won’t open as the water rises. Scary is sudden, scary is surprising, and scary is personal. And honestly in it’s simplest form: scary is alone.
How do you make scary work for 20 people, other than an unexpected loud bang? Well, you could always face them off against superior numbers. Scary is being outnumbered two to one by zombies, and running low on ammunition. (Or is that just a valiant last stand?) You could put them against an something implacable and unstoppable – just something like being trapped in a room with no food. (Or is that just a study in how people deal with the inevitability of death?)
I hope you can see what I’m driving at. LARP is communal – there are other people there, sharing the experience, and in any context, and experience shared is made easier and less frightening. It may be hopeless, but you’re not alone. LARP is about agency – it’s about what the players/characters decide to do. And ultimately: LARP can always stopped, simply by opting out of it’s frame of reality. Then the zombie is just someone in makeup, the vampire is your mate with some fangs in, and the universe while still cold and uncaring, is no longer actively hostile. (Well, probably not.)
It’s not a good medium for horror – many of the basic facts of how LARP generally operates as a form work against some of the basic building blocks of horror.
And yet I describe the games I like to run as falling somewhere between urban fantasy and horror. Come back tomorrow and I’ll spout on about the kinds of horror I think can be made to work.