(The Psychology of Horror)
The following is a bit of a study of ‘evil’ in Rifts RPG, specifically in how it translates into the Horror Factor rules and the checks expected from PCs when they encounter something demonic or monstrous. It is also a position paper of sorts, countering the argument that repeated exposure to a creature that presents with a Horror Factor, should somehow nullify the effects of that creature’s Horror Factor. In my opinion, this takes away a key element of the visceral and threatening nature of the beasts we force our PCs to deal with. The following presents the how and why. Of course, at the end of the day, the GM can tell me to ‘go pound sand, I let my PCs auto-pass,” which is perfectly fine and valid.
General. As a universal concept, it escapes a general definition across multiple disciplines: religion, politics, art, criminology, evolutionary biology, psychology, all provide variations on a theme. found on paper that defined it under two varieties, which I think is apt:
Natural. Physical pain/suffering brought by natural phenomenon (e.g. Pompeii, Haiti earthquakes) that cause immense misery.
Moral. Deliberate induction of pain or suffering through physical, intellectual or institutional power to dominate, dehumanize or kill. Victims are either innocent or retaliation greatly exceeds initial provocation. Horror Factor is therefore limited to this aspect.
Magnitude Gap. A concept that victims experience extensive physical and psychic turmoil that extends far after the trauma, while perpetrators are unblemished or perhaps better off for causing the trauma. The performer of the evil gains far less over a limited period, than the victim loses much over a much longer period of time. A grizzly thing to consider, for sure. This extends clinical discussions to the concept of sadism, something I wholeheartedly bar from further discussion in this dynamic – don’t go there.
TED Talk. An interesting video presented by Philip Zimbardo on evil, using the Abu Ghraib prison fiasco and clinical psychology trials to show how use of logical fallacies and manipulations of circumstances (de-individuation of self, blind obedience to authority, uncritical conformity to group norms) can disassociate good people from their moral center (e.g. how Principled and Scrupulous soldiers would occur in the Coalition States). There are negligible occurrences of Humans with a HF, and psychology is not “excuse-ology.” I won’t link to it based on the intense content, but it reveals how elements of evil are misunderstood. It begs the question: how could we possibly fathom a supernatural creature’s mental state? Evil transformation occurs due to:
Disposition. The individual is a ‘bad apple’
Situation. The barrel is bad, good apples get mixed in
System. The broader influence of political, economic, legal powers. I’ll extend this to also include social/cultural and religious powers, typically because of the inflexibility they typically bring, and the overbearing response to threat of their power bases. The system affects the barrel. We don’t know how this would affect beings from another dimension.
Note: The concept of this moral evil relates to an upcoming Law of Armed Conflict in Rifts post.
ELEMENTS OF HORROR
General. Depending on where you look, you can find what elements make up good horror fiction/television/movies. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider them under 5 Elements. Typically, whatever media you are enjoying (book/television/movies) will focus on two, perhaps three elements and dive deep into it to create an atmosphere of horror and terror. Suspense is built and tension held on as long as possible, keeping the reader/viewer engaged at the edge of their seat. There are some that likely try to present the gamut, but I am hard pressed to think of one that does so successfully. Perhaps Cloverfield (highly recommended)? Maybe Event Horizon (not really recommended)? The list below almost reads like a primer for how to play a good game of Beyond the Supernatural, so there is some overlap. Definitions provided by Oxford Dictionary:
Suspense. A state of feeling excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.
Fear. The unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is in danger, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Violence. Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
Gore. Blood (or viscera) that has been shed, especially as a result of violence.
The Supernatural. A manifestation or event attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.
What RUE Says. Found in the Psychic Combat Section of the book (RUE, p 367), it isn’t necessarily the most intuitive place to look. The specific entry provides little definition, which allows GMs the chance to manipulate as they see fit. Summarized as follows:
"Horror Factor represents either the hideous appearance or its overwhelming aura of evil and power, or a combination of the two. These mental parries are only required in the first melee round of each encounter. Failed rolls means the PC is temporarily stunned…” It then goes on to specify the in-game effects of the failed save.
