It seems, however, that while I wasn't looking, the world decided otherwise. I was watching a stream archive of a popular recent horror release. Eventually, it got to a plot point involving subject matter that was a bit too close to real-life horror for me (a parent having a very potent and realistic reaction to watching their small child die horribly), so I turned it off. The game had seemed close to the end, though, so I Googled to spoil myself on what was happening, and it turned out, "oh, it was all fairies." Which is just about the most unscary thing I can imagine, collective gamer flashbacks to hearing "hey, listen" 20,000 times notwithstanding.
I would think this revelation would be widely panned, particularly among an audience where those raised on SCP creepypastas enjoy disproportionate representation, but no. People seem to be taking it in stride.
It reminds me - to switch gears here - of a modern fantasy title written for a middle-aged female audience I ended up reading a few years back. The plot: Woman moves back to small Vermont town; discovers that she's a descendant of witches and that her neighbors are all supernatural creatures; is challenged by the local grown-up mean girl, who's secretly some sort of faerie queen. It seems - I did some research after being perplexed here - that the whole Big Bad Tinkerbell thing is not just a idiosyncracy of this particular author: fairies are the go-to villains in that subgenre. Their Sugar Plum appearance is not a secret front for more eldritch entities or more sinister powers. They're just...fairies, but bad. Like, individual fairies will announce their presence through signature hues of glowy multicolor glitter - which the author means to be sinister, and man, is that a miscalculation.
Now, I did some thinking, as one does in wake of disconcerting revelations, and I ultimately concluded that, while nothing outside of glitter bombs is going to make glowy glitter scary, the whole fairy villain thing could be kind of understandable, in a skancewise way. The conflicts in these books frequently seem to be metaphors for clashes with the mean girls in town, and fairies, all fluttery and pretty and surface glamour, are the least-disruptive analogue for that cohort among the better-known fantastic creatures. (These books are not written for the curious, so only the most mainstream monster types need apply. You're not gonna get stuff like, say, the Huldra in here.) The thing is that we're supposed to be terrified of these fairies, of their powers and capabilities, viewing them not as twee, cutesy sprites, as these flitty little wee things, but as mighty, awesome creatures, and I'm sorry, I just can't make that transition. Yes, so far as they're beings with supernatural powers, they command vast destructive forces, but so does, say, erosion, and I don't see any horror movies on the premise of limestone weathering. Maybe they work with the modern fantasy target audience because of the mean girls thing, but I would think the gaming horror community would be made of slightly sterner stuff.
Then I thought of another possibly relevant media experience of mine, with the game Firewatch, about a man taking a job as a fire lookout after a long bout of caring for his dementia-stricken wife. Despite dealing with a couple plot points that resonated with me personally - taking care of a family member during a long illness and sorting oneself out afterward; working as a fire lookout, a job that's always intrigued me - I didn't finish it or get along with it. The breaking point came with was initially a special moment after the long hike through the beautifully-rendered interior on the way to your post: my first moment in the lookout tower, the wild expanse of nature that my character would inhabit for the next few months spread out for the first time in its full, panoramic glory before me. Aglow in the twilight, it was a glorious sight, the perfect capper to a beautiful hike. After taking in the scenery, I spotted a poster on the wall illustrating the local flora. What wildflowers could I discover in this region? Enchanted, I drew close to look - and, immediately, the moment was shattered by a screech from the radio: a fellow fire lookout who called to mock my character for his presumed mental problems (claiming that anyone who took a job in nature was obviously unstable and running away from something, signposting the game's attitude toward the great outdoors and those who love it). I was extremely irritated - and then I learned that I was expected to form a positive and loving relationship with this individual over the next few hours that would serve as the focus of the entire game. I dumped Firewatch soon afterward.
It wasn't news to me that my opinion of the title was at odds with conventional wisdom, as the game was highly-praised before I tried it out. But months later, happening across player discussions of the game on Giant Bomb, I discovered that most gamers had had an acutely opposite reaction to the particular moment that turned me off. Everyone else found the nasty radio call, name-calling and all, deeply comforting. They had all been frightened by the walk to the lookout tower - at being alone in the wilderness, a sensation the panorama atop the lookout tower only punctuated. The other lookout, no matter how abrasive or antisocial, was a comfort, a handhold, solely due to being another human presence.
