Survival of the Grotesque

What do you get when you combine the following elements: Cliff Steele, a man who had a race car accident and woke up with his brain transplanted into a metal body; Crazy Jane, a woman suffering from sixty-four multiple personalities, each of which has her own superpowers; Dorothy Spinner, a teenaged girl whose face is that of an ape and can materialize her imaginary friends and foes, but has yet to control said power; Rebis (AKA Negative Spirit), who comes into being when a negative energy combines both Larry Trainor, a pilot, and his physician, a black woman named Dr. Eleanor Poole, in the form of a divine hermaphrodite wrapped in bandages; and Danny, the sentient, transvestite street who can change his location? Yes, you get Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol. With appropriate villains, such as the Candlemaker, Scissormen, The Brotherhood of Dada (whose leader, Mr. Nobody, uses the stolen bicycle of Albert Hofman to power the Brotherhood’s U.S. presidential campaign), and ventures into Jane’s own mind, which is akin to a subway system, the ride is amusing, brim with brilliance, and utterly horrific.

Cap’n Perkins and I discussed in a phone call the other week how to classify this body of work. He had gone to Goodreads and labeled them all under this tag: horror. In much the same vein, titles such as Hellboy fell under the same gaze. These are titles which offer grotesque environments, characters, and situations, but do not necessarily proffer a fright. I know that I for one cannot recall the last time I was frightened by any media, be it book, film, comic, or videogame. It doesn’t happen; I have to scare myself, which I do with a certain aplomb, if I do say so myself.

There’s been a bit of discussion of late on whether or not Survival Horror still exists as a genre. Curiously enough, it was one of the few ‘genres’ we have in videogame culture that is not solely contingent on mechanics, offering some amount of theme that had to be followed as well–though mechanics are a rather large portion of its definition. Most of the games do have in common a certain level of capability to offer frightening situations with the role of one person trying to survive with limited resources, however. Whether this be by zombies, frightening psychological trauma, or other externalized fears, the supernatural was almost always involved in some way.

Recent reviews on Dead Space mostly seem to point out that the game is not very frightening. The monsters may jump out at you, but that’s the extent of the horror. Ammo may not come in droves, but is still plentiful enough to gleefully rip apart your opponents, and you get the feel that survival is not a large portion of the game. Which makes me wonder if we’re done with the survival element of games because, let’s be frank, a large portion of the videogame audience does not wish to be frustrated by poor combat mechanics and frustrating (albeit rewarding) gameplay just for the sake of a good horror story. Don’t get me wrong, I love those games, but I know a fair amount of people to whom such does not appeal. If you wish to expand your franchise in terms of consumers, these elements come into play.

I do believe that we can find another way to have interactive story elements give us a good scare (well, some of us not including myself), but perhaps we need to find new methods of such. For now, what I might suggest is not to throw survival on every game that happens to be horrific. Horror can exist without the need to frighten you beyond a few anxious, palm-sweating and making the controller slip moments when a monster may jump out at you, or is heard clanking about in the background when you expect something that never comes. That is to say, we may be moving into using horror elements in action settings, and the survival horror game may not be as front and center as we expected from Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

Because this is a still rapidly evolving medium, including in its mechanics and technical specifications, we’re still not defining genres by their themes–so I believe we may still see the term survival horror bandied about by a game that just offers the horrific, supernatural, and grotesque. We also seem to be stuck in the mindset that anything including the title horror has to titillate to the point of fright. I have yet to play Dead Space (it’s in the rather long queue that will only fall behind as the weeks progress), but I do not expect to play it and have it frighten me. I’m not sure if that was ever part of my expectation–much as I wasn’t frightened by Alien the first time I saw it, but grew rather enamored with H.R. Giger’s artwork (it helped that my mother had the Dark Seed games).

Am I calling the end of survival horror? Heavens to Pamela, no. Given the various methods of distribution, an emergingly visible independent scene, and different price points, I believe survival horror will probably exist in some frame or another for years to come. However, as with any medium, we should expect changes and exploration of the territory. By many accounts, The Man Who Laughs is a horror film (which I watched with Cap’n Perkins when he visited), but certainly one which does not frighten today’s audiences, whose expectation of the scare has changed. The film is certainly grotesque and morbid in theme, however. Horror films have progressed in many ways, trying different tactics, and that is what I expect of the next horror games that seek to actually proffer fright instead of just the grotesque (but I’ll gladly take the grotesque). As it stood, the survival horror genre had to change anyway–we can only be scared so many times by the same elements before we expect it.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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2 Responses to Survival of the Grotesque

  1. Scott Juster says:

    This is probably diverging from the point of your post a bit, but I’m really intrigued by your statement: “Unfortunately, because this is a still evolving medium, including in its mechanics and technical specifications, we’re still not defining genres by their themes…”No argument here about games being an evolving medium (although what relevant medium isn’t?), but I’m more interested in your idea that games will ultimately be defined by their themes.I’ve always felt that one of the major things that separated video games from other mediums was the importance of their mechanics. For example, Resident Evil and Castlevania both share the themes of the undead and the supernatural (among other traditional “horror-genre” imagery), yet we don’t really lump them together because of their wildly different gameplay styles. Despite similar themes, I would think that Castlevania::Mario Bros. is a better analogy Castlevania::Silent Hill. Anyway, sorry to get all tangential. I think the link between “survival” and “horror” needs a good re-examination, as you say. You’ve probably planted the seeds of an EXP post…;)

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Hmmm, I should probably clarify that I don’t see them ‘ultimately’ defined by their themes, but the fact of the matter is that we slap either sci-fi or fantasy on things, but rarely examine its themes closer.I suppose that I’m eventually expecting theme to play more of a role in our discussion, where its primarily been mechanics. Discussing mechanics and technical progress is definitely worth our time, but so it can be with writing as well. In essence, I believe we can elevate theme without taking away from mechanics, but right now we seem solely focused on the mechanics when we ‘define’ a game.What would be interesting to see in the Castlevania analogy is how it can use the supernatural in its mechanics in different ways than Silent Hill. Can psychological horror be done well in a side-scrolling type game, for instance?Either way, I should probably go and remove the unfortunately, which is far more condemning than I intended.Also agreed is that all mediums are still evolving, though it seems videogames are young enough (and not sure enough quite yet) to still be making leaps and bounds in these discoveries.

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