Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cthulhu Syndrome: Horror Sequels and Diminishing Returns

I was watching a good neo-silent movie recently called Call of Cthulhu. Alright, it was actually a few months ago but shut up I’m trying to make a point. It was a faithful of adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s famous short story that everyone knows and nobody read, and kept up Lovecraft’s style of slow mysterious build-up and explosive fragmentary reveals. In the film’s explosive climax, a door to a cyclopean tomb opened and an unbelievable horror emerged… oh wait, it’s just Cthulhu.

I feel sorry for Cthulhu, he’s just not scary… which sucks for him since that’s kind of his whole shtick. Okay, I mean, I have to be fair, if I was actually in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and he popped out in front of me to start chomping heads I would probably be terrified, but in a movie he just has no effect on me. That isn’t a problem with him (her?), exactly, but it’s a problem that effects him more than perhaps any other figure: people know him too well.

The entire horror of Cthulhu, like most of Lovecraft’s work, came from mystery. Cthulhu was a weird alien presence, and his emergence into the world was to see the universe breaking. Once he’s a familiar figure though, he loses all of that. We know him from his flailing tentacles to his tiny baby wings, and people love him. People write fun songs about him. When you’re supposed to be scary, being completely known is a big disadvantage.

Ideally, though, even if he isn’t mysterious the thought of a man-eating horror should still be scary on its own right? Well, beyond just reducing the mystery, when we know and like a character, even as a horror character, we have a positive opinion of it. Even if we were afraid of it once, we won’t be afraid anymore.

As a practical example, take the great Pyramid Head of the Silent Hill series.

Now, I personally think Pyramid Head is the best character design in horror history. Team Silent built him to communicate pain and the violent potential of masculinity on a deep psychological level... and every time he showed up in Silent Hill 2 I was terrified.

Pyramid Head immediately became the mascot of the series and, in Silent Hill Homecoming he made a triumphant return. The fan reaction: He sucked. Part of it was that Homecoming wasn’t as good a game overall, but the reason why Pyramid Head, in particular, was poorly received was that he didn’t belong in a horror game anymore. Pyramid Head was so great in Silent Hill 2 that fans, or even non-fans, knew he was a great horror character, and so when he appeared the reaction wasn’t “Oh no, Pyramid Head is coming to slice me in two!” It was “Oh hey, I know that guy! What cool thing is he going to do?” Even if you’re excited because you expect something scary to happen, you’re still excited.

Over-exposure hurts all characters as they turn from interesting figures to overused memes, but horror characters are especially hurt by the syndrome. The moral of the story, sequels are especially bad for horror franchises…which sort of makes me wonder why they tend to have the most.

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At January 28, 2011 at 1:56 AM , Blogger TheDonQuixotic said...

I got say man. Very good blog. Its something I have thought for awhile about Cthulhu, and other horror franchises. I think you put it very well. Ace. I might need to subscribe to this blog. Its good stuff.

At June 15, 2011 at 4:23 PM , Blogger Rarer Monsters said...

Wow, a comment! From someone I don't already know! Well, I had put this blog on the sidelines when I got a full time job since I didn't think anyone outside of my immediate guilt-tripping range but I think I may have to rejuvenate things!

Thanks for the comment Don, I'm sorry I didn't say this earlier but I actually haven't checked this blog in a few months so here's a belated thank you.


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