The Real Horror in Horrorstor

By: Danielle Coty (friend of the Course of Horror)

My journey to reading Horrorstor began when I became hooked on reading Grady Hendrix’s reviews of “Under the Dome.” His intensely sarcastic reviews, which became more desperate as the show went on, made me laugh. Even though I didn’t watch the show, I became invested in the weekly articles. When the season ended I discovered he had written a horror book.

As soon as I looked at the book I knew I had to get it. Its vibrant layout appeared remarkably similar to an Ikea catalog. At this time I only saw the front cover, and I didn’t catch the creepy undertones. I saw a cheerfully colored couch, not the screaming face that looms out of the picture frame on the wall above it. It wasn’t until later that I gave the back cover a thoughtful glance. Then my roommate and I went through the chapter pages before I read the book. Each one features an item with a fake-swedish name on the blue Ikea layout. But the descriptions of the items become increasingly sinister.

Yet when I sat down to read the book I still was not fully aware that it was a horror book. Instead the book starts off mocking Ikea. The new employees are trained to guide customers along the “Bright and Shining Path,” a route that has been engineered to make customers most likely to buy items. One could argue Ikea is naturally horrifying. In fact, the Wall Street Journal even published an entertaining article about how purchasing and assembling Ikea furniture has led to couples breaking up.

Despite the fact that Horrorstor includes torture, ghostly possession, and what might be categorized as zombies, I thought the scariest message was about the consequences of being trapped in a terrible job forever. With steady pressure to choose the right career, many college students fear that instead of finding a job that will inspire and support them, they will be trapped in a mindless daze for forty hours a week. The analogy Hendrix draws between working at Orsk and being a prisoner in an authoritarian prison with a devilish warden is rather obvious, but I don’t think the book suffers from that. Instead it made me think of my experience straightening shelves for hours after the store had closed, making it appear perfect so that customers could return to wreak their usual havoc in the morning. While some people may have found such a task rewarding, such as Ruth Anne in Horrorstor, I quickly figured out that job was not right for me.

Even if most of the events in Horrorstor are not everyday concerns, and being kidnapped by zombie-inmates is not high on my personal list of fears, Hendrix makes them more frightening by placing them in something that seems normal and everyday. With the sinister plot of Horrorstor hidden behind its colorful cover, it has been easy for me to recommend it to numerous friends. Sitting on a table, it appears ever-so enticingly like an Ikea catalog while the story within waits to snag unsuspecting readers. Even in the unlikely case that you dislike the book (so far everyone has loved it) I guarantee your next trip to Ikea will feel quite strange.

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It’s Bad Mojo to Talk about It, and Even Worse if You See It

By: Hannah Katshir (Horror alum, Fall 2014)

The story of Goatman was one that I stumbled upon out of the blue on day, and something that I didn’t forget very soon after because of the unsettling feeling it leaves with the reader–making it a perfect addition to this class.

Anansi’s Goatman Story was originally posted on 4chan, a popular internet sharing site, but was eventually taken down–however, not before it was relocated onto the Creepypasta Wiki. It is told from the perspective of a 16 year old black male form Chicago, who is visiting his cousins in Alabama and going out on his first camping trip. He narrates the story as if it’s a few years down the line and he is speaking directly to the reader.

Most of the characters in the story are not very familiar with each other in the beginning, which helps to make the story even more frightening. This story was especially frightening to me because Goatman is such an enigma. He can shape shift, so no one can be sure of what he looks like, he comes with a hideous smell–with no explanation given–and above all, he has many opportunities to harm the campers, but never does. The scariest part of this is how realistic it becomes. The tone with which the narrator talks, and the way the story ends leave it up to interpretation, and make it seem as though it actually could have happened. Goatman always escapes, and he inserts himself into their group without anyone noticing time and time again. He seems like he is just lurking around and waiting for something bigger to happen. That constant threat of something bigger is always one that makes me shake.

I recommended this story not only because of how benignly scary I found it to be, but because of the dynamic between the black narrator and the white characters in the story. It is a great story to link the ever-present, mysterious, stalking terrors to real life horror. This story is brought to life through the narration, unfamiliarity of the characters, and the total mystery surround what the Goatman really is…or if this is the Goatman at all. Campers be warned, you may want to stay out of the woods for a while.

