On the Importance of Subjectivity in the Horror Genre

Like Dracula in the classic films, The Horror Pages is never really dead; merely hibernating, waiting for the right time to rise from the crypt.

It seems a great deal of importance has recently been placed in academic and critical circles on the importance of narrative in horror (and horror gaming)- as well it should be- but while the importance of considering the role of narrative in design cannot be overstated, any discussion of the horror genre should include the impact of the subjective nature of human perception on the experience.

Or, to put it more simply, the horror genre is (almost) unique in the sense that the genre’s ideal state is one where the experiencer generally may have no idea what the hell is going on.

Confused? Let’s turn to an example, then; in fact, let’s have a look at one of the most beautiful examples of the subjective principle in horror ever devised.

This is The Gable Film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=4fDeT8H2CwQ

Did you watch it? If you didn’t, you’re missing out- go back and watch it. If you did, you may be thinking two things: “that was horrifying” and/or “what the #%(^ did I just see?”.

If so, your reaction is not unique.

When The Gable Film was released online back in 2007, the general reaction was precisely that described above. It was, of course, immediately followed by a frothing, rabid outcry for additional information on the film; predictably (and hilariously), none was forthcoming, save for a tantalizing story about how the film clip was discovered in an old cardboard box at a garage sale (or was it an estate sale?) sold by an old widow (or was it a widower?) whose husband was in film processing (or was it law enforcement?). The story was just vague and incomplete enough to spread llike wildfire and otherwise viewers were left to their own devices to speculate about the background and nature of the film.

And speculate they did. The film clip contains just enough information to hint at a plot. The film stock and the vehicles seen in the clip seem to suggest the film was shot in the 1970’s. The individuals seen in the footage seem to be related. The landscape indicates the film takes place in the late winter or early spring. Most compelling of all, though, are the few brief seconds at the end of the footage where the creature appears. Internet sleuths essentially tore the footage apart and analyzed it piece by piece, even to the degree of viewing it frame by frame. Some analyzed the movements of the creature, claiming it had the physical presence and movement patterns reminiscent of the great apes; others disagreed, arguing that the movements were more canid. Some claimed to see the creature’s tail, others saw nothing of the sort. X-rays and palaeontological tooth samples were dug up from whatever corners of the internet where they could be found and hauled out with a flourish onto messageboards and online forums to be compared to the few frames at the end of The Gable Film showing the teeth of the creature. Some speculated that the film proved the older man in the clip was the creature all along and the film document his having lured the kid behind the camera into the woods; others deferred, arguing the older man must have been driving the vehicle when the creature is first glimpsed earlier in the footage. This led others to speculate there may have been more than one creature, or perhaps the creature was tracking the family all along.

This debate continued for nearly three years, until The History Channel’s cryptozoological-focused program MonsterQuest proved in 2010 that The Gable Film was a hoax created by an aficionado of the legend of The Michigan Dogman. The ‘creature’ that had caused so much consternation was a ghillie suit. (It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that it seems that there was no active intent to mislead the public through the creation of The Gable Film; the creator seemed to simply have wanted to make a tribute to the local legend and the internet picked it up and misinterpreted the film entirely).

A full discussion of the film beyond that recounted above is outside the scope of this article, but The Gable Film is intriguing precisely for the reasons stated above. The minimalist nature of the footage, with no soundtrack and no spoken dialogue, the low visual quality of the footage, the fact that the ‘creature’ appears for only a few frames, and the overall short runtime of the film all serve to starve the audience for information and force the viewer to search more deeply to try to make sense of what he or she has just seen.

Essentially, because of its largely non-narrative nature, The Gable Film a more effective narrative than that presented in most other works of horror fiction.

Moreover, because of the lack of information in the film regarding the encounter with the ‘creature’, the film presents a wonderful picture of what one would speculate that an encounter with a ‘creature’ would seem like from the subjective position of the experiencer; and this is where any horror game designer would do well to study The Gable Film, because in general, the more we understand something, the less we fear it- or, as H.P. Lovecraft once put it:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Perhaps the time has come for the industry to focus less on the narrative and more about the experience of the user.

The Gable Film, MonsterQuest, and all associated IP – and any other IP mentioned above- are property of their respective owners and are intended compliant with applicable Fair Use for the purposes of review.

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~ by Redgoateerob on October 31, 2014.

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