Tales-o-Teror-art – 9/3/06
“To Tell a Tale of Terror - Frightening a modern audience with a medieval mindset.” by H.L. Finnacan Dub.
NOTE: See also the files: Black-Death-art, crime-punish-lnks, punishments-msg, Walking-Dead-art, Bardic-Guide-art, fairy-tales-msg, story-sources-msg, storytelling-art, storytelling2-art, p-stories-msg.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Frightening a modern audience with a medieval mindset.
by H.L. Finnacan Dub
Perhaps the rarest form of entertainment in the SCA is the ghost story, the horror tale and fables of fear and fright. Ghoulish plots and dark settings are only occasionally referred to at bardic gatherings, despite the flavor they add to a performer’s body of work. This handout is a summary of notes based on a lecture intended to encourage entertainers to explore the emotion of fear, especially as a storyteller.
There are a number of modern, or mundane, references in this handout. This is primarily to help familiarize a storyteller with the mechanics of fear and horror so that once the principle ideas are understood, they can be applied to more period and sca-appropriate pieces.
I have addressed many medieval concepts and topics as well, so that the performer can see period subjects within the frame of fear...
What is fear?
Fear is often defined as a genre within the realm of fiction, and not a very admirable genre at that. It should be understood that despite modern genre definitions and notions, fear is an emotion. It raises it’s horrible head in many mainstream and classical works that are not defined as ‘horror’ at all.
If I were to sum up fear in a single phrase, I would say that fear is the concern that normal has gone wrong, or soon will.
Why seek to frighten an audience?
Simply put, because fear is fun. We seek safe outlets to experience fear, such as rollercoasters or movies. Often times, fear can be primary motivation for a story that has a moral. Fear helps to remind us what life must have been like in the past, it challenges us to think about our social mores and it reminds us to treasure the positive things in our life. It inspires wonder, challenges the norm and encourages self examination without lecturing.
Why is it so rare in the SCA?
Though many simply never embrace their ‘inner ghoul’, a number of performers think in only two terms, comedy and tragedy. They want to entertain, enlighten, inspire, soothe or pluck the heartstrings of their audience. It never occurs to them that giving an audience chills might be a welcome change.
However, I believe the primary reason is that fear is the single hardest emotion to illicit. It has been said that comedy is hard. True enough, but most seasoned performers can get a good laugh every now and then. Tragedy is more difficult, but the SCA is a notoriously sentimental crowd and can be touched quite deeply by a performer with the empathy to gauge the mood. Fear, however, even a slight tremor of it, can be extremely difficult to summon. It requires a sincerity on the part of the storyteller that many performers are not comfortable giving. The sensation of losing the interest of a crowd is devastating, so many performers stick with their strengths and never venture into deeper waters. Yet, like comedy or tragedy, fear can be a fantastic form of entertainment if the performer becomes familiar with the many and varied patterns of a horror tale.
Chances are, there are stories in your particular collection that have a horrific element within them that could be given new life simply by focusing on the dread instead of the heroics or the humor.
What is the structure of fear?
Fear is sometimes broken down into two broad categories, horror and terror.
Horror is usually the dread of expectation, the rising comprehension of something deeply disturbing or negative. Terror is usually the fight-or-flight emotion, shrieking panic, shock and startle. Fear can also be described by it’s source or it’s cause.
The most basic fear is the most encompassing of them all, the unknown.
It acts as a qualifier for a number of well-known horrors;
Death - What happens when I die?
Pain - What does that particular pain feel like?
Loss - What if that person or thing was gone?
Invasion - What if I lost control of my property or my body?
The list goes on and on. These fears are found throughout all cultures and all time, especially the Middle Ages.
Death is common enough in horror tales. Consider it’s many guises. Corpses, tombs, ghosts, bones, blood, murderers, executions, the afterlife.
Pain abounds with torture, wounds, predation (like being eaten by wolves or a giant) and emotional suffering.
Loss applies to family members, friends, property, dignity, sanity and ability.
Invasion can be assault, rape, disease and disfigurement.
