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January 25, 2015

There is a new story up today: Sleepless

What I Learned From Ghost Hunting
July 5, 2014

When I was a freshman in high school Ghost Hunters premiered on SyFy. Until then I had not been exposed to the more methodical approach to the paranormal. I grew up on ghost stories and some of those stories included people who would chase them down. Ghost Hunters introduced me to what at the time I considered a more realistic and logical approach to the paranormal. I couldn't resist the urge to try and be a part of that world.

Throughout high school and my early college years there were sporadic attempts to integrate ghost hunting into my life. There were two attempts to form a ghost hunting group with some of my friends. Neither attempt went very far. Cases and investigations were few and far between. After the first couple of investigations my first lesson was ghost hunting is actually quite boring. Working to keep yourself under control, not freaking out over every little thing your nights become less being chased by scary ghosts and more like this:

"Dude what was that?"

Friend looks around.

"Car just drove by. Its lights came through the window."

"Oh, I'll make a note of it so we know what it is on our cameras. Want some more coffee?"

Not to say there weren't fun and exciting times. There were experiences that I would say were legitimate paranormal experiences. Unfortunately these experiences are barely supported by pictures, video, and audio. They are even less supported by the other supposed evidences of ghost hunting. As I thought more and more about this conflict between my own experiences and legitimate evidence I learned my second lesson.

I came to realize that in ghost hunting/paranormal investigating there are an unbelievable amount of assumptions made. A lot of ghost hunters can be hesitant about commenting on the exact nature of ghosts but they will have no issue with saying EMF fluctuations, radiation, temperature drops, etc. are evidence of ghosts. But why? When did anyone ever capture a ghost and discover that they affect the environment this way? And even if some did, by what mechanism and why? At the same time I was asking myself these questions I also learned there was a lack of knowledge in how to properly measure and interpret these various pieces of evidence in the community. Even more so there was frighteningly lack of knowledge on how various elements of the environment influenced the readings. Ghost hunting teams were inadequately trained to tackle the subject of their research. I learned and decided I should approach the paranormal more like psychology, trying to understand the paranormal as a living relationship with human beings. I become less concerned with finding hard evidence to prove the existence of ghosts and more with how the dead affected the living.

I still believe in ghosts and all manner of strange things. I just don't think we are at a point conceptually and technologically to approach the supernatural world the way ghost hunters attempt to. About half way through college due to various factors the ghost hunting group my friends and I tried to form fell apart. Since then I have had little desire to try and form such a group again. The closest I came was shortly after I graduated college I was approached by someone I had gone on a hunt with. He wanted my help in putting together a more rigorous and scientific ghost hunting group. Unfortunately he got laid off from his job shortly after approaching me and had to back out to deal with his employment and financial issues.

Does this mean I'll never ghost hunt again? I'm not done. If anyone were to ever ask me to go on a ghost hunt I'd be there right away with a camera and an audio recorder. I'm never too far from the supernatural. I still experience it regularly through private spiritual/occult practices. Through ghost hunting I learned to be less concerned with finding hard scientific evidence for such things and more how the subjective experiences affect and influence the living. I realized we didn't know enough about what were researching and we probably didn't have the technology to properly investigate it. But that doesn't mean such things aren't still affecting people. Some hauntings cause people to live in dread. I learned that what is really important is how the living and the dead relate to each other.

Character Design in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Series Part 3)
June 16,2014

Fear relies on a sense of helplessness; a dread that you have little to no power to overcome the hellish obstacles in your way. In survival horror games this means most of the time the characters the player plays or encounters is the every man/every woman. Compared to action horror where the characters tend to have lots of combat experience in their past. Because survival horror tries to create an atmosphere of fear built upon subtle things that eat away at the players sanity, effective character design for both the player character and non-player characters is vital.

Who am I?

When playing a video game with narrative the player places themselves into a character much the same way an actor places themselves into a role that has been written. The more substance that has been given to the character the easier it is to immerse yourself into that character and what is happening to them. A poorly written or thin character can break the immersion and atmosphere of fear as the player is finding it to hard to fit into the character's ill fitting skin.

