Pale Luna (Creepypasta Reading)

Growing up, I had no interest in horror in any medium. Not only did I not like scary movies or stories, I even ranked Halloween beneath decidedly non-kid focused holidays like Valentines Day and Thanksgiving. For reasons it’s not worth getting into here, I was over-protected as a child, kept away from any harsh realities for as long as possible. I would be 25 years old before I suffered the kind of emotional devastation that I think is necessary for coming to appreciate the cathartic value of horror.

In my teenage years, though, I did have one particularly traumatic run-in with a horror movie. One night I stumbled upon the short-lived TV show Reel Wild Cinema, in which host Sandra Bernhard presented clips from trashy b-movies. I was a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and assumed that Reel Wild Cinema would provide a similar mocking of safe, cheesy drive-in schlock. That assumption was almost immediately dispelled when they did an episode featuring the gore films of Herschel Gordon Lewis.

bloodfeastLewis, for those unaware, was a pioneer of the gore movie genre. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, he churned out low budget bloodbaths with titles like Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, and The Gore Gore Girls. Lewis’s movies are generally awful*, combining some of the worst acting and cinematography ever committed to film with buckets of fake blood made from Kayopectate and cranberry juice. To any seasoned horror viewer, his films are a riot, only slightly more technically proficient than those of Ed Wood; but if they’re your introduction to the genre after years of being carefully shielded from any real world tragedies…well, they can shattering.

Blood Feast, in particular, took a toll on my untested psyche. It wasn’t that I mistakenly saw the movie as state of the art, or even remotely realistic. What really got to me about the film, what made it a feature of my nightmares for the next eight years, was my mistaken assumption that it represented a passion project for its creator. My first thought was that Lewis must have been so obsessed with the ideas of dismemberment and forced cannibalism that he made Blood Feast even in the face of his barely existent budget and talent. Later I would learn that Lewis was a carney, giving the unwashed masses their blood and circuses in the way most likely to line his own pockets, and Blood Feast’s spell was finally broken. But it introduced me to both schlock horror, and a very real discomfort with “art” that is quickly and clumsily made just to satisfy some base desire.

mysteryhouseThat lengthy preamble is necessary set up for an explanation of why Pale Luna is the scariest gaming creepypasta I’ve ever read. Years after Blood Feast’s assault on my innocence, I encountered Mystery House, the first graphical adventure game, created by legendary game designers Roberta and Ken Williams. The game’s stick-figure murder story left me with vestiges of the feeling I had upon my initial viewing of Blood Feast—that I had come face to face with the creation of minds whose perversity greatly outpaced their talent. By then I was old enough to know better, to recognize my discomfort as irrational. But knowing better didn’t stop me from coming away from Mystery House with a residual suspicion of all early computer games.

Pale Luna was surely not created with my very idiosyncratic and personal fears in mind, but that doesn’t prevent it from expertly playing on them. The titular game can be read one of two ways. It’s either the sinister creation of a killer/programmer who set out to toy with an unsuspecting audience by intentionally creating a game that hides its awful secret behind a wall of glitches; or it’s the shoddy creation of a sicko who longs to visit his own child-murder fetish on innocent bystanders, but lacks the talent to do so in an effective way. While I suspect the former was the author’s intention, the latter is my preferred reading of the story, and the one that has made Pale Luna feel like an uncanny rendering of a deeply personal fear.

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* I say “generally” awful because of two exceptions. His final gore film, The Gore Gore Girls is slightly better shot than the rest, featuring intentional humor (some of which is actually funny), as well as a great b-movie performance by Frank Kress as hero Abraham Gentry. The Wizard Of Gore is a tour de force of unintentional surrealism whose hastily written script has characters describing murders completely different from the ones occurring on screen, as well as a barely coherent freakout ending that has to be seen to be believed. Judy Cler is mesmerizing as heroine Sherry Carson, but sadly this is her only known role.

