More than a few folks have noted that Gothic Horror has seen something of a resurgence as of late. I can think of a number of reasons why this might be. It could just be the cycle of popularity. I’ve noticed that different genres cycle through public consciousness and popularity over the years. Fantasy gives way to science fiction, then science fiction to superheroes, then superheroes to vampires, and so on. This is not to say that any of them ever go away; just that the biggest and most popular is ever-shifting. Perhaps it is just Gothic Horror’s turn at the wheel. But then again, maybe it is something more.
Through the Glass Darkly
Just as much of Gothic Literature is often a metaphor for the duality of the human psyche, it also reflects the duality of our times and culture—a reflection of our lives through a darkened lens. And we have been going through some dark and interesting times. From a president who spoke about America with a voice of racism and bigotry and described us living in a “hellscape”. To a global pandemic that has killed almost a million people in America alone and kept us isolated from our friends and family. And now we find ourselves teetering on the brink of World War III. Old fears of nuclear holocaust thought left behind in the 80s, have risen again like some horrific undead terror. Gothic Horror has always been a means of looking at, dealing with and overcoming our fears. Just as fantasy, science fiction, and horror fiction allow us to explore modern issues through a fantastic setting, the same can be true for roleplaying games.
Yes, most people play roleplaying games for fun, not to confront their deepest fears. However, there can be something cathartic, particularly in horror games, about surviving the horrors of the night. In today’s writing, I would like to take a moment to look at a few tales of Gothic Horror and how they relate to the modern-day and how they might appear as allegories in Nevermore.
Humor as an Escape
When people are afraid, they often seek escape in humor. I’ve often noted that there is usually more laughter around the table when I’m running a horror roleplaying game than in any other setting. We laugh and make jokes, so we don’t have to confront the Horror directly. Some GM’s become frustrated with this reaction, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the experience. When people are nervous, they laugh and make jokes. If they’re laughing, I must be doing a good job telling a scary story. And maybe it’s not a bad thing if a little laughter helps a little to deal with the horrors all around us.
So, where do you find these real-world horrors in Gothic fiction? I’ll begin with the most obvious. For the last two years, we’ve been dealing with COVID-19. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones. Of course, when I think of a plague, The Mask of the Red Death comes immediately to mind. This Edgar Allen Poe tale features themes of isolation, people behaving foolishly, death, the fear of mortality, and death. Almost too spot on the nose for what we have all been suffering and dealing with in recent years, and yet it could be perfect fodder for a Nevermore story. Although the smallpox pandemic did not arrive until the early 20th century, the 19th century was rife with diseases that tore through entire populations. From 1832 to 1866 waves of cholera swept across the United States. Perhaps as much as 10% of the populations of the cities died of the disease, and some small towns were decimated. The grief and despair generated by these outbreaks create the perfect focal point for the incursion of an aethyros.
While some of these themes of Mask might have felt distant and alien a few years ago, today, they are likely to resonate strongly. How many people have chosen to go unmasked and unvaccinated, even at the height of a global pandemic? I don’t think any of us could have predicted this utter foolishness. And yet, here we are, with many people still denying the facts in front of them and dying as a result. The pandemic has also caused us to isolate ourselves from one another (a truly Gothic tradition) in a way we have not experienced in living history. Yet another aspect that we would not have been able to feel so keenly just a few years ago. Exploring these themes through Nevermore tales could be an interesting means of absolving some of the fears and frustrations we have all felt.
Artificial Intelligence & Cloning
Although not American in origin, I can’t discuss connections between modern fears and Gothic Horror with bringing Frankenstein. So much of our fast-paced, modern technology strongly resonates with this tragic story. Consider the burgeoning field of cloning and other new medical treatments, many of which can seem almost otherworldly and even terrifying—consider replacing human organs with that of an animal? 100 years ago, that alone would be the basis of a tale of terror. However, that particular fear might be more suitable to the Isle of Doctor Moreau.
Perhaps more relevant to Frankenstein are the incredible advances in artificial intelligence. Each of these new inventions comes with fantastic benefits as well dangers. I am not necessarily speaking of Terminator-style AI, but in AI that follows our every action and tailors everything we see online based on their algorithms. Yet, brilliant scientists continue to make leaps forward in this field, often without much thought or concern with what we are unleashing upon ourselves. Consider Elon Musk—his seemingly unlimited drive and ambitions in the technological arena easily mirrors Doctor Frankenstein. These concerns and fears resonate with many of us, making them all the more “real” when told through a tale of Gothic Horror.
An Alternative to Doomscrolling
With everything going on in the world today, as we careen from one near apocalypse to the next, it sometimes feels if the edges of society are crumbling around us like walls of a forgotten Victorian mansion. For many of us, roleplaying games are a means of escaping the crushing weight of daily life and sometimes even discovering new coping methods. Gothic Horror, in particular, can allow us to face our fears and even conquer them. You can think of reading gothic fiction and playing Gothic Horror games as a form of doomscrolling. It scratches the same itch but is much safer and can relieve stress rather than amplifying it.
Don’t forget to follow Nepenthe Games on social media to learn about upcoming events.