Analogue Horror: What Makes It Scary?
Horror as a genre seems to have endless sub-genres branching off in every direction. Whether it’s in the form of literature, film, music (if you don’t know what I mean by horror in music, check out Penderecki’s Threnody, and you’ll see what I’m talking about) or any other medium, everything from body horror to cosmic horror, natural horror to the paranormal, has been explored in various ways and to varying degrees. One of the youngest sub-genres of horror, however, known as analogue horror, is just as terrifying as any of its older brethren.
It could be said that analogue horror first originated from the spirit of the 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. The broadcast was of course fictional — surprisingly, aliens hadn’t actually invaded Earth — but was presented as genuine, and that brand of fiction delivered within a real and somewhat formal format like a radio broadcast is at least one of the hallmarks of more modern analogue horror. An interesting footnote in the sub-genre’s history was the trend of EAS Simulation videos that cropped up all over YouTube in the 2000s, where simulated emergency broadcasts warned of grave scenarios like nuclear attack, monster invasions or threats from space. They were considered a novel way of telling a story, and the videos often did come with their own lore, told cleverly in tandem with the warning.
However, analogue horror really began gaining popularity with the creation of the web-series Local 58, created in 2015 by Kris Straub. Presented as a television station, the channel’s videos included fictional broadcasts of weather warnings, government-issued messages regarding war, as well as a children’s show, all with eerie audio and jumpy, low-quality visuals reminiscent of 70s TV.
In more recent years, other creators have used the springboard of Local 58’s legacy to make their own pieces of analogue horror. Some more famous examples include The Mandela Catalogue, another web series created in 2021 by Alex Kister, presented as a number of VHS tapes documenting the invasion of a seemingly alien species. Another creator by the name of Gooseworx created a fictional infomercial for a drug known as Thalasin, which can allow a human to experience emotions well beyond those with which we’re familiar. The YouTube channel, Mystery Flesh Pit National Park Historic Archives, has a name that perhaps speaks for itself, and one of my personal favourites, made by Alex Casanas, better known as ALEXKANSAS on YouTube, is the video STARRYSPHINX.
While niche, and lacking the kind of scares familiar to us from mainstream horror, in certain circles analogue horror has reached its own level of respectability and popularity. It’s no surprise when considering some of the brilliant work mentioned above — but perhaps you disagree. After all, how can an infomercial be scary? They’re mildly amusing at best, irritating at worst. Perhaps you’ve even given some of the above videos a watch and think sure, they’re slightly unnerving, but scary? And I can concede that maybe ‘scary’ isn’t how everyone would describe these videos, or even this sub-genre as a whole. But allow me to try and convince you.
First of all, understanding what makes analogue horror scary partly requires knowing what analogue horror actually is. That, in turn, means pinning down the specific and necessary components that make it analogue horror as opposed to any other sub-genre. Perhaps the most obvious is the fact that most of these videos seem dated to around the 1970s and 80s, with the audio and visuals being reminiscent of broadcasts and programs of that time period. The government also regularly, but not always, plays a part in the story, often as an antagonistic force involved in a cover-up or dangerous operation. What truly makes this a horror genre, however, is the inclusion of some kind of supernatural or eldritch abomination, something beyond our understanding that threatens to rise up and change the world as we know it — if it hasn’t already.
This aspect of the genre makes it a very close relative to cosmic horror, or Lovecraftian horror. Cosmic horror works on our incomprehension of the world around us, of the unknowable, and analogue horror takes that concept and runs with it in a new way. It offers these unknowns to us through the relative safety of formats we recognise — for example, the mind-bending alterations of the drug Thalasin, shown in an, at first peaceful and disarming, infomercial. It’s disarming because it’s recognisable, and because we recognise it, we consider it to have an air of safety about it. But when it begins devolving into the nightmare that it is, we’re taken by surprise and set on edge. The infiltration of something sinister into something seemingly innocuous is a frightening thing, because it makes us question what we can trust.
The emergency broadcasts about the weather or threat of invasion, like in The Mandela Catalogue or STARRYSPHINX, play off of the same fear. While real broadcasts of this type would be terrifying in their own right, with or without the added story and effects, many of these real threats of natural disasters or war are known to us. Those living in areas prone to tornadoes or earthquakes are familiar with that threat — that doesn’t mean that they’re not frightening, only that they’re a recognisable danger to people in these areas. The same goes for war. While none of us would want to be caught in a warzone, a warning of war or enemy invasion is something we’d expect to see in an emergency broadcast.
So not only do you have the horror of a broadcast warning of sudden and immediate danger, in these videos that danger is also unrecognisable and alien. When The Mandela Catalogue begins its cautionary instructional video on how to spot and thus avoid the shapeshifters known as Alternates, a number of equally horrifying aspects are coming together to make the whole — the fear of the unknown, a hostile alien species, and the dread of the uncanny valley. The first two are also applicable to the videos STARRYSPHINX and LIBERTYLURKER by ALEXKANSAS. Incomprehensible eldritch horrors, hidden beneath our very feet, breaking free from their bonds to wreak the unfathomable on the world.
Some might even say that emergency broadcasts, while mainly a source of fear, actually provide a source of comfort in times of crisis. It’s not surprising that many individuals, and society at large, particularly in a state of panic, would rely on the authority of the government to protect them, or assure them that things will be alright. The instructions given within The Mandela Catalogue are one such example of the government attempting to take control of what seems to be a hopeless situation. So when that video begins to take a turn into sinister territory, as if the enemy itself has infiltrated what appeared to be a safe means of communication between the government and its citizens, it raises that same question I mentioned before — what can we trust?
With regards to the dated audio and visual effects often employed in these videos, it seems that something similar is at play. We all know what 70s television looks like, or have had some kind of encounter with older TV shows and movies. But, again, it’s not something we’re used to. Even those of us who grew up before the era of plasma screen and surround sound will still, by now, only have fleeting memories of what old-school TV was like at the time. It’s a far-off memory for most of the population, something of a bygone age that has no place in the modern world. Seeing what appear to be remnants, old and worn, of that bygone age, warning us of threats from an age much, much older, is chilling in a way that the crisp pictures of today could never be. Perhaps it’s a strange thing to articulate, but age both scares and awes us, and that’s evident throughout much of society.
Of course, as with anything, there needs to be a fine balance to get the scares right in analogue horror. Too much of anything can make it come off as cheesy or overdone, and too little can be unsatisfying. I’ve seen more than my fair share of poorly made analogue horror. But the examples given above, and much more besides, are some of the best in highlighting what really makes this sub-genre something special.
Fear may be the oldest and most primal emotion, but we’ll never stop finding new ways to scare ourselves stupid. Analogue horror illustrates perfectly how something ancient, like that fear of the unknown, can translate into something fresh and reimagined, terrifying enough to rival the biggest box office horrors of the day. So as you’re going about your days and weeks in relative comfort, watching the people around you, and wondering at the world around you, of which you know so little, keep in mind that age-old question — what can you trust?