Haunted houses are one of the most common locations for modern horror stories, and before that, spooky tales took place in ancient woods and abandoned castles. Urban legends tell of suicide inducing forests in Japan and derelict asylums that drive visitors to madness. There is just something eerie about lonely places.
I think it has a lot to do with us being social creatures. Remote forests and abandoned buildings are filled with isolating corners and hallways. Even in a group, the unknowable vastness of a foreign place just fills us with the hebbie jebbies. And that is one of the key elements of Coma Ward. This hospital your character wakes up in is empty, devoid of any of the familiar lab coats and stethoscopes that should scatter the place.
But, isolation isn’t the only thing that sends shivers down our spines. China
didn’t build that infamous wall; ya know the one you can't see from space, to keep out the terrifying forces of loneliness.
Snakes, spiders, and insects don’t skeeve people out because no one else is around.Evolution did humanity a great favor; it made us afraid of places that are unfamiliar. See, if ancient people wandered haphazardly into a new setting, they would likely not have lived long enough to breed. Which in all fairness would have settled the old “what do you want for dinner” debate. It’s hard to eat out when you don’t exist.
The big issue with this evolutionary gift of situational awareness is that it conflicts with our consciousness. Yep, that thing humanity is so proud of, that big ole wrinkly grey mass between our ears, which pontificates about all things from the meaning of life to the crushing anxieties of student loans, is our greatest weakness. Our biology drives us to be afraid of, even sometimes violent toward, things that are not like us. But, our consciousness and the centuries of social development we’ve worked toward incentivize exploration, tolerance, and acceptance. This dichotomy of being is the foundation of modern horror.
People are afraid of that which is foreign. Humans are afraid of anything that teeters on the edge of our understanding. Insects are disgusting because
their physiology is so distinct from ours. Snakes seem unnatural because of their legless slithering. Lovecraft rambled on about gnashing unending maws and slippery inky tentacles because they move without predictability; also, he was a horrible racist, and I still enjoy his writing despite that—I don’t condone his ideologies, I just like his spooky stories. That unknown, that alienness, that chaotic quality touches the ancient part of our brain that still remembers the taste of wooly mammoth and the silky texture of fig-leaf loincloths.
Decorating the landscape of Coma Ward with blood splatter and demonic clowns would frighten some players. However, that initial shock would fade. As players navigate the map, they will become accustomed to a simple blood stain or a silly jester. Making the hospital a cold, dimly lit, and functional but empty place gives players the chance to discover something new each time. Sure, you’ll see the same rooms and walk the same halls. But, each phenomenon will provide a unique cause for those creeping shadows along the wall.
There’s also something to be said about expectation. See, haunted houses scare us because they defy our world view. Homes, for most, are a place of peace and rest. A house is a place where memories are made and work forgotten for the days between Friday and Monday. But, a haunted house is wrong. It’s broken. It’s a place filled with uncertainty and evil.
Houses are never haunted because a family lived a happy, contented life together and passed peacefully in their sleep. Nope, haunted houses are homes where murders, illness, abuse, and suffering took place. These are the things we push away from our homes; we slave to abandon these acts in the outskirts of our society and mind.
That’s that other element of horror I want Coma Ward to convey. Horror is derived not only from loneliness and fear of the unknown. Terror is produced just as easily from a lack of control and forceful cognitive dissonance. When we expect a place to have a particular aspect, and it doesn’t, it terrifies us. Hospitals should be filled with staff and patients, and there should be an amount of movement and light to the place… But, in Coma Ward, there isn’t.
Hospitals are also not an uplifting place. Sure, some people enter a hospital with an issue, get that illness or malady treated, and go about their lives. However, no one was ever admitted to a hospital for a positive reason, except for pregnancy. And, hell, even that’s terrifying. The result of a healthy pregnancy is a happy baby, at least we assume they’re happy they can’t speak for themselves yet. But, what if something goes wrong? That potential for tragedy and disaster, that dread, and loss are what paint the halls of a hospital.
Hospitals are where the infirmed, the dying, and the mentally ill are sent to “get better.” It’s a place where we stick all the bad and negative things we can’t control. Then, a wizard with a scalpel or an orange bottle of magic beans makes the problem go away. And, a healthy happy person leaves the hospital, and all the terrible stuff stays inside. Hospitals are the epicenter of all humanity’s weakness and control. They are the battleground of our futility in the cosmos and our biological need to mean something.
However, an abandoned hospital alone does not a board game make. Join me next time when we discuss the most important element of game design that almost didn’t make it into the final version of Coma Ward. That’s right, next time I’ll be discussing Player Agency and Coma Ward’s Hallucination cards.
See Danny's last post HERE and read more about Coma Ward the game HERE