2020 has been horrible. It has been, and it is, awful. I’m a writer, but I don’t have the words for every way this year has disappointed, hurt, scared, and tested me and everyone I know.
It’s almost over.
But before we can put the corpse of this year in the ground, we have to deal with our feelings about it. These feelings may be unpleasant and uncomfortable, but ignoring them so we can jump to the next step of celebrating? That’s like leaving a wound to fester while putting on your favorite party clothes. That nastiness is going to come through eventually, so better to treat it and clean and bandage the wound, before you get your nice things dirty.
Horror for a Horrible Time
That’s where horror comes in for me. Reading fiction, watching movies, and playing games that engage with our darker side is a kind of release valve, a way to name my fears and face them in a less risky environment. It can seem counterintuitive, to linger in the darkness when all you want is some gods damned light, but like funerals, enacting a ritual to recognize, validate, and put these feelings to rest is a healthy way to process and move on. And games are rituals. We gather around tables and computer screens, with favorite beverages and special tools, and tell stories together using ceremonial phrases, and in doing so, create a liminal space. It’s just far enough away from our daily lives that we can indulge ourselves, or escape, or turn our gaze inwards. Since I also make games, it lets me take some of those inner thoughts and put them into a form other people can engage with. And since some of those thoughts are dark, they can be horror games, or have horrific aspects to them.
Often in horror stories, it is someone in mourning, who has lost someone close, who is able to see ghosts. They are outside time, outside normality, and it is only by putting the ghost to rest that they’re able to return to normal life in the sunshine. We have all lost so much this year, we are all seeing ghosts. We are seeing them in our uneasiness at big crowds in movies, in our children’s faces as they play alone, in the mirror when we feel overwhelmed. This is a trauma we are all collectively experiencing, and trauma does not just go away. Sometimes you have to hack away at it several times before you get it all. I don’t know how deep this particular trauma is for all of us, but I know I will be processing it through as many different ways as I need to until it’s laid to rest.
Forbidden (Self) Knowledge
In other stories, it is some forbidden tome that people seek, and it frequently turns out to be a form of self-knowledge they find that is awesome enough to tear open reality or the gates of hell or wherever the bad guys are hanging out. Looking inwards can be hard. It can suck. It can be healing and rewarding. This is not to say that games can replace therapy, or you should use your unwitting GM as a therapist (really. don’t.), but engaging with horror can sometimes lead us to find out fears and emotions we weren’t aware we had until that moment, recognize them, and release them. There’s a structure there in games to keep us safe, a conscious shutting down of reality, and a bounded place to explore what’s hiding in our dark corners. Games are especially good at this, using metaphor to let us poke at things indirectly, until we achieve a form of catharsis. I’ve learned a lot about myself this year, and some of it I still struggle to integrate with the rest.
And then there are the monsters. They can be dismissed as childish, but it is a primal fear, a deep one, that causes that dismissal. Monsters can stand in for the awfulness of human behavior, or the threat of something or someone intending us harm, or ourselves. And if there’s a little part of us that recognizes sameness in those monsters, that feels a twinge when the heroes righteously end the monster, does that mean we wish that little part of us would also end? That path is a difficult one to walk, and I’ve come to know parts of myself that aren’t as nice or good as I wish, and so have that to learn from, and try to change.
Darkness, My Old Friend
When the world is dark, I dive into stories of unknowable gods and hidden terrors. I put on movies featuring vivid gore and moving shadows. I run games that focus on the unpleasant and scarring. These fictional horrors are sometimes easier to face than the plain facts that fill our TVs. Better a man in a rubber suit threatening our sanity than the everyday banality of evil we’ve come to know. It’s easier to see myself in ridiculous monstrosity, than in realistic indifference. Yet I have found feelings and thoughts I would never have guessed I had come out of my mouth while gaming. It’s easy to brush it off as being “in character”, but some of it is based in truth, and once I’ve allowed myself to acknowledge it, I’ve been able to put it away, or learn to do better, or understand where that hurt came from. I’ve been able to examine and mourn things or people I’ve lost, including parts of myself. I check in with my players more frequently. I let the bad be really, really bad. I hold space for them after, and take time to talk about normal, silly things, to help the world feel normal. That contrast between the horror we all just played through and the real world is all the sharper then, and beautiful for it.
That is my hope as we come to the end of this terrible year. That perhaps a horror game allows us, privately, secretly, to acknowledge the hurt and harm we’ve all endured, and to put that fucker in the ground before we celebrate our victory over it. For the other lesson horror has taught me, is you make damn sure the monster is dead before you hold your loved ones close. Let’s not make that mistake.