It’s Halloween now. I am not a child or a person who has children, nor even someone who turns on a porch light and hands out candy, so the trick-or-treating doesn’t matter to me. I don’t know anyone here to invite me to a party, so I don’t get drunk with a bunch of people in costumes. By all obvious measures, to me personally this night should be the same as any other night.
There’s something. This is the time when our idea of who we are and what we are seems at its most malleable. As a creator, I tend to project my various subtle social dysphorias out through characters and ideas, devil’s advocates and shapeless horrors and harmless hypotheticals. The costume seems unnecessary to me. But I still look at everyone else, at the work and love that they put into their costumes, and I wonder what their choices mean. I look at a list of the most popular costumes of the last few years and find myself unexpectedly overwhelmed by emotion, imagining the connection between these concepts and the people who wear them, wondering what it means when these trends emerged and receded. What does it mean that witch is always the most popular costume? What does it mean that police showed up once on the list a few years ago and then immediately disappeared? What drives the appearance and disappearance of Batman, of Dracula, of zombies and of devils?
It may seem trivial, and maybe it is. But each costume was a decision made by a human being, an expression of something that they felt. It’s impossible that it doesn’t mean something. And, looking at it, I get the feeling of some profound truth about who we are and who we want to be, but I just don’t know what it is.
Reading some of the responses to Neverending Nightmares, and listening to some of the things that people say about horror games in general, I hear some people say that they don’t find any horror games or movies scary. I’ve started wondering what this means, exactly. Fear is a learned response to things that we understand are threatening: If we don’t find something scary, does that just mean that we haven’t learned what it means to be frightened?
I wonder. I wonder if horror starts to take tighter hold on us as we grow older and grow to understand the extent of our vulnerability to loss and injury. I wonder if fearlessness is merely ignorance.
For my first play-through of Neverending Nightmares I didn’t really find it scary. I found it interesting and evocative, but it didn’t really disturb me in any fundamental way. However, as I spent more time with it, as I tried to understand everything about it, as I got tired and sat around thinking about it and interpreting it, it started to find its way into my mind. I learned something about the mechanisms of fear, then: That which we refuse to look at or engage with cannot frighten us. A lack of fear when consuming horror means that you don’t believe it, that you haven’t let it in, that your defenses are still up. As long as your defenses are up, you are safe, and that sensation of safety is exactly what you wish to abandon.
As long as you are safe, you will not be scared.
If you want to be scared by a game, learn how much you have to fear each moment of each day, and then let it prey on those fears. Then you’ll feel it. Then you’ll see it when you close your eyes. Because it won’t just be the game: It will be you.
There’s a lyric that keeps running through my head, and has for the past decade:
“It’s not forbidden to be what you are”
It’s from a song called Boo Time, by the band Moxy Früvous. It particularly tends to run through my head around Halloween, for obvious reasons, but it also tends to shape the way I think about identity in general. I feel like we should all be able to be the person we feel ourselves to be. I think there’s a whole lot of cultural baggage built around the idea of what a particular kind of person is, what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to be a jock or a nerd, what it means to be Republican or Democrat, and I think it’s all garbage. Cruft. Vague bulwarks of tradition set up against the natural human desire to be fluid and natural and true.
This week I and many other people found out that former Moxy Früvous member Jian Ghomeshi beats women. The allegations are numerous, and more seem to have sprung up since. He has, as it were, a history. It’s sad and disturbing, but this also puts such a fine point on the apparent contradiction of the lyric that keeps going through my head: You cannot use your identity to hurt other people.
It’s not forbidden to be what you are, but it may be forbidden to do what you do.
It’s Halloween. We are what we pretend to be, so take care in what you pretend to be.