Thursday 13 August 2015

Nostalgic for Nightmares: Funny Animals and Creeping Horror in The Night of The Rabbit

Today's post is a submission for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table feature. This month's theme is "Nostalgia".

Copyright Daedalic Games 2013
I was listening to an audiobook of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows last night (hat tip to Librivox) and I did so with some actual trepidation. Why? I associate Grahame's book, as well as its Disney adaptation, with my many odd and overwhelming childhood fears sprung from children's books and films (including, for example, the concept of eternity--I'm looking at you, The Neverending Story). As a result, I've never actually read the original text. But I took my shuddering discomfort with Mr. Toad in hand (ear?) and gave the book's first two chapters a try.

While I was listening, I was reminded (in a somewhat backwards fashion) of Daedalic Games' The Night of the Rabbit, a 2013 point and click adventure game written by Matthias Kempke. The game follows the adventures of Jerry Hazelnut, a human boy and wannabe magician, who is soon apprenticed to the rabbit of the title, the mysterious Marquis de Hoto. Jerry is tasked to save Mousewood, a village of tiny, anthropomorphic animals (and probably also to save the fabric of reality). The Night of the Rabbit is clearly indebted to many Funny Animal stories, including Beatrix Potter's work and Grahame's book. There are adorable mammals in waistcoats all over the place. There's a frog postman on a bicycle, for God's sake.

But one of the several things The Night of the Rabbit is spectacularly good at is capturing the creeping horror children are so similarly good at finding in children's fiction. Underlying the beautifully illustrated world of the game is a real. growing menace that infects the beauty of Mousewood. The threats in the game are kept very shadowy at first and their reveals creep into the narrative. We hear of another magician, The Great Zaroff, whose posters, tacked up around the village and surrounding environs, exhibit a threatening stare. We eventually meet creepy lizards wearing wooden human faces who talk of modern progress and promise to be "the solution" for the village. It's unsettling and it's meant to be. And best of all, the unnerving mix of cheeriness and creepiness, to my eyes, feels so very similar to the feelings I had as a child of reading a book or watching a movie intended for children (often colourful, often sweet) and seizing on a particular concept to have nightmares about for weeks.

Most of these texts, like The Night of the Rabbit, had explicit threats, too: Mr. McGregor in The Tale of Peter Rabbit or the weasels (I think?) in The Wind in the Willows. But the particular talent of children is to find horror in the seemingly innocent parts and characters of these stories: say, the incongruities of size and human presence in Grahame's book, or my own fear of the Caterpillar in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. These personally-mined fears often have the most lasting power in our imaginations: I can list a small collection of excellent family films I wouldn't watch today if you paid me. Though you could certainly make an offer.

But sometimes these fears turn into fascinations--things we long for, things we miss. I distinctly remember being terrified of the movie Labyrinth after seeing it once, then trying to watch it a few years later with the hope of overcoming my aversion. Instead, I found other things from the film to obsessively worry about and it wasn't until my teen years that I watched the film for a third time and my childhood fear of David Bowie turned into consuming lust -- but that's really a topic for another post.

The Night of the Rabbit weaves the creepy and the antiquatedly adorable to produce that feeling of fearing the things you're not supposed to fear, things an adult might wave away as silly. If T.S. Eliot will show you fear in a handful of dust, Matthias Kempke will show you the fear waiting behind each beautifully painted, seemingly idyllic scene in Mousewood. He'll remind you how you once saw these things.

For me, one of The Night of the Rabbit's many successes is its ability to leverage our nostalgia for childhood nightmares. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go hide under a blanket.

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