Wanna Play a Game? “The Outbreak”

By:Olivia Smyth (Horror alum, Fall 2013)

We all know what it feels like to watch a horror movie, and yell at all of the characters, trying to give them advice on what to do next. It’s almost as if we think we could do it better, or that the movie producers purposely make the actors and actresses stupid. Well here’s our chance, our one chance to prove that we would survive if we were placed into a horror scene or not….

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Do you think you have what it takes to survive the outbreak? Well, I guess you’ll see.

I found this online game as I was browsing the Internet for different horror movies and stories. I read a few reviews and thought, sure why not. I had nothing to lose except for maybe a few nights of peaceful sleep, which was not on my mind the moment I typed in the web address. To put it briefly, let’s just say I spent the rest of my night playing this game trying to figure out how to make it out alive.

One monster alone would be horrifying; however, in this online game, there are multiple monsters all of the same form, zombies. This allows the audience to imagine any human that they know, family member or friend, turned into one of these frightening creatures. They appear as corpse-like humans that move in slow motion and are covered in blood, which isn’t exactly the best image to go to bed thinking about. Another thing that makes zombies incredibly horrifying is that there is no solution to really get rid of them because you can’t kill them due to the fact that they are already dead. Zombies are not going to stop until they are satisfied, which is when they receive a human.

The visualization, interactive format, and zombie creatures made this game hard to quit. Playing this game, you become the character of the movie, you become the victim of the horror, and it’s only a matter of a timed decision that chooses your survival. Oh yeah, did I mention the decisions that you have to make throughout the game are timed? I’m an indecisive person, so that’s something I struggled with. You will get so pulled into this game, so captivated by the sense of urgency; you won’t want to stop until you figure out how to survive. Then you’ll realize that just like all those movie characters, it’s not so easy after all.

Again, here is the link for the website: http://www.survivetheoutbreak.com. Also, there is a new interactive movie, which is also an IPhone Game, from the same creators of The Outbreak, called Bank Run. If you like The Outbreak enough and are super eager for more, the link for this one is www.bankrungame.com.

The Man in the Black Suit

By: Madhav Kapila (Horror alum, Winter 2013)

It was during the winter semester of my freshman year that I first heard the story “The Man in the Black Suit” by Stephen King. It was an assigned reading in my English 124 class and I thought that it would be boring like the other stories that we had read so far. However, it was the complete opposite of what I had expected.

I had always been a fan of horror films, but I never read any horror stories before. “The Man in the Black Suit” was one of the first that I read and it was my inspiration for taking this course.

The story is told from the view of Gary, who is now an old man near death. In it, he reflects on his encounter with the devil as a child. He is seeking “freedom” by revealing that he was attacked by the devil one day while fishing alone in the woods. The thing that makes this story so horrifying is that it is actually “inspired” by a true story. Stephen King wrote it after someone had told him that his grandfather believed that he had actually encountered the devil in the woods one day. This makes the story much scarier because it makes you wonder whether something like this actually happened.

The thing that makes this story different than the others is the way that the devil acts. As you’ll see in this class, the devil’s goal is usually to make some sort of deal with his victims so that he will get their soul. He convinces his victims to do something using trickery and by telling lies. However, in this story, the devil is only interested in killing Gary and then eating him. It provides a striking difference to what many people believe that the devil actually does.

Artist: Barfly1976 (deviantart.com)

Artist: Barfly1976 (deviantart.com)

Although you may not find the story to be that scary, the idea that the devil is capable of doing such things is. Stephen King portrays the devil as a man with terrifying characteristics. His eyes appear to be on fire and the grass that his shadow goes over shrivels up and dies. “The Man in the Black Suit” is an example of a horror story that contributes a unique perspective of the devil. Hopefully you’ll enjoy this story as much as I did and never forget the man in the black suit.

The Last Face You’ll Never See

By: Michael Mitchell (Horror alum, Winter 2013)

I can’t remember when or how exactly during my Freshman year I first heard of Slenderman, but I can remember feeling an odd combination of curiosity to learn more, and fright of what more I might actually learn.  I decided to do a little research into what exactly Slenderman was, and ended up finding out it was one of those things that I couldn’t really turn myself away from.  Unfortunately, it was also one of those things that always manages to pop into my head the second I close my eyes to go to sleep.  See, for me, Slenderman wasn’t just another horror movie monster; he wasn’t the type of thing to torment a person for a while, or to eventually reveal his motives, or even the type of thing that appears to have some flaw or weakness that would eventually make a Hollywood movie star victorious over him.

