Horror: The Games I Can’t Play

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Something I can’t do – have never been able to do – in terms of what I do for a living is enjoy horror games.

That’s why I’ve decided to talk the matter over with Adam, one of the RPS resident horror fans and the chap whose own most recent supporter post dealt with Five Nights At Freddy’s; a nasty, brutish horror game but one not without merit or skill.

I should clarify that when I say I can’t play horror I’m talking about horror games like the Silent Hill series or things like Slender: The Eight Pages. I should clarify further that I *think* I’m talking about those kinds of games but often there’s no way to be sure without getting further into them than I’m currently able to do without ruining any remaining ability to sleep.

I mean, let’s talk PT. I appreciate it’s not a PC title but the Silent Hills teaser demo thingy illustrates the point I’m making in terms of basic inability to horror game. I played PT in broad daylight with two friends. No, that’s not entirely true. I wasn’t even playing. I was sitting next to one of my friends – the player – on the sofa and offering advice. That was about as close to the game as I could get.

Both friends had done that thing of assuming “I’m really not great with horror” just meant “We can have a good giggle at Pip during jump scares”. What it actually meant was “Pip will get paler and more rigid and eventually will be on the verge of tears and it will feel horribly cruel and then Pip will spend the next week or two terrified of going to the bathroom in the night.” We switched off the console about halfway through the experience and I had a medicinal Dip Dab.

Adam did not have this response. He liked PT (or rather he has liked the videos he’s seen of it being played because he’s not cheating on his PC with a console like I am). There are two main reasons for this. The first is that you can go back and analyse the imagery and ideas after the fact. The second is that Adam has enough trust in the creators because of the previous Silent Hill games that he’s willing to believe there’s more to PT than just being an exercise in grim discomfort.

[Fun fact: I don’t know for sure this is the PT video it claims to be as I cannot bring myself to watch it]

“I think for something like that to work, it’s the process of deciphering after the fact that makes it anything more than a cheap thrill,” is what he types at me over IM. “And that word, ‘thrill’, is probably far more important than I realised when I typed it. The distinction between being thrilled and being stressed out. I find that once I tip over into a sense of stress, I’m not happy, I feel punished and I want to stop.”

My sense of stress kicks in far earlier than Adam’s, sometimes never even allowing for the thrill. I get that there’s a lot of work and artistry which can go into making a scenario or character truly creepy – knowing how to score those moments, understanding which physical distortions players react to most strongly, not showing too much of a monster, not repeating old tricks too many times – I just get no pleasure from going into or revisiting those experiences.

I’m trying to understand what it is that makes other people able to process those games better than I can. “I’m guessing it’s often predicated on being able to deal with the experience in a different way?” I ask Adam. “I can’t handle the initial experience at all so there’s no pleasure in returning to pick it apart.”

Adam replies, “My feeling is that if there’s no puzzle to piece together at the end of the experience – and the puzzle can be purely an attempt to reconstruct a narrative or psychological nudge – then it’s just light and shadow artfully arranged which I don’t object to but personally, I want the aftermath to matter. I want to be able to go back and understand. I think the best horror often loses some of its power to terrify once it has been experienced and analysed. The terror should translate into something else, rather than leaving an empty shell.

“I think the best horror often has a sense of catharsis. And with Silent Hill as a series, that’s perhaps why the actual narrative leans heavily on tragedy. It’s more than just the sense of being confronted with horror and knowing that you’re actually safe – although that’s important too.”

:( :(

He cites the movie A Tale Of Two Sisters. “There are scenes that are so claustrophobic and unpleasant – just a horrible combination of sound and image – that I struggled to stick with it the first time I watched. No gore or particularly hideous imagery – just a sense of something absolutely terrible happening. A haunting of the mind. But I can watch it now and feel this deep sadness. It’s a tragic film that happens to be horrifying. I think Silent Hill is often the same.”

Going back to the point about what lies beyond the initial fear response, Adam adds, “Pushing through that [terror] can lead to something valid, but it takes a lot of faith in the creator.”

“Would you say the onus is on the viewer to push past the horror rather than being on the creator to make it accessible?” I ask.

