Knightmare, My Life in Horror
Images play a big part in my memory. Owing to some peculiar quirk of input, experience and -possibly- genetics, my imagination has developed in a highly sensory -and, indeed, sensual- manner:
Visions and half-dreams recur constantly; flashes of childhood comics and cartoons, dreams and nightmares experienced in the crib. All extremely visual in nature; a cinema or theatre behind my eyes. The same is true of sound, scent and taste; with little effort, I can conjure whole scenarios of such immersion, they often intrude upon or eclipse waking reality (a penchant that became a sincere problem during childhood).
Certain images have taken on symbolic freight, searing themselves into my mind, elaborating and evolving over time.
One such example derives from an old UK children’s TV show; a work of such incredible invention and scope for the era, it leaves one incredulous that it ever occurred. I don’t know when I first consciously experienced the image; only that I can’t have been very old, barely born, in fact. Also, that I couldn’t divorce myself from the image for the longest time: It obsessed me, rattling around my infantile head, cultivating a paranoid uncertainty whether I experienced it directly or imagined it (bearing in mind, the media landscape of the late 1980s/early 1990s was a very different place; the internet did not exist and even the phenomena of home-computing was in its infancy. Often, media we experienced on broadcast TV was lost to us, especially if we didn’t happen to catch its title).
The image in question consisted of a spartan stone room, as in an old castle or underground temple, two arches on its far wall providing the only means of entrance or exit. Even in memory, it was clear that the strange room wasn’t a real space but some confection of TV wizardry. Something about its rendering on the screen leant it an uncanny quality, a place that couldn’t exist, and yet in which a real person stood; a boy much older than myself, blindfolded by a horned helmet and carrying an old leather satchel.
The left-hand archway was partially collapsed, blocked by debris, suggesting that the room belonged to an ancient and ruinous complex. As the boy made his way across the open space, a gigantic snake -a real-life python or constrictor- slowly slithered from the debris-blocked doorway, making its way towards the hapless explorer.
For the longest time, I had no idea where the image derived from. I knew that I experienced it very early in my development, before I even had the capacity to place such things in context. Something about the image fascinated me and contributed to my blossoming into consciousness.
For what felt like years after -but was more likely no more than months-, I mentally gnawed on the image like something caught between my teeth. I couldn’t ignore or let it go, spoke about it to friends, recreated it in drawings with pencil and crayon, but came no closer to its source.
Whilst such things are impossible to objectively discern -objectivity as a concept having even less meaning when applied to our own states of mind-, I would hypothesise that it -along with numerous similar examples- contributed to the development of my imagination along certain lines:
The innate mystery, the subtext of mythology or unspoken history seething beneath the image, came to shape my own fantasies and fascinations (often, my imagination sought out “gaps” in media; cracks and recesses into which it could seep and cultivate its own inspirations. I have no doubt that this is where the earliest elements of storytelling percolated as the chemical elements of life coalesced in primordial oceans. Not merely from the image itself, but from the process of attempting to contextualise it).
Later, the mystery solved itself, as I happened across an advert for the show’s second season:
The fantasy adventure game show, Knightmare.
For those unfamiliar, Knightmare was a grandiose experiment that served as a precursor to virtual reality technology:
Consisting of a virtual “dungeon” through which teams of adolescent advisors guided their unseeing “dungeoneer,” the show married Dungeons and Dragons style role-play to horror elements and numerous physical and mental puzzles. Each “quest” usually involved the search for a specific magical item, sub-divided into smaller narratives involving the various monsters, traps and characters encountered. Tension derived from the limited time teams had to linger in any given room or complete their quests (as the dungeoneers quested, their “life-force” -represented by a grizzly computer-generated animation in which a knight’s face gradually peeled away to reveal a skull- diminished, requiring them to replenish it by seeking out food or rejuvenating spells. Likewise, in any given chamber, should they linger overlong, distressing chords of music would sound as something monstrous approached to claim them).
Revolutionary both in terms of technology and storytelling, the show earned numerous awards and accolades during its eight season run, as well as a reputation for being a ruthless gauntlet (winners were infamously scarce, numbering less than one per season).