Fear of isolation is actually loss of company or ability, but that is just the beginning. Volumes more could be said about isolation. As you can see, when you attempt to define fear, the lines can be rather blurry Try and figure out why certain fears work the way they do. This will help guide you in determining the focus of a particular tale.
Subjects and settings
Storytellers have a hoard of horrors to choose from within the medieval timeframe. Ghosts can be found, warning of pride or mourning the dead for too long. Nature brings blizzards and tempests, turning against us when least expected. Monstrous beasts and supernatural creatures haunt the darker corners of the world, such as the deserts, far away countries, the deep seas, even the local forest. Faeries and goblins steal children and torment cattle. Disease sometimes wipes out entire towns as citizens go insane with grief and horror. Religious fanaticism grips whole nations, causing neighbor to turn against neighbor and nations to declare war. Torture and execution are commonplace. Disfigurement and insanity are ignored or worse, shunned. Poverty can strike in a moments notice. Murder, rape and robbery are constant threats. Dark magic ruins crops and spoils food, curses wipe out entire families, demons possess the innocent and Hell awaits the sinful. Despite their many holidays and pleasant pastimes, the people of medieval Europe and beyond could be most gruesome in their art and literature. Some of what they feared was folklore, superstition based on ignorance. Much of it, however, was very real.
You will find recurring themes in most any cultures’ native tales. Heroes overcome or outwit beings most folk would be terrified to encounter. Warnings against sin or being inhospitable to a visitor abound. Monks and saints suffer terrible attentions from the Devil and his host. Seemingly good folk are revealed to be villains of the worst sort.
These common threads can be twisted and combined in original works, or explored by a storyteller in their raw form. Keep an eye out for them and you will soon see them begin to appear in the folktales you examine.
This handout assumes that you are at least somewhat practiced at storytelling and are familiar with projection, timing, movement, inflection and expression. You need to be fairly comfortable performing before concentrating on the following techniques.
The very first thing you need to do is visualize every obvious gimmick and discard them. You don’t want to speak in an overly dramatic fashion or your tale becomes self parody. You aren’t aiming for the “jump-scare” that kids seek in campfire stories. You are attempting to immerse your audience in a place where something is about to go terribly wrong. You are trying for awe, glances over shoulders, silent attention and uncomfortable shuffling.
The first thing I focus on is my own setting. I always aim for darkness. If the weather is stormy, all the better. If you can, avoid brightly lit interior spaces. Shoot instead for a dying campfire or candlelight. Try to avoid any place that has too much residual noise, like nearby drumming circles or loud revels. Silence in human society can be peaceful until disturbed with dark notions. Silence can be rather threatening when you have the creeps.
Darkness, one of our first and most lingering fears, is the mother of the unknown. What was familiar in daylight is now hidden and can only be guessed at. Use that to your advantage.
The next thing you want to do may prove rather difficult for some performers. You want to engage your audience with a relaxing and gentle tone for the first few sentences if you can. Try not to stage yourself away from them on high like a general rousing his troops for battle. Instead, get personal, up close and friendly. It helps establish a trust that you can later destroy with impunity.
This may seem harsh, but remember, this is horror. No one in your story is safe. Anyone could, at any moment, suffer unimaginable things in your plot. The audience needs to be kept blissfully unaware of this until you choose to begin building the suspense.
If you get lucky, they may believe the entire story is simply great dramatic buildup until the gruesome end is revealed.
Another thing you need to keep in mind is sincerity. If you attempt to tell a tale in an overly creepy way, with a theatrical voice and exaggerated movements, you will come across as campy. One example I use for performance is to imagine sitting in a late night coffee shop with a cop who has just finished his shift. During his shift he responded to a call that led to the house of a serial killer, a madman who decorated his house with his victims body parts. What does this cop sound like while telling you this? If he looks up from his coffee, what is his expression? What is his tone like? Where does he struggle with words in the story?
Now, I don’t try to imitate this poor, hypothetical officer of the law, but I do use him as a guide for finding my tone, my voice and my actions. I need to speak with his conviction.