“I think there’s always give and take. Whenever I go into an experience, it’s like I’m choosing to buy a ticket. Depending who created the ride, I’m more or less likely to buy in. And that goes for melodrama as much as horror. If I think the experience isn’t going to pay off and the price keeps getting higher, I’ll bow out.”

Silent Hill 2 is a game which was recommended to me a lot when I tweeted asking for ‘starter’ horror games. It’s also a bit of an awkward one as it’s not legally available via digital means. One must hunt down a relatively pricy physical copy on eBay or the Amazon marketplace (or get Adam to bring it over next time he’s in town). It sounds tempting as he describes it, although I’m really not sure he and I will have the same experience.

:( :( :(

“Like a broken record, I’ll always go back to Silent Hill 2 because I think it has an emotional resonance beyond fear from the very beginning. It’s a love story with elements of a haunting that goes deeper and deeper into uncomfortable territory – in a purely sensory way as well as through its narrative – but never ceases to pull at other strings. I think Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs does something similar but I’m an outlier there. A lot of people really really don’t like it, which is fine.”

Oh! A game I have actually played! In fact I have also played Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I regret streaming parts of that playthrough because Brendan Caldwell started texting me to try and freak me out.

I liked A Machine For Pigs in a lot of ways and it tries to do interesting things with the types of horror it offers up. It’s an atmospheric game which [POTENTIAL SPOILERS] starts off dealing in psychological horror, then goes into a more physical avoid-the-monster mode and finishes up in a grandiose horror at the nature of humanity. It misses a fair few beats, particularly in the middle section where sometimes I’d let myself get caught by something monstrous because the respawn point was in a useful location.

“I think you’ve touched on something there,” says Adam. “It moves through three flavours – and that helps. It’s not the same drum banging away for a few hours. That’s draining, no matter how talented the drummer is. And A Machine For Pigs shows a clear understanding of variations on its theme, which I think is also necessary.”

This one's from A Machine For Pigs, by the way

“Take PT – what is it about? A murdered family. A place that’s haunted. Is it about piecing together clues and trying to understand the event? Or is it about the inability to escape tragedy – I don’t know. I think there has to be an effort to communicate something other than ‘lawks, isn’t this grim?'”

The sadness and the tragedy of horror is something I recognise far more easily in art. Adam brings up a Caravaggio painting where David is clutching the head of Goliath by its hair and I send over a few depictions of Judith beheading Holofernes (a story from the apocrypha or deuterocanon depending on whether taking a Protestant or Catholic point of view).

In these moments there’s a strong horror element. It’s particularly pronounced in Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. Holofernes’ hand is clutching at Judith’s maid’s top in desperation as Judith saws away at his neck, brow furrowed in concentration, arms tense with the effort of actually cutting through the man’s neck. It’s a horrible image and one which contains within it panic, fragility, disempowerment, sadness – many of the things Adam is telling me he finds in the best horror games and movies. This isn’t Slender Man-type jump scares, but something deeper.

“I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that experience from horror movies or games though,” I say. “Perhaps it’s because they’re hundreds of images all at once so there’s no chance to consider or de-panic?”

“Yeah. A horror game shouldn’t be trying to do the same thing but they can instruct one another. There’s some good work done with tableaux in the earlier Silent Hill games – which are these oddly tranquil moments. But I think games – in general and particularly in horror – are much better at places than people. Which makes the Silent Hill series being named after a place very appropriate. There’s a lot of clever use of space – uncanny environments. That can do wonders with a sort of domestic horror – because home is the place we should be most familiar with. Turn a shadow sideways and it becomes alien.”

I’m not ultimately convinced I will be able to share this experience. I’m worried that PT will happen again – that the experience of playing will ultimately prove too overwhelming to allow space for the more subtle and moving notes to rise up. But I have agreed to play a handful of horror games – Silent Hill 2, Knock-Knock and possibly 5 Days A Stranger.

Let’s see if I can find a way into this genre.

This article was funded by the RPS Supporter program.

