The House at the End of Rosewood Street
The House at the End of Rosewood Street (Rosewood hereafter) is a piece of interactive fiction with the aim of capturing the concept of horror as presented by early Weimar expressionist cinema. In making Rosewood, I attempted to recreate expressionist styles and motifs in the medium of interactive text, and thus I tried to create a sense of horror and otherness which is found in films of that period. To create these feelings in the player, I employed a number of theories applicable to Weimar cinema, and transferred some motifs from certain films that employ it. Rosewood draws on the theories of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic to create an uncomfortable experience as the interactive fiction goes on. It employs some ideas taken from the films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. To start, I will go through a basic overview of the interactive fiction, then move into the influence of the theories mentioned, and finally into how the listed films influenced the making of Rosewood.
Rosewood Street is a small street at the top of a hill in St. Nemo, the quaint suburb of the capitol city of East Carrington. At the very top of the hill is the manor house Rosewood, which was built many years before, and became the namesake of the street. Rosewood has been empty for as long as anyone can remember. The player is a person hired by the residents of Rosewood Street as a newspaper deliverer, a handyperson, and a general odd-jobber about the neighborhood. The player’s job is simply to pick up the newspapers at the corner, go around delivering them to each of the seven residents, and check to see if anything needs to be repaired, or if there is any kind of job about the neighborhood to do.
At the beginning of the interactive fiction, Rosewood is sold to a man by the name of Caius Smythe, unknown to anyone. The player includes him in the round of deliveries like anyone would, though he comes off as uncomfortably flirtatious and obviously very interested in the player. As such, a routine is set up, going around and interacting with each resident, one of which will give the player a job to do which signals the end of the day. The interactive fiction spans seven days, starting on Monday. Alongside the playable portion, is a series of side stories told through the daily newspaper, and there are linked hints at a deeper story within the player’s dreams each night.
Everything is normal up until Thursday, when another house appears on the street. The sudden appearance of the house is unprecedented, but no one pays it any attention. There is an extra paper to deliver and it’s as though the house had always been there. The owner of the tiny Victorian cottage is a bubbly, happy woman named Elisabeth who just doesn’t seem to have any idea about her not being there before. Friday passes without a hitch, but on Saturday, Elisabeth asks the player to repair a broken mirror. This is not out of the ordinary for the player, but the language surrounding the mirror suggests that there is something more to the mirror than can be first seen. But the player fixes the mirror quickly and returns it to Elisabeth, and the day ends.
On Sunday, things take a turn. Everyone is wearing black or dark clothes on Sunday, and the landscape of the street morphs wildly with the storm that is raging. Trees turn into tentacles, grass into a bubbling sea, houses appear misshapen and loom over the player. The hill itself seems steeper, and the entrance to Rosewood is likened to a serpent, ready to swallow the player whole. In addition to that, Elisabeth’s house is missing, though no one would ever make note of this. While delivering newspapers, the player is asked to dinner by Caius, who obviously has other intentions beyond dinner. The player is compelled to accept and cannot end the horrible day without entering the belly of the beast, so to speak.
In doing so, the player finds the day to be Monday again, and it is like the week never happened. It is here that the player realizes that the week will recur until an escape can be found.
The important parts of the interactive fiction can be distilled down into the following: the day-to-day routine, the running newspaper stories and dreams, Caius, the appearance of Elisabeth, and the recursion. These elements are what I used to instill the notions of horror and otherness described by the theories of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic.
Freud’s notion of the uncanny is that feeling we get when something close to home and familiar becomes unfamiliar and exposed. It deals with having something you know and trust to be a particular way suddenly become different. In Rosewood, this is largely represented by the setting up and disruption of a routine. The player is presented with a daily routine of delivering papers from house to house and soliciting requests from residents. When Elisabeth shows up on Thursday, this breaks the routine. It was actually set up so that the player would go to a location in the interactive fiction, thinking it was one person’s house, and instead be presented with a stranger’s house. Then, the routine is reestablished and it seems like Elisabeth will just be another stop on the route, but then she disappears on Sunday. It is possible to be left on Sunday with a fixed mirror that belongs to nobody, as a reminder of the brief influence Elisabeth had on the experience. There is one other element that could be said to be uncanny, but I prefer to place it in the fantastic later, since the intention is more fantastic than it is uncanny.
Kristeva’s idea of the abject is that gut-feeling we get when we encounter something that repulses us. It helps to reaffirm ourselves by understanding what we reject as disgusting. All the while, we are still drawn to the idea, seeking out those things that disturb us, because of our desire to know that we are not those things. I implemented the abject through Caius. There are two things with this. On the surface, Caius’s allure and overt sexuality draws the player in and repulses the player with the strength and suddenness of the attraction. Caius is attractive and described to show that the player is heavily interested in the character, but there is something sinister and dangerous about the man’s intentions. When the player must agree to have dinner (and more) with Caius, there is, I hope, a sense of dread knowing that going with him is akin to dying. Caius is also subtly abject because the subtext of the interactive fiction is that he is a murderer. Through the inference of the newspaper articles, his sudden appearance, and the appearance of Elisabeth, that he is the murderer that the city searches for. In the current version, this is not nearly as highlighted as it should be. Much work still needs to be done with character conversations about each other and about the news so that the player can get a better sense of what is going on in one metanarrative of Rosewood.
