October and Halloween is usually what’s associated with the vibe of horror; it’s understandable when you consider the vibe we’ve built up around it. That said, today I’m going to talk a little about the real season for horror games, and why I think winter reigns supreme here.
Winter is the long darkness of the year, when the night can last for a seeming eternity; the bogeymen and nightmares that populate the history of humanity love the dark, and so they should love those long winter nights. It gets cold enough that we need an artificial source of warmth – which, for most of history, has meant having a fire burning, with flames that only serve to make the shadows dance like they’re alive and make any darkness seem all the more impenetrable.
Isolation is an important key in a lot of horror games. Help and safety can’t be reached, resupply is limited, and you know you’re on your own. Winter has all of those key elements – snow makes it harder to travel, the cold threatens to kill if you try to go too far without proper preparation, and the storms and deep darkness mean that you risk getting lost if you’re not slow and careful – luxuries that horror games generally don’t provide. Even the wild animals are more dangerous, with hungry beasts growing lean roaming through the snow.
There’s also the metaphorical and metaphysical parts of winter; winter is when the world is dead. Trees are leafless and look skeletal against the sky. The grass, if any is left, is brown and crunches underfoot. Nothing is willing to move from hiding spots unless they need to, and so the world seems purged of life. Dead things don’t rot in the cold, either, and their smell is less obvious. Dead things that walk are less likely to announce their presence until they loom into view, hands stretched out and frozen into brutal claws.
Things can hide more easily, too; a zombie that’s laying in the snow where it fell can be a nasty surprise when someone slogs by it and feels a frigid hand grab their leg. Translucent ice can have shapes beneath it, drifting along to match anyone on top, until they reach a thin enough spot for something to burst through and try to drag the victim into the depths. Animals may not eat the living dead, but that doesn’t stop some starving wolves from taking advantage of the people being herded by the dead to try for a hot meal.
Sensory cues are there, too; the wind may whistle at gaps any time of year, but only during the winter does it whistle in the trees, as well, and bring a biting chill to anyone who sits to close to the gaps. The cold makes people lethargic, and the shadows moving can play tricks on the mind to make it seem like something’s there when there’s nothing, and to mask something moving.
Everyone builds horror games around Halloween; give the depths of winter a shot, instead, and let the frozen wastes ring with the terrified screams of the PCs.