As a kid, I was kind of stupid. I was super into the supernatural, an interest that lingers to this day, in a less intense way. My trips to the library were mostly focussed on finding graphic novels that weren’t for adults, and similarly kid-friendly titles about UFOs, ghosts, crop circles, spontaneous combustion. There was a surprising surfeit of compendiums which explained the Roswell crash, or the Enfield Haunting, in child-friendly prose – with plenty of full-colour pictures to boot! I don’t know if it was because of the X-Files, or if there was just something in the air, but the nineties seemed particularly geared towards getting kids into the arcane. Neil Buchanan, of Art Attack and fronting a heavy metal band fame, hosted a CITV show called It’s a Mystery which investigated topics as many and varied as the Loch Ness Monster and people getting trapped in abandoned tube stations. Its creepy, Twilight Zone-biting opening still haunts me.
Believing in that stuff wasn’t the stupid part. The stupid part was that I was willingly spooking myself with these things. I have strong memories of the stories and photos I at least halfway believed in during this period – the farmer who shot at goblin-like extraterrestrials who wandered onto his land, the Newby Monk, the guy who saw a UFO and had a toast-like burn on his chest to prove it – but all the more vivid recollections are of reading the books themselves. The library in my hometown was tiny, spread across three floors, and not particularly popular.
It had the feel of my favourite kind of secondhand bookstore in adulthood: shelves against every wall, reaching to the ceilings, as if they’re bearing the load of the entire structure, and making a somewhat claustrophobic maze of an experience perusing its stock. The books I wanted were on the top floor, in a back room, which always seemed to be empty when I was in there. I raced up, looked for anything I hadn’t read or for something I wanted to refresh my memory on. Inevitably, within seconds, I would be terrified. The sun would move behind a cloud, the room would darken, my pulse quicken and goosepimples arise on the back of my neck. Then I would get the fuck out of there and run back downstairs to my mum.
There are multiple variations on this memory stored away in my hippocampus. In the house alone, my parents in the garden but out of sight from the window of the backroom, reading about alien abductions and having to run outside to assure myself I wasn’t in imminent danger. Sitting in front of an segment of It’s A Mystery about poltergeists and being convinced that the vibrating crockery in the living room was the result of a ghost, not a passing lorry. It was the feeling of an unwanted, uninvited presence in places I would normally consider safe that was so terrifying. Not only that, but it appeared that it was my reading or watching these stories was the thing invoking such a presence. Yet I couldn’t stop myself. I really wanted to know more about these ghouls and greys, you guys.
I think this is why The House Abandon, the first chapter of what would become Stories Untold but initially released as a stand-alone horror game, works quite so well for me personally. Comedy is most often cited as the “subjective” art form, but I reckon horror’s even more so. What you laugh at is as much informed by your life experience, biases and existing interests as what you get scared at, and in comedy there are as many tropes we recognise – and react accordingly to – as in a scary movie. The stuff that really gets to you, though, that’s really disquieting, is the most subjective. I can recognise some of my particular horror triggers (distorted voices, the corruption of familiar media), but what The House Abandon hits on is something notably more complex than that.
For the most part, I’m fairly desensitised to horror movies. Thanks to an early exposure first to all that supernatural hokum, and then to scary films running the gamut from Video Nasties to the genuinely chilling, it takes a lot to freak me out on a cinema screen. Horror games, however? That’s where you’ll really give me the willies. Not that there aren’t still films that can get to me. The Exorcist, for all the fun I have at the expense of a small child saying obscene things to a priest, still burrows into a primal, God-fearing part of my soul. The obtuse terror of The Shining remains hard to shake, all this time later. The purposefully throwback thrills and chills of It Follows and Ti West’s The House of the Devil, to use two more recent examples, still creep me out today. As far as I can figure it, the things that still scare me – those movies, and horror games like The House Abandon – do so because of two parallel narratives which are unfolding.
When you’re getting freaked out by a scary story, there is the main “narrative” – ie, the scary thing you are willingly indulging in – and the metanarrative that is created by virtue of your indulgence – the feeling of terror conjured by your engagement with the scary thing, which sets your brain off imagining all kinds of terrible fates that may befall you, inspired by the initial scary thing. The game, or book, or whatever, is a oujia board which invites something into your immediate surroundings. The original Resident Evil was scary because of its atmosphere and jump scares, but it was still under your skin after you turned the console off. You left the living room cautiously, the irrational part of your brain prepared for the eventuality of zombie dogs leaping through the windows. After I watched The Exorcist for the first time, in a darkened house where everyone else had gone to bed, it was hard to shake the possibility of Captain Howdy’s terrible visage emerging from the darkness of the upstairs landing. I was maybe fifteen; it was the first time since my masochistic ghost story reading that I pelted it up the stairs and dove beneath the bed covers which, as we all know, are the only reliable defence from malevolent paranormal forces.
The best scary stories conjure that presence I was talking about earlier. They make you feel as if something from the story might have made its way into your home, pierced the fabric of reality to haunt you. The House Abandon doesn’t only succeed in scaring you, but the game itself is all about playing a scary game and consequently conjuring an ineffable, terrifying presence that could get you at any second, leaping from the darkness of your room or waiting just out of your eyeline, biding its time until you turn around and face it to strike. You start off by booting up a ZX Spectrum-style retro gaming computer on an equally ancient cathode ray tube television, the text of the adventure game fading between screens as you input instructions. Then your actions in the game seem to mirror and affect what is happening around the console and TV. Bulbs burn out. An alarm clock blares. A door clicks open. The game leaves you with very little recourse. Your input is limited to gazing around the scene in front of you using your cursor – the TV, the console, a lamp and a couple of family photos arranged on a desk in front of a bare wall – and continuing to play the game-within-a-game. Even when the door behind you creaks open, a silhouette projected onto the wall in front of you, when you are aware of the presence in the room with you, you can’t turn around. All you can do is keep playing.
During my prepubescent paranormal phase, I hit upon the idea (which, in retrospect, maybe featured on an episode of It’s A Mystery) of checking to see if there were any spirits haunting our house. It was a pretty old house. We had a book of old photos of our small town, and it included a black-and-white snap of our house at the turn of the century, a little girl posing in front of it with the sort of pallid features and anachronistic dress befitting a ghost in a horror film. The method involved laying a tea-towel on the landing and scattering talcum powder over it. If a spectral presence disturbed the powder in anyway, with footsteps or by trailing their tapered-off bottom torso across it, you would have your evidence. I got talked down to setting my trap in my bedroom, my parents not keen on stepping in talc during a nocturnal trip to the bathroom.
The next morning, I proved triumphant: the powder had indeed been disturbed! Our house was undoubtedly haunted! It was a bittersweet victory. My burgeoning interest in and half-hearted belief in the supernatural had been validated. But what now? I had to go on living in a house with a ghost? The presence I had been able to shake before had become more solid. The natural creaks and groans of a settling house kept me awake at night. Then I woke up one morning to a letter. Written in a wobbly hand with what looked suspiciously like my glittery Crayolas, I kept up my correspondence with the ghost that lived in our house – named Jasper – for a couple of weeks, after which I discovered my dad had been writing the letters. Obviously. Just as easily as that, the presence was dispelled once more. It’s easy to do that in real life, where we make the rules of our own existence and perception of it. We don’t control what happens in a book, or a TV shows, or a movie, or a game. We just control how much we engage with them, and what we invite into our homes and heads.