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How scary should horror be? I’ve written about the weirdness of the horror genre before, and this article probably won’t be the last. Horror can be comforting, a warm blanket of writhing tentacles, or a sharp shock to your anhedonia. Sometimes it’s disgusting, sometimes funny, something to watch alone in the dark or with a group of friends over drinks. The question of “is it scary?”, in my experience, comes more from those not already submerged in the genre. You can pin this on desensitisation, I suppose. I’m not a fan of using psychological terminology to describe the phenomena equivalent to “a joke is less funny the more you hear it”. Like comedy, horror is a genre defined by emotion, and it’s highly subjective. I’ve wrestled with this article for months. Not because it’s long, but because I’m about to do a lot of complaining, and if it reads elitist, fair enough. If you like anything I’m about to complain about, more power to you. There’s probably something I’m missing. I only ask that you refrain from the “let’s see you do better!” defence. But as someone who has loved horror for many years, it’s fascinating and a little bewildering for the “horror community” to feel so alien to me. How scary should horror be? How about a different question- in an emotion turned fandom, does it need to be scary at all?

1- DREDGING THE MAINSTREAM

One of the best things about the Internet is that it easily allows you to ignore mainstream popular culture. The same is true of horror- you can access a near-infinite amount in any medium you desire. From the obnoxious snobbery of “elevated horror” to aggressively horny 70s Giallo to the endless rabbit hole of SCP, there’s something for everyone, and I’ve enjoyed things from all those groups. It’s certainly healthier than the state of horror when I was growing up.

First encounters always stand out in memory, no matter how laughable. The first actual horror experience I sought was Resident Evil: Deadly Silence, a genuinely bizarre DS port of the PlayStation original, signified by the awful initialism mandatory of early DS games. It’s a decent version; removing the load times in the move from CD to cartridge and having a map always accessible on the top screen helps a lot. That is, in its Classic mode. Things fall apart when playing the Rebirth mode, which awkwardly shoves in every gimmick the DS has. From playing five finger fillet with the stylus to giving CPR with the microphone, Rebirth has it all, plus first-person knife fights with a giant snake. Nevertheless, I cherished that cart, as it not only acquainted me with the series beyond reading (and re-reading) the review and strategy guide for 4 in Nintendo Official Magazine, but it allowed me to do it in private.

Screenshot from Deadly Silence. Depicts a first person battle with zombies using a knife.

Growing up in a Catholic household, horror or anything as violent as the Powerpuff Girls was strictly banned. Getting hold of Resident Evil was a challenge, but once I had it, the portable clamshell insulated it from the watchful eyes of God and, more importantly, my mother. If I’d been able to sit her down with it and truly show her what it’s like, I doubt she would have been bothered. By that time, the graphics were hardly realistic, the fountains of blood spraying from zombies’ necks more cartoonish than horrifying. But even if it had been the nineties, the hokey plot and hokier acting betray it for what it is- a playable B-movie. It wasn’t scary for me even at the time, but perhaps that same Catholicism prepared me for it. The manifold images of the crucified Jesus, weeping to the Heavens under his crown of thorns, wound gurgling blood and water. Instead of instilling the virtue of his sacrifice, it made my mind return to the same line, over and over “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”.

The floodgates opened when my divorced dad noticed my interest. Miles away in the town of Buxton, a place known for water and, uh, nothing else, it was the perfect opportunity for that most divorced dad hobby- letting you do something your mother wouldn’t let you. So, every visit, we would pick a couple of horror movies from the rental shop. The Saw movies. Thirteen Ghosts. Platinum Dunes horror remakes galore. Finding anything good amongst that sea was challenging, to say the least, partly because of my father’s taste (no older movies, nothing foreign) and the sorry state of mainstream horror. Videogames were my salvation, as a hobby for me alone, and with the later purchase of a laptop, one I could embark upon in private. I ploughed through all the janky Silent Hill PC ports, blasted hapless psychic mooks in F.E.A.R, and tripped out in the world of Yume Nikki. I even started a YouTube channel dedicated to survival horror, complete with Silent Hill AMVs thankfully lost to the aether. Cinemassacre’s Monster Madness filled in the gaps of my horror knowledge, or at least back when James used to actually write those. Online perhaps puts too much emphasis on media consumption as a persona (my bio still just says “horror person in China”), but I genuinely wouldn’t write the way I do or have met some of the people I’ve met without that outlet.

