I visited the Baron this evening. He was well, even pleased to see me this time. As always, however, he kept his face hidden, made sure that a good deal of shadow fell across it. There was the usual small-talk, but at some point during the night, he said this to me.
"H.P. Lovecraft was the first to admit that it's the nameless terrors that carry the real chill, the ones that don't just fire up your imagination, feeding you what you want to hear, but actually disturb you--screwing you up inside and making even the most chronically black-hearted among us crave sunlight and birdsong. The nature of the monster is not merely associated with the unknown, but it is the unknown itself.
We can't help it; it's programmed into us, a handy survival technique. We despise the unknown. It's not instinct. Oh no, that would be getting away too easily. It's actually learned. Think back to your childhood, to your lifespan up to this point. Absolutely everything has been a new experience at one time or other. And so many of those experiences have been glorious, opened new worlds of pleasure and intrigue.
But don't lie: the majority of new experiences have hurt like hell. You have a good reason to detest the unknown, to fear it. We all do. The first experience following birth is the pang of hunger. The first experience following walking is falling down. The first experience following riding a bike is crashing into something. From the time that we emerge from our mothers, we are rigorously trained to anticipate new experiences--and with them--new pain. This is the very essence of horror. You can know only enough to be aware that you do not want to see what undulates behind the curtain. You can't stop it. You know that, too. Experience has taught you well. It is a force of nature. It will come. It always does.
All you can do is remove it.
There are three ways to do this. You can:

1. Flee. Escape. Hide and never look back. This is of course the simplest and most time-honored method of removing the monster. Another thing you can do is to...
2. Fight it. Destroy it without hesitation. Release all that pent-up aggression toward the unknown that you've been accumulating since birth. Crush it utterly and make it small, so small that only your power remains, so that it will now feel what you have felt all this time--the feelings of insignificance and anxiety. It is as though you have traded places with it. If so, watch out or you might...
3. Become it. Up until now, only the monster has held the power to terrify, to control its victims through fear. But you have taken its place. Perhaps you are the monster now, terrifying others, but that is better than being a victim.

But am I talking about reality here, or your games?
Even when all other emotions and acts are affected in the role-playing environment, horror remains the one purest, truest emotion. It is at the moment of horror that reality and role-playing become indistinguishable.
It is our conditioning, you see. Our constant exposure to the unknown, over our lifetimes, conditions us to react to it on an unconscious level. We no longer have to consciously realize that a phenomenon is unknown to us. Instead, the deeper part of our brain carries the reflex, so that a strange noise may give us pause even when engrossed in a particularly stimulating conversation. We freeze because the real person we are, the ocean of awareness behind the mask that we call our self, has been trained to recognize the significance of the unknown. It shuts everything else down, dedicating all the body's and mind's energies to acting to minimize the pain that it has learned comes riding piggyback on the monster.
It is because this process is unconscious that the greater mind (what John Steakley referred to as the "Engine" in his lovely novel "Armor") makes little distinction between fantasy and reality. Any experienced GM relishes this fact. It is this fact that allows fear of the unknown to translate well into literally any imaginable genre. And players love it, especially when they're barely conscious of it, when it slides into them unexpectedly, like a needle that slips through numbed outer flesh to probe at their viscera. The GM doesn't even have to worry about details when he's trying to horrify his players. In fact, often fewer details have a more pronounced effect, as players use their imaginations to fill in gaps in the GM's narrative. It is at points like this in the game that players will invariably behave irrationally, or exchange nervous glances. Horror is contagious, and despite what some may believe, numbers do nothing to decrease the horror, especially of one group member can look at his/her fellows and see that they feel the same level of fear as he/she does. Fights may break out. Player characters may spontaneously attack the nearest target in futile attempts to release the anxiety of their player masters. Some may exhibit signs of compulsive behavior, continuously sorting through their belongings, counting, stalling for time by asking the GM useless questions about each item in their possession. Still others will insist that control can be had by planning. Some will resist such planning, sparking inter-party fights that both release and build different flavors of tension.
Eventually, the GM is simply watching. Little effort is required of him at this point. This is no longer role-playing, but simply a kind of phobic theatre. Life has taught each player well how to fear the unknown, and they are unwinding like released springs, the coils of their arduously wound anxieties popping out in every direction--generally at each other. Suddenly, the monster is upon them, the one that they constructed piece by piece, from fall to hunger, from blindness to burn. They are fleeing, and fighting, and becoming monsters against each other, utilizing every technique that they have learned over time. And the GM smiles, not consciously, but simply because he is both fighting and becoming his own monster, and he instinctively knows that it takes very little effort from him to push the players even further into their frenzy. At this point, the action is in their hands, for after all, his realm is only the game itself, and this is not entirely a game anymore. He needs only to nudge to keep the gruesome top spinning its course into and out of darkness. The players are too busy to even notice.
Finally, at some point, there comes a great purge, a frenzy wherein speech ceases and role-playing has been forgotten, and the player characters--mastered from the  monsters about the table--rush forward to destroy the threat, the unknown, the fear, and thus tear away the curtain for their masters. Finally, you see, the fear has become so great that it can grow no further. It has spawned an age-old exchange, and no matter what lies beyond that curtain, it is nothing. The monster has already been birthed and been ritually slain before anyone noticed what happened.
There will be a bit of talk later, but no celebration. The players and GM (do not think for a moment that the GM is not part of this all) will sort through the details of the game, neaten them like a bed after night's lovemaking, and they will feel good. They will leave with smiles on their faces, because all that lay beyond the curtain--or the game rather--was sunlight and birdsong.
I'm tired now."
I saw myself out of that place, and was glad. I do not know why, but I detest the Baron when he gets like this.


RPG Columnist