“Now I see, cold, it was them he loved.
Where is he now? Tonight my heart froze.”
-excerpt from “Crust on Fresh Snow” by Rolf Jacobsen
“Winter is coming”
-virtually every character in Game of Thrones
In the winter of 2015 I experienced two life-changing texts that sucked me into enjoying horror as a genre. The first was when I purchased my PlayStation 4 and got Until Dawn on sale with it. The second was when my friends and I saw Krampus in theaters. Until Dawn lured me in with steamy young melodrama and the tease of alpine horror. Krampus felt like a campy “are they serious?” popcorn flick. Over the course of both stories, I saw that easy fun twist and create anxiety that was thrilling to jump at. Both titles are now winter traditions, and I revel in playing & watching them multiple times a year, but never during spring or summer. In fact, it’s only during the colder months that I feel a pull towards horror at all.
These things are true: the world is dark and we are alive. These words start off every scene in Stephen Dewey’s horror game, Ten Candles. For those unfamiliar, Ten Candles is a game of tragic horror, with every character finding their end in the final scene, exploring a darkened world with no sun or stars, and facing off against a nebulous Them who are always coming. You play in a completely darkened room lit only by ten candles which you progressively extinguish through play, and with each light gone, They get stronger. As you play, you also burn aspects of your character, yes literally burn them to ash, lit by candle flame, while you sit at the table. It’s bleak, terrifying, and one of my favorite games ever written.
I’ve played Ten Candles in the spring and summer: once in Chicago visiting friends while our host serenaded us with cosmic metal and made spicy sausage stew, and once on the balcony of a sketchy high rise hotel in St. Louis, MO as a thunderstorm raged and the St. Louis Arch rose above us like a portal to hell. Both games were fun and heavy, but they pale in comparison to playing Ten Candles in winter.
Riverhouse Games is named after a real house on the bank of the Mississippi river just outside of Minneapolis, MN, where I would visit to spend time with close friends and run games. Minnesota winters can be harsh, with windchill hitting 40 degrees below zero and blizzards that take fleets of plows hours or, in some extreme cases, days to fully clear.
“These things are true: the world is dark, and we are alive.” I intoned last year, running Ten Candles for the first time as we sat inside a toasty room in the Riverhouse, with glass windows iced around the edges. The sun had gone down hours ago and the light of the full moon bounced off of the snow which blanketed everything in sight. More than eight inches had dropped over the evening and it was still coming down in muffling clumps. Other than the flow of the river outside, with the occasional creak as chunks of ice cracked into the stone banking, or off of each other, the world lay blanketed in a white silence. A friend’s family owns a small taxidermy business up north, so the room was adorned with odd skulls and bones, centered on a nexus where ten lit candles flickered in the stale warm air of the room. We made our own winter terror, surrounded by set decorations, and staged on the same snow in which our characters would soon die.
I don’t know what it is, but as soon as that first frost hits, I feel a need in my bones to run Ten Candles. Like all roleplaying games, it can have silly moments, the best horror always has a joke here or there to cut the anxiety like a knife and refresh the scene. And, like the other semi-silly titles I enjoy every year, it’s becoming another winter horror tradition and takes its place next to Until Dawn and Krampus. I’ve already played my first game of the season, a one-on-one game after hours at a volunteer bookstore, with the echoes of a reading room holding two people skittered over the flames as the chilled wind blew through the city around us and we made our winter terror tale. I can’t wait until the snow falls (which may be a while still as we hit an uncharacteristically balmy 75 degrees up here while I write this) and I can bust out my tea lights and cackle out “the world is dark, and we are alive.”
What do you think? I’m definitely interested in padding out my roster of frozen fear if you have further recommendations. Do you have any winter terror traditions?