So right away, we know two specific things cause the requirement of making a Horror Factor roll. I would submit there is a third element that must be considered as well. From my perspective, these three elements of Horror Factor present circumstances the PCs must endure and overcome, which argue *against* allowing the PCs to develop a resistance to HF based solely on repeated exposure. The three principles of the Horror Factor roll:
Aura of evil (“Non-Visual” or perhaps "Psychic")
Jump Scare (“Sudden Visual/Aural Stimulation”)
General. There are several elements to this one, and many times it will be an individualistic response to stimuli. What freaks out one person may have little to no effect on another. Others are hard-wired into our brain – think Fight or Flight responses.
Gore. The visual cue of something gory, visually uncomfortable, or otherwise based on a phobia response, can add to the jump scare. For many horror movies, they rely on the visceral reaction people have with blood or gory scenes. Not too far a stretch, as most people have a natural aversion to intense gore, which triggers certain autonomic responses and triggers a flight response.
Phobia Response. There are scores of major movies that rely on tension and suspense and eschew the use of gratuitous gore and blood to build up the scene. By leveraging what I’d call Fear Factor elements (not the television show), use of insects, snakes, perhaps clowns, or other triggers increases the impact by several orders of magnitude; see RUE, page 336 and join me at 71%. For myself, any media with macro visuals of insectoids (e.g. documentary showing a wasp fight a tarantula, or close-ups of a praying mantis), I’m going to react; role-playing against the Xiticix though, perfectly fine. I’m not going to lie, watching the movie Alien in a dark room while I was fifth grade was likely a questionable life choice, LOL. I've also had a few unfortunate run-ins with insects in my childhood.
Funny Anecdote 1: Third date with my wife, we visited a local zoo with a great Insectarium. Oblivious to my issues, she dragged us in. Aquarium 19 of 19 was a giant brazilian tree spider, tucked at the back edge of its enclosure - that is until I turn and place my face 3 inches from the glass (like a moron). It scurries forward, like a Facehugger. Apparently, I bolted, broke the door off a hinge, careened over the wheelchair ramp and fell on the trail in front of some random family, hyperventilating and sweating profusely. My wife's response: "WTF, I thought Army guys were supposed to be tough?"
Funny Anecdote 2: When the whole "murder hornets" from China story broke in the North American media, they *insisted* on starting the segment with a macro close-up of the danged thing's head, then immediately to one squirming on someone's arm. My language and reaction was.... not my finest moment in front of my kids and in-laws.
The Dark. Studies have shown that this effect is much more pronounced in the dark. Kind of reinforces anecdotal bias, but apparently this is a scientifically proven thing. Huh, who knew….? Perhaps dimming the lights during a session involving a cavern dive, or spooky elements may add to the mood and success of the session. Worth a shot?
AURA OF EVIL
General. We are talking about more than the New Age ideas of reading someone’s aura and seeing black, browns and reds. We also are not talking about the clinically, mentally ill, although there may be some overlap. Nor are we necessarily discussing the evil machinations a person may perpetrate through the use of state power (e.g. Lenin, Stalin, Putin, Hitler, Pot Pot, Mao), but there sure as heck is evil at play there. As reviled as they may be as a person, they don’t necessarily come packing Horror Factor worthy vibes. This one is that intangible element, the feeling that raises the hackles on your neck, gives you goosebumps, simply by being in their presence. This is also orders of magnitude higher than what a psychic could sense through natural or psionic powers.
Sense Evil/Sense Supernatural Evil. There are a number of OCCs/RCCs (e.g. Dog Boys, Mystics) that allow provide the ability to sense this part of the Horror Factor prior to others. I would suggest the rules should be adapted, providing those with these rare powers a bit of an additional boost against HF. That said, it does nothing to remove the Revulsion or Jump Scare aspects of the situation.