Instead of dismissing horror as dark fantasy with no rules, I strive to tell a story like I would describe a terrible auto accident to a close friend. If a werewolf or a troll is part of that story, all the more reason to have a realistic and sincere tone when describing them.
If you seek to drop fear on your audience, be casual in your cruelty. Be well spoken yet apathetic to the terrors you share with them. Twist endings and unexpected horrors, delivered almost as an afterthought, can hit an audience like a ton of bricks. They will give you their full attention, shocked at how the story has developed and riveted in place to hear further details, ghastly as those details may be.
If you wish them to follow you down the primrose path, look more toward our friend the cop. Struggle to describe the more horrendous events and scenes. Let the audience feel your torment, your loss, your insanity, your rage... whatever it is you seek to impart. They will attempt to empathize with you and thus will hang onto your every word.
Description is important but is often overdone. A narrow forest path, overgrown and dark, can be aptly described in a few well crafted sentences. If modern authors wish to increase suspense, they may take us into the mind of a character about to travel the path, or give us clues to the terrible history of the path and where it leads. Many such techniques can be used as inspiration. Details are nice if they fill in vital pieces of the mental picture, but a storyteller should refrain from attempting to paint the entire picture for the audience. They are far more capable of scaring themselves with their particular interpretation than you will ever be. Give them a path cluttered with dust and stones, narrow and twisted like a snake. Guard the path with leafless tress stretching with agony toward the frowning clouds. Give the scene drama with the wailing of an owl if you must, but let the audience take it from there.
Your Inner Ghoul
Unless you are truly a fan of the macabre, you may want to encourage the more morbid and heartless aspects of your imagination. That is one of the things your imagination does for you. It prepares you for the worst, showing you galleries of terror that usually never come to fruition in reality. It allows you to entertain thoughts you would never act upon and thus becomes a teacher of personal ethics and empathy.
I say this only to those of you who have just discovered an interest in scary stories. True devotees embraced their inner ghoul long ago and nurture it with grinning delight. By the way, never confuse a love of horror with empty angst and social anger. Some of the most cheerful people I’ve ever met were addicted to the creepy side of life.
One of the first things you have to do is find the ghoul within you. Your ghoul is fairly easy to find. He (or she) is that little voice in your head that asks questions and makes wagers with you at the most inconvenient times. Here is a modern example:
While sitting at a stop light in your car, you glance at a rundown little funeral home near the intersection, in time to see the hearse pull into the drive.
Suddenly, your ghoul shows up...
I wonder what the mortician does in his off time. Has the hearse ever run out of gas in the middle of nowhere? Would I help if I saw the hearse on the side of the road? What if the hearse had a “passenger”? What if I was the driver? What if it was night? Halloween night...on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere? Have I paid my cell phone bill? Sound familiar? Get to know that side of you, your morbid meanderings, and explore them. Let them take you beyond the usual clichés and predictabilities in horror. In other words, find your voice and keep polishing it.
The next thing you have to do is feed your ghoul, and most of us know what ghouls love to chew on. Fortunately, there are whole cemeteries of carrion to feast upon, though it helps to have a guide to get you started until you have refined your palate. So grab your library card and make sure you have some bookshelves, because you will eventually want to start your own collection of macabre literature. Let me clarify that these are modern authors chosen to help you get your feet moldy, er...wet. I’ll touch on SCA appropriate material later. You crawl before you walk, you know, though in this case you may scuttle across the floor before you dash out the door screaming.
This is not a complete list by a long shot, just a quick taste of the cream of the crop. These are my suggestions only.
Guy de Maupassant was the most prolific short story writer in history. About thirty-nine of his works are considered horror, and they remain classics to this day, works like “The Horla”, “The Inn” and “Diary of a Madman” just to name a few. If you find a collection of his darker works, grab it and meet an inspiration to future authors.
Everyone knows Poe, but how many of Edgar Allen’s macabre works have you actually read? If the answer is all of them, go back and review.
Ambrose Bierce may be best known for his “Devil’s Dictionary” but he was considered a master of the terror tale for good reason. Ever heard of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”? A number of his works can be found online.
