Warning, this one gets a little incoherent. I’m clearly trying to have an idea here, I’m just not sure what it is yet.
So, having basically said that I think horror is being alone and helpless in the dark, and therefore not terribly well suited to the agency-prizing communal space of LARP, it’s time to look at what I think can be made to work.
The short version is that it’s all about what’s in the character’s heads. It’s no accident that White Wolf’s World of Darkness games are as popular as they are, being pretty much the only commonly-played LARP system where internalised horror is a mechanical part of the system.
The most effective horror in LARP is the stuff that the characters cannot get away from, because it is them. As I said yesterday, I don’t think externalised horror works very well – at least not in a way it’s easy to design for. But internalised horror can work very well. The battle scene is not horrifying – even with the best prep and make-up in the world, it’s well, it’s not real. But the character who has killed a dozen people with their bare hands, and does not feel bad about it, that can be horrifying. Not so much to other players (because in many respects they’re just another externalised monster), but to themselves, and to the player playing them.
And of course, it’s a strength entirely unique to LARP. In every other medium, the monster is other – even in a movie or novel told from the monster’s perspective, the person consuming the medium is not the monster. In LARP (and roleplaying in general) we have the opportunity to try and see what it’s like inside their head. And then we can get horror that operates on a couple of levels: firstly the purely IC level as we play the character who is horrified at themselves. The character who knows they should feel bad about their actions, but finds that there is something inside them that is happy at what they’ve done. Secondly, we can get the extra level of horror – that we as players can conceive of these things, and, because we’re inside their heads, we can understand, and even empathise with them.
The World of Darkness games do this very well. They trap the characters between voluntarily doing monstrous things, and having to confront and come to terms with the fact that they are not good people (and of course that realisation can make them capable of worse things), or involuntarily doing much worse things. It’s actually easier to do the worse things, because there’s a way in which they’re not 100% culpable for them – their curse, their affliction, the thing that makes them other than human, that’s what’s at fault. All they have to do is externalise it, and they can let themselves off the hook.
And it’s so easy to agree with that point of view. Of course we, as normal humans, can understand it. We can find ways to consider their struggle noble, and excuse the crimes they commit in its name. The horror is all about what goes on in the characters’ heads, and on a meta-level, the horror is that we can understand it.
But for all they do this kind horror better than most LARP systems, in that they leave each character effectively alone in the dark, with the monster. What the WoD games I have played (and run) have done less well at is fusing that sort of horror with something actually scary. For any number of practical reasons, we don’t often play what it’s like to wake up in a room full of corpses, covered in someone else’s blood, and to know that you killed them. We don’t play out the moment of terror itself – it’s almost like we’re always playing the last five minutes of the horror movie, where all that is left is the ruin.
Like I say, LARP is not a form suited to horror.
I’m just going to close this one off with a talk that is not specifically about horror – it’s about a principle of lightweight LARP design, but the LARP used as an example is a horror LARP called Pan, which, from what the designer is saying, kind of proves my point. The horror they reached for is all born from something psychological and personal, and even then, what they got was creepy and intense but not the full-on horror movie experience.
But of course, that’s OK. While they couldn’t do a straight horror movie, a horror movie couldn’t do what they did, either.