The Mundane Core of the Fantastic

Today I’m going to talk about how most fantastic real-world stories have something normal and mundane at the core of them; reversing the process can enliven your stories and games in interesting ways.

So today I learned about a Corn Belt ghost story that I found rather interesting. The story goes that when going past corn fields at night, one can see pairs of glowing red eyes watching you go by. The stories generally agree that the eyes are low to the ground, definitely red, and that there’s certainly no light around for it to be the eyes of an animal. Given all of this, people generally agree about how creepy the eyes are and that the best course of action is to keep moving and try not to look.

All in all a good story, suitably creepy and rich with the kind of small details that drip from most folklore-grade tales. It’s also got everything we need to figure out what these mysterious and alarming eyes almost certainly actually are. First off, we need to realize that when people talk about how dark it was when they were outside, it isn’t going to be as dark as they remember – if it was, they’d have a light source with them and there wouldn’t be any question of why the eyes are glowing. There’s almost certainly ample ambient light to reflect off an animal’s eyes – particularly if they’re showing color rather than flat white.

So we’re looking for an animal low to the ground, with eyes that shine red in low light, which might find a reason to sit in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere and watch a human going past. Rabbits and foxes both have eyes that shine red; a rabbit might watch you, but the particulars of their eyesight mean that if they’re watching you you’ll have one eye fixed on you. Foxes are low to the ground, and would find the relative cover of a cornfield to be secure enough that they might feel fairly safe – enough so that instead of bolting when a human shows up, they might sit and watch them go by, alert and ready to bolt.

So we’re probably looking at a fox whose shiny red eyes are just out of context and surprising enough to get woven into a ghost story. The other details are the kind of thing that you hear about happening to a family member’s friend or a friend’s distant cousin – something the original teller might even believe they heard about.

So how do you reverse engineer this? It’s easy. Take a look around where you are; think about it as a dilapidated ruin a century from now, with dust and cobwebs obscuring things. Intrepid heroes have just cautiously stepped into the place, ignoring where the weather has ruined anything near an entrance. Let’s say you’ve got a steak knife that you haven’t washed yet on a plate; by this future time the plate is gone, and the knife is resting on the floor; the weather and the remains of your meal have tarnished the blade and given it the look of something used to draw blood and left to dry.

From there, all you need is a childhood story about someone in the general area getting killed, and suddenly where you are right now is the former abode of a killer, who clearly left their (possibly cursed or haunted) murder weapon on the floor before they disappeared. It’s the stuff of which horror stories are crafted, and you can do it with quite literally anything. The hill that’s too damned steep to climb, and so the oak on it is still growing after everything else in the area has been cut down? It’s haunted, or the fair folk claim it, or witches used to dance beneath it and now it’s cursed so that anyone who tries to take it down is likewise cursed. Any unusual terrain feature can be given this treatment – and in a fictional setting, these explanations may well be true!

So do give it a shot – pick a few local bits of terrain that stand out a little as unusual and perhaps a little ominous, and see what kind of story you can craft for why they are the way they are. Who knows, maybe you’ll get to hear your own story told back to you in time as if it were a quiet local truth.

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The Mundane Core of the Fantastic

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