[Originally published September 19, 2016]
Horror’s greatest strength is its ability to circumvent conventional storytelling. That may seem an odd statement – “rules” (e.g. you fuck, and you die) and archetypes (virgin/jock/pothead/etc.) often dominate the genre – but, really, it has no responsibility to its characters. Horror can kill who it wants, when it wants. ‘Character’ may begin at ‘archetype,’ but it need not moor itself there. Potheads aren’t inherently dumb, sexual promiscuity doesn’t define your morality, and bros – yes, even bros – are people too.
Have you seen Cabin in the Woods? If not, you should. It’s a direct statement on the elastic nature of horror – proof that the genre need not adhere to rigid, tired boxes. That script is a fun, digestible exploration of horror’s construction – especially for the uninitiated.
Quick Content Warning: There’s gonna be some grody, grisly shit in this blog. Pics – specifically. Proceed at your own risk, yo.
Another excellent horror film is the 1988 remake of The Blob. Plot: acidic goop from space shows up in a small town and starts eating people. We on the same page? Great, good, cool. What I like about this film is its use of something I’m going to call ‘Protagonist Potential.’ ‘Protagonist Potential’ is the notion that the archetypes we’re shown during the film’s opening all have the potential to become protagonists. The local bad boy; the brave, intelligent football player; the hardass, well-rounded sheriff; the friendly, savvy diner owner; the smart-but-tough student. Horror movie rules allow for the potential survival of all of these characters. Horror movie rules also might kill any of them. What The Blob does really well is play on our expectations of what can and can’t happen to a character. This is what I mean by ‘Protagonist Potential.’ These characters all have the opportunity to become the Main of our movie – the protagonist, the ‘survivor.’ But any of them can die as well. What we might perceive as a protagonist – someone who’s narratively safe from a horror villain – could end up dead on the chopping block, subverting our expectations and heightening our reaction to death in a horror film.
The Blob is incredibly intelligent in its judicious use of character screentime. It will kill a minor character – whose brief appearance designates them as a fixture of gratuitous fatality – and then kill a sreen-hogging main character shortly thereafter. Horror doesn’t normally kill in immediate, sequential order. Characters either die one at a time, or in pairs. This is genric economics – if you kill too many characters too fast, you run out of folks to push the plot forward. So when The Blob kills a character, letting another briefly escape, it lulls you into a false sense of security – tricking you into believing that you’ve seen the only death in the scene. This also reinforces the ‘PP’ principle – if a potential protagonist has just survived a deadly encounter, then that lends credence to our implied understanding of them as a protagonist. We view them as ‘safe’ – not only because they fit a ‘survivor’ archetype, but because they have just literally survived.
Then, mere moments later, they meet a grisly end (see: the diner chef (minor character) followed by the diner owner (maj. ch.); the homeless man (minor ch.) followed by the jock (maj. ch.)).
The movie also approaches PP from a separate angle to great effect via the ‘unannounced off-screen death.’ Though we may expect the death of a character, once they’ve taken up a certain amount of screentime real-estate, we expect their death to be dramatic; we expect to witness their demise, no matter how troubling. This can make an unannounced off-screen death a particularly effective anti-climax. When the sheriff’s acid-distorted head floats past us – well through the second act – it comes as a shock. It’s horrifying. He’s been the film’s primary authority figure up to this point. He’s smart, and he knows something fishy’s going on. He’s also got all the guns. When the movie shows us that it’s killed this hugelyimportant figure offscreen, it’s a sobering moment. This film has norespect for its characters, serving as a tonal foil to its archetypal construction as a horror film.
This approach works in Gaming as well. Remember Until Dawn? That’s our Cabin in the Woods. I’m normally not a fan of cross-medium comparisons, but these two works actually have a similar goal in mind: deconstruct the genre through the unique qualities of the medium. Cabin in the Woods utilizes highly crafted visuals and a tight, referential script to trope on the genre as a cinematic medium, whereas Until Dawnincorporates the genre’s traditional archetypes, subgenres, and tropes within an interactive, a-linear narrative.