So, given all the above, here's my question: are fairies viable figures of horror in gaming because they represent gamers' fear of nature?
I don't want to fall back on the stereotype of the gamer cocooned in gadgets, as averse to analog pursuits as Dracula is to sunlight. But the evidence ain't exactly pointing elsewhere.
BLOG POST EXTENDED EDITION LINER NOTES!:
- Besides the fairy thing, the fantasy book I mentioned is remarkable for how it is Ready Player One for knitting. As with video games in Ernest Cline's book, where the entirety of existence actually hinges on those video games you thought I was wasting my life playing, Mom, here, knitting is the cause of and solution to every single problem the characters encounter. Every character, save the boyfriend, is a knitter. The magic system is based on weaving and knitting. Enemies trap the heroine in skeins of psychic yarn and attack her with fusillades of killer knitting needles and careening spinning wheels. Wizards denote their power levels through the intricacy of the stitching on their cable-knit sweaters. The heroine saves her man by mentally weaving him a lifeline from her magic, and she is saved in turn by a Spirit Bomb from a ghostly "army of knitters" past to present: "all in period dress, kindred spirits from across the centuries. Hippies and flappers, Gibson Girls and Civil War belles, Colonials and early rustic settlers. They laced their hands together [see! human knitting] and kept me from going under." The author's commitment to the bit is downright impressive and weirdly admirable.
- The other thing for which I remember the book is this section where the boyfriend is trying to drive the non-driving protagonist's old Buick through a New England blizzard and she and her friend are aggressively backseating and interfering with the boyfriend's operation of the car and making huge distractions of themselves, to the author's beaming approval (they know best, after all! Um, despite not knowing how to drive), and as someone who has been in that very situation - driving an old Buick through a New England blizzard, once with a family member in the front seat who was freaking out in a performative way and making herself a legitimate danger - this made me viscerally angry. I have known few situations that are more nerve-wracking than trying to operate a vehicle when the tires won't grip the road and visibility slows your progress to a crawl, and both situations are getting worse by the minute, yet going too fast means imminent destruction of one of your most valuable assets and massive bodily harm, and stopping on the side of the road like a sitting duck means potentially the same thing while getting you no closer to safety. It is a situation that demands every single bit of your concentration at every moment until you turn into your driveway - one where absolutely no distractions belong, least of all from those who insist everyone else is too incompetent to drive yet refuse to take the wheel themselves, instead opting to throw tantrums like spoiled children, making themselves the most dangerous thing on the road and risking the lives of everyone in the car.
Yes, this is colored by personal experience, but my personal experience is very pertinent, dammit. Driving in snowstorms has been the closest Maine has come to killing me, and Maine wants to kill me very badly. (It was not, however, the closest that family member came to killing me, and it turned out they also, unbeknownst to me at the time, wanted to kill me very badly.)
- The other negative association I have with Firewatch involves a series of posts and opinion pieces on the game when it was au courant ranting about what a coward the main character was for taking a retreat for his mental health once he couldn't do anything more for his wife instead of staying and fixing his wife's dementia!!!, on which I thought, wow, you have absolutely no experience with chronic illness or caretaking at all, have you. (Given Firewatch's opinion on those who seek out nature and the esteem it was held by that crowd, I wouldn't be surprised if the game ultimately ran in the direction of those ignorant op-eds.)
- Those looking for an account of the life of a fire lookout that's more invested and less repulsed by the details of the job should read Fire Season by Philip Connors. It could be better-written - the author's trying too consciously to be a Great Yet Faux-Humble Nature Author and comes off as insufferable a good deal in the early going - but it is, at its best, a good glimpse into what the day-to-day job is like and the mindsets of those who take it when the author gets out of his own way.
- Fire Season did convince me, though, that perhaps the life of a fire lookout was not for me due to Connors' notation of the massive amount of animal droppings left in accommodations between seasons.