One of the failings of Silent Hill 4 was the design of the player character Henry Townshend. He is presented as a quite and stoic loner with no real relationships. Throughout the game he is shown to be willing help those in the nightmarish events taking place, yet no personal motivation is ever conveyed. He also has no real emotional connections to anything taking place and really is just involved by complete accident. It is hard to experience fear through Henry because he doesn't feel real enough to immerse yourself in. The game has to rely on other aspects to help create a dreadful atmosphere of fear.

Not only should a player character be fleshed out they should also be ordinary. It does no good in creating a sense of fear if you feel like your character can kick all the monsters' asses. Action horror games like The Suffering, Doom 3, or the F.E.A.R series don't create fear through their player characters which is why they often seem to be generic combat type characters.

The first three Silent Hill games all have ordinary and relatable characters. Harry is just trying to find his daughter. James is trying to figure out how he received a letter from his dead wife. While Heather is on a quest to avenge her father. The Fatal Frame games all have females as the main player characters. Fatal Frame 2 and 4 make their player characters younger adding to the atmosphere of fear; the young are even weaker than ordinary men and women . The Siren series and Eternal Darkness relies on a whole cast of ordinary characters. Rule of Rose and Haunting Ground, like Fatal Frame, use younger female player characters to try and create a sense of helplessness and fear.

Another important aspect for the player character is their emotional involvement in what's happening in the narrative. It can be easier for a player to immerse themselves into a character if that character is connected to the events taking place. Except for Silent Hill 4 all the player characters throughout the series have deep emotional ties to the events taking place. The first two Fatal Frame games have the player character seeking out a lost sibling. The third installment drags the player character in emotionally by having her capture a picture of her dead fiance. And the fourth Fatal Frame the player characters are on a quest to recover lost memories.

We're All Crazy Here

Non-player characters are just as important in creating an atmosphere of fear as the player characters. Non-player characters should ultimately be as weak as the player character. Even Maria who is a creation of Silent Hill is shown to be weak against it's power. Over and over she dies as punishment towards James. As the town taunts Angela she is constantly seeking a way to die. Eddie eventually crumbles before the town's treatment of him. Even though the cultists throughout the series believe themselves protected even they succumb to the town's nightmarish powers.

Helplessness is essential to creating an atmosphere of fear. It does no good to have the player character seem weak against the nightmares if another character seems to cope just fine. Those characters that stand in the player character's way have to fall before the resolution takes place or else a little hope might rise. If even the characters that were supposed to be working with the nightmares fall to it what hope do you have.

And just like the player character should have emotional investment in what is going on non-player characters should too. The cultists of the Silent Hill series are emotionally invested because they believe what they are doing, the suffering they are causing will bring their god into the world. In Silent Hill 4 Walter believes he will bring back his mom.

Any video game could be improved with better character design but for survival horror games it is essential. Survival horror games rely heavily on characters and narrative to help create an atmosphere of fear. The player characters have to be relatable and fleshed out enough for the player to immerse themselves in that character and experience the fear of the nightmare. If there is distance between the player and the character there is distance between the player and the fear. The same goes for non-player characters. What is to fear if you're standing in a room of superheroes? Any character opposing the player character should be shown to be just as powerless. Only the nightmare and its monsters should be left standing when it's over.

Link to Part 1: Introduction to Horror Video Games (Survival Horror Series Part 1)

Link to Part 2: World Building in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Games Series Part 2)

World Building in Survival Horror Games (Survival Horror Games Series Part 2)
June 8, 2014

I've said before survival horror games are like slow burning candles. The world of the game slowly creeps into your mind, instilling a sense of dread, something more than an adrenaline rush, something that shakes your very core with fear. One of the ways survival horror games achieve this is by presenting the player with a world that is more than darkened hallways, flickering lights, ominous sounds, or spectral figures. The world in which the player walks and the enemies he/she faces are imbued with meaning, they represent something, and as the player thinks more about what they represent the more it helps to eat away at the sanity of the player.

Not Just any Old Haunted House

One of the most recognizable locations for anyone who has dabbled in survival horror games is the ghostly town of Silent Hill. But the town is so much more than a truckload of fog and creepy sounds. The town constructs itself based on the sins and fears of the unfortunate souls who become trapped within.

The area on which Silent Hill was built is filled with its own rich history that is colorfully strung throughout the series. The land was a holy site to Native Americans known as “The Place of Silenced Spirits.” After forcing the indigenous people off the land, the first colony was abandoned after a epidemic killed most of the colonists. When colonists returned to the land it would be used first as a penal colony and then as a POW camp during the Civil War. By the time we get to the first game the town has been transformed into a resort town. But existing alongside the beautiful scenery is the nightmarish shadow that the players find themselves in.