Let the Children, by Victor Surge

No.  Slenderman is a thing of purposeless torment.  He is unrelenting, but also knows how to let his victim suffer slowly.  He can’t be defeated.  But worst of all, he does all this without reason.  I think that’s what makes him so scary for me: the ambiguity.  In modern horror – game, book, movie, or otherwise – most of the time there is a slow reveal of the reason behind the horror.  Someone isn’t respecting the graves of so-and-so’s ancestors; someone wants revenge for the murder of his mom who was murdered for murdering for revenge for her dead son; a woman is the perfect candidate for giving birth to the Antichrist; etcetera, etcetera.  With Slenderman, though, there is no reason.  He is clearly a supernatural being: his extra-long limbs and featureless face are just the most notable of his horrifying image.  And the terror he instills cannot be denied; however, he still stands out as different from the other “typical” creatures of horror in many ways.  He picks his victims at random, and torments them for years (or even decades).  In the world of horror, he is actually somewhat of an anomaly.  Does he kill his victims?  Does he transform them?  Does he ever even stop?  There is no real answer for his actions, and I think that is what makes him so perfect a subject for a horror class.

Steinmen Woods Recon, Victor Surge

Steinmen Woods Recon, by Victor Surge

The most notable (and original) source of the Slenderman mythos spawns from a series of found-footage YouTube videos known as the Marble Hornets videos. These videos go for the slow reveal, which is part of what makes them terrifying.  There is a real sense of suspense with the videos and you never know when or what will take you by surprise in the corner of the screen or what sort of visual disturbance will startle you next.  And yet, they are something you cannot look away from.  However, they are actually not the scariest way to experience Slenderman.  That honor goes to the Slenderman games.

Originally a small, free-to-play project, Slender: The Eight Pages requires players (from a first-person perspective) to explore a desolate wooded area with just a flashlight searching for eight pages that reveal certain aspects of Slenderman himself.  Taking it one step further, however, and massively upping the scare factor, was Slender: The Arrival.  The graphics are better, the levels are longer, and the terror is as real as it could be.  This time around, you not only search for eight pages, but go on a series of explorations in search of your friend.

Slenderman Outside of House, by "Vincent Is Mine"

Slender: The Arrival
Slenderman Outside of House, by “Vincent Is Mine”

I cannot stress enough just how terrifying playing these games can be.  You are the victim.  You experience the feeling of being chased by Slenderman for yourself, and you are witness to just what kind of psychological manipulation he is capable of.  One second you will be searching an empty house, the next you will turn the camera and catch just a glimpse of Slenderman before the camera begins to malfunction.  Every step you take, you take knowing he could appear out of nowhere.  Not to attack you instantly, but to slowly make his way to you, as if to say “I know I’ve got you, there is no escape”.  The visual clues, the darkness, and the entire first-person experience make this game one of the scariest experiences there is to have.  If you love horror, and you love the thrill of a good scare, this is for you.  You will be terrified, but you will not want to stop playing.  And most importantly: once you learn of Slenderman, you will never forget him.  You will never forget that he…could…be…anywhere.

Slender: The Arrival Beta Screenshot 5, by "Vincent Is Mine"

Slender: The Arrival
Beta Screenshot 5, by “Vincent Is Mine”

The Door is Open: “The Dionaea House”

By: Jessica Dennis (Horror alum, Winter 2013)

We were getting bored – well, not exactly bored, but the stories we were reading were beginning to get repetitive.  Just the same old “traditional” literature: short-stories and poems.  That’s when someone in the RC Book Co-op decided to step outside the comfort zone that we had unwittingly created to suggest a story for the following week that was told in a very untraditional way.

“Has anyone heard of ‘The Dionaea House?’” she asked.

We shook our heads, some half-heartedly, thinking this would be another dramatic story requiring an online search of The New Yorker archive.  Instead, what she told us piqued our interest.

“It’s kind of like House of Leaves,” she said, referring to the notorious ergodic (a text that requires effort by the reader to follow logically from beginning to end) and epistolary horror novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, “Except that it’s all told online.  There’s like a bunch of different blogs and websites you have to go between to understand the story.  The ending is kind of a cliffhanger too – that’s what made it really scary when I read it awhile ago.  All you have to do is search ‘dionaea house’ on Google and the first website should start the story.”

