*DISCLAIMER!: This is part 2 in a 3 part series of articles that are more mature than the XGC norm; please exercise your own discretion when reading! Regular articles will resume after Tuesday’s Tomb Raider review!*
Maybe not just games either. I was thinking about that this morning (about a week ago now), or maybe it was last night (about a week ago now) because they both sorta ran together for me (about…well, no, that’s pretty normal for me…), as I began laying out plans for a few new horror novels that I’ll be writing. The star of the first pure horror story I started working on is a girl trapped in a castle she’s desperately trying to escape while a number of unsavory characters are stalking her for unknown reasons. Why did I specifically choose a girl? I unno’, I just did. Amelia was just right for the part.
A different story with strong horror elements stars a father trying to protect a little girl in a hellish nightmare realm where he’s unable to tell fantasy from reality and has a number of frightening demons to contend with. Why did Roy work for this story? I felt a father trying to protect his daughter worked better in this scenario than a mother and daughter; I wanted to hit fear on a different level. I wanted to work with taking away from men the largest thing that makes us feel like men, and that’s a sense of power and the capacity to protect what we care for. I wanted to force the man to be in a situation where not only was he helpless, not only was he helpless to protect a child, he was helpless to protect a daughter.
Why not a son? On a primal level we have the sense that our sons can take care of themselves. It’s not that men don’t love their sons just as much as their daughters, they just have a level of trust that if their son has to throw down he’ll be able to sort it out. It hurts a father just as much to watch his son get hit, but if their son gets hit they’ll go “GET UP! KEEP FIGHTING! PUNCH HIM, TAKE HIM DOWN, YOU CAN DO IT!” and if their daughter gets hit they get their shotgun.
I’m working with a new story that has strong horror themes, or should I say it’s a drama with horrific elements. The protagonist of the first book in this series is a girl. Why? I unno’, that’s just how I dreamt it. But, Kelly works great as the lead. The second book has a boy, Noah, as the lead. Why? Because, that’s why! STOP ASKING ME ALL THESE QUESTIONS!
I was wondering today though, do you have to have a female lead to make a good horror story? When I was thinking about leads for a horror story, an idea that’s being kicked around in my head right now, it was a no brainer to me that I had to use a girl. After laying down some concepts for it, I began wondering why.
This whole Tomb Raider controversy has my brain pondering the role of women in literature more than usual, which is to say of the seventy percent of my energy I normally expend pondering the roles of races and genders in stories, I began expending 80% instead. The majority of my time coming up I was raised by women with my big sister as my closest friend, so it’s not as though I don’t spend a good deal of time being conscious of how to write and portray women, the importance of strong women, and the importance for society to simultaneously affirm their strength as well as stop trying to make that strength = “I DON’T NEED NO MEN NO HOW NO WAY!”
So why does a woman work better in horror? Does it have to be a woman to be scary? No, but if you write a man it has to be scary differently.
I think it’s easier to write women in horror settings, because inherently we want to protect them. Society tells us that’s chauvinistic, but, it’s not. Men are supposed to protect women, boys are supposed to protect girls. That’s literally just the way of things and there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean that women can’t be strong and hold their own and pull their own weight, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t women that can rumble with the best of them, but just as big people are supposed to protect little people, boys are supposed to watch out for girls.
There’s a certain level of fear and lack of resources that goes into horror with female leads. When I played Clock Tower 3, the concept of Alyssa scared, alone, with no one to rely on and with no weapons while these ridiculously powerful and sadistic serial killers stalk her worked far better for me on a level of fear than a boy of thirteen would. The image of Alyssa in her school uniform, while hideously unpractical also worked quite well; the thirteen year old innocent looking English girl in the skirt, school jacket, knee high socks and Mary Jane flats instilled more of a feeling of helplessness running, falling and crawling through these dank abysmal environments than even the same thirteen year old girl looking rough and world worn in fatigues would have.
The essential idea is providing a sense of helplessness and vulnerability that a male protagonist doesn’t really convey. Another example is the protagonist of Haunting Ground (unofficially Clock Tower 4). There was a powerful message conveyed wordlessly in how your time with Fiona begins. In the first moments of your adventure, Fiona is locked in a cage large enough to house a medium sized dog, naked, unconscious and alone in a dank, dark dungeon looking place. She shivers, awakens slowly, fearfully cowers as a rather large killer stalks through the room, and then passes out again. When next she wakes, all she has is a cloth to wrap around her body as she initially begins to explore.
A third example is the protagonist of Fatal Frame, another impractically dressed school girl armed only with a camera searching her way through a haunted mansion to find her brother. The Fatal Frame series has gone on to always use a female lead in the story, and to center around a theme that invokes a sense of helplessness and the violation of the concept of safety. As this is a historical franchise, at least the first two titles are, and the history involved the abuse and sacrifice of young girls there is that in its reasoning, but in later games it keeps the theme for the aforementioned reasons.
But, does a horror game or novel or movie have to have a female lead to be scary? Again I contest that no, it does not, but it will have to be scary differently with a male. By and large if you get a bunch of men in a room and go “Okay, the killer is coming for you; what do you do?” We’re like “Beat him till he stops moving!”