While the history goes a long way to explain the nature of Silent Hill it doesn't always explain the town the player interacts with. The town likes to take a peek inside its victim’s minds to create a more frightening experience.

In Silent Hill 2 it is hinted the town one sees is crafted from one's own mind. While most of the locations James visits seem like just twisted versions of the real world Silent Hill the hotel he visits at the end has special meaning because it's where he and Marry stayed. Angela implies that the Silent Hill she sees is one that is always on fire while Laura seems impervious to the town's effects.

The world that the player experiences in Silent Hill 4 The Room is a reflection of the mind of Walter Sullivan. As the player progresses through the game the player learns more about Walter's past, learning about his suffering at the hands of the Silent Hill cult.

While I don't consider The Suffering survival horror it does share a lot of the design philosophies that make for a good survival horror game. The game takes place on a prison island filled with a bloody history that has infected the very land with an evil presence. The island has the power to corrupt and influence those that inhabit its land. As the player runs around the island they are not just running around a creepy environment but an environment that itself is pulsating with evil.

Zombies Are Overrated

Just as the environment the player finds him/herself in can be imbued with meaning the monsters the player faces can be something more than grotesque monstrosities. It's one thing to face mutated monsters but it's another thing to face something crafted from the personal demons of an individual or the depravity of human nature.

In the Silent Hill games the monsters the player faces come from within the minds of those caught up in the town's influence. The creatures the player faces in the first game are manifested from Cheryl/Alessa's mind. Except for the abstract daddies, which represent the abuse Angela suffered from her dad and brother, the monsters in Silent Hill 2 represent parts of James. Pyramid Head represents his desire to be punished while Maria is idealized representation of Mary. And again in Silent Hill 3 the monsters represent the mental scars of Heather/Alessa caused by her history with the Order. While the monsters faced in Silent Hill 4 are representative of the madness bred in Walter by the Order.

The design for the creatures faced in The Suffering didn't come from the scarred minds of the individuals that found themselves on the island but simply drew upon the depravity of human nature. Each of the creatures represents a form of execution or specific deaths on the island. The slayers and marksmen represent beheading and firing squads while monsters like the noosemen represent COs who were lynched as revenge for letting inmates die in a collapsed mine.

In the Fatal Frame series the ghosts faced aren't representations of a character's mind or human depravity but they do represent something else that can frighten the player: death. The form in which the ghosts are presented is how they died. If a woman died of a broken neck that is how she is presented to the player. You are not only facing something might that might be seen to represent death but something that represents all the ways death can take you.

Bringing it all together what does this mean for designing a truly frightening survival horror game? It means that you should consider imbuing the creatures and environment you present the player with twisted meanings. Not all survival horror games implement what I have talked about here, or implement such design decisions to varying degrees. In the early Resident Evil games the monsters and environment don't carry any metaphorical meaning but through other methods creates tension and fear in the player. The Silent Hill games tend to place more focus on the symbolism of the monsters while the environments of the Fatal Frame games tend to not mean much, instead opting for a more traditional Gothic feel. Choosing to add meaning to the environment and monsters adds something more than the flickering light in the hall or the strange sounds in the forest. A deep sense of fear and disgust comes from not just realizing that you have to survive the onslaught of a deformed creature but realizing that creature is formed from the dirt and grime of reality. That its shape comes from the depravity and terror humans inflict on each other. That the ground you walk wasn't made evil from the beginning but because of the blood that was spilled upon it. These things eat away at a person even if they survive the nightmare because the things that gave form to those nightmares are still out there walking the streets.

Link to Part 1: Introduction to Horror Video Games (Survival Horror Series Part 1)

The Passing of Fred Phelps and the Monsters We Create
March 20, 2014

I will neither mourn nor celebrate the passing of Fred Phelps. But as I contemplate his death I am reminded that men like Phelps are not bred but made. They are shaped by the world around them and their experiences. It is a constant reminder that the best way to prevent people like Phelps from rising is to better the world into which they are born.

