The Song Decays the Same: New Masks, Old Tropes
Horror hasn't changed much since the days of Odysseus feeding blood to ghosts in the Underworld: find the thing a person fears most; add blood; repeat. What has changed is how we receive these stories. Campfires beget the printing press which begets the radio which begets film which begets the Internet. The Minotaur becomes a hockey mask, but it's still about goring lusty virgins. But while the song decays the same, it's how we hear those stories, how the demon finds new ways to hit the replay button on our brains that keeps us coming back for more.
For me, it all started as a child, sitting around a table with adults and trying to solve a murder. But it wasn't the revelation that Mrs. Peacock had bludgeoned our victim with a Wrench in the Library that kept me up that night. It was the Shadow. Smack dab in the middle of the game board, a shadow peered down a staircase. I saw that shadow in every corner of my room that night. While I triumphed at the catching of a killer, of bringing order to a chaotic world, that shadow - that unknown - continued to lurk. Mysteries bring order (unless you live in Chinatown or take a ride on the Orient Express); horror brings chaos, even when it looks like Order wins the day. Alice survives the horrors of Crystal Lake in the first Friday the 13th only to find herself gutted by the legacy of that lake in the opening moments of the sequel.
Horror works when it takes away our sense of security, when it plays to the dread that pricked the necks of our ancestors as they stared into the dark of the jungle. The rapid rise of technology over the past decade creates new fears about loss of privacy and control, about the lack of human connection in the modern world. Recent movies like Unfriended attempt to capitalize on these fears, but the real transformation happens in the medium itself.
A few years back, the term "creepypasta" creeped its way into our lexicon. Images and tales of a horrific nature spread like ivy through the Internet. The packaged and processed horror of Hollywood gave way to something that blurred the line between fiction and reality. The medium had become the message. While movies like Unfriended overtly tap into our fears of technology, the rise of creepypasta nefariously lives on the very thing we fear, that truths and lies spread like fire with equal power through the unmonitored halls of the Internet and that we are powerless to stop that fire once it starts. Horror has reverted to the old days, only now the glow of a campfire is replaced by the allure of a screen, where truth and fiction live as one and where the inability to distinguish one from the other is the real dread.
Hardly a new technique, modern horror storytellers have played on the "the true story" trope for decades. Urban legends gained notoriety with their "I know someone who lived in the town where this happened" or "this happened to a friend of a friend approach." Scores of movies, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Wolf Creek, have lured in viewers with the promise of real life horrors with the "based on actual events" hook. [For a more in-depth discussion of this phenomena, I highly recommend Episode 16 of the Killer POV podcast.] But this plays more to how stories are marketed. The found footage movement, most notoriously used by The Blair Witch Project, used the very medium of video as its source of terror. The initial belief that these tapes held a real story terrified far more than the story itself. And so to return to our thesis: The past two decades have been a whirlwind of technological innovation: new tools means new terrors.
Just as Bram Stoker used transcripts of phonograph recordings (podcasting for the Victorian set) and letters to add a dimension of reality to Dracula, today's storytellers use the familiar tools of the Internet in their efforts to unnerve and terrify. Consider how "43 Responses to 'In Memory of Dr. Alexandra Nako'" by Barbara Barnett uses the comment section of an article as its narrative device, or perhaps more famously, Kris Straub's Candle Cove, which used an online forum to tell its story. By replicating the media of everyday life, storytellers have a new way to nip and peck at our souls. Upping the ante even further are audio programs like The Black Tapes Podcast, a beautifully produced and terrifying "docudrama" in the style of NPR's Serial, that follows a journalist's attempts to uncover the truth behind unexplainable phenomena (to say more would give away some of the show's magic). Suffice it to say, the very device of the docudrama forces us to question the reality of what we hear.
So when I say that horror today is an old trope in a new mask, I do not do so derisively. Horror stories represent the shadows of our existence and so those shadows transform as society evolves, and the devices to tell those stories evolve as well. While a scary tale told around a campfire in the woods may still set a cub scout's knees knocking, our new world order of smartphones and connected computers bring their own new terrors and whole new mediums to spread dread.