Auras in Relation to Horror Factor. Playing a game that already baselines the idea that all beings have an “aura” that can be read, the Aura of Evil is a supernaturally enhanced version. It is linked to the source’s alignment, experience level, intentions and any other abilities tied to it. Due to the supernatural (e.g. unexplainable) element Horror Factor, this being’s aura projects the malevolent thoughts, intentions or emotions to such a degree that even non-psionics are capable of “reading” it, or being affected by the very presence of the source. Instead of being a passively broadcast element of the PC/NPC that a psionic can tune into, the HF takes the aura and puts in on full broadcast, across all frequencies, so to speak.
Psychology. This one is based on a number of Psychology Journal articles and online papers I’ve read through. Without getting into the weeds, some of which I’m not qualified to summarize, we as a species tend to hide behind our egocentric biases to generate an illusion of invulnerability. The Revulsion and Jump Scare section proves this otherwise. The idea that we all have evil thoughts at one point or another is another fallacy that fails to account for the element of Horror Factor. Because this is a non-tangible element, we need to reframe our way of looking at this. Despite the way they are presented, there is no way for a human to truly understand the mental machinations of a demon, or a mindless beast/monster. We try to humanize their disposition to try to understand them, their beliefs, evolution, biology, and other factors. This supernatural and intangible aspects of Horror Factor is most likely meant to be beyond our capabilities to understand, hence the impact to our PCs through a Horror Factor roll.
General. Part of the HF roll comes from the sudden, surprising stimulus the PC absorbs. It isn’t because the action is sudden, or out of the blue. These reactions are context-variant and are hardwired into our brains. It is an invariant response to sudden stimuli, something we are hardwired to respond to. It is also context-sensitive, with several elements that make up a great Jump Scare:
Anticipation. It is the built-up expectation the character experiences, making the sudden release of these emotions into something that much more explosive.
Sound. Something that is near impossible to replicate in a TTRPG experience. In the movie example below, the use of sound is critical in achieving the effect one must imagine as part of any HF roll. Additionally, this sound is typically non-diegetic, something only the audience “can hear,” such as the classic string piece in Jaws (duh-duh…….) [link to youtube]
Silence. The pure absence of sound can have a deeply disturbing impact on the audience. It has been shown to induce viewers to hold their breath in anticipation, the explosive release of sound and action inducing a jump scare.
Distraction. Often used to keep the audience in a position of vulnerability and extended anxiety, the film may present a fake jump scare, or a contextual clue that does not immediately support the jump scare (e.g. after some contemplation, the PC doesn’t look in the closet for the monster, but suddenly the arms grab them from under the bed).
The Release. Typically cued to a sudden shift in both visual and auditory (e.g. sound, scream). This is the culmination of the jump scare scene.
Example. The movie Alien is a perfect illustration. Regardless that the audience knows it is simply a movie, the cinematic magic makes the experiences below, among others, turned up to 11 in terms of anxiety and sudden release. Three specific examples.
Facehugger. The cinematic experienced had hyped up the tension with a very shallow monotone ringing, the distant howl of the storm outside, the breathing apparatus, and the very uncomfortable communications with Lambert. We catch a glimpse of movement inside, prior to the egg opening. Kane peers inside and the sudden rush of noise and movement occurs. Roll for Horror Factor.
"Dinner Scene." An iconic scene. Nothing is revealed to the audience, and Kane’s sudden reversal of fortunes is a shock to all. He convulses, fights back against help that is confused and scared, stops for a second before resuming convulsions, culminating in the explosive birth of the xenomorph. Even the cast was unaware how the script would be carried out – those looks of shock and screams are real. Roll for Horror Factor.
