Essays By A Hack: The Human-Shaped Monster
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Brevity is the soul of wit.




Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let's talk about monsters who wear our skin.

Great writing often exists in the space between what we know is true and what we know isn't. Verisimilitude — the 'appearance of being real' — is one key to unlocking that space in your reader's head.

Not all stories need verisimilitude. Indeed, many benefit from their decisive lack of credibility. We don't read stories like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone for their realistic, credible narratives. We read them to experience a world unlike our own. Many SCP articles evoke a similar feeling — giving us an opportunity to explore a universe outside of the ordinary. These articles are fun, rewarding, and their presence enriches the community.

But this essay isn't about them. This essay is about articles that seek to evoke a different feeling — one that leaves us wondering, if for just one moment, whether or not the world we exist in and the one we're reading about aren't one and the same. This essay is about articles that aim to achieve that oh-so-difficult magic trick:

Making your readers briefly forget that your monster isn't real.


What's So Scary About Verisimilitude?

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Aw, look! It's trying to be human! :3

There's this concept in aesthetic principles called the Uncanny Valley. It goes a little something like this:

We react positively to things that approximate human qualities. Kittens standing on their feet? Adorable. Dogs playing poker? Adorable! Robots playing musical instruments? OMG Adorable!!!! We even project these properties on things that don't necessarily have them (see: anthropomorphism).

But there's a point where these things get a little too close. This point lies between being distinguishable from a human and being indistinguishable; the point where you know it's not real, but you can no longer explain precisely why you know it's not real.

Perceiving something that exists in this space produces cognitive dissonance. Our brains frantically search for the thing that's telling us that this isn't real. We enter a deeply uncomfortable state — one where something disturbs us, because even though we know it's not real, we can't quite explain how we know.

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AAAH, LOOK! IT'S TRYING TO BE HUMAN! D:

Why this happens depends on who you ask; understanding the mechanism behind it isn't relevant to this essay. But we do need to understand how this effect relates to horror — and it does so through verisimilitude.

The Uncanny Valley is the space that fantastic horror articles often occupy: That space where they're so close to being possible that readers can't quite put their finger on whatever it is that makes them not possible. The closer your nudge your reader into this space, the more terrified your reader will become. And you approach that space by making it 'feel' real. You get there by increasing your story's verisimilitude.

Compare and Contrast

To illustrate how narrative choices impact verisimilitude, we'll start by comparing two articles that contain similar anomalies but approach these anomalies in a drastically different fashion:

[SCP-024]: Game Show of Death, by SpoonOfEvilSpoonOfEvil, involves a supernatural 'television studio' run by a supernatural host. People who enter the studio can end up trapped in a deeply twisted version of the old American TV show, Double Dare. This eventually results in footage of the show appearing somewhere.

[SCP-2030]: LA U GH IS F UN, by PeppersGhostPeppersGhost involves a supernatural 'host' abducting people and forcing them to perform on a deeply twisted version of the old American TV show, Candid Camera. This eventually results in footage of the show appearing somewhere.

Both skips can be summarized as thus: "A supernatural entity forces people to engage in some sort of disturbing game show, ultimately resulting in a video of the game show's events".

You can abstract this concept even more to get the basic underlying horror trope: "An unknown entity simulates a human activity and/or behavior, but in a manner that deviates from our expectations — resulting in horror."

In other words:

The monster wears a human mask. We can tell it's wearing a mask — but we're not sure why, and we can't quite make out its true face. This terrifies us.


Obscuring Your Anomalies

Let's start by breaking down every anomalous property inherent in SCP-024:

  • An anomalous force expels anyone from the studio who declines to play.
  • An impenetrable, invisible barrier prevents expelled players from re-entering the studio.
  • Studio guardians materialize to deal with players who 'cheat' at the game, then vanish. Players dealt with in this fashion are never seen again.
  • Winners of the game teleport outside the studio with their prize.
  • While playing the game, players are recorded by 'invisible' cameras.
  • While playing the game, players are watched by an 'invisible' audience (who can be seen on the footage that appears after the game is concluded).

Now, let's break down every anomalous property inherent in SCP-2020:

  • Videos of the game show's events appear via unknown means in DVD kiosks, file sharing sites, and other places.
  • After exhuming the graves of participants in the show, it's discovered the bodies are currently missing.

You can argue that the contents of SCP-2020's videos are clearly anomalous, but we have no evidence of this; they could simply be a product of CGI. In fact, SCP-2020's effect is so subtle that there's scarcely any evidence of an anomaly existing at all. This entire anomaly could just be someone screwing with us.

And that's why SCP-2020 'feels' real — how it accomplishes verisimilitude — while SCP-024 feels a bit like the latest Goosebumps novel.

How does SCP-2020 accomplish this trick? Let's look closer.


Obscuring Your Anomaly