70 Comments

  1. Bluerps says:

    I don’t understand how you managed The Dark Descent. I tried to play that, but it became to much for me after half an hour or so.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      You resisted for an hour? I didn’t last ten minutes in the demo, I think, I uninstalled it right away.

      • Boothie says:

        good, im not the only one, i never even saw a monster but after 10 mins i was so thoroughly unnerved by the atmosphere that i closed the game down and never played it again.

  2. neoncat says:

    Glad to see I’m not the only one who feels this way about horror games. For the most part, I feel like there’s usually just a much better way of conveying whatever is trying to be conveyed without provoking such sensory overload and physiological duress. (Also, it seems like a lot of horror games aren’t really trying for more than cheap thrills.)

    Somewhat relatedly, I would consider Hotline Miami to be an excellent horror game. Having control makes the experience a bit more tolerable and also ties the discomfort more closely to the player’s own agency.

    • BTAxis says:

      I’ve never really understood the popularity of the horror genre. Fright and fear are terrible emotions, to be avoided at all costs. Why would anyone purposely attempt to induce them in themselves?
      On the other hand I did approve of the spooky atmosphere in System Shock 2. So maybe it’s not as alien to me as I believe.

      • kalzekdor says:

        Sadness and loss are also “terrible emotions”, and yet the Tragedy is the oldest known narrative genre.

        • jrodman says:

          I believe we court sadness and loss in fiction in order to process it, learn about errors, and to practice empathy.

          What does horror bring besides thrills?

          • kalzekdor says:

            An exploration of the primal, of human nature. The shadows shifting beyond the flickering fire have always fascinated us. By braving that darkness, we learn not only of the world unknown, but as well our selves within.

          • GameCat says:

            Good horror will most likely reflects our fears and things we worry about at a certain time, like good sci-fi will provide a window for our more or less distant future by adding fiction to the current level of science.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            ‘Adam replies, “My feeling is that if there’s no puzzle to piece together at the end of the experience – and the puzzle can be purely an attempt to reconstruct a narrative or psychological nudge – then it’s just light and shadow artfully arranged which I don’t object to but personally, I want the aftermath to matter.’

            I think that’s your answer. It brings what any good narrative in any good game brings, just in its own ‘flavour’. If horror can’t bring meaningful stories and ideas to the table then no genre can.

            Was going to make this comment anyway, so I’ll make it here – I’m with Adam entirely on that quote. What instantly comes to mind for me is the Cradle from Deadly Shadows – a cop-out in many ways but still a good example. First run through it’s just a very scary place, but go back and examine the experience in more detail and you get so much more out of it – so many stories unfolding, some ‘important’, some incidental, some related, some separate. So many details you missed the first time. I’m not going to go into massive amounts of detail here but once I’d started paying more attention to the Cradle – as a building, a setting and a character – I stopped being afraid of it, and started feeling really, horribly sorry for it.

            I really, really have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy horror though, and sometimes I’m just not. As a (non-game, somewhat silly) example, my absolute favourite Ludo song, The Horror of Our Love, is also the one I listen to least often – like once a year, tops – because it just creeps the everloving crap out of me and leaves me unable to sleep for days, literally.

          • Razumen says:

            You pretty much already said it. Horror games bring with them a thrill of sorts for sure, but beyond that, it’s more about experiencing the fear and fighting through it, controlling your reactions and persevering despite what the game throws at you.

      • Grumpy Trooper says:

        A well balanced person must be able to experience and accept all emotions, from euphoria to desolation, from happy surprise to paralysing fear. If people were able to control their emotions properly then there would be no crimes of passion, no violent acts of revenge or intimidation etc. The only problem with this is that before you can understand and control your emotions you must first experience them strongly enough as to warrant the need for control, this is where the people who commit acts of rage, passion, hatred all fail, they cannot control those emotions.

        It takes a strong person to be able to demonstrate control over the sometimes uncontrollable.

    • Josh W says:

      I think part of it is just people’s levels of sensory vividness. I can read novels far more horrific than the films I can watch, and the “literary” end of science fiction books in particular can go into some particularly dark psychological territory, but the difference is that I can go through them at my own pace, read passages again, make sense of things, or put the book down and get some perspective.

