There’s a smarmy and not particularly accurate saying: “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” This is only true for some very specific forms of comedy, and those mostly not the funniest sort, but there’s still an element of truth there. Old wounds heal, and we who share scars can laugh over our mutual history. It is, in practice, more often used as reason to laugh at the misfortune of others with the comfort of knowing that they’ll never find out about it or, if they do, they’ll be old and wise enough to take your stupidity with good grace. Regardless, when granted distance from past agonies, we can laugh, comfortable in our own safety, however illusory.
Some scars don’t heal, though. Most tragedies never really become funny, they just become forgotten to everyone who doesn’t share them, who wear them privately inside their skin, membership bracelets to the suck club.
It would be, perhaps, more accurate to say that horror, as a genre, is tragedy minus time. When you know that what lies ahead is despair, but you can’t turn away – when you know that it’s out there and is coming for you, but you can’t run too far – when every heartbeat is one of the last grains of sand in the hourglass, but gravity carries you unceasingly into your doom. Fear is powerlessness. Fear is fate.
The most obvious example of this conceivable is the Final Destination films, silly movies with a great premise: What if avoiding your fate got you on Death’s shit-list, and he’d make a hobby of thinking up hilarious Rube Goldberg death-traps for you to fall into? In practice it may be goofy, but the idea itself is still effective, the fate that cannot be avoided, merely deferred by moments, one after another. That delay is a narrative concession – alternately, you could just make it so that you just get fucking ghost-murdered like in The Ring, or have a monster-tooth cock-baby pop out of your chest like in Alien. Unavoidable: Your fate constrained by the actions of your past, the disaster you avoided, the tape you watched, the creature you found.
The future is the past, constrained and shaped by it. Sometimes, in horror, it’s the past itself that we approach by moving forward: James Sunderland walks into Silent Hill, a corrupted and dangerous place, to find his way back into his past and confront it. This motif has become popular in horror games, likely at least partly because of Silent Hill’s influence, and similarly in Neverending Nightmares and Lone Survivor you walk through a world that’s haunted by its past. These back-and-forth flow of memory and tragedy is reminiscent of the flashbacks suffered by PTSD survivors, as well as the intrusive thoughts of those with OCD. These stories and experiences are presented as something supernatural, detached, but these nightmares are never really far from us, and our past and future tragedies merge together inseparably in our dreams and imaginations.
Given this theme of unavoidable fate, there is a rather clear challenge when it comes to applying the idea to video games, a medium premised on the idea of granting the audience some measure of control. How can you make the player helpless to their fate, but still able to experience a game? In the Silent Hill games, it tends to work out that no matter when you get to the next section of the game, you get there just as something really unpleasant happens, and the story runs a few steps ahead of you, constructing chaos and leaving you to drown in its wake. Other games manifest their hopelessness more distantly, as an inevitable end presaged by invasion or disease, of which your own personal story is merely a vignette. The Walking Dead resolved both the pragmatic difficulties of a branching narrative and of predestined tragedy by allowing the player to make choices for the protagonist, Lee Everett, only to have them all fold inevitably into a single outcome. Though some people were disappointed that their choices “didn’t change anything”, in the end this served the purpose of the narrative perfectly. There is no happy ending, only death deferred by moments, one after another.
So the difference between horror and reality is merely that, in reality, we can momentarily forget the end is approaching, deferred by moments, not forever, but indefinitely.