The Internet as Horror Media

A couple of years ago I attended a lecture by comics researcher (and artist!) Scott McCloud, which I throughly enjoyed. McCloud is interested in how comics work–he calls them “sequential art,” and his books are fascinating dissections of the fundamental artistic techniques upon which that medium is based.

One of McCloud’s recent interests is the use of comic books on the internet. Web-based comics are interesting to him from a monetization perspective, but he also talks about the use of space for art that is not bound by the borders of a physical page. At his lecture, he showed examples of comics that scroll left to right in a really, really long window, but don’t actually require any clicking. His point, I think, is that when freed from the constraints of a physical page, comics have the opportunity to really flex their muscles as an art form.

Today I ran across something that would make McCloud pretty happy. It’s a short horror comic in Korean (second post about hangul this week!), and you can read it by scrolling down. You don’t need to read the language to enjoy it. You do, however, need sound.

Did you read it yet? Click the link now and come back when you’re done (assuming you are not balled up on the couch after that).

This is similar to Red Room, which I referenced briefly in my feature about Japanese horror. It’s using its medium–an internet web page–to dramatically increase its scare effect by doing something you do not expect. Red Room is harder to enjoy if you can’t speak Japanese, but the mechanics are similar; after setting the scene about an internet-based viral curse, the game springs the same trick on your browser that killed the story’s main characters.

What is so fantastic about this comic and Red Room is that they are utilizing their medium to do things that you do not expect them to be able to do. Sure, it’s a pop-out scare, but it’s effective because it pops out of your screen, right at you, through your browser. Unlike the zombie dogs crashing through the window to attack your avatar in Resident Evil, these sites are targeting you, the viewer, directly. If you can’t trust your own browser, what can you trust? By breaking the normal rules of the web, these pieces are putting you squarely in a position of lost control. And that’s where horror is best.

17 thoughts on “The Internet as Horror Media

  1. I’ve never commented on your site before, but that comic was just too AMAZING not to. (Heck, I can hardly type my hands are so shaky!) But your site is fabulous and I can always count on it to bring some great tidbit of horror into my day. Keep up the good work!

    Chris, your post ties in well with the presentation I’ll be giving for the conference at DSU in November. One of my main points is that horror can produce fear more effectively if it creates problems for the player instead of (or in addition to) the character. Traditionally, horror games have flirted with this idea, but only rarely have they used it as a central mechanic. Looking forward to November!

  3. Holy crap! Amazing find, Chris. Thanks for sharing. Just when I thought horror was getting stale, someone brings something new to the table. Sweet!

  4. That was amazing! I really liked the fact that once we were past the scare, we could scroll back up and actually enjoy each panel in it’s entirety! Chris, if you’re interested in comics taking advantage of the web as a medium, you should definitely check out this comic about the Nisoor square shootings in Iraq:

  5. I loved that horror comic. There has to be some others like that. If anyone knows of any, please post links. Though it wasn’t horror, that Iraq Blackwater shooting one was very interesting though, Arun.

  6. There’s quite a big a difference between scary and startling.

    Would you mind elaborating? I don’t necessarily disagree, but the statement also seems to write what the comic does a bit too quickly. Horror is about inducing stress by yanking the rug of comfort out from under people. Whether it’s a quick yank or a slow, constant tug, the result is similar.

  7. Fear, that’s the difference I’m talking about. Horror conveys fear.

    Red Room leaves you thinking after the pop-up appears “Holy shit, this can’t be real”, and may or may not leave you in fear, and even if it doesn’t manage to do so, it still tries to convey fear.

    The problem with this comic is that the fear factor is never present in it. You immediately think “oh, this is a gif/flash, whatever, it may be interesting”. Then, cue scary face. Ok, yes, you may or may have not jumped, but that was because you weren’t expecting something to appear so suddenly. Did the comic try convey fear? No, it just tried to startle you by showing you a spooky face accompanied by screaming sounds. That’s it. It startled you (or not), but it certainly didn’t scare you.