M.R. James is considered by many to be the master of the ghost story, even if “The Turn of the Screw” is his most well-known work. Much of his work is groundbreaking and truly disturbing. He is credited with bringing ghosts into the modern age by many critics. Try to find “A Pleasing Terror” which is probably the most complete of his most classic ghost stories (heads up, there are twelve medieval stories in this collection that James did not write but instead transcribed for the reader).
Algernon Blackwood was called a master by Lovecraft himself. He is an excellent resource in that he not only wrote some of the most frightening stories ever in print, he read them on BBC radio, proving himself a master storyteller.
Howard Philips Lovecraft, called H.P. or Uncle Howie by admirers, is widely considered the father of modern horror. Ask King or Barker or Lumley who influenced them most, and they all point to Providence, Rhode Island. You cannot be a horror fan without knowing at least five of Lovecraft’s stories, nor can you appreciate the many Mythos jokes fans use as therapy after reading his work.
Ramsey Campbell is the M.R. James of his age. If you ever wanted the classic ghost story set realistically in today’s timeframe, Ramsey is your friend. His descriptive skills alone are an education for any wordsmith.
Stephen King is known for his novels, and for good reason, but his short story collections, especially “Night Shift” and “Skeleton Crew” can teach a storyteller how to put a lot of substance and tight suspense into a short story.
Clive Barker is the poet of the horror genre. His “Books of Blood” are filled with single sentences that will scratch at your mind years after reading them. If you want to learn how to hit an audience with a combination of words that they will never forget, Clive can help.
Another valuable source of nourishment is urban legends. Many urban legends have been with us for centuries, simply changing their wardrobe to suit the times. Ghosts seeking a ride have been reported for centuries, as have madmen hiding in houses and foods filled with unsavory ingredients. Getting to know urban legends can train you not only to recognize certain patterns of suspense, but they also are a reliable guide as to how little our basic fears have changed.
Finally, this last piece of advice is to nurture your ghoul, which many people simply refuse to do. They know how to do it, they just won’t. The results are sometimes too intense for people who are highly imaginative. There is a cure for this condition. I know because I once needed curing. The cure is to nurture your inner ghoul anyway, face your fear and conquer it.
Is there a movie that you’ve never seen simply because the premise sounded too intense? Watch it. Listen to creepy music in the dark. Read up on whatever your particular phobia is while alone in the house. Go through haunted attractions at Halloween. Sit around with friends and ask them to honestly share the scariest thing they have heard of, experienced or seen.
Of course, there is always this final option...
You’re an adult and you are mature and reasonable. Light a candle, lock yourself in the bathroom, turn off the light, look into the mirror and start calling for Bloody Mary.
Hey, if she does appear, it’s a great opportunity to see Tudor Era clothing!
There are a few fairly broad topics that should be given consideration when approaching horror, especially with a medieval focus. These are concepts that appear time and again in fearsome tales. They could easily be considered the meat and bloody bones of the subject at hand. They have been with us since time immemorial, and we have always recognized them as having immense control and power over our art and expression.
The Bad Place
This is one of the first things we as children are introduced to as we explore the realm of nightmare. There has always been and there will always be bad places. You may recall a bad neighborhood growing up, or an abandoned church with a terrible reputation. Perhaps it was a crooked old house at the end of the street or a rundown factory infested with vermin.
Some were dangerous, others haunted, others cursed and some even rumored gathering sites for unwholesome folk, like criminals, mad cultists or babbling vagrants. Bad places can be huge, such as counties, cities, even entire nations. Some can be quite intimate, like a grandmother’s attic or the basement of your own home. It’s valuable to recall and contemplate bad places, whether they be truly bad or not, just so you can wrap your imagination around the fears of the human race during the Middle Ages.
