As the world around us devolves into an ever scarier place, we decided to take a foray into modern horror folklore as author Jacob Geers traces the roots of one of the internet’s most popular digital urban legends: the Rake. While, as Geers points out, it is incredibly easy to prove that the story of the Rake is purely fictional and purposefully constructed, it still holds a certain mystique for those who haunt the spookier communities on the internet dedicated to telling these stories.
But why? Why has horror continually gripped human imagination so tight that it makes us believe the truly unbelievable, no matter how much information we have at our fingertips? As Geers explains, in a time where “so much of our everyday life is fake, we cling to things that feel real” and few things feel as viscerally real as being scared. In this age of visibility, and manufactured reality, people want things that feel “organic and authentic. We want rougher sounds, rougher images, raw footage, all uncensored by high technology and the powers that be.” (Read Based on a True Story)
It is hard to argue with this interpretation. After all, if we look at the types of horror that have gained traction over the past three decades, we see a shift from the hyper-stylized to the grittier, more realistic forms, with the success of the “found footage” (The Blair Witch Project) and “based on true events” (The Amityville Horror) sub-genres being the most compelling evidence of this desire for realism.
Moreover, in interrogating what makes horror such an appealing genre overall, many of the conversations that we have been having over the past few weeks come into play once again. For example, horror (perhaps more than any other genre) in order to be successful, rests on having an acute knowledge of the various cultural codes that exist in our society.
Effective horror is instantaneously able to bypass your conscious and aim directly at your personal and social fears. So no matter the details; a scream, a slashing, a slither; you feel. The physiological response to horror is similar to other visceral responses. It’s true arousal in its purest form. It’s switching off your rational sense and diverting all power to your shields. It’s a split second flight or fight response. It’s exciting, yet an excitement ultimately wrapped in safety.
Writers, directors, and marketers all have to know which images, sounds, and formats strike deep at our subconscious fears, the things that get people to turn off the part of their brains responsible for conscious thought. This element of horror has not escaped the notice of those who create it either. There exists an entire sub-genre of “meta horror” meant to examine these codes, what they mean, and how they manifest. (The movie Scream and its focus on dissecting the rules of the slasher genre perhaps being the most well-known example in modern horror fiction.)
Additionally, as the monsters of the mainstream seek to make movies that not only appeal to American audiences, but also to Asian markets, horror remains uniquely resistant to being easily exported because it draws on these key cultural codes. What one culture finds frightening, another might find completely unintelligible or offensive. Trying to appeal to multiple markets when creating a horror movie, as opposed to relying on an organic interest to form, results in movies that appeal to no one.
As a result, there is no simply no room in horror for 100 million dollar budget blockbusters with impressive action set pieces. There is also no need. Horror is the only genre that becomes worse the more money that gets pumped into it. (A Nightmare On Elm Street ’84 vs ’10 for example) The cleaner and more stylized it looks, the less real it feels to the mind. Good, effective horror is cheap. Bad, ineffective horror is expensive, and usually contains an overabundance of CGI, which the human mind can pick up and dismiss as fake more readily than a blurry photo of a monster in the woods.
Finally, there is the element of close knit community, something that horror inspires in ways that other genres could never hope to. It is hard to imagine a group of people attending a romantic comedy convention, but there are dozens of horror conventions every year, implying that the genre contains something that draws out the innate desire in humans to form groups, perhaps for safety. Geers explains that the community aspect of horror plays an important role in reinforcing its perpetuation.
The story of the Rake itself is a good example of both the power of community in spreading these legends and their power to create communities. Essentially, a group project, the story’s genealogy can be traced back to internet message board 4chan, where a group of posters got together and decided to make a monster. Expertly engineered using many of the cultural codes of horror, the “little things” our society attaches to anxiety, the Rake spread from community to community, until it became the “believable” story that it is today.
So as to what is real and what is fake, what is just your opinion, man, and what on earth we can be expected to believe, who knows? What we do know is that as long as there have been people, there have been people telling ghost stories. There will always be Tales From the Crypt, Thriller nights, Creatures From the Black Lagoon, and everything else storytellers can conjure. Just as long as they are spooky, haunting and just downright scream worthy!! Like the rest of society today, it may not be real, but it will be at least based on a true story, whatever that means.
Ghosts are a staple of the horror genre. Movies about vengeful spirits, haunted houses, and possessed people probably make up the largest category of horror and it is not hard to understand why. Ghosts embody one of humanity’s most innate fears: death. Almost all cultures and societies throughout history have their own ghost stories and superstitions. Some countries, like China, even have laws that prevent movies about ghosts from playing in theaters. Given our seemingly visceral fear of ghosts, it seems odd that anyone would ever try to make one that didn't want to be scary and had no interest in haunting. However, that is exactly what Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo set out to do when they created the character of Casper, the Friendly Ghost.
Casper first appeared in the 1939 children’s book The Friendly Ghost, and Paramount Pictures’ animation division purchased the rights and released a cartoon adaption in 1945. Since then, Casper has appeared in countless comic books, cartoon shows, live action movies, and video. The comics of Casper, published by the defunct Harvey Comics, were so popular that he inspired numerous copies from other comic companies, including Homer, the Happy Ghost, which was written by Stan Lee himself. The widespread appeal of Casper is hard to deny, but worth interrogating. After all, how could an entity so associated with death and fear become so widely beloved? The central concept behind Casper’s character is that, unlike other ghosts who only want to scare humans, he simply wants to make a friend. This concept arguably makes his character more relatable than Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, or even Winnie the Pooh.
Over the years, Casper stories have tended to follow a consistent format. First, he escapes the afterlife on a mission to find a friend. Unfortunately, due to being a ghost, everyone he meets is not only afraid of him, they also scream in horror and run away as fast as they can. Who among us, even if only deep in our minds, hasn’t felt this way as we tried to navigate social interactions. Eventually, he meets someone in need, helps them, and people realize that he is not your typical ghost, and he is finally able to find a friend.
Ultimately, Casper’s situation is one that resonates so strongly because it is ironically a very human one. He represents that innate desire within people for friendship and companionship while feeling very different from everyone else, and ultimately being rejected. Casper is comforting because he shows that even in the afterlife, the human instinct to love is still all encompassing. Who hasn't ever felt lost or alone before? Casper is an age-old fable about learning not to judge a book by its cover played out using one of the most universally scary paranormal entities, and that is exactly why it works so well.