21st Century Brontë #9 by Brontë Bettencourt
The Dance Macabre
Last fall, I couldn’t step into the University of Central Florida’s Anime club without stumbling into an Undertale conversation. This unassuming 16-bit indie game (8-bit in combat) took the gaming community by storm in under a month, earning numerous awards proclaiming it the best game of 2015 when barely any of the year was left. I was more than ready to gush over the characters’ endearing quirks and emotional plot twists.
My friends had another topic in mind. I was shown an online fanmade comic drawn by the lovely Nostalgia-Phantom that involves one of the game’s beloved characters interacting with the story’s antagonist. This could only end horribly.
After I managed to stop gnashing my teeth, I noticed the odd amount of glee from my anime club friends. This comic was brought out in the open among friends, who took in such images of betrayal, helplessness, fragility, and morbidity, and recapped them with smiles on their faces. Reveling and revulsion coalesced.
Do we, as humans have some affinity for experiencing experiencing the macabre?
In fifth grade, my best friend and I were obsessed with Yu Yu Hakusho. I remember illegally selling candy just to buy the DVDs, $30 a pop, and had only had three twenty something minute episodes (four if the distributor was generous).
There’s one battle toward the end of the Dark Tournament arc, where my favorite character faced off against a demon who could conjure bombs. The character survived by the skin of his teeth, sopping wet from his own blood, flesh littered with shrapnel wounds. The agonizing screams are still vivid in my mind.
The gruesomeness was why it stuck with me for so long. I could exactingly describe the gore of the battle, the shoddy bits of animation, and the pitches of the dialogue delivery. I did not know why I gravitated toward the depiction of suffering.
On a surface level, a story cannot exist without opposing forces butting heads. But at a base level, we require discomfort great enough to drive the opposing forces to decisive action. But the greater we can feel the anguish, the more in tune we are with the character.
I’ve been told that a healthy amount of suffering is cathartic in a story because it is not ultimately happening to us. (Thanks, Aristotle.) By it happening vicariously, we then reflect on our own lives with appreciation. But full on suffering triggers a little more than an appreciative prayer.
Perhaps we can empathize more with physical pain. Psychological pain, such as death of a loved one, or mental illness, or divorce caters to a more tapered audience. I haven’t been married yet (to my knowledge), and although death is imminent for all living beings, I haven’t had anyone close to me pass away. Those who have experienced this will comprehend that primal ache associated with the psychological. But physical pain is easier to depict, and the sight of blood creates an immediate, visceral connection to pain.
I feel phantom aches depending on what is being damaged before me. The thought of a solid bone cracking. Seeing a character that we’ve developed an emotional attachment to suffer is–
And these characters are fictional.
With adrenaline compelling us to act, we’re instead left to our imagination of what the character is undergoing. There is a mutual helplessness felt by both audience and character.
Michael Stevens in the Vsauce video Why Are We Morbidly Curious? states that “we find uncertainty more unpleasant than unpleasant certainty.” This coincides with a method the idea of writing less equals more, allowing the audience’s minds to work against them when faced with gruesome scenarios.
Stevens claims that experiencing the macabre allows our aggression to burn off, allowing us to experience a release of strong or repressed emotions. Maybe there is truth to feeling happy due to suffering, or at least witnessing the suffering of another being. And because this being is fictional, there is little to no guilt involved, just a tangle of other emotions.
There’s an audio file of Undertale fans voice-acting the mentioned comic above. The better part of me would like to say that I haven’t listened to it.
Brontë Bettencourt (Episode 34) graduated from the University of Central Florida with a Bachelors in English Creative Writing. When she’s not writing or working, she is a full time Dungeon Master and Youtube connoisseur.