My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Horror Trope That Nearly Killed Me

True evil.
[Minor spoilers: Pet Cemetery, Deep Blue Sea, House on Haunted Hill (remake)]

First of all, let's meet Ben. I know he's in the Cast and Crew with all my cats, but that isn't the whole story. Understanding his particular evil will help you understand how the worst kind of horrors in this world wear a pleasant face. He's cute. He's cuddly. He needs a snuggle. But beneath that fuzzy exterior, beats a heart of pure malevolence ready to shred the life from all creatures of good heart.

Friday night I heard a terrible cry from upstairs, and I ran up to see Benjamin attacking the crap out of Princess Mononoke.  It's weird to see the worshipped in a battle over cosmic dominance.  I don't like cosmic battles for the fate of the thumb monkeys going down in my bathroom, so I grabbed Ben and pulled him off of Princess.

Well Ben must not have heard me coming, and somewhere in the adrenaline and me screaming and the world starting to spin as he was forcibly transplanted through space by the scruff of his neck, he must have thought it was Benjamin's last stand, and he might as well die with honor.  So with an effort the Bards could sing about, he spun and caught me on the arm with the full force of an "I'm-taking-you-with-me" attack.  Now this may look like a scratch, but this is an entire day later.  At the time blood was gushed freely enough that I had to wrap it with gauze and everything.  As my life pulsed out of me, I made sure that Supportive Girlfriend knew she could have my Kindle if she took care of Princess Mononoke...and that I loved her.  Somehow, I didn't die, and woke the next morning in the ICU.

I asked the doctors if I would live.  They exchanged meaningful glances and asked me if I was "a fighter."
Or maybe....maybe Ben DID hear me coming.  Maybe Ben was just waiting for me to grab him, knowing I would lower my guard and be vulnerable.  Maybe he planned the whole thing from the beginning and attacked the one cat in the house I really get protective of.  Maybe he did it to lure me in...lure me close.  

For you see, this horrible display of homicidal kitty rage was not the first time Ben has tried to end me.  In fact, it's not the first time he's done so during a perfect window of opportunity either.

It was Halloween 2010...

Unfortunately there's no way to tell this story and have the ending be a surprise. I can't set up both parts without it being obvious how they will eventually fit together. So, I'll just come out and tell you about the last time Ben did his very best to murder me.

Benjamin is a sweet cat when he's not being a punk to his sisters.  He mostly hangs out where he knows there will be sunbeams.  He has a serious bromance with his brother Quinn.  And he likes snuggles.

I mean this cat really, really likes snuggles.

He leaps into your lap already purring and sometimes he is so excited about it, his paws are already kneading before he's even done jumping. This is often a very painful experience for the person involved as his claws are very sharp--even for a cat. (Since I'm not giving anything away by ham-handed foreshadowing let me reiterate this--his claws are VERY sharp.  You got it?  Okay, good.)

We give Ben a dumb voice. It's kind of like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, but honestly, since UP came out, it's much more like Doug. "Mommy are we snuggling? I like snuggles." "Hey are you two snuggling? Cause you know I like snuggles." "Hey Uncle Chris. I like snuggles. Do YOU like snuggles?" We give him this voice because he's....well he's very sweet, but maybe not the brightest star in the firmament.

Ben loves mommy snuggles most of all. He's a big momma's boy. Uncle Chris can't do it right. He will put up with me and my snuggles, but not for very long. This is where things get weird. I don't think he likes me that much, or maybe he has complex psychological issues involving snuggles with people who aren't mommy.  Or...of course...maybe he's trying to kill me, but sometimes must face the bitter irony that I have my uses.

In fact, when the roommies are out of town and mommy is gone for a long time, it gets kind of demeaning for me. He jumps into my lap, purring, his claws outstretched and kneading even as he flies through the air.  He lands on me--claws first-- goes at it hard and fast for a minute or two, purring furiously, and then jumps off right when I start to enjoy how soft his fur is to pet.

I always feel dirty after these moments.

Usually I see him coming and I'm ready for the pain.   Halloween 2010, I was not.

