Horror is Knowledge: The Presentation of Fear in 'Call of Cthulhu'

It’s well known that horror works exploit the unexpected and unknown. The Cthulhu mythos thrives on that very premise. But where most horror stories try to conceal and hide their monster as much as possible to drive tension up. Cthulhu stories thrive on different methods.

It’s well known that horror works exploit the unexpected and unknown. The Cthulhu mythos thrives on that very premise. But where most horror stories try to conceal and hide their monster as much as possible to drive tension up. Cthulhu stories thrive on different methods.

Given that, I would like to quote the opening warning you get after booting up Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth: “Cthulhu will occasionally manipulate graphics, sound, and controls in an unusual way. This is perfectly normal, and it is unlikely to be a problem with either your game disc or your sanity.”

Now the warning is a somewhat necessary to explain to the player who might freak out and interrupt their play session to futz with drivers and such, but it’s also a double entendre. On the one hand, the word "Cthulhu" is referring to the game itself, but on the other, it also can be read as the malevolent Elder God the mythos is named for. But in doing so, the game shows its hand. The game goes even further when at the New Game screen the first thing you hear is a ghostly voice whispering, “die, die, die, die, die.” Why would it reveal the very method it intends to use to make you shake in your skin? Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is just that confident. It’s going to tell you straight to your face how it will scare you and succeed just as explained. It didn't take long either.

To be honest, I thought it was rather badass of the game to present itself like that and even more amazed over my reactions as it went on. Suffice to say I had some really interesting dream imagery that night. Yes, you know how it is going to screw with you, but you can’t always expect it. You don’t know when, where, or what form terror will take when it comes. This approach works because the initial quotation and eerie threats only make you think the game has revealed something important. And the game does this over and over again.

For instance, early in the game, you go to speak to a man at his house. His daughter answers the door, telling you that her mother has been locked in the attack for being “bad.” All the rooms on that floor are locked, and the only place to go is up the stairs. You find a family photo with the mother’s image torn out. You hear thumping and scratching and snarling seemingly coming from all around you. The only place you can go is up another flight of stairs. There is a heavily reinforced door with a slide viewer, the type used in cells built for solitary confinement. You have to open the panel. You know there is a monster in there, and the game is going to "jump scare" you. You, as protagonist Jack Walters, look to the left and then pans to the right. You wait for it. Then you slowly pan left and back to the right. These actions take just long enough for you to doubt your expectations, before "it" jumps you. The ensuing in-game cutscene shows Jack being thrown about and barely allows one to catch two glimpses of the body of whatever it was, before it tears down the stairs and Jack falls unconscious.

At another point in the game, in order to survive, you have to escape into the sewers, a place not even the townsfolk will venture. The young man who tells you this says that it’s not because of the smell but because of the Shoggoth, a monster so terrifying that not even the bug-eyed, cultish psychos on the loose will go near. The very air will make you go crazy it seems. The game tells us what the monster is, and yet it doesn't explain anything. Even after seeing the slime and the remnants of its victims, we still don’t know what a Shoggoth is.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth also has a curious habit of jump scaring you in the most creative and disturbing ways. During moments when there is no tension and you are exploring a level, you will come across very disturbing sights, including the gruesome murdered body of a woman hanging from a support beam, the remains of two people that have been slashed and partially devoured scattered in an alley, or the body of a man whose flesh was melted off in a sewer tunnel. By turning a corner or opening a door, you will see these things for a split second before control is taken away from you. These gruesome and disturbing sights aren't near you. They are always some distance away and not moving. Instead the camera rockets towards them in the most haphazard close-ups while the soundtrack screeches as if these corpses' souls were blaming you for their fate. The frame shudders and blurs. Then, it returns to the normal first person perspective that gameplay takes place in. The corpse is again ten or twenty feet away.

Eventually, the starts incorporating screwing with you into necessary play. In hiding or escaping the townsfolk, Jack will suddenly astrally project himself around a new area, noting where the enemies are and the goal is, much like similar scenes in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. These same lucid moments of questionable psychic origin happen while you are walking down corridors or trying to get some sleep or when the game just feels like mind jumping you back into where you are actually staying at Arkham Asylum. Every so often, this ability is useful, but still leaves you disturbed. You are already helpless in the first few chapters. You have no weapons and can’t fight back. Your agency is lacking in your pitch for survival. Then the game will suddenly (and in ways most unlike your normal play experience) rip away the little agency that you do have.

In revealing information, Dark Corners of the Earth sets you off balance as much as it can. In a way, it begins to teach you to fear a mystery’s answers. The game tries to keep you alienated and ostracized as much as possible from others. From your arrival in Innsmouth, the NPCs don’t just say that they are distrustful of outsiders, they act like it. They give you the cold shoulder at every turn. Any time that you think you've found someone who will help your investigation or some relief from the darkness, they are ripped away from you. The game is constantly isolating you and punishing you every time you try figure out the next step.

It’s this dissemination of information that is crucial to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. It’s crucial to the whole Cthulhu mythos really. I mentioned before that we don’t know what a Shoggoth is even after having it explained to us. It’s because it is a being that defies our mortal understanding. H.P. Loveraft’s work is all based on the idea that knowing a terrible truth in enough to terrify you so much to make you go mad. Knowledge of things beyond us are the true horror, the creatures and cults are merely the embodiment of that horror. That is what the game has managed to subtly capture. It’s not the sanity meter, which determines when the audio or the visuals decide to screw with you that matters. It’s not the scripted hallucinations or Jack’s contagious heavy breathing and heart pounding that matters. It’s not the constant unease and devolving sense of what’s real that matters. It is having the more that you learn and that you witness connect to the game’s efforts to terrify you. Horror is knowledge. And the game does well in reminding you of that.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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