One of the most feared and frequently mentioned bad places was the forest. Though it may be right on your doorstep, it was the domain of wolves and bandits, monsters and magic. It could swallow you up so that you never were seen again. It could confuse and disorient you within moments of entering it’s boundaries. It could be traveled for weeks on end with never a clearing in sight. People died in the forest for numerous reasons, none of which consoled the family and friends of the victim. Despite modern ideas that medieval people were folk of hardiness and knowledgeable about the land, the wilderness still remained unconquered by civilization for centuries. Swamps, marshes and bogs fall into this category, as do deserts, mountains and caverns.
Another common bad place is the residence. It is usually defined by who lives within. Evil hags that summoned demons and ate children lived in cottages, while giants and villain knights lived in castles, usually decorated with heads or corpses. Wizards and hermits hid away in narrow towers and squat keeps. Cruel nobles lived in decadent palaces while hateful lords and sheriffs beat their servants in the manor. These are places that can be occupied or abandoned, but they are so distinct in some tales that they become minor characters themselves and play a vital role in the stories they inhabit.
The dead have their own domiciles, of course, and are among the most beloved of bad places in fiction. From hallowed churchyards to weedy potter’s fields, graveyards are the playground of fear. Suicides and unbaptised children lie rotting near the crossroads. Painted and polished bones hang in ossuaries. The poor decay together in pauper’s pits while the saintly lie bedded in catacombs or the charnel house. The beloved lie beneath worshipper’s feet in the church sanctuary, while the damned hang in gibbets or from trees. Also, keep in mind that if the deceased was particularly vile and naughty, their residence in life may now be unpleasant and shunned for good cause.
A few other bad places come to mind, mostly those associated with tragedy or dark times, places like battlefields, dungeons, ship-sinking reefs, rivers and lakes that have claimed drowning victims or flooded towns, hollows and groves where feyfolk gather, abandoned roads and ruins.
It’s a good idea to consider decorating a bad place for the audience just a little, to give it depth and dimension. Consider what season it is when your story occurs. What is the weather like? What animals, birds or insects might be spotted in the vicinity. How would these creatures be acting? What condition is the local vegetation in?
Also, keep in mind that though cold, dark settings with ominous natural symbols can be very effective, truly terrible things have occurred on clear sunny days while birds sang...
Hundreds of ghoulies and ghosties occur within medieval literature, even long-leggity beasties. It’s very easy to locate the perfect villain or monster. A cursory glance at heraldry should prove my point. However, always be sure to research the particular nasty you want to use. You might be surprised just how much of your knowledge on mythical beasts is the result of modern fantasy.
For example, unicorns killed with no hesitation. They were, as symbols of Christ, so pure that anything impure that entered their domain was slain without mercy. The soft manifestation of nature and love it has become is nothing like its original form, which brings us to a vital point.
Some of the most gruesome and horrendous creatures mankind has ever imagined have been remade into cartoonish parodies of their former selves. You, as a storyteller and a historian, are responsible for tracking down their origins and wiping away the glamour.
Trolls, ogres, giants, griffins, dragons, basilisks, werewolves, perytons, manticores, golems and hippogriffs have all received makeovers as time has passed, so that they are robbed of the terror they once inspired. Many of the other creatures mentioned below deserve this attention as well. You may not know vampires and selkies as well as you think you do. There is always something new to learn, and your audience will love you for sharing your discoveries in a story. Relax and enjoy, you will be learning for the rest of your life.
Aside from the famous monsters found in any medieval bestiary, one of the most evil and dangerous foes is another person. Humans have done it all. Their wickedness and cruelty is boundless. Because they are human, they are possible, making them more threatening in a piece of fiction. Even more horrific are the moral issues raised by every human villain.
They force us to ask ourselves what we are capable of. Sociopathic nobles and mad tyrants are easy to find in history. More intriguing yet is the bandit, the cutthroat, the pirate and the necromancer. Thugs inhabit most every hamlet, as do abusive spouses, demented children, lecherous perverts and habitual liars.
Never forget that what one person can do is far more easily accomplished by a group. Be it the ruling family, the local monastery, invaders, guilds or even a character’s fellow villagers, groups of people are far less rational and more easily aroused to extreme acts. They can act with impunity due to their total authority, or they can become waves of destruction as they suffer mass hysteria. Though you may be tempted to recall the Spanish Inquisition, consider also the insane Flagellants or the terrors of the Peasant Rebellion.
