Why do we like scary video games, and how do they scare us?

What is it about the macabre that a horror fan finds so appealing? Could it be mere thrill-seeking, or perhaps something darker lurks beneath the thin veneer of a neighbourly personality? Regardless of the reason, horror media attracts viewers, readers and gamers alike in hordes. While the genre has often been derided by old farts sitting in wingback chairs, drinking port and mumbling about “literary criticism”, in recent years there has been a resurgence and perhaps some revisionist analyses of “good” horror. Horror media is by definition antithetical to “high-brow” criticism, with its heavy use of tropes, gratuitous graphic violence, and sacrifice of good writing over a theme-park level thrill – and perhaps the consumer who enters this world merely seeks to be grossly aroused, which is fair. However, to dismiss the genre as simple primal glee is naïve and robs the consumer of the wonderful world of horror.

What is horror?

The genre of horror video games, typically survival horror, is a grey area. Games like The Last of Us possess many horror tropes, such as monsters, jump scares, some scarcity of resources, and yet, its emphasis is not of instilling terror or prioritising survival, rather, the game is more of an action game, with the means of progress extremely clear, few moments of constant dread and panic, few puzzles and a large amount of control over encounters. The Last of Us prioritises telling a story and giving us perspective, rather than trying to scare us.

Other games such as Resident Evil, Outlast, Alien Isolation among others are survival horror at their finest. In this article, I have focused on the survival genre mainly. From Bernard Perron’s excellent book on horror1, he defines survival horror as:

…action adventure games developing a specific storyline that draws on common horror themes and is told through cutscenes as well as various written or audio documents. While survival is the principal issue of a majority of video games, it is emphasised by the vulnerability of the player character who, without the gun power and the supply of ammunition found in shooter games, has to face or run away from monstrous foes while finding his way out of labyrinthine spaces, gathering various items, solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles…

Adapted from “The World of Scary Video Games”, Bernard Perron, 2018, Bloomsbury Academic.

Our response to horror

To return to the question at hand, a review paper in 20192 scoured the field of horror movies and came out with several interesting conclusions amidst many limitations to this kind of research. The author found that low empathy and fearfulness were associated with horror enjoyment while empathetic concern and personal distress were negatively correlated with horror enjoyment. There was a positive relationship between sensation seeking (the act of seeking intense, novel, complex experiences for the sake of such experiences) and horror enjoyment, but this wasn’t consistent across studies. There was a clear sex difference, where males had a greater preference to horror. Females reported more fear and anxiety compared to males, with the sex difference possibly related to female’s higher disgust sensitivity and anxiety proneness as well as their higher self-reported empathetic concern. The main limitations were the heterogeneity of the media content and inconsistent methodology. Self-reporting is also intrinsically problematic as it is weighted by perceptions and biases of both author and participant. Additionally, variable sample sizes make large-scale conclusions unfounded. While this study addressed the behavioural component, there is a multitude of brain imaging studies that have explored the neural component of fear (specific studies relating to horror are difficult to find), with several brain response and networks consistently identified3-5. A 2006 paper3 interestingly defines a horror response as that of a combination of fear and disgust. Without looking specifically at horror however, there were social and non-social specific brain regions that activated in response to film-picture pairs. The amygdala in particular was activated by disgust.

While this isn’t an exhaustive look at how studies have measured responses to horror, the above brief summary indicates certain personality types that enjoy horror. On a more colloquial level, one can find several reasons why individuals thrive on scares. It could be the wish to visualise destruction and chaos, often through violence and mental torture. Perhaps, analogous to dreams, watching a horror film, or playing a horror video game provides a safe space, without consequences, to experience a set of events that may never happen to you at all. It may also be that horror tropes are extremely satisfying, specifically, the build up of tension and its subsequent release (suspense and resolution of suspense). Horror motifs and themes are ultimately a set of rules that creators and their audience have both agreed beforehand. It is therefore naturally enjoyable to view these acted out, as well as subverted. Film and video games share much in the way of horror tactics, such as the jump scare (that activates the startle reflex), intricate sound design, including onscreen and off-screen diegetic sounds and non-diegetic sounds, among others.

