As an adult, I frequently enjoy the strange and colorful fruits of my imagination. As a child, these fruits would come crashing down at high velocity upon my head at night, and they tasted terrible. My parents used to call it a blessing and a curse. By day I’d write stories and draw comics. At night, they would often find me standing in the middle of my bed screaming. Sometimes, I would calm down and not know what terrified me so. Usually, though, it was very fresh in my mind, and all too real until somebody calmed me down.
The number one thing I used to have nightmares about is tornadoes. I blame this on my older brother, who delighted in making things up to terrify his little brother, who was fantastically gullible. One time, he convinced me that there was a new kind of killer bee that looked just like dandelion seeds. Convincing me that tornadoes were sentient and out to get me personally was not difficult by comparison.
Upon thinking about it, though, there really isn’t a clear #2 night terror on my list. Sure, I had my share of monsters and killers and the occasional Sith lord, but that was not what found me screaming for Mom and Dad. Usually, it would be something vague and sinister. I’m in the dark, and I know something is hunting me, and I can’t outrun it. Something evil has replaced my parents. I’m paralyzed, I can barely breathe, and I can hear something awful coming for me.
There’s a common thread in these nightmares: even in the realm of my own subconscious, not knowing everything is a hell of a lot scarier. You can’t plan. You can’t prepare. You can’t even fill in the blanks for what is after you or how it will get you (but you know it will).
Fortunately for me, my imagination and I get along a lot better these days and my dreams are typically more weird than terrifying. Every now and then, it’ll still drop some fruit on my head, but it’s as the old saying goes: when life gives you nightmares, make nightmare-ade. Scary things make for good stories and interesting thinking. Besides, scaring the crap out of yourself can be fun, as long as the light switch is easily within reach. Even so, to this day, movies that use this concept well mess with my head. Not during, mind you. It’s in the middle of the night when I get up to use the bathroom and the thought creeps into my head that maybe, just maybe, something is behind the shower curtain. Or that I’ll look in the mirror and suddenly someone’s behind me. I’ll never forget the first time I watched the original Halloween. I was in college, and I lived in an apartment that had a closet within a closet, and for two weeks straight I could swear I could faintly make out a William Shatner mask in every darkened doorway. Many times it’s just the idea behind a scary movie far more than the movie itself that does the trick. Freddy Krueger, despite numerous campy sequels, is one of the most terrifying concepts I’ve ever seen. How would you fight something like that? Why would it choose you? And let me tell you from experience, when Freddy shows up in one of your dreams, you’re very grateful to see the sunrise despite his being fictional.
Games that can exploit this are worse because the level of interactivity makes it that much easier for my imagination to insert me into these nightmare scenarios. Curse those damnable little scissor-babies from Silent Hill. CURSE THEM!!! Best of all is a good Call of Cthulhu game with a nice, evil GM that knows how to get under his players’ collective skin, and evil right out of one of my nightmares: nobody knows what is out there, or how it will get them – but it will. Try it in your game sometime. Since I tend not to DM much, I look for ways to enrich my roleplaying experience. It adds to the experience for me when I don’t really know what the hell that thing is that’s trying to kill me – which I why I tend not to read the Monster Manuals. I don’t want my internal Bardic Knowledge to kick in when the DM describes a creature, especially if it might arm me with critical information on how to defeat a monster. It’s hard for me to force myself not to make strategies using this information. Besides, minmaxing and metagaming aren’t usually conducive to good roleplaying to begin with. I mean, really. Do you want to watch Paranormal Activity with the idea in your head that “oh, that’s just an invisible stalker. If she just had a +1 weapon or greater, that thing would be toast”? Okay, I do too. But you get my point.
Turn out the lights, put all your ill-gotten knowledge down, suspend your disbelief somewhere and put those accursed child-lock doorknobs on the entrance so it’s hard to get back. I do my own laundry. If anything bad happens to my undergarments as a result of my superior roleplaying, the consequences are mine to bear. Happy Halloween, everyone!