I mention all this to say that the Internet has been great for horror. It has allowed us to escape the mainstream, access classics easily, re-evaluate the overlooked and give platforms to artists, writers and filmmakers that endless sequels and remakes would otherwise flatten.

And yet.

2- SPOOKY SCARY ALGORITHMS

In 2009, SomethingAwful held a Photoshop competition. The theme was deliberately vague- users just had to create an image that looked supernatural. Sufficiently spooky creations would win you Internet points and hopefully dupe people outside the boards. The thread is somewhat tricky to find these days, and not just because of the temporary nature of Internet content. If you search any term related to the thread, you’ll find innumerable news articles, most from ghoulish content farms capitalising on a tragic stabbing in 2014. Just one image was enough to start the kind of mutated legacy only possible online.

The original Slenderman image. A group of children walk towards the camera, unaware of a lanky tentacled menace behind them

Slender Man. It seems unnecessary to introduce him. The video game he starred in not only got a sequel co-written by his original creator but inspired a whole genre of “collect the things while running away from a walking jumpscare”, with armies of screaming Let’s Plays to follow. Marble Hornets wasn’t the first YouTube-based horror series, but it was probably the first good one, and it too took influence from Slender Man. Hell, there was even a shitty Sony Pictures horror movie in 2018, released way after everyone stopped caring and after ten other Slender Man movies, a figure I wish I was exaggerating. But his most important legacy is as a creepypasta star. I’m not going to dog on creepypasta too much- yeah, a lot of it is terrible, but it’s also mostly made by children for other children. If I was a little younger, I’m sure I’d have got on that boat instead of writing embarrassing fan fiction that you will never find. It’s honestly super cool that there are a bunch of horror action figures for budding writers to play around with or that some monster you doodled on a back page could join them. Unfortunately, they’re tied to the new monster we created after spurning the mainstream- a creature of Web 2.0, forged in the fire of the Eternal September- The Algorithm.

Distinct from any one lower-case algorithm, The Algorithm is The Spectacle made ever more ephemeral. It can no longer dictate a mono-culture through a mainstream. Instead, it delivers your own personal stream of media based on tracking cookies and the web of Content Creators (bleh) you find yourself caught in. It’s good for showing you things you “like”. It’s terrible at surprising you and even worse at shocking. Through invisible hands, it smothers the spread of the genuinely horrific- after all, how could you monetise it? It is not wholly separate from us- the unwritten rules of pleasant company state that I should not subject random strangers to That Eye Bit in Fulci’s Zombie, even if it totally rules. The same is true of my Twitter because if I post that number will go down, and I’ll be sad :(

The decreased anonymity of the modern web, in which we become our own brands, has folded those social conventions into internet interactions. This phenomenon has been around for a while. Forums always had Those Guys who had been around since the beginning or at least earlier than you, thus emanating an aura of superiority, no matter how unearned. Do not anger these colossi of posting, for their wrath may even reach the mods themselves. In that sense, Twitter is better- even bluechecks cannot so easily shape the culture, the site is too vast, and they are too easy to ratio. But unlike a forum, there is no one culture. It lacks even the fuzzy boundaries of 4chan or Reddit. It is an endless series of overlapping circles that set different personalities in your orbit. I can’t prove that this works the same for everyone, but in my experience, it doesn’t take long for different people of even vaguely similar tastes to synchronise. My friend Yoshimi likes some horror stuff, but he talks more about China online, so he gets China. The Algorithm reacts to keywords like blood in the water, ignoring your feeble muting attempts to mute keywords. He gets far worse from self-professed China-watchers, but even the bit of horror interest he expresses online is enough for Twitter to recommend the same accounts I get. If this issue were isolated to Twitter, it’d be fine, but The Feed turns up everywhere. There are ways to claw back a de-algorithmed feed on Twitter, but good luck getting YouTube to focus on your subscribed creators.

Well, so what? Social media sucks. Who’d have thunk it? As disconcerting a premise it is to the extremely online, you can be, y’know, less online. Each time I’ve removed Twitter from my phone, I feel a bit better, but also, the real problem comes to the fore. It doesn’t matter how much you disconnect. The Algorithm as evolved Spectacle will still shape your world. If you’re a creative, it’s impossible to ignore. You need to play the game. As a writer, artist, developer, where are you going to go? The Internet is still incredibly liberating, showing your work to people worldwide. But how long before it shapes your output? The Algorithm doesn’t just chew up and spit out horrors. It also dictates the trends.