    That’s the big difference I’m talking about here. Red Wine tries to be scary. The comic is just startling. Like every other screamer out there.

    I’m sorry if it didn’t make much sense or whatever, I’m kinda in a hurry here, I’ll try to clarify my point later if I have the time and if you need.

  8. I think the key to this comic is what you said:

    Ok, yes, you may or may have not jumped, but that was because you weren’t expecting something to appear so suddenly.

    I think most people aren’t expecting it to appear at all, as most web sites that you scroll through don’t suddenly animate. That’s why the pop-out scare is effective. Red Room is similar because it takes the pop-up from the story and then shows it to you in your browser, breaking the 4th wall and playing on your expectations.

    Your criticism seems to be that the mode in which the comic operates is a pop-out scare. That’s true. Pop-out scares have their place, as I wrote above: they are a perfectly legitimate way to induce stress, which is what fear is.

    But the reason, I think, that this particular pop-out works at all is that it does something normal web pages do not do. Something that breaks the rules. If this were a longer piece, a move like that would make you much more cautious. It would make you uncertain whether or not your browser could be trusted to behave the way it normally does. It would increase your stress level.

    That’s the essence of fear. Longer works often combine this type of pop-out scare with slower-burning, systematically increasing fear. See the movie Alien as an excellent example.

  9. I see what your point is, but I disagree. I think that you are forgetting what fear really is in its core. Yes, fear could be translated into stress caused by something “scary”. But fear is far more than that, fear is that sense of impeding danger that reduces us to our primal instincts, leaving us either trying to defend ourselves or going to cower in fear under a table.

    The thing with this comic, and the type of pop-up scares which I was referring to earlier, which I will call “screamers” (for obvious reasons), is that it never gives you the time to actually have any fear at all. Your brain takes up until the creepy face is in front of you to realize what’s happening and then the average person will think (or scream) “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKING GIFFFFSSS”. He won’t even consider the fact that some scary ass Korean ghost is trying to kill him because of the fact that the scary ass Korean ghost hasn’t already done it. So in the lapse of 10 seconds that the startle will last in the person, he will:

    1) Wonder for 4 seconds what is going on;
    2) His survival instinct will kick in and he will subconsciously jump back trying to defend himself and/or shout and/or curse the “.gif” (because they will think that it is a .gif, regardless of if it is a flash or whatever);
    3) Laugh.

    Fear was never present in any moment of the whole transition. Was it before the comic started acting up? No, as you said, no one was expecting anything of it. Was fear present during the moment the “ghost” tried to “attack you”? No, as explained above. And was fear present after that sequence? No, it wasn’t.

    That’s the problem with this comic, it tries to innovate with a good idea that is implemented badly. That said, I’m not saying he shouldn’t use the tactic of a pop-up scare, but he should do it more subtly, like in Red Room. Subtleness (Red Room) often leads to a better result than being rash and bold (this comic).

    What I’m going at is that, while trying to be scary, it was just startling. It failed to deliver that sense of impending danger and doom I was speaking of earlier, and instead just shocks you.

    Again, I apologize if something I said didn’t make sense or felt rushed, I’m quite busy today but I always try to take a little time to enjoy a good discussion about my favorite genre.

  10. Hi Matthew,

    I think your description of fear is actually a specific type of fear, not some universal definition of the feeling. Resident Evil 1’s brand of fear is different than Silent Hill’s brand of fear and both differ from Resident Evil 4’s brand of fear (and no, you shouldn’t take that as a cue to argue about whether any of these games is scarier than another).

    I think the underlying common element across all types of fear is the feeling of lost control. This is a very primal feeling, as you suggest, but it can be achieved in many different ways. Loss of control is incredibly stressful. When we see a killer walk down a hall, trying the knob of each door he passes, and we know that a child too short to reach the lock is cowering behind the third door down, we feel fear because we are powerless. We are powerless to stop the killer’s advance. We are powerless to lock the child’s door. The child herself is powerless to lock the door or escape. It is this loss of control, this feeling of powerlessness, that is at the root of all effective forms of horror.