      In a game, or watching a film, you’re relying on someone else’s thresholds, and just like people talk about being able to eat spicy food or not, there’s an element of desensitisation: I remember watching the film Inferno, and finding it too sensorially intense at various moments, when other people in the room with me were completely bored (and a little baffled). Still don’t think it was a particularly good film, but to people with a higher threshold for horrificness, it made absolutely no impact at all.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    I really try to play these games but I can’t do it. I’ve attempted amnesia four times now and I cant make it past 30 minutes.

    Pip never stop scribbling on your images

  4. lumpeh says:

    I stopped playing Isolation the second time i came across the Alien.I’ve the film and tonnes of other horror flicks, i’ve watched Lets Plays of slender/SCP/Freddies etc, but when it comes to actually playing them myself i can’t take it after about 20 mins or so.

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      Sinomatic says:

      I love horror films (of all flavours) and I also really enjoy watching other people play horror games, but doing it myself is ridiculously difficult. I think it’s a matter of where the agency lies: I’m the one in control and the gaming experience (somehow) too closely resembles or evokes my own nightmares, and my poor wee brain just can’t deal with it at all.
      Alien is my favourite film and I’d love to be able to play Isolation, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever pluck up the courage to even try.

      • kalzekdor says:

        My experience is similar, though from the opposite direction. I never got into horror movies, the sense of detachment and lack of immersion was always a problem for me. Why would I be scared of things happening to characters who, in addition to often being shallow caricatures, do little more than make bad decision after bad decision. It’s hard to feel empathetic when you can’t connect to the subject emotionally. Couple that with the fact that empathetic emotions will always be felt less than visceral emotions, and horror movies just become gory action movies with bad plots.

        However, the agency and immediacy of the horror video game has been something I’ve quite enjoyed. The switch from passive viewer to active actor yields an entirely different result, even though built from the same elements. Whereas horror movies can rarely even startle me (detachment leads to meta-analysis, which leads to prediction of elements), horror games, when done well, will not only have moments of heart-pounding terror as I fight (or more likely, run) for my life, but also a continuous overhanging dread, where I’m always expecting attack, jumping at every shadow, shuffle, or shudder. That level of immersion is the entire point, for me.

        • Razumen says:

          Exactly, even though I know I’m in control of a computer avatar and in absolutely no danger whatsoever, just the fact that you’re in control and your actions dictate the safety of your avatar brings a level of immersion that’s simply not present in horror films.

    • felisc says:

      Maybe it’s just me but scary games, and Alien in particular is less scary when played with a controller. I feel that when playing with a mouse, every little tense twitch of the arm will result in the camera slightly moving, thus an immediate and scary connection to the character, whereas a controller puts enough distance to avoid soiled pants. Anyone else ?

      • Big Murray says:

        I’ve long had a theory which I’ve been lax to follow up with any kind of academic study that the level of immersion in a horror game (or any game for that matter) is directly linked to the peripheral we’re using. Joysticks on a controller is not as immersive to a first-person game as a mouse is, because a mouse gives you instant and precise control over where you’re looking. In essence, the mouse becomes an extension of your own limbs into the game world.

        It would also explain why people who haven’t played games much usually have more trouble getting into the immersion aspect of them. If you’re not used to what the control of a mouse feels like, there’s a disconnect in your mind between your peripheral and the game world. You’re thinking more about how to control the game than just doing it.

      • Faxmachinen says:

        For much the same reason that I couldn’t take Deus Ex seriously if it came with QWOP controls.

    • Whe3ze says:

      For Isolation, I’d suggest playing on easy or medium in fits and starts of 10-25 minutes at a time. I’ve been doing that and I’m really enjoying the game. I started on Survival and it was too damn hard so I knocked it back to medium which is a zillion times easier. I still get the tension, but I’m not dying all the time so less heart stress from adrenaline

  5. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I love horror, not just games but films and books too. However, I do feel like I scare particularly easily and absolutely hate jump scares.