Finally, though man may die, he does not always sleep in peace. Though I have mentioned ghosts, you should look into the death beliefs of as many cultures as you can. You will find armies of revenants, spectres, fetches, shades and yes, the dear old vampire. Blood drinkers and flesh eaters, night visitors and harbingers of doom, the dead have never been happy with their lot in ghost stories, though their motives may vary. This is a huge area of research for the truly dedicated. For instance, there are hundreds of blood drinking dead spirits, most with nothing in common with the modern vampire. Be prepared for some long nights with a pot of coffee, there is a lot to read on this subject.
Finally, aside from the restless souls of mankind, there is the spirit realm itself, and all of it’s extraordinary inhabitants. If ever the medieval church gave thorough attention to any subject, it was the cataloging of Heaven and Hell. Every angel, faithful or fallen, was researched and speculated upon by hundreds of clergymen throughout the centuries. Devils and imps, demons and princes of Hell, all were described, given titles and some even their own heraldic arms. Books of demonology appeared, like the white pages of the netherworld, while Dante mapped out the kingdom of Hell in his “Inferno”, The most famous and quoted portion of his “Divine Comedy”. Artists were free to throw all taboos aside when they painted images of Hell and the coming Apocalypse. Exorcism was an accepted practice in the church. Some churches even had narrow devil’s doors on the western wall of the sanctuary so that the unwelcome imp might depart once conquered. Demons were a very fashionable fear, which explains the popularity of the story of Doctor Faustus.
They should have more mention in our bardic circles, if only to teach us to avoid their devious attempts for our souls.
When Satan and his minions weren’t enough to remind the masses of their mortality, Death himself appeared, wearing various disguises or crowned in victory. Armed with an arrow or a scythe, the grinning agent of fate was portrayed as quite enthused in his labors, and he often appeared with helpers. Whether Death worked for God or the Devil, his image was feared and tales of his dedication became popular as the Black Death swept Europe.
Yet even before the rise of Christianity, Europe had a deep memory of it’s dependence on nature and her whims. Though they’ve changed dramatically in their form and character, faeries are found in most every culture in the world, though European fey are the most well known. They were mystery incarnate, the essence of nature itself, the spirits of rocks, trees, flowers and rivers. Though many types of faerie folk can be found, you should be wary of the source. Many modern day definitions of certain faerie “species” belong to the Victorian Era, not the Middle Ages. The one thing to remember about faeries, be they banshees, boggarts, kobolds, cluricauns, pixies, nymphs, selkies, pookas or sirens, is that these beings were dangerous. They were pure passion, flippant and uncaring, mad and selfish. Their love could be eternal, their rage, catastrophic.
Simply put, they were insane. They were the source of most any natural disaster, and oftentimes they sought revenge for offenses no human could grasp. The people of the Middle Ages bore them some slight respect out of fear, not admiration. That kind of approach can put an entirely new spin on familiar folktales.
Keep in mind that the further you go back in your research, the more indistinct certain creatures become. There is an indescribable nature to mythological monsters in the Medieval era, and categorizing them is a fairly modern pastime. Faeries, devils, spirits, ghosts, witches, vampires and revenants all tend to resemble each other in the past, and sometimes have names related to each other. Strigoi is a vampiric term from Eastern Europe, while Strix can mean witch or owl. Stirge can mean both a bird and a vampire, as well as a moth.
I’ve used the term Boogeyman, certainly most people have heard of bogs, or swamps in Northern Europe. Bogens haunt bogs, as do bogles and boggarts. There was little to differentiate these beings other than the details given in a particular tale.
There must be some potential for suffering in any tale of terror. Fear can be found blooming in the concern that suffering is possibly eminent, be it emotional, physical or spiritual. Whether or not actual suffering occurs in your story is not so important as the threat of suffering. In order to deliver or insinuate that threat, you need a clear understanding of what that suffering will be or could be.