    How you get the user to feel powerless is another matter. It’s also something that changes from person to person. I can sit through your average horror film without my fear level ever really going above “mild,” but I have plenty of friends who’s meters get shot off the scale at the first dark hallway with foreboding music. Pop-out scares are effective for some people, and not for others. The interesting part of this Korean comic to me was not the pop-out scare itself but the way that it got the better of the player by appearing to be a regular web site (which it is not).

    That comic isn’t just a gif, by the way. It’s a very carefully programmed web page. It uses fairly new tech and couldn’t have been done a couple of years ago. The animation is well done too–it’s motion blurred and the pacing of the comic itself is very good (I really like the shots of her feet as she decides whether or not it’s safe to turn her back on this thing she’s seen).

    I suggest that it didn’t work for you because you cannot read it (I’m assuming you don’t read Korean; I don’t either). I also thing your main complaint is that it is too short, and doesn’t have time to build into the longer, slower-burning type of fear that you’d prefer. That’s fine, both are valid critiques of the work. As I stated above, I think if the work was longer, the impact of those pop-out moments would have affected you for the entire remainder of the work.

    But just being short and light on story details (esp. when we can’t read it) isn’t the same as being a simple “screamer,” as you call it. This comic is much, much more interesting from a horror perspective than some flash animation that just pops out a skull after asking you to look at a certain spot. Its construction is totally different, and it works because of that construction. And in the end, if some people feel stressed and like they are not sure what they should expect from the web anymore, then it’s done a Grade A job at promoting real, genuine fear.

  11. Hi Chris,

    First of all, let me start by apologizing about my posts, after I got home I read them again and I think they sounded a bit too… forceful, let’s say. So I’m sorry if I ever came across as obnoxious or violent.

    That being said, I actually agree with you in that if it had been a longer piece, it would probably had been a lot better and it would have actually managed to convey the fear I’m talking about.

    I agree with you in that the loss of control is one of the core elements of fear, but, in my opinion, the basis for all types of fear is the feeling of insecurity you feel whenever you think there is danger nearby. If you feel you are in any type of danger, be it rational or irrational, then the only thing you’ll be thinking deep down is “run”, not “hey, I wish I could turn around and fight this thing”. It is when you run of options, or when obstacles arise in your way that you realize how powerless you are. If you manage to escape from whatever danger you’re in successfully, then the element of powerlessness won’t even be present, as almost no one would want to deal with the repercussions that might bring facing their fears (I’m not talking here about irrational fears, by the way, those are a different kind of fear but still motivated by the same feeling of insecurity I’m talking about).

    In any case, yes, in my opinion you’re right in that powerlessness in one of the key elements in fear, but I would go that far as to say that it is the root of all of it.

    The problem here however, is that while it would have been better if it had been longer, there’s still the problem of the ghost “lunging at you”. If it is fear what they’re trying to get, then they shouldn’t have the ghost going all Ju-On on you, as, I repeat, you lose every bit of fear you may have had when it started happening after 5 seconds of seeing the face coming “at you”. Why? Because the ghost hasn’t killed you yet. It is when you realize this that you stop fearing it, if you ever feared it at all. This is the reason why it is not effective at all to have your ghost/thing/whatever try to lunge at the viewer in a pop-up scare.

    What they should have done is something more subtle, as I said before. Maybe put the ghost smiling at you in a creepy way, not trying to kill you, while coming closer and closer, slowly, all of this while a script is running preventing you from closing your browser, and then, when it is close enough, just make it all go dark. No comic, no nothing. Maybe make it put a cookie in your computer so whenever you access the page you can’t see the comic again. That, I think, would have been far more efficient than having the ghost screaming and attacking you. If you play the subtle card, then there are quite a lot more possibilities that you’ll leave a mark on the viewer. Fear has to be delivered slowly, subtly and gradually in order to work, otherwise, you’ll just end with a half-assed product, in my opinion.