Personally, it is the particular aesthetic of the horror genre that I salivate at. The insanity, the monster melding, dark spaces and darker experiments; it’s that feeling that something unexplained has entered our reality. Exploring such a world is exhilarating, however, I’m not the biggest fan of survival horror; feeling de-powered isn’t my cup of tea, but then again, sometimes the worlds will drag me in regardless. Next, we will explore how scary video games actually scare us.

The tactics of horror

The horror creator has a vast arsenal of weapons they can utilise to instil their audience with fear, disgust and panic. In broad-strokes, their methods can be divided into visualising horror, the sounds of horror, the setting or atmosphere, and the physical embodiment of our fears: the monster1.

Resident Evil Village, Capcom

Vision

Visually speaking, it is the sense of presence that affects our response to horror. Video games that employ a first-person or third-person perspective, as opposed to a God-like aerial view will directly affect how a player responds to what is happening onscreen. The closer one is to the action, the more visceral and immersive the game can feel. This rule is therefore key for a horror game, where the creator is trying their best to induce feelings of terror. A third-person perspective, such as in Silent Hill or several of the Resident Evil games, allows a lot of control over the camera space, with cinematic horror techniques utilised. Switching from a player-centric camera, to a larger view of say, walking down a foggy street, can deliver information to the player in a curated form, with the aim of increasing unease or dread. Vice versa, zooming into a character and hence shrinking the image space suddenly expands the number of unknowns in an area, an area in which the player knows that something bad might happen. By playing with blind space, the player is put into a state of heightened fear, questioning, “where is the monster?” A simple use of space outside the player’s field of view is the jump scare, with zombies bursting through windows in Resident Evil 1, or even placing monsters in the space behind you. The unknown of what is outside the Resident Evil mansion, as well as when the terror will enter, creates tension. Restricting the player’s vision is also performed extensively by making them enter dark places with dim or no lighting – in the darkness, one cannot see and hence prepare for the threat. Providing the player with a torch or light source, used to illuminate a very small halo in the dark, can be extremely frightening. A recent example is Alan Wake, which follows the story of a writer unravelling the mystery of his wife’s disappearance, experiencing real-life horror versions of his plot-lines. Alan is only equipped with a flashlight and a gun, with the light used to stun the creatures of darkness.

To get even closer to the horror at hand video games can use a first-person perspective. This can dilute the cinematic potential of a frame, while strengthening the overlap between avatar and player. Shock scares can be more effective here, with monsters able to fill up the entire field of view at any moment, abusing the personal space between player and screen. Things jumping at the player can provoke far more recoil, as if one is experiencing the horror through the eyes of the character. Some of the more modern games out there such as Outlast, Alien Isolation and the recent Resident Evil VII and Village pioneer first-person perspectives. It is not only the enclosed distance of this perspective, but also the tactility that is available to the creator. In the third-person, monsters are touching your avatar, whereas in the first-person they are touching you. Physical touch of the threatening kind heightens disgust and panic, be it the grotesque assault of your demonic girlfriend Mia in Resident Evil VII, or the excruciatingly visceral impalement of the Alien’s tail in Alien Isolation.

To talk about closeness, one must talk about the burgeoning field of virtual reality – with several peripherals in public circulation, such as the Oculus Quest or the PlayStation VR. Resident Evil VII has the option to navigate the terrifying Baker house in VR, an experience I have personally investigated. Here, the walls between worlds (real and virtual) are effectively invisible. One awful experience occurs in the Resident Evil VII demo, known as the Kitchen. In this short teaser, the player is tied to a chair while Mia, the aforementioned evil girlfriend, murders an NPC with a knife in front of you, and then stabs you in the leg. It was at this point that I tore off the VR peripheral in terror, unsure whether I actually felt the knife entering my thigh.

