Setting appropriate horror stories.

Seeing as Halloween is approaching, I have been thinking about ways to add horror elements/adventures to Ars Magica. In particular, I am looking at ways to craft horror with themes that fit the setting. I just figure Ill throw out my thoughts on different genres of horror set in 13th century Europe and see what sticks. I would love to hear any thoughts on what I have here, genres that I missed, ideas on ways to implement horror in Ars, or just stories of past attempts.

Some ideas that do not usually work well:

-Zombies. The central concept behind the modern idea of zombies is fear of overcrowding and rampant consumerism. The cannibalism angle still works, but the rest of it falls flat without modern context.

-Eldritch horrors. Lovecraft's classics were born out of the realization of our cosmic insignificance and fear of just how much more our relative importance might shrink as scientific understanding advanced. These are just not concerns that fit in the Medieval worldview.

-Serial/psycho Killers. An unstoppable ax wielding psychopath seems likely to earn himself a title and some land, not spend his time stalking around teenage house parties. By the time you finish twisting such a character enough to make sense, he will usually be firmly inside the "monster" category (see below).

-Ghosts or Demonic horror. These dont really have much impact on modern audiences unless they stray well into another field, such as monster/creature horror. These would be classic horror fodder for the time period, but keeping your modern audience awake can be a challenge.

Some ideas that could work with some minor changes:

-Murderous hillbillies. Not enough urban population to make this work. Being surrounded by illiterate farmers with vertical family trees is entirely normal and unlikely to cause any sort of particular fear. However, other cultural divides could be used very well. In fact, we are still centuries away from concepts like cultural relativity and celebration of diversity. People who have different customs/religion/language are probably no better than slavering monsters anyway.

Some ideas that could work well:

-Monsters. In fact, these are even more credulous in the 13th century. We already have books full of crazy monsters, large and small, that could be great antagonists. No need to really hash this out much more. However, when making a conversion from modern monster/creature horror it might be worthwhile to downplay the hubris element that is so prominent in modern books/movies. It isnt necessarily people's fault that a monster is after them, it just happens because nature is dangerous and cruel.

-Body horror. Fears of infection and mutilation are pretty universal. The 13th century is a time when amputations are common, demons literally live inside people's heads, and lepers walk the countryside. You might need to crank it up to 11 in order to move the concept out of the everyday and into horror territory.

-Existential horror. The word "existentialism" may not be invented for centuries, but many of the themes are quite applicable. Old standbys, like the terror of slowly loosing ones mind, should work quite well. The setting also offers potential to take this in some new directions. I imagine that an aging lord without a male child, or an excommunicated crusader might experience terror that could be a bit different from what us 21st century spacemen are used to.

What you term "body horrors" are a ripe source for stories. A Verditius or Craft Magician whose necromantic power stems from taxidermy could create a menagerie of fleshy nightmares. A few game sessions taking place within a leper colony offer both a gross visceral setting and a chance to find humanity beneath the corrupted bodies. It always struck me that the healing ritual enabling a lost limb to be re attached --but only if you have the original limb-- was a good premise for a macabre comedy, searching for your missing arm amid a battlefield full of amputees. Maybe some of the severed limbs have a mind of their own.

The "fear of radiation and mutation" films from the 1950s actually work really well as stories about warping for companions and grogs. From a narrative standpoint magi suffer warping in place of aging; it's usually the warping that cripples and kills. But aura warping is much creepier for mundane coven-folk as they become increasingly bizarre and twisted. If you give the warping effects a theme, like robbing a grog of what she holds most dear, or creating unnatural appetites, the atmosphere becomes stifling pretty quickly. As a fan of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," I can imagine that plot playing out with faerie doubles or Criamon Adulterations gradually replacing everyone around you.

I disagree with you a bit about the psycho killer/ "house in the woods" scenarios. I think these work very well for medieval times. The first part of Beowolf is essentially a locked night-house from which, one by one, warriors are taken by an unseen killer. Abandoned winter covenants make great settings for "The Shining" type stories with a twilight maddened arch mage as an antagonist. And a regio that you can only exit on the full moon furnishes a claustrophobic battleground where your party can be divided up and attacked.

I am stealing this, but switching out The Shining for The Thing. Seemingly twilight mad Archmage insists that someone in the covenant has a demon hiding inside them. The night before the annual Aegis casting his body is found in little pieces all over his lab.

I'll briefly note that Against the Dark has a whole chapter on this topic, by virtue of its Transylvanian theme.

I've had success with Faerie horror. 5th edition Faeries are very meta, and so they lend themselves well to horror stories in which characters play out well known tropes. Many Faeries are downright creepy and strange. The Man in Black with a Sack on his Back is, for example, a perfect protagonist for a horror story.

I'll also recommend making the horror story for Grogs, companions, and apprentices. I'm not saying you can't do a magi horror story, because of course you can. But it's harder and the other types of stories give you some experience and allow you to earn your sea legs. Indeed, alternate characters allow things which are particular to the horror genre: when players have Grogs, they feel the disposable nature of the character as an increased sense of risk and mortality. Apprentices, usually children, allow you tell wonderful horror stories that an adult would be out place in. You can combine these; begin the session with Grogs, then the horror menace kills them all in gory ways in the first hour, and then the companions come in to pick up the pieces. Run your horror game when the magi are away at Tribunal and the covenant isolated in bad weather. Covenants make great Haunted Houses.

Have you, by any chance, read "Against the Dark: Transylvania Tribunal" yet?

It has a lot of neat ideas for running horror-themed stories using Ars Magica 5E.

I'd argue that demonic horror is doable, if you take it down the psychological horror/corruption angle. More Angel Heart than Evil Dead, for example. You'd have to really tweak what demons are capable of, though. Although I'd argue its do-able if you emphasize the setup of the conflict by way of the demon blowing lots of confidence points (and gaining them back, then blowing them again) at the beginning to overcome their innate flaws.

To be fair though - my magi now greets any new issue with a high-level DEO and an Infernal-only PeVi dispel effect, just to start things out.

Divine Horror might work, if you want to go the Supernatural "war in heaven" or Prophecy angle.

In one of the early Ars campaigns I was in, we played only semi frequently, but one thing we tried to do every year was a Halloween horror type story. Faeries featured heavily in more than one story, the ghuuls of eastern faerie beliefs.

Flesh eating monsters, Arabian Nights, body swapping, and indestructible monsters (until you found their weakness) were a part of it. We did two major stories involving the ghuuls, so we even had a sequel.

Another Halloween themed was about ancient mummy (and magical society) curses, and the cool thing is, even though we resolved that, it had a legacy affect in the later ghuul stories.

But the things we find horrifying today largely resonate with medieval times, the difference is their coping mechanisms might be entirely different. One of the most basic themes of horror (regardless of genre) really is the ancient mystical world intruding upon the sterile modern world. What does one side have? Ancient monsters. What does the other side have? Guns and science. Guns for the offense, science for the logic and resoning to make the guns work well enough, because initially the guns rarely work. But with a little research and logical application you can weaponise the ancient monster's weaknesses. In a medieval setting though, the people will respond smarter from the start, because they don't have to get over the hurdle of disbelief, and they might already know pretty well what they need to fight back.

I would agree, the Transylvanian tribunal book has some notes on horror adventures.

A good D&D 3.5 supplement is "Heroes of Horror", one of the few I wish I hadn't sold of my old 3.5 collection.