Dallas. The captain chases the xenomorph into the air vents, a dank and claustrophobic environment with little room to manoeuvre. Add the constant strum of the locators, Lambert’s supplications and superlative use of sound and sound track, his attempt to avoid where he thinks the alien is awaiting him, all adds tension to the scene. Dallas drops to another level, pans the searchlight right, nothing, pans it left, right into the face of the alien. Roll for Horror Factor.
Note on Coping Mechanisms. There are those out there that will immediately look to this and discount it. They have perhaps developed an ability to predict jump scares through editing patterns and repetitive plot points. You may also be using coping mechanisms and fear regulation. This may all be true, but you also know you are simply watching a movie. Thinking you can cheat a scare is reductive, as it is not a true fear state. In the context of the game, you are simply benefiting from a really high bonus to the HF roll. Placed in a real contextual example of the film, that elevated heart rate will be going *way* faster than what you experience sitting on the couch or in the theatre.
NEGATIVE IMPACTS OF PROLONGED EXPOSURE
The sudden stimulus floods the system with adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine, inducing a fight-or-slight response. A person’s reaction to a perceived or actual threats can have lasting, negative effects. This is something the Rifts rules system seems to represent very well. Repeated exposure to horrific or disturbing imagery can trigger unwanted thoughts and feelings, increasing levels of anxiety or panic. This proven psychological phenomenon actually clinically disproves the concept of removing Horror Factor from the game, or allowing auto-pass of a Horror Factor check.
SUGGESTED CHANGES TO HORROR FACTOR
Given what we now know about psychoses and handling of severe, debilitating images and horror, I’d suggest that Horror Factor become something more impactful than less. Granted, even the RUE rules are careful about forcing Insanities on PCs. I feel this makes the actions of the heroic PC all that more heroic, all that more compelling. Not only are they risking life and limb, but their mental state!
To make it more of a narrative and impactful character development, I suggest the following rules be added to Horror Factor. It is a progressive mechanic, working against the attribute most applicable to this case, Mental Endurance.
# Horror Factor checks = M.E. attribute, perform an Insanity Save (12+ on a d20)
Include any bonuses from M.E. (as normal)
Include any bonuses to Horror Factor (as an additional bonus)
PC Passes: No effect, phew!
Roll an Insanity from the Random Insanity Table, or alternatively
Select an Insanity that fits the narrative.
Note 1: For failed H.F. checks, I’d likely add an additional +1 to the H.F. check total
Note 2: Add a cumulative -1 negative modifier each time the P.C. rolls this Insanity Save (e.g. reaches the M.E. attribute threshold).
If you do a YouTube search for “scare prank” presents literally hundreds of videos, many of them hilarious compilations. In most cases, the victim suffers what would amount to a Horror Factor check, most showing what failure would look like (e.g. forget about Initiative). There has been a fair amount of journal articles on horror psychology and how it impacts various people – those that like, those that hate, and those in between. Honestly, I was more than a little surprised at the amount of research into the genre. Alfred Hitchcock, Craven, Romero and Lewis would have been proud.
Of course, there is the flip side – you as the GM don’t care and think that an eventual bonus or immunity to HF for certain repetitive encounters is how you will play it. Perhaps the impact of a failed HF roll is too steep to your liking. You know what? That’s perfectly fine! I’m not here to tell GMs and Players how it *should* be played. I'm just presenting how I see it and backing it up as best I can. I treat HF as a discrete roll required during each and every encounter, regardless if the consecutive nature or the monsters/demons have become “normal” for the campaign. Like any game and different group, you do what feels right with your table.
I like to consider the HF as a thematic impact on the PCs. Despite the fact they are the heroes, I don’t find the impact of the HF mechanic as a massive hinderance to the game play. It adds an element of tension to the game table, because it does have consequences. To the argument that the dynamic robs the Player of their agency, I'd simply respond with: the heroes must weigh the impact of their failure to the HF check against the aims of their mission, in some cases with the PC’s life. It is a game function that makes the PCs all the more heroic.
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