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108

When I was a little girl and I was having trouble sleeping, my mom and dad would take me out for a drive around our small town. When I say “small,” I mean that it was so insignificant then that not even ubiquitous corporations like McDonalds or Walmart had seen any value in setting up shop there. It took less than 10 minutes to drive from the east side of town where we lived, to the west side where the old Methodist church and the new post office were the last landmarks before the long stretch of empty farmland that lay between us and the next dead end town.

On those drives, we’d always listen to the same radio station. It was a soft rock station that broadcast from the college town about 20 miles north of us. My dad’s old Chevy Impala didn’t have a digital radio, so I didn’t know the exact frequency, just that my parents called it “108”. I was too young then to remember much besides the genre of the music it played. The only song that stuck with me was “The Glory Of Love” by Peter Cetera, because for whatever reason, my little kid brain thought that “Cetera” was a hilarious name.

So we’d head out after dark on the nights when I couldn’t sleep, and usually by the time we got to the Methodist church, I had already passed out. Some nights I’d last longer, though, and still be awake when dad would take a left at the post office, and we’d head to the south side of town. These days, that part of town is developed, with a bunch of identical subdivision houses and even a park. Back then, though, it was barren, with just a few really run down rock homes that looked like they were probably built in the ’40s, and a lone business, a spooky old garage that my dad just called “the transmission shop.”

What really got to me about that part of town, though, was the literal dead end where dad would turn around if I hadn’t gone to sleep yet. It looked like the city had started working on extending the road, but then abandoned the project and left all the heavy machinery behind. There were no street lights there, so the only illumination would come from the Impala’s headlights, and I was always worried that when we would turn around I would catch sight of a person sneaking around between the backhoe and the road grater that were parked there.

On the night I finally did see something, I had actually drifted off early in the drive, coaxed to sleep by 108’s lite rock lullabies. I didn’t stay asleep for long, though. I don’t know if I just happened to wake up, or if dad hit the brakes too hard when he came to a stop, but all of a sudden I was jolted awake. By sheer idiot luck, I didn’t say anything or make a move. The radio was still on, but 108 had been overtaken by a loud, distorted pinging noise, a song still barely audible in the distance. The car was stopped at the dead end with the construction equipment. But my parents were just sitting there, staring straight ahead, not talking or paying any attention to the fact that I was awake.

I was only brave enough to raise up for a second and try to see what mom and dad were looking at. The Impala’s headlights were switched to the high beams, and pointed right at that spot between the backhoe and the road grater, and just as I always feared, there was something there. Whatever it was, it didn’t move. It just stood there, facing the car, just enough in the shadows of those huge machines that I couldn’t make it out beyond recognizing it as basically human shaped. It was holding something, a box maybe, with a single blue light that was pointed toward us. I instantly laid back down in the back seat and closed my eyes as tight as I could. I knew something was wrong, but again either by luck or being paralyzed with fear, I didn’t draw attention to myself. I just lay there, shivering in terror, waiting on dad to take off again and get as far from that dead end as possible.

I have no idea now how long I laid there waiting. All I remember is the overwhelming relief when I finally felt the car begin to move. The most terrifying thing, though, was that neither of my parents seemed to realize that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Eventually 108 crawled back out from under that awful metallic ping, the car took off at a normal speed, and mom and dad resumed their idle chit-chat in the front seat. Neither of them mentioned the terrible thing hiding in the shadows of the machinery.

After that, even on nights when I was having trouble sleeping, I would fake it to make sure I wasn’t taken out for another drive to that dead end. I never addressed what happened with mom or dad. I wasn’t sure if they even knew themselves. If they didn’t, they would never have believed my story. If they did, though, and they never felt like it was something they needed to talk to me about…I don’t know, I’m not sure I would want to know their reasons for that.

A few years later, 108, which by that time I knew as 107.9 FM, changed formats to classic rock. I still can’t stand to tune it in.