3- EVERY DAY IS HALLOWEEN

One of the most interesting shifts in horror is the promotion of horror art over prose or video. The aforementioned Slenderman started as a photoshop, but it’s hardly the first- even horror art created pre-Internet has found new online popularity. It’s a cross between technical limitation (an image will always load faster than a video) and shareability (any one image can be processed far quicker than prose, lending itself to rapid reposting). Neither of those things is bad exactly- after the reign of VHS and pulpy paperbacks, it’s about time art got a fair shot. And yet. The Internet giveth, The Algorithm taketh away. Sure, you can share (almost) anything, but regardless of talent, the reach will be dictated by factors far too arcane for the human mind to divine.

Let’s try and divine those factors then! There must be a reason Squid Game, Five Nights at Freddy’s, the Bendy and The Ink Machine and Trevor Henderson’s noodly horrors can coexist in the hellscape of kid’s YouTube. It’s where The Algorithm is at its most potent and obvious, allowed to fester and mutate under innocent eyes. A bleak subject covered in depth elsewhere, but why do these horror properties sneak in between Elsa and Spider-Man? It comes down to the visuals. They all have strong enough aesthetics to exist outside of their original mediums. This is, in some way, a compliment. It’s hard to create a design that stands up to replication, one that could be drawn by someone of any age or talent and still basically resemble the original. This makes them attractive to children and easy prey for The Algorithm. Having seen a video of two children chased by Sirenhead, who then injects the children and turns them into the Joker, the beast is unlikely to be chained back up. Hell, why should it be? That’s genuinely more horrifying than most modern horror I’ve engaged with. It lacks gore and viscera, but it has an odd, uncanny feeling.

So, the number one way for horror to distinguish itself online is intense visual distinction. Such distinction should imply differentiation, and yet contextless wet meat puppets dominate online horror art. While there is a horror in exaggerating the human form, this feels more like exaggerating other exaggerations until long arms and a billion teeth are the default style. Not my thing, but if it’s yours, fair enough. Personal preference isn’t the issue here. Noodle limbs are a safe form of extremity and body horror, sufficiently weird to scan as spooky, cartoonish enough to avoid censure (through moderation or lack of shares). Paired with The Algorithm, though, these will be all you see, and any horror artist wanting to get noticed will draw inspiration from them. Trends shift, of course, but the Internet was supposed to be a refuge from one dominating monoculture, a place that offered as many alternatives as you wanted. This is still true, but with most media being platformed on a handful of sites, they seem more elusive than when we had to trawl webrings and IRC channels.

The work of independent artists was not what inspired me to write this article. I hope it’s clear that while it’s a shame they have to play the game, they might not see it that way, and it doesn’t make anything they make “lesser”. I’ve done it myself- my online serial about a Mothman, while something I genuinely wanted to try out, was inspired by the bonkers online popularity of cryptids. It failed in the sense of gaining any traction, but it was a helpful experience in many ways. I hope it works out for them.

I do not hope it works out for Netflix.

Fear Street, Netflix’s trilogy of horror movies released last year, was a revelatory experience, albeit not how the creators intended. A safe haven of kitschy nostalgia and monsters that make you remember other monsters. They received critical acclaim, and I am happy many people enjoyed them. I would have an easier time understanding the appeal if it was aimed at being a gateway horror movie for kids, a la Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Krampus, but this is a movie in which a character’s head is shoved through a bread slicer. Maybe that’s there just so no one would feel bad about watching something “kiddy”, which is funny considering both of those movies I mentioned have more bite than the entirety of Fear Street. So, what are we left with? A slasher homage with one (1!) interesting kill, at times wearing the skin of Scream and Friday the 13th, yet serving as a substitute for neither. I do not have the willpower to watch the third, even if it does seem like it could be the most interesting. So, who are these movies for? A lot of people, so I can’t discount them entirely. I don’t want to gatekeep horror either. I have watched and enjoyed some absolute garbage in my time. I don’t believe horror has to be stomach-churning or terrifying either. I watched Titane blind with another person, who kindly asked if we could watch anything else a half-hour in. That it has such a mixed reception is entirely fair. That Fear Street can have three completely toothless “““R-rated””” movies barfed onto Netflix in the middle of July to ravenous applause (including favourable comparisons to the late Wes Craven) is enough to turn me into a Lovecraft protagonist, screaming about Hot Topic Horror from some antiquated asylum and ok the metaphor got away from me a bit, but it’s just a bit annoying, really. Even the other random monsters in the movies, purely designed for Horror Twitter people to clap and scream “THAT RULES” (I am not without sin), might as well just be pngs (or webps, for an even worse horror) floating through the internet, considering they just kind of… amble towards the camera, spookily.

