She Can Fly: Screaming for All the Wrong Reasons

I don’t know why I keep letting myself get hurt by Ryan Murphy.

It’s probably because so many of the shows he writes, creates, and is involved in either get rave reviews before I’ve ever watched them (Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story) or have appealing, unusual plot summaries that instantly grab me, and keep me suckered to the story and the characters, as much out of hatred as enjoyment, in a way that I feel the compulsive need to see the series to completion.

Scream Queens was one of the shows that had a promising description (although some critiques complained it was too much of an amalgamation of Murphy’s already existing shows), and even the potential to subvert a genre that has generally been unfriendly to female characters since it’s inception. I was hoping that, much like Glee (or, at least, the first half of the first season), Scream Queens would be funny, irreverent, self-aware, self-deprecating, and tongue-in-cheek, with complex characters and dramatically charged situations.

Instead, Scream Queens is much more like later seasons of Glee; already lapsing into cliched tropes, lacking any real self-awareness or tactics beyond tactics beyond the same shallow presentation of women, gay men, race, and body issues that Glee had, sans the significant cultural relevance that Glee had some six years ago.

But no matter how bad Glee got, for some inane reason, I felt compelled to watch it, even five and a half years after it became more of a chore (or should I say choir?) to view (hate watching has fast become a phenomenon because of shows like Glee). So when Fox announced that Ryan Murphy would be heading a show that combined the seemingly vapid teen drama of Glee with the orchestrated horror of classic 80’s slasher films, I was excited. In some sick way, I was hoping Scream Queens would create the same kind of compelling characters, even if the plot was lackluster.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the plot of Scream Queens that has ended up being a disappointment. It’s everything. The characters are deplorable; even when a character has a redeeming moment (including a surprising, but satisfying feminist tirade coming from the queen mean girl in the fourth episode), the characters are just as quickly made unlikeable again, and their golden moment is practically erased from continuity (in one episode, a character declares that the sorority sisters should stop starving themselves and eat a pizza; in the immediately subsequent episode, the very same character is seen insinuating that women must starve themselves to even be considered attractive).

Moreover, each character has a “dark secret” that brings them under the audience’s suspicion; but when your entire cast has (contrived) motive to commit heinous murders, and you continue to emphasize this perspective, the audience ends up fatigued in the constant whiplash of “who is the killer.” The ultimate answer seems to be, “everyone is.” And that does not create a compelling story.

What it really comes down to, is that the audience doesn’t have anyone to root for. Even the most obvious “protagonist” could barely be called a “hero” at all. Her motivations are entirely self-driven, and her passe “mysterious past” sets her up to be the character with the trope of snapping before the end of the series.

And the story isn’t designed to sustain beyond a single season. Murphy is already on record stating that Scream Queens will (continue to) follow in the footsteps of American Horror Story by being an anthologized series. However, unlike AHS, Queens will follow the same characters to different horrible locations and situations (or “those who survive,” Murphy said in an interview with EW).

The plot of Scream Queens is predictable at best, and constantly loops over itself to repeat story revelations, and then completely ignore and change them. Unlike Scream, which the show purports to be inspired by, there is no subversion of expectations. There is no critique or tropes. The “scary” aspect of the show is less on the psychology of horror, and more on the gratuity of gore and violence that they can get past prime time network censors.

Because of this, the horror moments end up reading too tongue-in-cheek, and the makeup doesn’t translate as anything better than middle school haunted house. The cinematography plays on classic fright scenes from films like The Shining and Psycho, but they lack the actual tact of those films, opting to show everything, instead of simply hinting at the horror that is happening. Everything screams “overdone,” from the color of the blood to the costuming proper to the plot and characterizations.

The most positive thing I can say about Scream Queens is that it really is a female-driven show. It’s great to see so many female characters in an action drive television show, but it’s frustrating to that every single one of woman is painted as either a horrible person or unsocialized, psychotic mess. There are very few female friendships presented that don’t ultimately amount to a friendship of convenience; the women use each other, abuse each other, and fight each other for dominance and the affection of men.

Overall, Scream Queens strikes me as one of the most disappointing shows of the 2015 fall season. Will I keep watching? Maybe. But if I do, I will probably hate myself for it.

Scream Queens airs Tuesday nights on FOX.

Game the Game: Horror Gaming

The set-up: Characters are in a house, there is a axe-wielding psychopath on the looking to chop them all up. The characters hear a noise on the other side of the door.

Traditional RPG style of play:

Players draw their weapons, assume a defensive stance, cast buff spells, check their HP, etc.

Is this fun? Sure, it can be.

Is it scary?

I would argue no.

Sending an unbeatable foe against the PCs in a game where success or failure is very granular is easy to do. The party is 5th level, put them up against a 10th level threat. A 12the level threat.

Sure, that can be done.

But is it scary? Is it balanced? Is it fun?

As a GM if I want to stack the deck in my favor and “win” that is always easy to do.

But, horror gaming, gaming that can legitimately scare your players and their characters demands a different style of play.

As a GM, I can admit my shortcomings. Bringing a sense of doom to the table might not be one of them. This is not to say that I have not had success, but it can be difficult. There has to be buy-in from the players and GM, everyone has to commit to the conceits of horror gaming.

On those special occasions when I want to run a very special horror game, I tend to cheat.

I fall back on rules systems that force the players to be scared.

New-fangled RPG style of play:

Dread is an RPG that strips away pretty much everything that other RPGs have: stats, skills, etc, they do not matter. What matters in Dread is building tension, and that sense of impending death with any action.

How does it do it?

Jenga.

Build a Jenga block, any time a character is doing something potentially dangerous, the player must draw a Jenga block.

I ran a session of this, and added an on-the-fly house rule. When moments were building to a head, when time was of the essence, I instituted speed Jenga.

“Ok, you want to make it down to the docks in time to catch up to the ferry? I need 4 successful draws in one minute. Go!”

Jenga demands quiet.

It demands concentration.

And it brings with it a sense of… wait for it…. Dread.

Perfect.

Players might want to try and find an old AK-47 in Old Man Johnston’s house. Fine, let them. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t increase their odds of survival.

Jared Sorenson’s Squeam does things a bit differently, the setup of Squeam is designed to emulate a horror film.

The coolest part of it is that, when the characters hear that noise on the other side of the door, one of them may very well open it.

Why?

Because that character failed their Curious roll.

And if that isn’t just like a horror movie, I don’t know what is.

Yes, it takes autonomy and free-will away from the players, but the end result is that it forces the players and their characters to do the things that make horror films fun!

I have run this several times for very-special episodes of my long-running campaign, and it is a blast. Darken the room, light a candle or two, appreciate the silence and darkness, and have a ton of jump-scare fun.

I tend to use a variant of the Scooby Doo rules set, and I could see the Cthulhu variant also being fun.

There are of course plenty of other games designed to scare, Spectrum Games (for whom I work) has Slasher Flick and Macabre Tales, the latter designed for 1-1 Lovecraftian play, the former designed for troupe style Slasher Flick play, and of course there is the grand-daddy of them all, Call of Cthulhu.

There are GMs out there who can make any system scary. My hat is off to them.

Me? I cheat.

I pick a game that has been designed to make the experience scary.