By and large men are afraid differently, and it takes a different circumstance to make us feel afraid. This is that much harder because men are programmed that we’re never supposed to admit to fear, and we’re supposed to shut out emotional responses. Now, given that I love explosions and fighting about as much as I love ponies and cute plush objects, I’m pretty darn solid with expressing emotion as much as I am with burping, farting and wrestling bears, so I’m not exactly the typical male that your story would have to pander to.
If you’re going to have a male lead though, even the women that come to see your show/play your game/read your book are going to have a harder time identifying with the character and their struggles. You have to hit men harder on a different level. As I mentioned above, the idea of not being able to protect your child or your woman is one of the deepest fears any man can have. Stories like Nier Gestalt, while not necessarily horror, reflect that fear very strongly in both the idea of Nier being unable to protect his daughter and the pain that brings him, as well as the moments where he’s unable to protect Kaine, as well as his inability to make her feel validation or self worth.
Father daughter stories resonate very strongly with me, as do they with all men, but father son works just as well. In some ways a father son horror story would work even better, because we inherently feel like we can protect our sons no matter what. No matter how hard a man is on his son though, their greatest fear in regard to sons is almost always that they either haven’t prepared them to function in the world, or that they are unable protect them on the same level as their daughters.
That last statement may have been a bit confusing, so let me make you uncomfortable and clarify. A man fears three things above all else for his daughter: that someone will harm her, that someone will get her pregnant, and that one day he will have to let her go. In regard to boys, option two is null for obvious reasons, though that fear is reversed, and option three is null because they generally can’t wait to get their son out of their future gymnasium!
Option one however is something that the average male never worries about. The idea of that sort of thing happening to their son almost never crosses the average male’s mind, and if someone does harm their son on that level, it’s beyond devastating.
Getting back on track, you can’t just stick a killer after a male and call it a day. Our first response is action; we’re gonna find the killer and we’re gonna kick his/its teeth in. Even if you make us fight something we’re either helpless against or we have the chips stacked against us with, it’s still more of an action vibe than a horror vibe.
I think the best way to do horror with a male is to take away our sense of control. Whether that situation comes from trying to protect our family or from the atmosphere, that just works better. A story in which the man is broken works well too, because you really can’t take male fear on paper/on the screen seriously until the male is put in a situation that completely robs him of the things that make him feel strong. After all, we identify with women in horror situations because of how easy it is to push the emotional buttons and feel that sense of vulnerability and powerlessness; shouldn’t then the rule be the same for a male?
Pitting the atmosphere and the environment against the male will convey a deeper sense of fear as well. The idea is to put your protagonist in a situation where the enemy is so large that you don’t feel like they can handle it. At the end of the day, that’s really what fear is: something unknown, something unstoppable, something relentless, and something too large for us to handle.
If you aren’t going to do those things, having an atypical male helps. Having a male that has emotions or can be in touch with them works better, and most men will admit to caring more if you ease the character into that role. The typical square jawed chisel chested Schwarzenegger or Stallone doesn’t work because we feel like that they can handle the situation, or at least will fight it. If the male never betrays emotion over the course of the story you can have them hunted and stalked as much as you want, it’s still action and we’re still waiting for them to turn around and punch out the monster by the end.
I think using a scared male works really well in a story. When you get to see that big, strong guy pissing himself and crying, you’re like “Oooooh dang, it just got real…”
A scared, crying man who is typically a tough guy is the easy button just as much as a scared girl with a big man over her is. When we see that tough guy break down, we automatically know we have entered a situation with no hope. Perhaps then, it works well to instill a sense of fear even in an action oriented environment by having your average guy main character and then have a tough guy there just to have be tough, then scare, then break, then kill.
There are some games with male leads that are horror that scared me. Silent Hill hit us hard because we had to find and save our daughter, and we were an average guy. Every man is afraid that he’s not tough enough, strong enough, fast enough, brave enough. Harry Mason was that average guy; just a writer, just a single father. He didn’t go to the range, he couldn’t bench press an elephant, he was just an average guy trying to save his kid, and later trying to protect a nurse who he wasn’t…well…it didn’t go well.
Similarly, Shattered Memories worked because we were now that same father but helpless to fight against the monsters all around us. Silent Hill 2 became scary because we were constantly in dark, claustrophobic places and poorly armed to handle the situations in them. The moment we became strong and competent though? Yeah, Homecoming wasn’t scary. Downpour was, but on a different level. We spent a lot of time unable to save people, and a lot of time having to fight female enemies with blunt objects. It didn’t matter that they were howling, biting, stabbing hellspawn that were out to get us, the idea of fighting them on a personal level made us feel uncomfortable.
Dead Space can be kinda scary because in the first one Isaac didn’t talk. He was just us, and when we men are just us and don’t have to front for anyone, we can admit that the skinless thing with sword arms that just crawled out of a vent scared the crap out of us. Dead Space was also pretty good about giving you weapons, and then making you feel like those weapons weren’t good enough.
Silent Hill opens with putting you in a situation that you can’t escape from, and you have to die alone in the dark before the story starts. Right from the very beginning it plants that horrific seed of “I’m not strong enough…”
So yes, I think horror with males can work, but you have to approach it differently. What do you think? Comment below!