The less bad but still quite bad sequel, 1978, does at least resist the urge to make the masked killer have some epic tryhard spooky mask (ala bizarre YouTuber vehicle Smiley) but forgoes the creeping anonymity of The Shape or Jason Voorhees by having him go maskless for the majority of the film. Perhaps it was an attempt to be subversive, but it just drew attention to why most slashers use masked stunt people, as the sight of a regular looking teen doing all requisite stalking just looked silly. With the mask on, it’s… fine, I guess, but it mostly made me look back on The Strangers: Prey at Night with kinder eyes. That’s also a kitschy throwback, but there’s some spark underneath the neon nostalgia. It takes the same batch of killers from the original film but reinterprets them from nihilistic symbols of urban paranoia into genuine weirdos. Having the leader struggle to find the appropriate music for murder is stupid, yes, but it at least DOES something with the nostalgic kitsch. It’s more than just its aesthetic, which I can’t say for Fear Street.

When reduced to an aesthetic, subtlety is thrown to the wind. The trend of PSX style horror games has been fascinating for that- for every Paratopic and Fatum Betula, there are hundreds of games with titles like BLOOD ORGY that somehow always star one stalking enemy and pile on chromatic aberration and VHS filters until your PC cries. There’s room for exploitation themed games for sure, but even the shlockiest slasher movies have a vague attempt at context rather than just 90 minutes of jump scares and gore. Is it meant to be scary or just streamer bait? They’re part of a more significant trend- “analogue horror”, a trend in uh, digital video and photography to mimic the unsettling ambiguity of grainy VHS. The most popular video in the subgenre, “The Backrooms”, combines it with the internet’s other pet genre, the liminal space. The backrooms are a series of these repeating “in-between spaces”, the type that escapes our notice in daily commutes but possesses an eeriness when focused on. The idea came from a post on 4chan’s /x/ board because that site will never die as long as it forms an important part of the endless content machine. It spawned more threads, then subreddits and hashtags, and kind of petered out like these things always do.

The original Backrooms post

Three years later, the video pulled out the defibrillator. In the three months since its release, it’s racked up over 27 million views, and not without reason. Yes, using the meme helped, but it’s undoubtedly well made and extremely impressive for such a young creator. And yet… I’m far from the only one who went from impressed by its production value and tension building to completely checked out when the screaming noodle monster turned up. Online horror perhaps didn’t quite shake off the jumpscares of early shock sites, since everything still has to be so goddamn loud. There’s nothing wrong with analogue horror as a style, but it’s so often paired with other faddish internet ephemera that it’s overexposing itself in record time.

Often it’s too much of a style, the cliches of sudden static, grainy shadows and ironic usage of news or children’s media have to be layed on thicker and thicker to get the same hit those Local58 videos used to give.

This is why the modern online ecosystem is anathema to horror. We baulked at the endless slasher sequels of the 80s and 90s, but the internet is an even more efficient engine for running ideas into the ground. If you make something that hits, people will want more. You risk the Halloween 2 problem of elaborating too much and diminishing the fear factor if you give it to them. If you don’t give them it, people will take it upon themselves. This isn’t mutually exclusive, either. That Backrooms video is now part of a series (and maybe an ARG, a medium that can be interesting once you’ve sifted through all the clout chasers), and if you search for it on YouTube you’ll see endless BACKROOMS EXPLAINED videos and videogames and meme edits and it will never stop. The endless desire for content will be placated. It’s cool that ideas like this are so open to fan work, but it’s less cool that said fan work exists more as fodder for The Algorithm that will flood your recommended if you so much breathe in the presence of a keyword. It’s not fair to the original work or the fan material, and it’s why people are more comfortable labelling themselves as content creators. In the mediums we have, everything is reduced to pure content. The intentional self-destruction of creepypasta “Ben Drowned” begins to make more and more sense. If it didn’t go down in flames, it would never die. Five Nights at Freddy’s is an instructive example- it caught fire in the first place because it bucked the trend of Amnesia clones. All of Scott’s entries in the franchise tried to do different things (with varying degrees of success). Of his run, 4 is the low point for me. It took the creepiness innate in both uncanny prerendered art and animatronics and added teeth and sharp claws to make them scarier, I guess? It reminds me of my teenage years, an avid fan of Silent Hill and Resident Evil, doodling monsters in the margins of exercise books, adding way too many stitches and mangled limbs. I can understand the attempt, but it ends up in a similar camp to those aforementioned noodle monsters. They’re spooky, not scary. Hell, the word spooky isn’t even mild enough for the majority of horror content- now we have the ever obnoxious “spoopy” instead.