Medieval people suffered the same as we do. They reacted to tragedy in the same way. They felt pain and loss and grief and hopelessness the same as we do, often for the same reasons. Yet the occupant of the Middle Ages was threatened with forms of suffering we cannot begin to comprehend. In fact, our inability to completely empathize makes medieval forms of torment all the more horrific. We can only imagine what some of the daily pains of medieval life were like, and our inner ghoul is only too happy to make it as terrible a prospect as possible.
One of the most obvious forms of suffering in the Middle Ages was torture and execution.
Crimes we now punish with hefty fines and misdemeanor charges were enough to warrant mutilation such as branding, the removal of hands, eyes and the tongue. Public flogging and being pilloried was accepted. The rules of evidence not being so refined, many innocents were punished. This only increased when both secular governments and the church began asking for accusations of heresy and witchcraft. Torture with the rack, tongs, water, the boot, the pear, thumbscrews, whips and the strappado were common techniques for both interrogation and pure punishment. Executions occurred in public. Hanging was intended to strangle the victim, not break the neck. Beheading were usually accomplished with a thick axe, as only nobles could expect a skilled swordsman to do the job. Drawing and quartering was the fate of those deemed traitors, while burning was reserved for spiritual crimes. Sometimes, the wheel was employed, the victim broken and woven into the spokes while flesh was torn in chunks from the body. This is just a sampling of the many punitive measures used in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the most dreaded punishment was not a quick, albeit gruesome death, but banishment. Banishment was so extreme that many who were banished committed suicide soon after, risking Hell rather than a slow, lonely death abroad. The banished, usually without wealth or possessions, had to leave the country immediately. He put whomever he encountered at great risk, and so was shunned and driven away wherever he went. He could not risk seeing his children or spouse ever again, he lost all property (which made his family destitute) and he sometimes had to resort to crime to survive. Some banished did indeed become criminals, trying to survive until caught, hopefully to be quickly executed. Some suffering was due to lack of medical knowledge. We cannot blindly accept the modern myth that medieval life was unhealthy. Granted, we know more about nutrition and biochemistry now, yet medieval families tended to take good care of themselves despite their lacking a local MD. They ate whole grains and vegetables, few sugars, lots of fish and poultry, and fruits when in season. They cleaned their teeth and bathed their bodies, washed their clothing and kept their homes tidy for the most part. Yet they suffered gout and infection very easily. Viruses could sweep through a small hamlet in a few days, making everyone sick. Though most are familiar with the Black Death, many never consider what a broken bone or a rotten tooth meant in the Medieval Era. Painfully pulled teeth could break or lead to infection. Broken bones hurt for weeks and rarely set correctly, leading to a handicap that wasn’t easily overcome. A wide spectrum of maladies that we deal with everyday were capable of killing or crippling in those days. Can you begin to imagine surgery in the fourteenth century?
Mental trauma had no succor back then either. Those with learning disabilities or mental handicaps were often sent to monasteries to beg outside the gates with the local leper population. Some were accused of sorcery and tortured, though they had the mental maturity of a four year old. Others were assumed to be demonics and underwent hellish treatment at the hands of good intentioned priests. Their fear and confusion is heartbreaking to consider. Those that were abused and treated as buffoons for entertainment might actually have been the most fortunate of their lot. As for those born with a deformity of some sort, the above applies for many of them as well.
Before I conclude this commentary, let me discuss one particularly infamous aspect of suffering, that being the physical results and how they are presented to the audience.
Let’s discuss gore.
Gore is the redheaded stepchild of horror. Some delight in it, not out of some social dysfunction but simply because they have embraced their fascination with it. Others revile it, unable to even consider a drop of blood without revulsion. Some hate to know of it because they empathize deeply with the victim. Others suffer simple nausea, not wanting to deal with the reality of anatomy.
Gore is so interlinked with horror that many deny themselves quality entertainment and thought provoking fiction simply because they assume that gore will be thrown in their faces for no reason other than shock value.