Viewing the show again, recognising other rooms, images and strains of music from my original encounter, was a revelation. I distinctly recall that sensation of consciousness expanding, doors of perception blowing wide as a mystery that had defined much of my early life solved itself. The image wasn’t the residue of some infantile nightmare, rather one of the many chambers from Knightmare’s earliest seasons (an easy challenge in which the dungeoneers had to run to the exit before the uncoiling snake blocked their path).
Perhaps as a result of that association, Knightmare became my favourite TV show as a boy, its Autumnal broadcasts anticipated and relished from year to year.
Beyond that fascination, the show exhibited any number of qualities that imprinted upon my developing imagination, the already keen obsession with stories and media that would become the defining factor of my life:
Not merely some technical exercise or myopic game show, the program took pains to weave its foibles and limitations into a suggested mythology: The conceit of having the dungeoneer blinded by a helmet was explained as a magical safety device: the show’s charismatic host, Treguard, explaining that the “Dungeon Dimensions” beneath his castle do not exist in reality, but that the illusion is often cruel, not to mention dangerous to those exposed to it.
Likewise, the Dungeon itself provided a fascinating example of a synthetic and malleable reality: Treguard -as well as various Dungeon denizens- described the environment as a magical condition that operated according to its own particular rules; expanding, altering and reshaping itself on a whim (the final episodes of each season often involved the Dungeon collapsing and recreating itself, to explain the new chambers and challenges that would occur in the following seasons).
That notion of a kaleidoscopic world, reality that could shift and alter state based on metaphysical mechanisms, is one I would adopt and obsess over in my own fiction in years to come (almost every story I’ve ever written incorporates it in some way).
Likewise, the lack of distinction between illusion and reality the show insisted upon to maintain its atmosphere became a concept that coloured not only my imaginative life, but the waking too; a Baudrillardian notion that would find wider expression in later popular cinema such as The Matrix etc. Whilst Tregaurd would endlessly describe the Dungeon Dimensions as “illusion,” he also treated events within the state as though they were of dire import, the “game” around which the show centered having some mythological significance that was never made clear. In effect, the “illusory” reality of the Dungeon may as well have been its own state; as meaningful and significant as the waking one beyond the TV screen (arguably even moreso, given the arbitrariness and chaos of the latter).
This phenomena would only swell and become more acute as I grew and became exposed to more and more in the way of media:
Video games, being a format in their infancy, provided endless fodder. One of the very first I ever played, Core Design’s side-scrolling action adventure, Wolf Child, in particular becoming a focal point for imagination that hadn’t yet learned the limits and restrictions of waking reality:
Having no concept of technical limitation, it seemed perfectly obvious to me that we, as the player, should be able to explore the illusory depths in the game’s backgrounds. It didn’t occur to me at the time that those spaces did not exist outside of my imagination, and were thus unreachable.
But that limitation became a profound source of inspiration:
Not being able to directly reach or explore those environments, I began to fill them with my own mental landscapes and dream-entities; a quality that the escalating sophistication of video games slowly withers in their audience, as -more and more- the limits on environment and exploration dissolve. It is now the case that video games have reached such a level of technical sophistication, the places previously only reachable through imagination are provided wholesale. “Open world” games in particular operate within parameters so vast, they may as well not exist (their arguable apex currently existing in From Software’s legendary Elden Ring).
This phenomena became part and parcel of how I engaged with media as a child:
Cartoons, comic books, video games, toy lines…all expanded and became fodder for grander ideas and narratives beyond the screen or prescribed mythologies. Many of the first stories I ever conceived derived from games played either by myself or with other children, in which narratives evolved from spontaneous ideas and images, acted out either with plastic action figures or nothing at all. That engagement with fantasy became an essential expression as I grew; part and parcel of the mechanisms by which I operate in and filter the world. Even today, my state of mind relies upon that regular exercise, even if what I produce isn’t publishable or marketable in a commodified sense. It’s no exaggeration to say: Without that capacity, I would not be alive now, nor would I regard life as particularly worth the living.
All of this derived from that original impression; the image that haunted my earliest years and remains the subject of sincere fascination.
Of such experiences are the tapestries and mythologies of our lives spun; more sacred, in any honest sense of the term, than any prescribed text, anything enshrined or imposed upon us, for having derived from within, idiosyncratic in ways that render them difficult to communicate, save in the vaguest, most allegorical terms.