So here we are, a week into November! Okay, yeah, more than a week. Nine days. Don’t be pedantic. I hope all my fellow NaNoWriMo participants are having fun. A strong work ethic and a stack of unpaid bills to incentivize one is great and all, but it’s been my own experience that nothing keeps momentum going on a project like a fresh sense of fun.
My own NaNoWriMo project is chugging right along, as we can all see by my daily-updated WIP bar, up there at the top of the right-hand sidebar. I’m still having fun with it, although it can be a struggle to resist the urge to edit and refine. The point of NaNoWriMo is to smash through obstacles like “I’m waiting for inspiration” and “I can’t think of exactly how to say this” and just put the words down on paper. Or on your computer screen, or whatever. Man, you are picking nits today!
Anyhoo, as part of my promise to blog more, I wanted to make sure I got an extra post in each week during NaNoWriMo and this week, I figured I’d talk about fear.
My NaNoWriMo project, as most of you probably already know, is the third installment of my Five Nights At Freddy’s fanfiction. FNAF is a horror game with a strong fanbase that is apparently toxic, or at least, that’s what the incredibly toxic bunch of people who hate FNAF say. And me? I’m the worst of all FNAF fans: I write fanfiction, and worse still, I write the kind of fanfiction with bad words, original characters and (eventually) sex.
Now, people who hate FNAF have a lot of reasons and they will happily tell you what they are. Do they need reasons? No. I don’t like a lot of games, and I don’t feel a strong urge to defend my personal preferences to others. Opinions are subjective. I do not like FPS of any kind, GTA or Mario Maker, but I am content to live in a world in which these games and their fans exist. So people don’t need to fill the comment section with all the reasons why FNAF sucks. I’ve heard them. And while I don’t agree (obviously, since I write the aforementioned fanfiction), I would like to address one of the more common complaints, which is that FNAF is nothing but a bunch of jumpscares and jumpscares aren’t scary.
Of course jumpscares are scary. It’s right there in the name, isn’t it? They don’t call it jumpsnore, they call it a jump-scare. Because it scares people. Is it the most sophisticated form of horror? No. It’s cheap and easy and overused by people who don’t know how to get a fear response any other way, but I maintain it’s overused because it works. It’s about as close as you can get to a guarantee of a response, in fact, because all us humans are hardwired down in our DNA to startle when something jumps out at us. And it’s actually worse when you know it’s coming, because now you’re watching for it, listening for the sound to go quiet right before that blatt of noise. Get it over with, you think, not realizing that your hyper-vigilance is only filling your brain with ALL the cues you might otherwise be missing if you weren’t so determined to not be taken by surprise.
The startle reflex is an instinctive response that sidesteps logic and goes directly to the don’t-eat-me part of the brainstem. As the scare is repeated (say, about the third night of FNAF), it loses its effectiveness. Eventually, they become tedious and even if there’s enough of a break that one of them does ‘get’ you, you’re more annoyed than startled.
This, in a nutshell, is why so many people disliked FNAF and games like it, and it’s a perfectly valid reason. As far as the argument “any game that’s just a jumpscare-fest is not scary” goes, I agree. I just don’t see FNAF as a jumpscare-fest. Jumpscares are a big part of the game’s design, but it’s the story, and the shadow behind the story, that made me a fan.
Before I go on, I feel like I need to say that I am not a film student specializing in the suspense genre, nor am I a neuropsychiatrist (if that’s even a thing) who specializes in anxiety disorders. My sole qualification for writing this post is that I watch a lot of horror movies. Like, so many. Like, it would almost be a shorter list to name all the horror movies I haven’t seen. I will watch any horror movie, good or bad, homegrown or foreign, big budget or indie, or any combination thereof. Stalkers, slashers, monsters, disasters, invasions, swarms, outbreaks, splatter, paranormal, body horror, torture porn, “bad death” scenarios, possessions, survival, nature attacks–you name it, I’ve seen it. If given the chance, I am happy to hold forth for hours and hours on what I think makes a good or bad movie, although my opinions rarely jibe with those of the greater public. Some movies that I loved were likewise loved by critics (Cabin in the Woods, The Babadook, Suspira, The Thing); some movies that I love are schlocky as hell or otherwise panned by critics (Wishmaster, Deep Rising, Jeepers Creepers, Paranormal Activity, Tusk); and some movies that critics praised, I hated (It Follows, The Conjuring/Annabelle…pretty much anything that comes from the so-called ‘case files’ of those two outrageous fucking frauds). And when it comes to the age old original vs. reboot argument, I hate to admit it, but the ‘beloved’ originals are often objectively awful. Nowhere is this more apparent, in my opinion, than with The House on Haunted Hill. The original is boring, baffling and bloodless; the remake has a decent premise, great chemistry between the actors, and a knockout performance by Geoffrey Rush as Steven Price. Same goes for the “foreign versions are inherently better than big budget Hollywood remakes” thing. I loved Ringu and Ju-on; I loved The Ring and The Grudge, too. I did not care for Let The Right One In; I loved Let Me In. A Tale of Two Sisters? SOOOOO much better than The Uninvited. The Wicker Man…both versions dumb as hell. Although I don’t think it was Nicholas Cage’s fault the American version stank. He did a good job with the part he was given, he’s just a victim of his own reputation for the crazy.
All of this I say so that when I say I think something is creepy, it means I genuinely think it’s creepy, and I think FNAF is creepy. Jumpscares aside, it has a lot of really solid horror elements: isolation, darkness, derelict surroundings, antagonists that can neither be fought nor reasoned with, dwindling resources, a time limit, and repetition, of course, knowing what’s coming and having to do it again and again and again. All these things, yes, plus an ambiguous backstory that includes the abduction and murder of children, but that’s still not the creepiest element of FNAF.
No, for my money, the worst and most horrific part about FNAF is the nature of the animatronics themselves. Because whether you lean toward the idea that these are machines built by a sadistic child-predator as AI accomplices in his murders or that they are possessed by the spirits of dead children who are no longer able to differentiate between their killer and any old hapless bastard who takes the job of night guard, the fact remains that these animatronics are aware of you and capable of independent thought and action. They are living minds bound to artificial bodies. When the pizzeria was open, they were forced to sing and dance for screaming little kids all day. And as if that wasn’t awful enough, when they broke down, they were ripped apart and put back together again, sometimes with parts stripped out of other animatronics. Ultimately, they were abandoned and left to rot while the building in which they were trapped fell apart around them. That’s some scary shit right there. It is impossible for me to play this game without imagining how that must be for them, and yet, it’s just as impossible to fully embrace them as victims because they will kill you just as dead as disco at your first lapse in concentration. And that’s scary to me, too. The game forces you into a position where you, the player, are pitted against other victims. You are, in a very real sense, the bad guy.
When it comes down to it, I guess that’s why I started writing Everything Is All Right. I mean, yeah, sure, I wanted to figure out the timeline and piece together the story and all those other nerdy fan reasons, but I also felt, profoundly, that even the ‘good’ ending of FNAF 3 lacked real closure for the real victims. I wanted a story, sure I did. But more than that, I wanted a happy ending for the game that had gotten deeper under my skin than any game I’d played in years.
How deep? Well, I play a lot of horror games, but very few have really scared me. Fatal Frame 1 and 2, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, F.E.A.R., P.T., Dead Space, and yes, damn it, Five Nights At Freddy’s, jumpscares and all.