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Letting go of logic

2014 was the year that I came to distrust anyone who talks a lot about logic, especially on the internet. From Richard Dawkins’s repeated use of the concept to demand the silence of feminists, to that horde of  endlessly outraged gamers demanding the silence of everyone but themselves, 2014 was the year that a lot of angry dudes decided logic was their new favorite truncheon. Logic had the worst year that a concept has had since 2003, when the Neocons in the American government decided that “freedom” meant bombing other countries into a state of anarchy, then rounding up anyone who opposed the bombing and torturing them to death.

2014 made logic into a liar. In 2015, let’s listen to emotions, which lately have seemed much more honest.

Logic (have I made you as tired of that word as I am? I hope so!) is a subject I know a little bit about. I have a masters degree in Philosophy, and in the second year of my graduate program, I taught a freshman logic course at my university. I feel, therefore, that I’m  minimally qualified to make a couple of criticisms of the subject.

The first is that logic is a garbage in, garbage out system. There are two terms that the angry dudes who shout about logic on the internet either ignore or never knew in the first place. One is “valid”, which describes an argument that uses correct logical form. The other is “sound”, which describes an argument that is both valid and has true premises. These mostly apply to the more formal deductive logic, rather than inductive, which is what the angry guys, who know what “strawman” and “ad hominem” mean, generally favor. But they’re still useful terms to keep in mind.

The problem with using logic as your one and only weapon is that being able to arrange your thoughts in syllogistic form, or to identify inductive fallacies, doesn’t prove that anything you say is true. By the same token, arranging your thoughts in a completely irrational (i.e. logically flawed) manner doesn’t make them false. For example, here’s a valid argument:

  • If Barack Obama was president in 2014, then the moon is made of ice cream.
  • Barack Obama was president in 2014.
  • Therefore, the moon is made of ice cream.

I’m fairly certain even Alex Jones wouldn’t go for that conspiracy theory, despite the validity of the argument. You can do the same thing with logical fallacies:

Nice strawman, Cameron. If anyone was actually acting like validity and soundness were the same thing, you might have a point.

This is a bit harrier, because it would be true if, for example, Richard Dawkins hadn’t spent half the year telling feminists that his arguments’ validity rendered them unassailable.

The second problem with logic for angry dudes is that in actual philosophical argument, logic is generally used as an opening salvo, not as a coup de grace. Showing that your argument is valid gets your foot in the door, but the real work is convincing people that it’s sound. That requires convincing them that your premises are true, to which logic in and of itself isn’t particularly well suited.

Here’s a handy real life example. My graduate thesis grew out of my response to an argument from the philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau, for moral realism, the idea that moral claims, like scientific or mathematical claims, have real, non-hypothetical truth values. On this theory, if “murder is wrong” is true at all, it’s true in the same way that 2 + 2=4 is true, or “All bachelors are unmarried men” is true. That struck me as a statement that required a revolutionary degree of proof. How does one demonstrate, so that even a sociopath would be forced to admit it, that moral claims are true regardless of the prevailing conditions in the world (such as the values of the person making the claims)? I still don’t know, because I felt that Shafer-Landau’s argument hinged on his claim that some moral statements are self-evidently true, and that only insufficient reflection or “mental impoverishment” could convince one otherwise–a stance that I still feel amounts to an ad hominem attack on anyone who disagrees with him.

I do disagree with Shafer-Landau, not because I’m mentally impoverished (a sadist, sociopath, etc.) and, though he would probably disagree, not because I haven’t sufficiently reflected on the matter. I disagree with him because I don’t believe that ethics is a subject whose statements have objective truth values. I think that ethics requires one to have a fairly well-developed level of empathy, which means that at some level moral claims are statements of preference rather than statements of objective fact. More controversially, I think moral claims can have different truth values in different situations, based on what empathy requires. Even though I do think that Shafer-Landau commits an ad hominem in his argument for moral realism, my real problem is that I just don’t think his premise that some moral principles are self-evidently true is, itself, true. Changing that wouldn’t require a valid argument. It would require evidence, a moral statement which I believe is self-evidently true, and true independently of the values of sufficiently empathetic rational agents.