The tragedy of Phelps’ life is seeing a man who could have been so much more become twisted by the hatred and rage that consumed him and turned him into the monster we knew. Fred Phelps was born 1929 to what we would consider a decent family and one that was well respected in the community. In 1935 when Phelps was just five his mother died of throat cancer. Afterwards the care of Phelps and his sister was handled mostly by his great aunt Irene. Phelps’ father was often gone for work.

Phelps was a model student during his high school years. The man many knew as the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church did not seem present yet. Phelps was described by those that knew him then as intelligent and reserved. While he did not seem to socialize that much he was well known and respected. He achieved the rank of Eagle Scout with Palms within the Boy Scouts of America. His commencement speech emulated FDR’s ideas about the four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Phelps encouraged the sharing of such values and not the simple enjoyment of them.

When Fred Phelps graduated in 1946 at the age of 16 he was slated to enter the military at West Point. It was a moment Phelps he had been preparing himself for his entire life. But it was a moment that would not happen once Phelps attended a Methodist revival.

When Phelps sat at that revival he was sitting at the beginning of a new wave of religious fervor that had begun after the end of World War II and would continue to rage on throughout the 1950s. Revivals could lead to profound conversion experiences that could completely change a person. Who knows how changed Phelps was by the experience or if it simply took something else he had been repressing and turned it into something else? Regardless after that day Phelps became a man filled with religious conviction and what seemed to be a new purpose in life. For the rest of his life hatred and anger would consume him.

Phelps gave up on his future at West Point and entered a Christian university. At some point Phelps stopped communicating with his father and left any letters from him unopened. His passion for what he believed God’s mission for him never died down. He founded the Westboro Baptist Church in 1955.

As Phelps continued his religious mission he took the time to become a lawyer. Many of the cases he took were civil rights cases. He spoke out against racism, segregation, and discrimination. Phelps boasted that he had taken down the Jim Crow laws in Kansas. At one point Phelps tried to sue Ronald Regan claiming Regan had violated the separation of church and state. Phelps’ legal career brought him several awards recognizing his efforts in fighting against discrimination. But it would not last.

Phelps was disbarred from practicing law in Kansas after a case in which he emotionally abused a witness, taking the matter too personally. A few years later he gave up practicing federal law after a complaint had been filed against him about false accusations he had made against other judges.

Fred Phelps started a family, many fleeing from him over the years. Phelps’ two sons Nathan and Mark both left the family saying their father beat them as children. Their sister, Dortha, also left saying the girls were beat as well, though not as badly as the boys. The children that stayed with the church and family deny these claims saying they were more like spanking and nothing more.

The anti-homosexual activities that Phelps and his church are known for started in the late 80s and early 90s. Shirley, Phelps’ daughter, claimed her five year old son was propositioned by a homosexual in the park. The church and family started picketing the park and called on other churches to condemn homosexual activity in Topeka. Everyone reacted negatively towards the Phelps family. Over the years preaching against homosexuals would become their main cause, transforming into the hate filled sideshow we have all come to know over the years.

In 2013 Fred Phelps was excommunicated from his own church for unknown reasons. His last sermon was given September 1, 2013. His health declined over the following months, finally passing away on March 20, 2014.

Hate is rarely bred in a vacuum. Every leader who has led their followers in condemning other groups has always taken existing attitudes, twisting and amplifying them. Phelps’ contemporaries agreed with his stance against homosexuals but simply thought he was too fervent, it’s not pretty when the mirror is held up. Phelps grew up in a time when the fight for homosexual rights was barely budding. It’s not surprising he took such attitudes and combined them with whatever hate and anger he had built up inside of him.

Many have been talking about how we should respond to the death of Fred Phelps. Some want to dance and piss on his grave, treat him like he treated so many others. Others say do nothing and ignore the man who seemed to want nothing more than attention. It is undeniable that the man brought so much unbearable suffering to so many. His hatred and anger spread out and infected those who decided to stay in his life. He somehow managed to darken people’s already darkest days. The world is a better place. Though it is weird to think what he could have achieved if he had chosen a better way of living.

I say remember that Fred Phelps is not one of a kind. There are still men and women like him in the world, though not as prominent. Creating a better world, a better society is how we combat men like Phelps. If they are born into a world without these attitudes their hate has nothing to grab onto to. Respond how you want but remember hate breads hate regardless of how you justify it. It is just as aimless and volatile.