We cannot completely ignore gore when approaching horror, especially in the SCA. The Middle Ages were rife with stories of suffering like those mentioned above. Yet gore should be handled with caution and care. It must be used sparingly, either to create atmosphere (like crow-ravaged heads decorating London Bridge) or to establish the suffering of a character you wish the audience to identify with (such as the messy beheading of an innocent accused of heresy).
Gore is a description, nothing more. The same rules apply as they do for settings. Choose your adjectives well, hit the audience with one to three well-crafted sentences, and let their minds fill in the blanks. If you linger on the slick and glistening details, the audience will quickly detach themselves from any emotional involvement. In fact, gore can become humorous and outlandish if overdone.
Be subtle, be heartless, be quick about it.
Sources for the SCA
Finding pure horror in period isn’t easily done. Appropriately enough, horror hides in the shadows of the plot, appearing in places we least expect it. Consider one of the classic pieces of English literature, “Beowulf”. All the components of a truly disturbing, almost graphic horror story are to be found in the poem, yet we tend to look more toward the dedication of the hero then the otherworldly fright that permeates this legendary epic.
Few people would describe “Beowulf” as a horror story, yet with the right focus and setting, it can chill an audience to the bone. Ask any Saxon.
Most dedicated storytellers have amassed a decent collection of folklore, or at least have begun to do so. Sifting through these tales, you can uncover rare jewels of fright. Some examples are;
Mr. Fox (the original Bluebeard)
The Shroud (The dead return for their property, “give back my golden arm”, etc.)
Godfather Death (pacts and contracts with cosmic forces best respected)
The list goes on.
One place to find these tales and plenty more like them is “The Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts” site-
A retelling these folktales would certainly be welcome in the SCA, as many are unknown or only vaguely remembered. They are an excellent resource for learning the pace and the feel of stories indented to frighten or scare a medieval audience. Some may appear to be casually written, so that demons and ghosts are almost caricatures, but an in-depth look at these stores will reveal truly horrifying concepts and outcomes. With an empathetic eye and some practice, these dusty old tales can spring to life again in your performance.
Most performers have a deep desire to produce original works as well, an admirable and well-encouraged trait in artists. To that end I’ve also decided to list a few tomes that will help broaden the knowledge of a storyteller bent on fearsome fables. These works will provide both historic stories and detailed information that can be used to flesh out original stories so that they have a firm medieval foundation. These would be books to own if you get the chance. Until then, bring them home from the library. As you can imagine, this is not a complete list by a long shot, but these books contain tons of information to help you get started as well where to look for more material.
“Medieval Ghost Stories” Andrew Jones, editor. Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2001
“Ghosts in the Middle Ages” Jean-Claude Schmitt. University of Chicago Press,1999
“Death and Burial in Medieval England” Christopher Daniel. Routledge Press, 1998
“The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death” John Kelly. Harper-Collins, 2005
“Dark Justice: The History of Punishment and Torture” Karen Farrington. Smithmark Publishers, 1996
“Malleus Maleficarum of Kramer and Sprenger” Montague Summers, Translator. Dover Publications, 1971
“The Encyclopedia of Hell” Miriam Van Scott. St. Martins Griffon, 1999
“Magic in the Middle Ages” Richard Kieckhefer. Cambridge University Press, 1989
“A Field Guide to Demons, Faeries, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits” Carol K. Mack and Dinah Mack. Owl Books, 1999
“Vampire: The Encyclopedia” Matthew Bunson. Thames and Hudson, 1993
As a parting gift let me point out a resource that goes far beyond this handout in exploring just how fear works and how it can be employed by writers and storytellers.
“Stephen King’s Danse Macabre” Stephen King. Berkley Publishing Group, reissue 1997
Enjoy your forays into the realms of nightmare. I leave you with these final words of warning, found carved in the archway of a door to a madman’s private chambers...
“Be bold, be bold, but not too bold,
Lest your heart’s blood should run cold!”
~The Tale of Mr. Fox
Copyright 2005 by Scott Barrett>. <Barrett1 at cox.net>. Reprint and distribution of this work allowed for nonprofit personal use only.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.