Eyes Open

on horror, love, and slowing down time

Eyes Open
(Immortality spoilers in the fourth section. You can skip it and it’ll still make sense. Also this is absolutely the last time I’m going to write about this game for my Substack. I think.)

I was lying in bed last night, drifting off to sleep, when a sudden thought occurred to me: everything I've been writing recently is about nostalgia.

Honestly, it's invading everything, this longing for the past in a way that is mildly embarrassing now that I think about it. I do understand why, though. The last few years have been turbulent, mostly due to the monumental deconstruction of my faith. I don't know what to believe anymore. When I hit a crisis, it feels like I'm plummeting without a safety net.

So I seek comfort where I can find it. At the moment, I find it in things that used to be significant to me. Video games and books and TV shows. Revisiting old stuff is sinking into a hot bath when your muscles ache. Temporary, blissful relief.

But I can't wallow in the past forever. Right? At some point, I need to pull the plug out and start thinking about the future (or, at the very least, the present). In an attempt to drag my head back into the moment, I've been trying some stuff. Yoga, most days. Reading new books, playing new games. Forcing myself out of my pyjamas to visit my friends.

I'm trying to figure it out. How to live in this present moment without becoming overwhelmed, how to enjoy myself while I'm freefalling.

I've been working my way through all the books I've been putting off reading. One of these is the Blood on the Tracks graphic novel series by Shuzo Oshimi. (We watched a brilliant video about this by Super Eyepatch Wolf, and you should watch it too.) I know you're supposed to linger on graphic novels, but I can't help but fly through them; I devoured these in the same way I decimate a family-sized bag of Sea Salt and Crushed Black Peppercorn Kettle Chips (which is why we can't have them in the house anymore). Manga is an expensive hobby for speed readers.

Blood on the Tracks follows the strange relationship between a teenage boy, Seichii, and his mother, Seiko. From the start, you can tell something isn't quite right. Seiko is extremely overprotective of her boy, almost suffocatingly so. She's just a little bit too close. And when Seichii's cousin, Shige, plays a prank on Seichii during a family hike, Seiko retaliates in an unexpectedly violent way: she shoves her nephew over the edge of a cliff.

The horror of this moment is only experienced by poor Seichii. As she turns slowly to face him, we see Seichii's utter shock as he tries to process it. In a split second, his mother has warped from something familiar to something monstrous. As the family recovers Shige, rushing him into intensive care, Seichii buckles under the weight of their horrific secret. His response is physical: you can almost sense him vibrating under the pressure.

What gets me the most about this series - besides the slightly-too-open mouths, which are horrible in their own way - is the eyes. Oshimi manages to convey so much in the eyes. Seiko's blank, empty gaze, her sudden rages. Seichii's trembling full-body angst. I linger on the eyes (whether they’re looking at me or each other) because I find them mesmerising and painful. It feels like I'm intruding on some private horror that I shouldn't be a witness to. Seichii often makes eye contact with the reader; it’s like he’s trying to reach out of the book, silently begging for help. It struck me as unusual, how many panels are dedicated to just his eyes.

No matter how breathtakingly beautiful video games are or how minute in detail the human characters become, there's always something missing behind the eyes, at least for me. The soul, maybe. We're getting into spiritual territory here, which is a minefield for me, but I genuinely think something in human eyes can't be replicated. There's a reason why AI humans look so terrifying, and it's not just the absurd number of fingers. It's the lifelessness in their eyes, the lack of light.

(Admittedly, the fingers are dreadful.)

Maybe something about a human transmits through the eyes. 'The eyes are the window to the soul,’ that's the quote, right? Is it Shakespeare or the Bible? (That sounds like the name of a really specific quiz show. The answer is kind of both.)

This has got me thinking about eye contact in general. When I was younger, I couldn't work it out. I was so shy that allowing people to look directly at my eyeballs seemed too much; it felt like giving something away that I wasn't prepared to let go of. Now that I'm older I find it easier, but I still don't really get what the etiquette is. Too little eye contact makes you look nervous and uneasy, too much makes you look like a psychopath.

I have found (since picking up Blood on the Tracks and subsequently overthinking things) that eye contact is a bit like breathing. You just do it until you start thinking about it, and then suddenly, you can't do it naturally anymore. I find myself wondering about it while I'm talking to people. I'll look a friend directly in the eye while we talk, and then they'll look away, and then they'll look at me, and I'll look away, and all the time I'm wondering if this is normal, this strange eye contact dance, this unspoken extra element of the conversation.

It doesn't worry me, because most people in my life are kindly tolerant of my awkwardness. It's just interesting. There are a bunch of studies about the power of lingering eye contact I’ve been skimming through recently. A Japanese study in 2016 suggests that eye contact drains our cognitive processes, making it difficult to concentrate if someone looks directly into our eyes. So I guess it’s not just me.

Prolonged eye contact with the viewer/reader, in any kind of media, is fairly unusual and works really well in horror. It confounds the mind, making it harder to make rational decisions. I was reminded of this when I played Immortality. When The Other appears, she makes a point of looking at the player, because she’s appealing directly to you, as a person. Trying to tell her story, to connect with humanity in a way that has eluded her so far.

Sometimes this is heartbreaking. Other times it’s horrifying. Like the mother in Blood on the Tracks, The Other can change in a heartbeat, depending on which clips you stumble upon; one minute a lament, the next a dangerous smile. Either way, it becomes hard to break that eye contact. Her eyes hold you in place, keep you captive until she’s finished what she’s trying to say. It’s an unbelievably intense performance. It’s raw, vulnerable, her heart held out on a platter. And you’re kind of scared of her, but you can’t help but look back at her even if it feels like too much.

I found another study about eye contact. Participants were divided into pairs (of the opposite sex; I’m not sure if a less heteronormative version of this study exists yet). Each pair had unbroken eye contact for two minutes. The results were pretty strong: they reported increased feelings of passionate love for each other. One pair even went on to get married.

Maybe that’s why we feel for The Other, even when she’s being unfathomable and violent. Because we spend so much time gazing right into her eyes.

It amazes me, how long you can go without actually looking your significant other in the eyes. The days disappear in happy, busy mundanity. When Chris and I get a couple of hours together we're so tired that we don't actually look at each other much. We're content together, but we're also knackered.

And then sometimes, he'll look me right in the eyes and it makes me stop in my tracks. All the urgency seems to leave me. I’m always rushing; this, along with cuddles from the kids, is the only thing that makes me slow down. It makes me wonder what I’m hurrying for.

One last study. (People love studies, right?) Research suggests that our perception of time actually changes when we make eye contact with someone. Our sense of time passing begins to slow, and every second feels longer than it actually is. I find this to be both slightly eerie, and also incredible. That the passing of time can be controlled, in some small way, by our minds. Just by looking people in the eyes.

I think I’ve found a way to anchor myself back into the present. To root me into something that is happening right now. I might not know what I believe in, but I know what I see in front of me, and that’s people I love and care about, freefalling with me. Maybe that’s the secret: more cuddles, and more eye contact.

And more unusual graphic novels.

And less internet.

(Within reason.)