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.
Lewis, 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.
That 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.
* 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.