Todorov describes the concept of the fantastic as the point in which we hesitate between wondering whether or not something perceived as unusual is real (and must be accepted) or unreal (and must be explained). This moment of hesitation is usually short, but it can take longer depending on how long it takes for a person to make that decision. Once the decision is made, we slip into the uncanny if the perception is considered to be unreal, or into the marvelous (taking at face value what seems to be fantasy) if we decide it is real. Rosewood lives on the bed of the fantastic. Part of the power of interactive fiction is that the player is never quite sure what is going on, and at any time it can change, based on how the player interacts with the space. It is a medium that has an easy time forcing the player into hesitation over the reality of the situation. To employ the fantastic, Rosewood uses a number of techniques, some of which are yet incomplete, but still present in spirit. The first thing is the descriptions of various things. Room descriptions for a number of locations in the interactive fiction change drastically on Sunday. This creates a jarring, sudden realization that something is wrong with the street on that day. This was originally intended to be more subtle. Room descriptions change more slightly from day to day, highlighting the corrupting influence of Caius. With more work, the room descriptions will match the subtle day-to-day changes of the people descriptions.
The descriptions of people (except for three exceptions) change every day in subtle ways. Some of these are just changes in clothing and colors of things, but done in such a way that one would not expect such changes. Some are done so that a character’s outlook on a topic changes drastically from day to day. The intention with the characters is to create a more subtle version of the fantastic, where we can’t be sure that these people are real or not.
Another employment of the fantastic is the appearance of Elisabeth. Although she also represents the uncanny, her appearance must be rationalized before the player can include her on their routine. Then, once the decision has been made, she slips into another form. Then, when Sunday happens, the hesitation is brought up again and Elisabeth must be reevaluated. The recursive nature of the interactive fiction also throws the concept of the whole interactive fiction into question. Why the week resets brings up the idea that the world of the interactive fiction is not real and that something else is going on. This is reinforced by some newspaper stories and the dreams the player has between days. This is even further suggested by the ending of the interactive fiction, which throws in the question of whether the whole of the interactive fiction was imagined or real.
In addition to these three theories of horror, Rosewood was heavily influenced by two films of the Weimar period: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari provided the framing of the story in Rosewood. Underlying a vast amount of veiling, the player can determine from the newspaper stories that the character controlled is stuck in a coma of some kind. Without getting too heavily into the symbolism rife throughout the interactive fiction, the influence of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be seen in that moment when Francis reveals to the listener and the audience that he is a patient in an insane asylum. While this might have been an effort to get past censorship, it creates an effect where we are uncertain how much of the tale is true and how much isn’t. It places the viewer into a state of actively thinking and analyzing the contents of the film. This quality was brought over to Rosewood to help keep the player actively thinking about the story after the interactive fiction has ended. Further, Elisabeth was aesthetically based on Jane’s ghostly look at the beginning of the film.
The influence of Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, is mostly found in the character of Caius, although the film is also one built on the idea of the fantastic, just like Rosewood is. Although Nosferatu from the film and Caius from the interactive fiction look nothing alike, they operate in very similar ways. Caius was conceived basically as if Nosferatu were an incubus, rather than a vampire. The important factor is that Caius exerts an influence of corruption on the neighborhood for the time that he is living there, much like Orlok does on Wisbourg. Additionally, Caius represents what is holding the player in, and is alluring just as Orlok appears to both Hutter and Ellen. In the subtext of Rosewood, Caius is also the murderer of a young woman who loved him, who appears later as Elisabeth. Elisabeth, like Ellen, is Caius’s downfall, providing the player with the means to destroy Caius (the coma) and escape.
Although The House at the End of Rosewood Street is not set in the Weimar period narratively, it still makes a strong attempt at pulling out the expressionist styles of the films of the period and pulling them forward into a modern setting and medium. Rosewood attempts to present a compelling story of mental corruption and decline that mimics films of the period. Above all, it uses the qualities unique to the medium to create a sense of horror and otherness through the application of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic. Although still incomplete, the current version exhibits these notions well as a foundation to build upon towards the final release.
Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. Dri. Robert Weine. Decla Film-Gesselschaft, 1920. Film.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny” From The Uncanny. Trans. D. McLintock. London: Penguin, 2003.
Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Abjection”. From Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. L. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
Nosferatu. Dri. F. W. Murnau. Prana Film, 1922. Film.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic. A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. R. Howard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.