(Side note: ‘a-linear’ should not be confused with ‘non-linear.’ A ‘non-linear narrative’ is told out of chronological order, but the same plot happens every time. An ‘a-linear narrative’ is my preferred term for ‘branching narrative’ – where different plot points happen while still maintaining a chronological progression.)
Unlike The Blob, Until Dawn was made to accommodate its characters. You can finish that game with everyone alive (even if the god-damn trash-fire shit-ass motion controls get in the way), so it had to be a character-driven game. Until Dawn simply would not be as good if it restricted its characters to their given archetypes. This is why choice is a huge boon to the narrative: if the player can project a ‘route of characterization’ onto a character, then – if that character behaves outside of their assigned archetype – it still makes sense within the narrative world. The player has chosen that the jock will act like a sweet, sensitive boy. The player has decided to make the traditionally weak, promiscuous character into a strong-willed survivor. The player has transformed the strong-willed, rational character into a total fuck-up. Rather than rely wholly on dialogue and backstory, Until Dawn lets characterization happen organically through play. This is also why any character’s survival works within the typical understandings of horror narratives; it all goes back to the Protagonist Potential principle. If a character isn’t bound to their oft-doomed archetypes, then they have the potential to become a protagonist. A pothead might not just be ‘The Pothead’ – they might be a quick thinker who happens to smoke pot, thanks to the player.
Thanks to the player, they might be a protagonist. A survivor.
Both works use the medium to their utmost advantage. The Blob is a grimmovie – utterly hopeless. So many deaths come completely out of left field, largely due to the ‘Potential Protagonist’ principle. It renders each victim – and, most importantly, their agency – inert. That’s what good horror is about – a theft of agency. It’s not scary watching the superhuman Jason Voorhees rip a co-ed in two. Fun, maybe, but not scary. Lots of folks forget that the villain of the original Friday the 13thwas a frail old woman. She managed to overpower the teens with her wits and her traps – not superhuman strength.
At first, Until Dawn might seem like an empowering title, but it’s not. Again – anyone can live, but anyone can die. The agency comes down to you, the player, and that’s where it derives its horror. Your actions have consequences, and those actions have the potential to rip agency from your grasp. You are the conduit of Protagonist Potential, and that’s why Until Dawn succeeds as a piece of horror fiction.
The Blob toys with its characters, and Until Dawn toys with you.
 By the way, this is a smart way that The Blob blurs the line between different scenes. It artificially lengthens a scene via the ‘kill-a-minor-character-then-follow-a-major-character-that-we’ll-eventually-seamlessly-kill-in-a-hot-minute’ technique, and then transitions seamlessly back to the characters at the original fatality point – back where the minor character got they ass KIL’T. When we transition back into the OG fatality point, it’s a new scene – with characters with new goals and a broader understanding of the events at play – but re-using a setting from moments before. It’s a fucking brilliant technique of re-contextualizing the audience’s investment in a location/character. This is very much unrelated to the whole ‘Protagonist Potential’ idea I’m talking about, but The Blob is a goddamn great movie for SO many reasons, and I’d be remiss to omit this particular success.
 On a related note: this is why choice worked far better in Heavy Rainthan in Beyond: Two Souls. Even though Heavy Rain masquerades as a crime drama, it owes its form and function entirely to the horror genre. It has three – arguably four – protagonists. The narrative doesn’t rely on the survival of every character. Anyone can live, anyone can die, and the through-narrative remains the same. Conversely, Ellen Paige is the onlyprotagonist of B:TS, and so she cannot die. The story begins and ends with her. This is why complaints that ‘this game plays itself!’ are much more pervasive with B:TS than Heavy Rain. By the very function of its narrative form, B:TS absolutely cannot accommodate the soft fail-states of Heavy Rain – wherein a main character dies, but the narrative continues. Both games are riddled with problems (Read: David Cage-isms), but Heavy Rain’s multiple protags will always be its greatest ludo-narrative strength.