    I’d suggest starting with 5 days a stranger (from your list), since it’s a relatively simple point-and-click game, and while it uses a lot of horror tropes it’s not what I would call scary. Since they are quite short, you might even consider playing the other games in the series. I think Trilby’s Notes (the third in the series) is considered the best, and probably the scariest.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      I have tried to play that game like three separate times and I’ve never even GOT to the horror, I get completely stuck almost immediately. My doctor doesn’t let me play point+click games anymore though.

  6. Chaz says:

    The true horror of PT was walking through that door at the end of the corridor and finding out that you had to walk round the same corridor trying desperately to spot some odd minor differences again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and …….. switch off the console out of sheer boredom.

  7. Rikard Peterson says:

    Thanks for the article – it was a good read.

    As for me, I’m not particularly attracted to horror. I’ve seen and enjoyed Ghostbusters, but that’s pretty much how far I go when it comes to movies. (Well, ok, I’ve seen Alien too, and didn’t regret that. But I very much do not want to see something like Saw.)

    In games, I have played season one of The Walking Dead, but I had to take break between episodes – several weeks after the second episode. That was really uncomfortable, but I’m still glad I played it.

    I thought I had a point when I started typing, but I think I lost it…

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      I think Saw and other modern horror flicks of its ilk feel like a different thing again, more of a ‘body horror’ sort of thing, where the gore has become quite convincing, and the direction lingers on dismemberment and so forth. I generally class these as ‘torture porn’ and they feel more like a gross-out than a proper scare.

      Definitely prefer more psychological horror in my films – I think Japanese ones often have the best creepy imagery, although a lot of them don’t seem to make a lot of sense under closer scrutiny (or perhaps something is just being lost in the translation – there must be a lot of localised background mythology and superstition of which I am only peripherally aware).

      • Vandelay says:

        I wouldn’t even say that torture flicks are even body horror, certainly not in the traditional Cronenberg sense. Body horror is generally about twisting the human body in ways that make it monstrous; I suppose that the most classic and well known example would be Frankenstein and his monster made from many rotting body parts. The horror comes not from the ripping the body apart, but from what is created from it.

        And those films may now be considered part of the horror genre, but I would still maintain that the first Saw was always meant to be a thriller, in the ilk of Seven, rather than an actual horror film.

  8. webs1 says:

    Very good article.
    Myself, I have more problems watching horror movies than playing horror games, I think, although I very seldom do either of those.
    I remember watching The Ring with my then-girlfriend and staying up half of the night just to avoid falling asleep.

    With regards to Adam’s last comment, I think that Gone Home played with that uncanny-feeling-at-home very effectively, to the point were you half expected the game to actually delve into the horror genre.

    • mattlambertson says:

      *spoilers* Yep, and that made playing Gone Home without any knowledge of the plot such a riveting experience. I literally had no idea what kind of game I was playing. I didn’t even necessarily know that I wouldn’t be given a gun or a knife and be expected to fight someone at some point. The flickering TV with the storm warning was thus creepy as hell, I thought it was a harbinger of doom…so when the fog lifted and it turned into a love story it was all the more effective for taking me on such an emotional roller coaster.

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    Harlander says:

    I startle pretty easily, but getting shocked by a jump scare isn’t the same thing as proper fear. The slow-burning tension is a bit rarer in games…

    • Vandelay says:

      Which is why Paranormal Activity was almost as bad to modern horror films as the Saw series. I think Mark Kermode’s description of “cattle prod” cinema is an accurate one. Jabbing the viewer (or player) with a loud unexpected noise will make most of them jump. That doesn’t mean that they are actually scared any more than if a friend jumped out at them and said “boo!”

      True horror comes from connecting with your audience’s fears that they feel at an almost unconscious level. A little bit of empathy for the characters that are being portrayed doesn’t go amiss either, although fairly rare in horror. I suppose that relates to what Adam says about repeating the experience; once we analyse where that fear comes from it becomes more understandable and more manageable.

      Having said that, I think horror can work without requiring that analyse. The original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still one of the nastiest, most disturbing films in the genre, partly because there is little to understand from it and little sympathy to have for any of the characters.

  10. sonofsanta says:

    I love me a proper creepy horror film – the original Ring is paramount in my mind, cliché as it has become to namecheck it – but I absolutely cannot manage to play horror games. I couldn’t even hack Doom 3 because of jump scares.