See, I love being scared.  I don't like gore for its own sake. I don't like slasher porn (unless it's also scary, but it rarely ever is). Not grossed out, squicked, or disgusted. Genuinely creeped out.  Psychologically fucked with...successfully.

My love of fear actually started unintentionally. I picked up a game called Killing Time for the 3D0 going on 20 years ago now. It was probably not supposed to be a "scary" game. There are giant bipedal cockroaches and entire rooms of cheesy ass Mafiosos.  It was basically just a first person shooter with an Egyptology/20's Bootleggers theme. But...when I first played it, I had the lights out and headphones on. I fell down into some sewers in this game, and I couldn't find my way out. This was one of the earliest games with noticeably discernable stereo effects where you could tell the location of something by the sound, even if it wasn't on the screen.  I was wandering around with almost no ammo, totally lost and I could....HEAR...things moving around me...behind me even....making noise.  I spun and turned and shot at shadows and freaked out at the actual enemies, but I kept hearing other things moving around....shifting, and it was freaking me out. Sadly, I figured out after only ten minutes or so that the noises of things moving and shifting that I was hearing was nothing more than a part of the ambient noise loop for that area, and they had nothing to do with enemies that could hurt me.   I was basically wetting myself to the soundtrack.

...And I loved every second of it.  For those ten minutes, I was terrified.  Full on, creeped out, goes-up-to-eleven, out of my mind terrified.  And it was absolutely one of the best video game experiences I've ever had!!

Ghost chefs were among the games "less terrifying" elements.
Since then, I've quested like one of King Arthur's knights (and usually with similar results) to find a truly scary video game that could send shivers down my spine.  And to a greater extent, this has become a quest for anything that can really scare me.

There aren't a lot of truly scary moments to be had in general.  In movies, at best you get one or two and the rest is a snooze fest. One I keep coming back to as being perhaps the scariest I've ever seen was the awful remake of House on Haunted Hill with Geoffrey Rush. Amidst the tripe of CGI stupidity, came one genuine spine-tingling moment. A woman with a camcorder walks down a hall and pokes her camera into the various rooms. In ONE room she pokes her camera in, she sees some kind of medical procedure happening--doctors, nurses, and a writhing patient with a lot of blood. The thing is, it's not there. When she looks at the room without the camera, it's an empty, dark room. Back into the camera--medical procedure. She looks up--empty. Then she looks back into the camera again, and there are all the doctors and nurses...except this time they're all looking back at her. Genuinely scary. Of course the rest of the movie reminded me more of a saturday morning cartoon.  "It's a G-G-G- GHOST!!!" But kudos to their one well written scene.

[Now pay attention kiddies.  This is as close as today's entry gets to being about writing.]

Unfortunately, I also often have to put up with being startled.  Startled is not really scared. Scary takes good writing and usually plays on deep psychological anxieties.  Good writing pulls off scary very well.  Anyone who read too many Stephen King novels (like I did as a teen-ager) can probably remember two or three moments that still freak you out to think of them.  For me it involved Louis's walk to the pet cemetery to bury Gage. Under the covers after midnight with a flashlight (yes, I actually was that cliche) is not the best place to read that scene for the first time.

Ironically movies eschew this form of "scary" in favor of cheap tricks. It's a LOT easier to get a CGI ghost to turn someone inside out than it is to get a writer who can set up a psychologically terrifying scenario. Startled seems to be how most movies and video games reach fear. Something jumps out when you don't expect it and goes "BOO!" and we jump with a scream. It's not really creeped out, but eh...it's better than too much blood.  To me these cheap shots are okay, but there's a reason they're called cheap shots. They're cheap. They're not really scaring you so much as startling you.

But to be fair to the medium of movies, in a high tension moment, a cheap shot executed well enough can REALLY lead to a slamming startle.  You won't think about it twenty years later and shudder like I do with Pet Cemetery, but you'll probably spill most of your popcorn.