That Friday night, I was up late (or early) clicking around the web as I attempted to piece together the different parts of the multiple-narrator online tale.  With each new e-mail, text-message, and blog post message I read, the knot in my stomach grew.  While mundane frights such as serial killers, nuclear weapons, rapists, or natural disasters are indeed terrifying in their own right and have a much more real-world impact on our lives, I’ve always been more afraid of those things that have no concrete explanation one way or the other.  Aliens, ghosts, deadly diseases, and other supernatural or mythological things or beings – these are the stories that have made me turn the nightlight on in my room and sleep under the covers with the thought that my bed was some kind anti-monster force-field lulling me to sleep.

To give you an idea about how much Eric Heisserer’s “The Dionaea House” impressed me, it is the only story I read that semester in Book Co-op that I remember with any clarity, and in reflection, continues to give me chills today.

So, the story: enter Mark Condry, friend of the fictional version of “Dionaea House” author Eric.  Mark e-mails Eric out of the blue after receiving a newspaper clipping in the mail about an old mutual friend, Drew, who murdered two people at a diner then turned the gun on himself.  Disturbed by this information, Mark soon finds himself obsessed with understanding what drove Drew over the edge, unintentionally drawing Eric into the investigation as well.  Together Mark and Eric remember bits and pieces about Drew from five years ago when he was a part of their Saturday game night gang – in particular, the drastic personality change in Drew after house-sitting a place for two weeks that his stepfather owned.  Following the trail of these half-forgotten memories, Mark finds the house that altered Drew.  And what Mark and later Eric learn is that the house is not all it appears to be – harboring characteristics that, according to Mark, are reminiscent of the alluring but dangerous carnivorous plant, the Venus fly trap.

As Mark and Eric become more and more entangled in the mystery of the house – as we become more engrossed in the story – the more and more the house lures us in, evidenced in Mark’s offhanded yet smart remark, “something else is eating at me.”  The house is dangerous because of its unrelenting grip on our curious nature – gambling on humanity’s search for answers to lead them to the house’s doorstep, where, by then, it is too late.

When I think about the story of “The Dionaea House,” I doubt whether it would be successful if it was told through another medium.  If it had been a linear short-story, the creepy atmosphere surrounding the house would likely remain, but the level of suspense that the abrupt e-mails, text-messages, and blog posts created would have been lost.  As a movie, “The Dionaea House” would run the risk of sounding overdone, for many movies have examined paranormal houses, such as Poltergeist (which you will watch or already have).  “The Dionaea House’s” existence online may cause some of us to call into question the veracity of the narrative, especially considering the various narrators that contribute to the story and the easily faked sites that we, as readers, are asked to explore.  Yet the Internet is also very fluid; it is a medium that requires constant reader engagement as you click from one webpage to the next, comment on posts, receive updates, and view images and videos.  We become part of the story ourselves as we constantly return to the blog sites in order to check for new updates on the investigation (as readers most likely did between the years 2004 and 2006) and comment on the story so far (many of the comments on Eric’s blog, for instance, do come from “real” readers).  How you appreciate the story depends, in the end, on how much effort you put into engaging with it, whether it is scrolling through every single comment, researching the Venus fly trap, or forwarding the story for others to read – all of which, I admit, I have done.  My doings have probably increased the potential victims for the house a millionfold!

And for those who still find the premise of this story too over-the-top to believe, to you I say this: much of what constitutes “horror” today requires us to abandon disbelief and open our minds to the unbelievable in order to be carried away by a story that excites our imaginations and often holds more kernels of truth about our society than realistic fiction.  For once, destroy those walls and let in the possibilities as you move your way through “The Dionaea House.”  The door is always open.

Links:

  • Start the story here!
  • Continue the story at Eric’s update site, which includes links to the blogs of Danielle Stephens, Eric Heisserer, and Loreen Mathers.

(Note: When reading the online journals, make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the page for the earliest entry.  For Eric’s blog, make sure you click on the earliest post under “Previous Posts” and then follow them in order based on the date.)

  • Here’s the TV Tropes link to “The Dionaea House,” which gives the chronological order of the stories and brief summaries of each.