Speaking of mild- following the controversy surrounding his substantial political donations to very terrible people, he left the reins to Steel Wool, who had previously worked on the VR game. Enter Security Breach, a day-glo romp so safe that the word “blood” was removed from the script and a stalking monster with a knife now wields… nothing. Considering the massive popularity of FNAF with pre-teens it isn’t surprising that they’d focus on that demographic, but it’s an odd decision considering that same demographic was fine with the child-murdering serial killer rotting inside a “spring-lock” suit. Or maybe not, because it gained a lot of traction online, even if a lot of that was people complaining about the bugs (The Algorithm does not care if your feelings are positive or not). It even sold well despite the much higher price compared to previous entries. They’re doing something right, and along with the “Fazbear Fanverse’’ initiative that seeks to fold popular fangames into official (and crucially, paid for) entries, they’re certainly doing all they can to ride the wave while it lasts. That accelerated pace is something only possible online, you risk your fans losing interest. Netflix can throw all the money it wants at Season 4 of Stranger Things, but that ship has sailed. It was a property designed for ephemeral popularity, no longer even riding the right wave of nostalgia. Netflix says that Season 3 broke records, but this is also the longest gap between any of the seasons, and it’s partly required a massive hike in subscription fees. Traditional media is going to continue to struggle in comparison to homegrown Internet Content™, no matter how slick your websites and apps are. They’re simply too slow, for a world too fast. If only that meant the market had less of a stranglehold on creativity. When Forest Willard of Innersloth (Among Us) was asked if the game’s popularity depending on streamers was better than traditional marketing and reviews, he says “I think I would say it’s better…but it’s only better in that it’s more of the same”. So it goes for everything else online. This is the Eternal September at Timewave Zero. There are more people online, therefore more creators, more horror stuff with more people to share it around. It’s like every day is Halloween. But the structures haven’t changed. It’s better because it’s more. It’s also worse because it’s more. And truthfully, as someone who wants to continue writing and writing about horror, I don’t know where that leaves me.

Except.

4- BECOME UNMARKETABLE

There’s no way to say this without being pretentious (heaven forbid you’d get that impression from the rest of the article), but there’s just a far smaller ratio of horror made for adults. Ti West’s X is a play on X rated movies. I guess it’s pretty gory? It includes nudity, a point that would only be shocking if you ignored the entire history of the medium, let alone media from a less puritanical country. It is an entirely fine movie that presumably works better if you’re scared of old people. I don’t want to watch it again, but if someone put it on, I wouldn’t protest, though I might leave the room when Don’t Fear the Reaper starts playing. And yet, over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. There’s no accounting for taste, and between this and Elden Ring, the thought occurs that I’m the problem here. But neither Elden Ring nor X is bad- I picked X to watch because I saw that people both loved and hated it. That’s exciting to me. But then it was… fine. It was Another Thing That I Have Watched. Another mausoleum machine.

Well, fine then. It’s on me to explore more. If I’m going to be extremely online, I should at least use that time to go further afield than the likes of Twitter. And while I did request you not to ask me to do better, I’m going to try. Maybe not better exactly, but more unmarketable. Horror needs bite, whether through transgression or experimentation or both. No manifesto, I promise- this isn’t a standard that really makes sense, so I’m not gonna hold anyone to it. I am going to share weirder and wilder horror things I find out there. Numbers be damned. Because to me, horror is wonderful, and though a lot of what I’ve said could apply to other genres, it’s the one I care about most. Hopefully, the Internet or whatever comes after does become a better place for art, but I can’t wait for that.

And I’m definitely not still mad about Fear Street.



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