    I don’t know what it is, maybe I just get too invested, but even playing a Thief and knowing I’ve been spotted, I feel that awful pressure on the back of my neck to run, flee, hide and it’s just not any fun.

    I’m trying to think of any games I’ve played that approached horror from the 3rd person, because the problem seems specific to first person for me, but I never played any Silent Hills and can’t think of any others. Eternal Darkness, I suppose, and I played that through multiple times and adore it. Perhaps I’m only a first person coward.

    • Razumen says:

      First person is definitely the best choice for horror games, though I can recommend the Silent Hill and Fatal Frame series for good third person horror, especially SH2, SH3 and FF2.

  11. DThor says:

    To me there are distinct types of horror. Evil Dead’s original incarnations, for example, I love, because tongue is always firmly in cheek, the cartoon references are there – they’re just a ton of fun. There’s “clever” slashers, like the original Halloween and the wonderful The Descent with great characters and story framing the scares. Then there’s the torture porn of Saw and the purely visceral shock horror movies, of which I’m basically not a fan, and it’s that latter type that most horror games fall under. It’s relatively easy to set up a shot in the dark then flash something horrific in your face, it takes little talent and requires nothing of the viewer. That’s really why I don’t care for them. Make it clever, tell a real story, make characters I care about, I’m in.

  12. SuicideKing says:

    Yeah I can’t get myself to watch horror movies or play horror games. Heck, I’ve not even been able to make myself play Bioshock.

  13. aepervius says:

    I have not yet met a game which scare me. Disgust ? Yes. Jump because of sudden sound and image ? Yes, albeit those are not frightening, those are surprising, which is a different deal. I have never be frightened/horrified ina game.

  14. Lord Byte says:

    Same here. Did not enjoy the Dark Descent. Oddly I also had the same issue with the second AVP game. It starts off with a lot of claustrophobic vent-crawling with regular attacks from all sides and I hated it. I could not continue. Never had the issue with the single-player of AVP 1. OR even Doom 3, with its cheap monster closets (though I finished that one, because it was predictable).

    Realms of the Haunting I could play, because it was incredibly well-paced and the shock-scares where limited (just the way the creatures suddenly pop-up).

    Shock scares, I just hate them, or the anticipation of them, if I can place the exact moment it’s fine, or if they’re well-paced with genuine horror.

  15. tumbleworld says:

    My personal feeling is that Thomas Ligotti has summed up the consolations of horror more neatly than anyone else. Smooshing a couple of quotes from different works together:

    “The sinister, the terrible never deceive: the state in which they leave us is always one of enlightenment. And only this condition of vicious insight allows us a full grasp of the world, all things considered, just as a frigid melancholy grants us full possession of ourselves. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.”
    […]
    “Why, though, why? Just to do it, that’s all. Just to see how much unmitigated weirdness, sorrow, desolation and cosmic anxiety the human heart can take and still have enough heart left over to translate these agonies into artistic forms. This, then, is the ultimate, that is only, consolation: simply that someone shares some of your own feelings and has made of these a work of art which you have the insight, sensitivity, and — like it or not — peculiar set of experiences to appreciate. Amazing thing to say, the consolation of horror in art is that it actually intensifies our panic, loudens it on the sounding-board of our horror-hollowed hearts, turns terror up full blast, all the while reaching for that perfect and deafening amplitude at which we may dance to the bizarre music of our own misery.”

    Obviously, your mileage may vary.

    • Josh W says:

      Actually, the pretensions of horror to realism are a great way to deceive; newspapers like the Daily Mail rely on that confusion to give their articles the air of “the hard truth”, the stuff you “just couldn’t make up”.

      In reality, horror can be just as much a construction as anything else, it’s about us, what we hold sacred and profane, our paranoias, compulsions and fears, and we do not say that people with an excess of those feelings are enlightened, we say that they are mentally ill.