This detour does have a point: logic is not all important. It doesn’t trump truth. And 2014 showed me, over and over, every day, every hour, that truths that disregard empathy aren’t worth much. So in 2015, let’s kindly tell logic to go lie down for a bit. Instead of being rational, let’s be reasonable. Let’s be concerned with empathy first and foremost, and see if that doesn’t make the world better for everyone.

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The Aesthetics Of Numbers

Late one night in 2008, I discovered the existence of numbers stations, the name for a loose collection of audio oddities that have been fascinating shortwave radio listeners since at least the 1970s. These anonymous broadcasts encapsulate everything from (usually female) voices reading off seemingly meaningless strings of numbers, to Morse code transmissions, to data bursts and even more unusual white noise. While the general consensus is that many are related to military or espionage operations, most remain mysterious and incredibly spooky. Aficionados are drawn to numbers stations for many reasons, ranging from interest in conspiracy theories to a fascination with their alien aesthetics.

I fall squarely into the latter category. While my initial response to numbers stations was one of stark, teeth-clenching horror, I’ve gradually come to appreciate and enjoy them as unintentional works of art. This is nothing new for me. Ever since I discovered experimental music in high school, I’ve loved the thought of art emerging from acts of curation or observation rather than through the intentions and technical skill of an artist. It’s why I love Duchamp’s readymades, Herschel Gordon Lewis’s clumsily produced gore films, and just about any art that incorporates an elements of randomness and chance.

I’m not alone in finding aesthetic value in numbers stations, either. Slightly batty artists from electronic musicians Boards of Canada to game developer Jeff Minter have incorporated the shortwave oddities into their work. Even Wilco named an album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, after the text of a numbers station broadcast. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the aesthetics of the stations themselves, and in doing so, I’ve found a new favorite work by the anonymous, accidental artists behind them.

“8 Note Rising Scale,” like the majority of the numbers station broadcasts that can be easily found online, is taken from The Conet Project, a four disc collection of numbers recordings released by the obscure British label Irdial-Discs in 1997. The sparse information shown in the above video seems to represent all that is known about it. Its format is standard for many numbers broadcasts of the period, starting with a musical cue, then the coded message, which then repeats at least once. However, it’s what “8 Note Rising Scale” does with these genre conventions that makes it such a perfect example of the form. The musical cue is a simple C major scale, but it sounds as if it were played on the kind of warbly analog synth used to score ’70s science filmstrips. Between the cue and the message there’s an out of place squeaky noise, like a sample of a moe anime girl run through a 50s echo chamber. This mysterious squeak is all the more fascinating for the fact that it’s interrupted by the reading of the message, as if the numbers broadcast were being recorded over something else.

That’s all there is to “8 Note Rising Scale,” but it’s more than enough to set it apart from its contemporaries. Better known broadcasts like “The Lincolnshire Poacher” or “Swedish Rhapsody,” which share the cue-message-repeat structure sound polished by comparison. More frightening oddities like “The Buzzer” and “Yosemite Sam” lack the formalism that makes it aesthetically interesting. Like Sonic Youth or e.e. cummings, “8 Note Rising Scale” acknowledges genre convention just enough to make its deviations more jarring and more fascinating.

None of this should be taken too terribly seriously. Like a lot of numbers station fans, I like listening to the broadcasts as a weird diversion, a fun way to scare myself when I’m feeling bored. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be considered as their own kind of outsider art, even if the technicians and machines responsible for them never intended any such thing. Like my film lecture professor once said, artists don’t always know what their art means. Sometimes, they don’t even know it’s art.