Normally I don't start unless a cheap shot is successfully unexpected, and then end up laughing. I got some looks the first time I saw Deep Blue Sea when Samuel Jackson died--because it was probably the least expected time I've ever seen for something to jump out. Mid-speech, mid-sentimental music, he's ramping up for the oscar.... As cheap shots go, that one was perfection. Anyway it got me so good that I laughed for like a full minute (while the shark was chomping away) and the people in the theater thought I was a little peculiar.

The timing on these moments must be pretty perfect to be successful. A cheap shot when you're expecting it won't startle you because you're prepared.  A cheap shot when there isn't any tension, and you aren't really wound up.  So the trick is to have that tension but somehow not have any expectation. We all know to get ready when the person is walking towards the door where they heard a sound. The music gets suspenseful.  They reach for the handle.  We all know what's coming.

The problem is film makers know we know.  So in today's movies, nothing ever happens at that point. They're going to build it up, and it will be a cat or just Billy or something unscary. Oh whew!  This is where the cliche hits.  For about the last 20 years, it's a psyche out not-real-threat, and then the real thing pops out.   It's gotten so predictable that people stop really expecting it at the original door opening.  Film makers could probably have something actually jump out at that moment and scare the piss out of people.

If you're ever in a horror movie, and you walk towards a door with scary music playing, open it, and it's just your cat, run. Don't breathe out and say "Oh Mittens, you sure scared me." If you do this, you will be killed horribly.  Just run--as soon as you see it was only your cat, take off as fast as you can.  Because the new cheap shot cliche goes: "Oh Mittens, you scared me." "RAWR!" Anyone who watches horror movies is more ready for that second cheap shot than we actually are the original door (or closet or cabinet or whatever) for the fake out.

Oh whew. Just a completely random guy with alarming but totally innocuous fingernail hygiene issues.
I'll just turn around in relief and casually walk away. 

In fact, I'm so ready for the fake out/real threat cliche that I pretty much don't tense up and prepare for the scare during the initial walk to the door.  I don't start to get ready until after the music and the victim start to relax.

So I've been on a quest for YEARS now to really scare myself in a video game like that first night.  Except...you know...not with a soundtrack and ghost chef. Video games are getting good enough that they're becoming the better way to be scared. A first person video game can be REALLY immersive.  Having your own choices matter is much better than a movie.  I had a GREAT time playing through the haunted hotel/wraith part of Vampire: Bloodlines about a year ago. That was genuinely scary, and totally awesome.  Voices.  Whispers.  An unfolding mystery that is really messed up.  And that dude with the axe that is only there for a second when you turn around.  Oh man!!!

Uberdude recommended FEAR. I am always willing to give something a shot. A quick upload from STEAM and I was in business.

When you're a little squeamish about being scared, you leave the lights on, or turn the volume down. When you're me, and you WANT to be scared more than anything, you go into the darkest room in the house, turn the lights off, put on headphones and turn them up as loud as you can stand.

I'd give FEAR 6 out of 10 on the genuinely-scary-factor. It's not THAT scary, but it's okay. One of the main problematic aspects is that you are either in a shooter game or you have triggered some quazi-cinematic creepy events, and as soon as you know that you're in a "creepy part" it means you're safe from being shot at and killed (usually).  It measurably reduces the tension.  But what FEAR is pretty good at is unexpected cheap shots during the transition between those parts.  There are a few moments where you think you're still in the shooter part and something jumps RIGHT AT YOU, but it's actually one of the "scary" elements.  And a few seconds later, with much less ammo, I'm giggling at a well done cheap shot.

So there I am on Halloween 2010.  The roommates are out of town. It's pitch black, and I can't see ANYthing but the screen. I'm lost inside some office building, and I know there are basically invisible things moving around, trying to kill me.  I can hear something moving around behind me, and there's a soft whispering that happens now and then. I'm down to one health pack, I'm low on ammo because I keep unloading too much when these things do appear.  It was genuinely intense.

I heard a noise behind me, turned around, and there was a guy standing there who wasn't there before. Music goes all psycho for a second with the "BOO!" factor but then he starts to fade away and the music tapers off. Tension starts to release. I'm ready for the cheap shot.

And it happens.

