Working Nights

There’s a subset of indie horror game I’m a bit in love with. The mundane job gone wrong story. Especially ones where you are working alone, and at night. Kyle Horwood’s fantastic Security Booth was the game that first crystalized it for me, and that was quickly followed by DopplerGhost’s late-night Garbage Truck game Cleaning Redville. Since then I’ve encountered plenty of examples, and they nearly always provide me with that bittersweet personal nostalgia.

You see, I worked as a hotel night porter for a few years. Most weeknights were eerily quiet, and you were just waiting for something bad to happen because that’s where the mind wanders when the tasks are all done and you’re wandering an empty, dimly-lit lobby. The owner was a Conservative MP, and one day they (with their insightful knowledge of how the population behaves) thought I’d be absolutely fine on my own at weekends. That’d be great if our weekend clientele at the time wasn’t almost exclusively stag and hen dos. Oh, and I had to tend the bar as well as keep the lobby open, so you can imagine the fun I had at 4 am on a Sunday morning when the drunkest people known to man stumbled in and demanded more booze because the owner told them the bar was open ALL NIGHT. 

Me, then a skinny rake of a man, tired as fuck, having to tell some drunk beefy lads with tempers shorter than their IQ numbers that it was time to close up at 6 am must have been quite the sight. A situation that existed because in the infinite wisdom of my overseer, a family not here for sordid last-minute flings and regret happened to be placed in a room that was directly above the decking outside the bar that was used as a smoking area. And yes, they were a bit miffed at being kept up by a bunch of sentient Spam cans talking loudly outside and discussing conquests in explicit detail. Jack Torrance doesn’t know how lucky he was to just have pervy ghosts hassling him.

I know mining trauma is a hot commodity for internet articles (AI can’t take that from us! Right?), so I promise this is just a low-level addition to that pile. Just one more wafer-thin shoegaze. That job came after a frankly horrendous spell as a pub manager where the higher-ups were experts in gaslighting, so to get it all over again was not the forward step I’d hoped for. It was the last customer-facing job I had. As frustrating as being a freelance writer in this day and age can be, I’d take it several times over dealing with the general public in face-to-face encounters. Hell, I’d rather be just a stay-at-home dad with no personal income if that’s how the dice rolled.

Horror makes for a great bedfellow when trying to work through such things because there is a distance to participating in someone else’s isolated worklife. I recently watched two films that used that quite well, with differing quality. Open 24 Hours was, aside from its serial killer angle, a microcosm of how unpleasant customer-facing jobs can be, especially those that exist during the unwaking hours. The film is a tad middling overall, but that truck stop was its strength.

Then there was Enys Men. Mark Jenkins’ folk horror follow-up to his cult hit Bait. Set on an isolated island, a woman is doing daily reports on a strange flower and the only landmark outside her salt-battered house is an ominous rock on the hill. It’s a strange, hypnotic film that captured the isolation of the situation. Then by some coincidence, I then played the console release of No One Lives Under the Lighthouse. Different directions for the horror in each, but both have a similar central setup.

The opening moments of No One Lives Under the Lighthouse really sell the mood. The PSX visuals’ ability to be unsettling is used to perfection. And there’s a beautiful dread weight to it right from the off. All you do in that opening segment is a few tasks revolving around the upkeep of the lighthouse on your new island home, but there’s still an ominous feeling there. I was almost sad when it changed gears and revealed its true nature. Only a little though because it’s still a fab game.

The tipping point for writing about this was playing the short itch.io gem Graveyard Duty by FarlontJosh. It sees a protagonist receive a letter to start a new job looking after a cemetery. Upon arriving at the job they still aren’t sure they applied for, a set of rules have been left that doesn’t exactly instill confidence in this being a quiet job. The dead are restless in this graveyard, but in true customer-facing horror, your task is simply to appease their oddly incessant demands.

It’s probably the ultimate form of this brand of horror, because if you did choose to walk away from the shitty, soul-sapping job, you’d at best end up permanently haunted in a traditional sense. And those of us who have endured and survived the terrors of catering to the general public will tell you the only haunting should be from the guy off his head on a drug cocktail that threatened to murder you for not serving him breakfast at 4 am on a Sunday.

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