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The Last Oddity

On February 7, Nintendo will release the 3DS Circle Pad Pro, a peripheral that will add a second analog pad to the handheld. Coming out only through Gamestop, it looks poised to be another entry in Nintendo’s long list of odd and under-supported peripherals, which includes the WiiSpeak, 64DD, Satellaview, and most iconic of all, R.O.B. However, it may also be the last such first party device from Nintendo or any other major game hardware maker.

Weird peripherals have been around since before the dawn of home consoles. Ralph Baer developed a plethora of such devices prior to the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, including a water pump controller for a firefighting game. However, the success of the Atari 2600 made the bizarre peripheral market an undeniable reality.  The Starpath Supercharger, for example, was a RAM expander for the 2600 which also allowed the system to play games from a connected tape deck. Coleco’s tantalizingly named Expansion Module 1 allowed the Colecovision to play Atari 2600 games–prompting a lawsuit that Atari actually lost, showing just how much the American judicial system has changed in the last 30 years. Atari got into the madness themselves with the Mindlink controller. Had it been released, it would have been marketed as allowing you to control games with your mind; in reality, it (poorly) translated the movements of facial muscles into in-game controls.

If Atari’s success created the peripheral market, Nintendo’s allowed it to explode in a shower of plastic junk. Of course Nintendo pioneered this trend with R.O.B., the “robotic operating buddy” who operated precisely two games. However, there was at least a reason for R.O.B.’s existence. Conventional wisdom has it that the flashy add-on was meant to be a Trojan horse to get the NES into retail locations still wary of video games post-crash. Nevertheless, his existence gave a tacit seal of approval to even less functional devices like the U-Force and the Power Glove.

Aside from the Mario Paint mouse and mouse pad, Nintendo didn’t put out a load of strange peripherals for the SNES. However, the Super Famicom did receive the Satellaview add-on, a primitive digital distribution system that even allowed for the production of a live quiz show broadcast, Satella-q. But while the Satellaview was years ahead of its time, Sega was mostly backward or sideways thinking with peripherals for the Genesis. The Power Base Converter made the Genesis backward compatible with the Sega Master System, which would have been fine if anyone in North America had bought that console. The Supercharger-esque 32X was even more ill-conceived, an overpriced add-on that played a handful of mostly terrible games, and competed against the Sega CD.

For the next couple of generations, first party peripherals got a lot more sensible, with the only major exception being Nintendo’s 64DD boondoggle. Sort of like a ZIP drive for the N64, the device seemed to be an attempt to recreate the success of the Famicom Disk System, which in Japan played host to many of the Famicom’s best titles. In practice, though, it was a financial disaster with an even smaller library of games than the 32X (and nothing like Kolibri to help justify its existence). Sony and Microsoft stayed out of the peripheral business more or less entirely until the current generation, when Microsoft trotted out a separate HD-DVD drive for the 360 in a sad attempt to compete with the PS3’s native Blu-Ray support.

Nintendo did return in force, though with some head-scratchers for the Wii. The Motion Plus adapter made some sense, but raised the question of why it wasn’t built into the Wii’s controllers in the first place. The WiiSpeak made sense in the context of the increasingly online-focused gaming world, but its design ensured the hardcore crowd most likely to actually want such a thing would avoid it, and the hoops the Wii forces users to jump through to play online ensured developers wouldn’t touch it.

At E3 2009, though, Nintendo really upped the ante when Satoru Iwata announced the Vitality Sensor, a Wii peripheral that…well, even Iwata didn’t seem all that sure about what it was supposed to do. Maybe it was a heart monitor or something? Of course the Vitality Sensor is yet to emerge, though it could end up being the first piece of useless plastic for the Wii-U.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though, for two reasons. The first is that all the console manufacturers are chasing Apple now, and Apple’s current business model doesn’t include such devices. Second, the inevitable march away from physical media has created a market in which the functionality provided by a lot of the stranger peripherals of the past isn’t in as much demand as it once was. We don’t need a Gameboy camera or printer when almost every device has a built-in camera and nobody prints pictures. We don’t need devices that add backward compatibility when publishers would rather resell you digital versions of your old games.