Something jumps out at me in the game. It's the face of a dead guy or something, I don't even know. It splatters on the screen with a sharp scream.  Total fake out cheap shot.  I startle.  The problem is that at the same time as this face explodes with a deafening shriek on my screen, another form is hurling at me out of the darkness....the darkness of my peripheral vision. The darkness OFF THE SCREEN. Not on the computer. This shape is launching itself out of the pitch black of the room around me in the real world.

It's real. Dear god...IT'S FUCKING REAL!!!!

The form hits me and I feel claws sinking in. Actual real pain. HOLYSHITIT'SREAL!!! THE. GAME. IS. FUCKING. REAL!!!!!

For just a second--maybe a quarter of a second--my suspension of disbelief short circuits, and I know I'm dead.  I'm dead because I relaxed after the built up moment that turned out to be no big deal.  I have fallen to the cliche fake out, and now I shall die.  Another victim of "Oh it's no big deal."  I should have run, and now the bloody, shrieking head has slammed into me with it's knifelike teeth.

I have never in my life, been so so scared.

My little fuzzy Ben chose the exact perfect moment to vault off the bed and into my lap in order to use me for a snuggle.  He was purring, but I didn't hear it over the headphones, and he had already begun to knead, even as he sailed between the bed and my lap. I never knew why there was this cliche out there about jumping up three feet. Now I do.

I screamed, and for some reason I clamped down on Ben with my arms instead of trying to push him away or something. I pulled him close, squeezing him in. To me there was a very fuzzy screaming bloody head with sharp teeth buried in my chest. I had to keep it from going after my neck!

Believe me, he's much more terrifying in the dark.

A split second later I realized what had happened. A long moment passed where I just heard Ben purring. The first thing I noticed was my heart beating so hard, I could actually feel the artery in my throat POUNDING. I know now why they say the heart jumps into your throat. (All these cliches are actually real phenomenon.) Then I started laughing.

Ben looked up at me, paws kneading like crazy. "Uncle Chris, could you not move around so much when we snuggle. I like snuggles, but they're the best when you don't jump around. You don't have to squeeze me, Uncle Chris. I know you like snuggles too. And don't scream Uncle Chris. I don't like it when you scream. I like snuggles though, just not screaming. And why are you laughing Uncle Chris. Are you playing a funny game?  Does it have snuggles?"

But now...

Now I'm starting to wonder if it was even accidental.  Could Ben have used my weakness for horror movies against me two years ago?  Could he have timed his jump to coincide with the post-fake-out-relaxation because he knew that's when I would most likely have a heart attack?  Could he have used my weakness for Princess Mononoke on Friday night?  Is he really a malevolent psychopath biding his time until moments of perfect opportunity present themselves where he can make these attempts to destroy me seem accidental?  Will I survive his next assassination attempt?

Am I living in my own horror movie, and I've just now realized what the monster is?

I'm going to go pet him now and tell him he's about to achieve (very) minor internet fame.  If this is my last entry....don't let this terror roam free!


  1. I'm fairly sure it is a plot. :)

  2. OMFG this was funny.

  3. I think he was just trying to give you what you wanted. You were scared, right?
    Also, I loved this line: "my suspension of disbelief short circuits, and I know I'm dead".

  4. So, today you updated your Cast and Crew page, which led me to The Worshiped, which led me here, and I don't mean to sound like an internet loon or nothin', but *I think your cat might be trying to kill me.*

    Here's what happened:

    This is hilarious. Deftly, deeply hilarious. Hilarious enough that I laughed aloud, and in so doing, managed to choke on a cracker. Now, I live alone with small children, so the risk of going out like this is always maybe a little higher than average. As I was flailing about, trying not to be done in by a fucking Triscuit, I smacked the top of my head on a brick mantle, causing it to bleed impressively (as even very minor head wounds are wont to do).

    Now, obviously, I survived, and I have learned a valuable lesson about putting things in my mouth while reading your blog (you heard me), but the whole thing seems deeply suspicious. My own cat will tell me nothing, but he looks *strangely satisfied*.

  5. I may have just laughed hard enough to cry.