In the Halloween-themed episode of Castle that just aired, the script writers floated the theory that people who showed a deep fascination with death usually had a triggering, traumatizing event in their past. Since the tv show is about a murder mystery writer, the obvious question was what caused him to be drawn to death. We viewers may not know that answer for a while, but fortunately we can look for answers elsewhere.
A friend just sent me a link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction, titled Monsters and the Moral Imagination. For me, the money-quote follows.
In a significant sense, monsters are a part of our attempt to envision the good life or at least the secure life. Our ethical convictions do not spring fully grown from our heads but must be developed in the context of real and imagined challenges. In order to discover our values, we have to face trials and tribulation, and monsters help us imaginatively rehearse. Imagining how we will face an unstoppable, powerful, and inhuman threat is an illuminating exercise in hypothetical reasoning and hypothetical feeling.
This gets to the heart of not only horror, but the fun in roleplaying games as well. From the outside, there’s a vague notion that RPGs are for loners to play elves and dwarfs in their parent’s basement. In reality, it’s a highly social activity that posits a series of challenges and allows players to collectively overcome them (or not). Unlike traditional board games, the players usually don’t compete against one another, but cooperate against an external threat. RPGs come in all styles and flavors, but horror RPGs have a special place in my heart. The Chronicle article “gets it”. Enjoying horror isn’t about reveling in the macabre, it’s about imagining external adversity* and then overcoming it– all from the safety of one’s dining room table.
*As opposed to sitting around pretending to overcome internal adversity, like breast cancer. That’s just morbid.