Call me nostalgic, but I think that’s a little sad. As much as I’ve rolled my eyes at some of the peripherals mentioned above, they still provided interesting and/or hilarious footnotes to the history of video games. And as much as I think the Circle Pad Pro looks like a clunky piece of unnecessary garbage, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up owning one. If enough of us buy in, maybe we can prolong the life of ridiculous peripherals just a bit longer.

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The Horror Of Disappearing

This isn’t how you normally expect horror movies to start.

In the case of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror film House, though, it does end up making sense. While it’s not inaccurate to describe the movie as a fever dream, the common reaction to it as completely indecipherable suggests that maybe some viewers are trying too hard. Sift through the layers of wild, low-budget effects and apparent non-sequitirs, and you find a movie about youth’s fear of disappearing into adulthood, and adulthood’s fear of being swallowed up by the progression of youth culture.

House is, on the surface, a movie about a haunted house that eats unmarried girls. That already sounds weird, but it’s hardly the focus of the film. Early on, we’re introduced to a cast of junior high school girls, each identified only by a nickname that sums up her interests and personality (“Gorgeous”, “Fantasy”, “Kung-Fu”, “Prof.”). Before the bizarre killings start, we learn that the girls live in a world that revolves around their hobbies and marriage. They daydream about a charismatic teacher, and about Gorgeous’s aunt, who has spent her life waiting for the return of a lover who died in WWII. Melody is never without an instrument, Prof. never without a book. Kung-fu will hit anything that remotely threatens her friends.

During the scene in the above video (which has sadly muted the actors to highlight the song), we get the first hint of what I think are the main themes, though. Gorgeous tells her friends the story of her aunt’s doomed love, which is shown as a sepia-tone silent film. As footage of a mushroom cloud appears, one of the girls coos “It looks like cotton candy!” For all their sympathies with her aunt’s love, they completely fail to understand the defining moment of her generation.

Once they arrive at the haunted house, it’s not long before one of the girls goes missing, and as their panic starts to set in, Gorgeous laments “We’re all going to disappear.” And they do, one by one. Gorgeous becomes fixated on her aunt’s unused wedding dress, Melody on a grand piano that eventually eats her. Sweet is crushed in the gears of a clock, leaving Kung-Fu to watch helplessly as time destroys a friendship. The girls are disappearing literally, but the metaphor is almost heavy-handed: their personal interests are dissolving the bonds between them.

With that in mind, Obayashi’s decision to film the movie as a barely-coherent dreamscape is perfect. As in other great surrealist films, plot threads (such as Mr. Togo, the beloved teacher, rushing to the girls’ rescue) are introduced and forgotten, because the point isn’t moving the plot from point A to point B, but conveying a message. The message here is the intensely romantic notion that youth is fleeting and beautiful, its end tragic and prolonged; that youthful energy disappears into adult cares, which disappear back into youthful energy. Even if you think that’s a hackneyed idea, it’s really hard not to get on board with Obayashi’s manic energy.

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Atari Horrors – Sneak n’ Peek

I’m not sure if I’ll actually turn “Atari Horrors” into a recurring topic here, but I like the idea at the moment. At any rate, I’m starting the show with a show stopper, because U.S. Games’ Sneak n’ Peek is the scariest damn video game ever made.

Who knew that a game of hide and seek could be such a traumatic affair? Just throw in some painfully dissonant music, eerily spartan interiors, and label art that looks like a 2600 recreation of the ending of The Blair Witch Project, and you get the first video game that ever scared me.

And just to prove I’m not delusional, take a look at the game’s manual, which plainly states that it takes place “in and around a spooky old house with a large yard and three weird rooms.”

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