      But, I can totally see why people like being scared or horrified. I like being lost, confused, and working out what to do, whereas other people find that awful. Some people like pitting themselves against grinding inevitability and seeing how far they get. I think its’ one of those miracles of humanity that we find ways to transform what would otherwise be considered suffering into something valuable. It’s not just any horror, it’s horror that fits a certain kind of aesthetic, or a certain kind of humour, or is paced perfectly like some kind of rollercoaster, exhausting but not overstretching your emotions.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        “In reality, horror can be just as much a construction as anything else, it’s about us, what we hold sacred and profane, our paranoias, compulsions and fears, and we do not say that people with an excess of those feelings are enlightened, we say that they are mentally ill.”

        Yep, we sure do say a lot of things, don’t we?

        • Josh W says:

          You probably disagree then, it should probably not be said that I’m not talking just about people who are more anxious than average, I’m talking about on the far end, particular extreme episodes. If horror was truly an honest emotion, that shows us the world as it is, then we would have to say that the worries and fears of a schizophrenic were more real than our own experience, because they were more scary. In contrast when we are dealing with people having periods of derealisation or other horrible stuff, we try to help them see normal things again, get a different perspective on the world that actually fits together.

          Actually there’s something interesting there; horror movies have always had this ambiguous relationship to mental illness, because of the way they tend to take inspiration from people’s real fears and delusions -even if they are just the kind that fade on waking- in the structure of the film, but then tend to portray actual suffers very badly within them. That’s not always true thank goodness, and often people make this inspiration more explicit:

          Neverending nightmares, a game recently mentioned on rps, is an example of this; it’s horrific, because of how it reflects someone’s experience of having a depressed and obsessive period. What you’re facing when you play games like this is not reality, but the power of the human mind and imagination to mess itself up. Of course, there’s reality there in that it was really felt, (and another argument has been made that horror stuff helps by allowing people to share experiences that were otherwise incomprehensible and personal) but people can be haunted by all kinds of delusions, totally inconsistent with one another, and just like it helps to know the difference between waking and dreaming, it helps to know that those are a step backwards from reality, not towards it.

          • Kaeoschassis says:

            I was definitely unnecessarily snippy there and if I came across as upset with you then I apologise entirely – need sleep.
            You make a damned good point and I don’t disagree. I badly misjudged what you were trying to say so yeah, sorry. I keep seeing people get lumped with labels of mental illness because it’s easier to put them in that box than it is to try and understand why they’re afraid or upset or angry or confused, or even just empathise with them – which of course is not to say that illnesses like that don’t exist or aren’t common.

            Agh forget it, I tried about four times to write up a proper response to your actual comment. Far too tired. Horror stories have plenty of value and there’s definitely a lot to be gained from exploring and dissecting our own fears. To sum up, I think the first half of that initial quote wasn’t so great, but the second half is bang on the mark.

  16. derbefrier says:

    I think my parents ruined me when i was a kid for the whole horror genre. Every time we would go to the video store and me and my brother would try and pick a horror movie we would get told we didnt want to watch it because “horror movies are stupid” or something like that. On the occasion we did manage to watch a horror movie my dad would just make fun of it the whole way through ruining any tense feelings and making it a joke rather than something of nightmares. This has made it very hard for me to ever take horror seriously. I just cant do it. I have turned into my parents. Horror movies and the whole genre are stupid to me for the most part(there are exceptions). The only ones i like are ones like Evil dead were they are kinda self aware at how ridiculous they are and dont take themselves to seriously. because of this watching a horror movie with friends is an excruciating experience. I bite my toungue and let them enjoy the movie or whatever but the whole time i just wanna tell them how stupid it is.

  17. Synesthesia says:

    Wow, what a fantastic piece.

    Something has been happening to me lately, and I think it has to do with what you write about. I used to beat SH1 alone in my house, with the psx hooked up to our music system. The steps! Did similar things with SH2, 3, 4, The one witht he japanese ghosts and the camera, and i could take it.

    I could muster the will to beat the dark descent, but I uninstalled a machine for pigs the second i saw something scurry about those cells. Same happenned to me with outlast, when it prompted me to go to the basement. Nope, uninstall.