Sound

Sound plays a huge role in generating tension. Sounds can be used to forewarn the player of an enemy, such as through musical cues. The absence of sound, a lull in a horror soundscape, can also be forewarning of a sudden blast of incoming sound, it can also focus the player inward; hearing Isaac’s rasped breathing in Dead Space and nothing else in the cold dead of space creates a closeness with the player, perhaps alerting them to their own breathing. The sounds of the world: creaking doors, footsteps, faraway screams, all serve to heighten the frightening atmosphere. In Alien Isolation, the beeping of the motion tracker affects the level of fear in the player, since the higher the frequency, the more likely the Alien, and therefore reduced survival, is near. I suspect I have developed a Pavlovian response to that beeping; whenever I hear it I can’t help but shiver.

Regardless of what the player sees onscreen, sound adds dimensionality outside of the frame that can enhance horror. Realistic sounds in a pixel-art game will bolster the fear factor, compared to a polyphonic/synthesized sound. The vacuousness of horror settings work in synergy with sound, since the amplitude of common sounds such as a door opening can feel uncomfortably loud – perhaps because the player is worried that unseen monsters will notice them (literally the case in Alien Isolation), as well as the general fear that drawing attention to oneself in a survival horror game is bad. The silence between sounds is a direct manifestation of tension – ambient sounds without a clear source such as scraping, chiming, rustling all add to the horror soundscape.

Not only diegetic sounds, but the musical score of a scary video game is often harsh, dissonant, uneasy, and flips between extremes of quiet and loud. The rising strings, and or holding a note, amplifies suspense since the player knows this has to be released at some point. The thrumming of blood pumping in The Last of Us Part II‘s soundtrack sets a fearful mood, as does the non-melodic blaring in Dead Space. One odd example is the creepy, looping atonal soundtrack played in Lavender Town in the Generation 1 Pokémon video games. The sense of dread in the ghost-themed town is enhanced by the eerie music.

Sounds are terrifying as one doesn’t know if they hold any indication of our survival. Is that music forewarning? Or just music? Is that shuffling and scraping set dressing or is there a new monster coming? Is this silence too silent?

Alien Isolation, Creative Assembly, SEGA

Setting

If by vision we mean the limits of what we can see – by setting, we mean what we are actually looking at. An abandoned amusement park, asylums or hospitals, prisons, research facilities, forests, spaceships. While these rather generic video game locations may not seem scary, it is how they are presented that induces fear. Imagine two scenarios in spaceship: 1) the player enters the hustle and bustle of a busy crew, with lively voices and sounds, rooms and walkways well-lit and inviting, perhaps a jaunty soundtrack; 2) the player enters an abandoned, dark spaceship. Only emergency lighting lines the walkways, with some doors locked. Some areas are damaged and look dangerous, electrical equipment malfunctioning, lights flickering. No sound except your footsteps clanking uncomfortably loudly. The instinct of the player is that there is something “wrong” with the second area. It is the realm of environmental storytelling, that perhaps something awful has happened prior to their arrival.

What is it about going deeper into a building that creates unease? Whether it is the basement in Silent Hill, the various sewers and underground research facilities of Resident Evil, or even the abandoned lower floors housing grossly mutated infected creatures in The Last of Us Part II hospital level, proceeding vertically downwards in a video game is scary. It is conditioning that evil lurks in the deepest of abysses, in the lowest depths of hell, where there is no light and unknown threat.

Feeling trapped in a setting is commonplace too. Walls and corridors heighten claustrophobia, with doors and windows obscuring monsters and threats behind them. Resident Evil turns its various settings into urban mazes, with puzzles designed to unlock new areas, new doors, incentivising backtracking and exploration, all the while being pursued by the undead threat. In some cases, the threat is activity pursuing you, such as Mr. X in Resident Evil 2, or Lady Dimitrescu in Resident Evil Village. These enemies are virtually invincible for much of the game and your only option is to run or hide from them – their interruptions, be it breaking through a wall, or jumping out behind a door, serve to increase the player’s dread. These unscripted encounters would not work as well in a large open space where the player has no physical barriers to escape or dodge. In Outlast 2, much of the game takes place in dark forests, which while it is outside, the darkness and threatening trees mitigate any feeling of freedom.