    To sum up, while it is true that I may have a lot of prejudice against pop up scares and that the idea is quite original and could have been better had it been longer and had it been in English, the way they tried to deliver the fear is just awful, because of all the ways they had to do it, they chose the one that hardly ever leaves any real fear on their viewers and that, even if it manages to do so, often fades away in the 10 seconds it takes you to realize you’re still alive while the creature is still screaming at you.

  12. Hi Matthew,

    No worries about tone, I didn’t think you came off as obnoxious.

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about this one. I think your critique is certainly a valid critique of the work, and of all similar works, but it misses the point I am trying to make about why this particular pop-out scare is interesting (and, I thought, effective).

    I also think that “fear of danger” is absolutely a type of fear, but I don’t think it’s the kind of fear that horror media usually peddles. Fear of danger is what you feel when crossing a rickety suspension bridge over a ravine. It’s what you feel when you tip your head over the side of the 5th floor railing and look down to the bottom. It’s the feeling that you are potentially close to death, and it’s certainly a scary emotion.

    But there are many other times when you are in danger and you are not scared. Most people are not scared to ride in a car, though statistically speaking it’s one of the most dangerous things you can do. Being in danger isn’t enough to convey fear–you have to believe you are in danger. And that goes back to the insecurity of not being in control.

    Horror media does not put you in danger. There is no physical danger to you, sitting on your couch, watching the TV screen. You know that you are not in danger. The people in danger are the folks on the screen. The folks on the screen who are powerless to stop whatever violence is approaching them. Though you are not in danger yourself, you are powerless to help them. And a good horror film or game or book will go to great lengths to show you why the protagonists are probably not going to make it, and you should be scared for them.

    Action hero characters come close to death all the time, but we don’t perceive that as scary. It’s not just putting a character in danger that makes you feel insecure. It’s putting the character in danger in a way that makes you (and probably the character as well) feel helpless.

    That’s why I think that loss of control is the core, absolutely central common element in all forms of fear, at least those you can get from media. It is also the kind that feels pretty damn good when it’s over.

  13. This was scary partly because as I started scrolling, I thought, wait–turn the sound on?? I knew something weird was going to happen, but I didn’t expect it to be integrated into the comic like that! That is neat technology.

  14. I haven’t had a chance to see the comic yet, but the discussion reminds me of the website for John Dies At The End. For a while they had half of the sequel up for people to read and every 15 or 30 minutes a creepy doll’s head would fade in for a second and then fade out behind the text. I thought that was brilliant as the books sort of deal with possibly being crazy and all the horrible stuff being in their heads. I mean, no one really looks at the white background behind text. To have something just appear, your eyes aren’t focused on it and you can’t quite tell if you really saw it or if the book was getting to you.

    The website is also really clever with it’s articles. David is vary good at leading and baiting his readers/commentors. One article talks about how his book may have driven someone to commit suicide. And he goes on to talk about how his book isn’t special or has powers over people, this leads the commentors to talk about their real life experiences of their copy of the book flying off the shelf, summoning shadow people, and bleeding. He then wrote a follow up saying he regretted even addressing the issue which further got more people to make up mystical things about his book. In two articles he was able to create a legend around his book. It’s a pretty cool website and worth a bit of a look. The book is also really good.

  15. I’ve got to take Chris’s view on this one. I have recurring nightmares in which I can’t turn off a television that is showing something scary (coincidentally I had one just two weeks ago). These websites pray on those nightmares by making them a reality.

    I’m not afraid I’m going to be hurt or anything; I just don’t like it and want it to go away, and when I can’t make it go away – that’s real fear.

    Matthew gave three scenarios for what the ‘average’ person would do, so I feel a little awkward. The very moment that screen started shuttering, and sound started to burst from my earphones (which I was not even wearing), I SLAMMED my laptop shut. Maybe it’s because I got shocked by one of these 8 years ago, and never let my guard down since?

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