Settings are not static either, rather, dynamic events that are often sudden can distort and break rules that the player has assumed. The dramatisation of settings is well demonstrated by a now famous scene of antagonist Jack Baker breaking down a wall in Resident Evil VII just as the player is about to walk down the corridor, having safely walked past multiple times. The puzzle structure of horror video games emphasises backtracking, forcing the player to retread old ground to find keys or items for progression. Each time the player enters an area, the setting may not behave in the same way – there is no safe space in a horror video game (except maybe the save rooms in Resident Evil – ha).

The world of Resident Evil Village is a personal favourite of mine, fusing the traditional zombie/outbreak tropes of the franchise with the Van Helsing-esque Gothic horror of werewolves and vampires, and other abominations. Trudging through the eerily quiet snowy landscape, through an abandoned village and arriving at the imposing fortress of Castle Dimitrescu, is a visually arresting experience.

Surviving the monster

What makes a monster terrifying? Traditionally, a biological abomination of some kind, something familiar but uncomfortably not so. Nemesis, the antagonist in Resident Evil 3, is scary because he is extremely overpowered, overly large, very fast but perhaps the true horror comes from his deformed face. His seemingly human face is blemished with horrific scars, rotted lips and missing an eye. While corruption of a human face can be scary, perhaps the unreadable face, a monster where you cannot read their expressions or emotions is equally bad – the most famous example here is Pyramid Head, an enemy in Silent Hill whose head is covered by, you guessed it, a large pyramid. His threat is exacerbated by the fact that we first see him holding a knife, involved in sex act with another monstrous entity, the Mannequin (feel free to Google that one). The monster that is a monster but doesn’t look like a monster can be equally terrifying. The enemy in 2014’s It Follows, a film about a student pursued by a supernatural threat following a sexual encounter, is solely in the audience’s mind, for there is nothing grotesque or untowardly scary about a human being walking towards you, right?

The melding of insect or machine with biological knowns is another source of the scary monster. Insects are extremely alien to us; they are small, fast, can inflict invisible pain through poisons and stings, can be airborne, and possess that underlying threat of body horror; that of bodily invasion. A film example that still haunts me is a scene from the non-horror film The Matrix, where Agents “bug” Neo, our protagonist, by inserting a large worm-like entity through his navel; the sharp, juddering movements and removal of Neo’s control in this scene has always frightened me. More horror themed is, of course, the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise of films and video games. Its multi-stage evolution, from facehugger to chestburster to maturity is horrible to think about, while its chitinous frame, double mouth, and its wet and oozing black sheen all establish the Alien as one of the most terrifying monsters of all time.

The fragility of our hero or heroine in a video game further serves to emphasise the monster’s threat. Often we are given few resources, a limited arsenal and very little command of the situation. The protagonist’s most common resort is to run or hide. Games like Outlast merely provide a video camera, while Alien Isolation deposits a not only immortal monster, but one that delivers instant death if you are seen. This feeling of weakness raises the danger. The player is set up with a seemingly impossible task, of navigating a horror maze for many hours, hoping to survive with a few bandages and a few bullets. The game is obviously winnable, and any stacking of odds can narratively be tipped in your favour – a good horror game will make you doubt control over the game, while eking out imperceptible progress. If you feel powerful in a horror video game, it is unlikely that you are still scared.

For Halloween, the YouTube channel, PlayStation Access ran a six-part let’s play series of Outlast II; a first-person survival horror game featuring a journalist armed with only a camcorder, much like the first game. The only way to progress is to either run or hide, and while it is a short game, the tension is kept constantly high with almost no let up. A game I would likely never play, it was wonderful that someone else experienced the horror for me, even if the loss of interactivity blunts the experience somewhat.

PlayStation Access, 18th October 2021, YouTube

Monsters enhance anxiety and promote emergent gameplay; complex situations that arise from the player interacting with the virtual playground’s mechanics serving to create personal, scary experiences that embed in your memories. Railroaded by cutscenes, or endless monsters that are predictable in threat and presence removes fear. Running out of ammo after one bad encounter, facing a boss fight with only a lead pipe, creates anxiety, solely from the player’s decisions. Overcoming a threat through wits can be extremely satisfying, such as luring the Alien away from your destination, or engendering an encounter between NPCs and the Xeno as a distraction while you slip by, are creative ways to solve the horror game’s problem at hand.

Wrap-up

There is so much that I haven’t touched on in the world of scary video games, not to mention the sheer number of games I’ve missed out (Little Nightmares, Slender, P.T., Amnesia, the list goes on). The genre is ripe for analysis and experiencing it firsthand can be extremely enjoyable. I’d like to thank Bernard Perron for his excellent text that provided much of the motivation and resources for this post.

I will leave a list at the bottom of some excellent video games that I have found particularly scary over the past few years, and I recommend you check out, if you haven’t already. Obviously the classic games are the fundamentals, such as Silent Hill, Resident Evil 1, or Alone in the Dark. So draw your curtains, seek out the middle of the night, pull up a blanket and indulge in the annual fear festival with a scary video game.

And as always, thanks for reading.

The Last of Us Part II, Naughty Dog

Some scary video game suggestions

Alien Isolation: One for the Alien fans out there; a true masterpiece in sound design and really makes you feel terrified of the greatest biological weapon in the universe. Be prepared though, the game is unnaturally long for a horror game, and the tension may finally break you as it did me! (I’m still stuck on chapter 10, which I have been informed is only halfway through the game).

Carrion: A reverse horror game where you play as the monster, devouring scientists and humans alike, aiming to escape an underground facility. A fresh take on the genre.

Resident Evil: It’s hard to recommend a single entry in this series, but personally I would start with VII; a game that goes back to the roots of survival horror (ignore 5 and 6, and possibly even 4 (controversial opinion!)), followed by the most recent Village which is a nice sequel. The recent remakes of 2 and 3 are also worth a look.

The Last of Us (1 and 2): While not survival horror games, they do possess many horror themes and have some of the best cinematic writing in any video game. Playing these games on the hardest difficulty can very quickly spike your heart rate, as well as your fear.

Until Dawn: A survival horror game with a twist; much of the gameplay revolves around QTEs and decision making with the aim to replay the game multiple times finding new endings. To “win” is to keep everyone alive by the end of the night. High production values make this a visual feast, albeit not a very scary one. The developer, Supermassive games, regularly releases a similar type of game every Halloween, with the most recent, House of Ashes, leading the player down a buried temple filled with unearthly creatures.

Dead Space: A classic that is still highly playable to this day. Isaac is an engineer on the USG Ishimura, who must survive an encounter with the monstrous, invading Necromorphs. One of the greatest modern horror games of all time – a remake is in the works too.

Control: Definitely not survival horror, but the aesthetic and narrative all create an uneasiness, a sort of insidious tension that is constant throughout the game. Its weirdness can be offensive and truly uncomfortable. It is heavily action-packed however, with Jesse having an endless supply of telekinetic abilities and a supernatural arsenal of guns. For a slower game with more survival elements, try Remedy’s previous outing, Alan Wake.

References

  1. Perron, B. (2018) The World of Scary Video Games: A Study in Videoludic Horror. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN: 978-1-5013-1619-7.
  2. Martin GN (2019) (Why) Do You Like Scary Movies? A Review of the Empirical Research on Psychological Responses to Horror Films. Front. Psychol. 10:2298. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02298
  3. Britton JC et al., (2006) Neural correlates of social and nonsocial emotions: An fMRI study. NeuroImage. 31 (1) 397-409; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2005.11.027
  4. Fullana M et al., (2016) Neural signatures of human fear conditioning: an updated and extended meta-analysis of fMRI studies. Mol Psychiatry 21500–508. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2015.88
  5. Schacher M et al., (2006) Amygdala fMRI lateralizes temporal lobe epilepsy. Neurology. 66 (1) 81-87; doi: https://doi.org/10.1212/01.wnl.0000191303.91188.00

Featured image credit: Alien 3, David Fincher, 20th Century Fox

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