    Sometyhing has definitely changed, maybe in me as well. I can no longer take it. Diegesis gets the best of me now. Maybe there’stoo much thrill, and too little tragedy now. Silent hill gave me that. I could be terrified, absolutely frozen, but I knew no sockpuppet would jump out of a door and BOO! me. The place was enough. The blood /rust/mucus caked floors were enough.

    Something has definitely changed with the pacing of horror games. Maybe alien does it right again?

  18. MattMk1 says:

    I’ve been struggling to articulate why exactly I don’t like horror games for a long time, and the bit above about how, fundamentally, horror games end up being stressful really resonated with me.

    It’s not that horror games don’t scare me – they do, a bit, and I don’t enjoy being scared all that much either – but it’s the mounting stress of constantly being harassed and hounded by the game that’s the real culprit. I couldn’t even enjoy Bioshock because I knew that at every turn, my explorations would be interrupted by creepy/annoying things jumping out at me. And something like System Shock, where I’m told you’re not even safe when you’re fiddling with inventory, is a complete non-starter for me.

    On the other hand, games like Dishonored can get pretty creepy (by my mild standards) but I enjoy them anyway because there, 95% of the time I’m the one jumping out at things from dark corners, and I have the option of waiting to consider the situation or perhaps avoiding it entirely.

  19. yamnuska says:

    I never forgot the creepy feeling from this movie. Too me this is what a horror movie should be. One pop out scene but the tension is unbearable.

    The Woman in Black (1989, not the crappy new one).

    link to en.wikipedia.org

  20. revan says:

    I’m practically in the same boat. No matter how much I try, there is no way for me to handle all the tension and stress these games induce in me. I’ve tried playing Alien: Isolation and could manage about 15 – 20 minutes of playtime. Then I’d have to shut the game down because I would be so tense that people calling my name would make me jump out of the chair. I would actually feel better when the monster is in front of me because then I could see the threat as opposed to all those time when you anticipate something horrific to happen but there is nothing except sound and visual cues. Same thing with Amnesia games.

    I can handle third person horror games better but even then I’d succumb quickly to the same tension and stress. Also, small enemies really creep me out. For instance baby lurkers in Dead Space or headcrabs in Half Life are the reasons I’ve never finished any of these games.

  21. NeutronSoup says:

    I think there are two personality traits that contribute to the enjoyment of horror, one in a positive and one in a negative manner. Thrill-seeking, or the enjoyment one gets from an adrenaline rush, seems like it would be a positive motivator. Even if there are no jump scares, the foreboding is activating the same system.

    Empathy is probably a negative motivator. I’m not just talking about the ability to see things from another perspective, I mean the sense of actually feeling what (one thinks) another person feels. So someone with low thrill-seeking and high empathy is going to feel the fear more and not get much enjoyment from it.

    Although, I guess someone with high levels of both traits may get the most out of it.

  22. nemryn says:

    I might call Minecraft a ‘starter horror game’, actually. It’s not really a ‘horror game’ as such, but there are definitely moments, deep in the bowels of the earth, where the tension ramps up and what’s that noise? oh it’s just some ambient groaning, whew AAUUGH CREEPER

  23. woodsey says:

    Horror in general is also a genre I try and steer clear of. I am happy to watch a horror film with my housemates and some beer because there is something cathartic in being able to laugh stuff off; stuff you know shouldn’t be making you jump but inevitably does.

    Games are slightly different. Again, I won’t seek them out, but if something has a horror level in it then it doesn’t dissuade me. Bioshock is probably the closest I’ve come to buying what might vaguely be described as “horror”, but not really. Other than the first five minutes it didn’t really have me feeling scared, exactly.

    I do have to say though that Moira Asylum in the Thief reboot was absolutely unbearable. I had the lights on, the sound muted, The Thin Red Line OST on loud in the background, and it still was tortuous.

  24. BLACKOUT-MK2 says:

    I’m absolutely terrible with horror games. I got through Amnesia: The Dark Descent but had the sound off because god knows that chase noise is the sound of Satan experiencing a circumcision while conscious. Slender, gave that a shot; I actually didn’t know what happened when Slenderman catches you, and with the sound as loud as it was, when he DID inevitably get me, I huddled into a ball with my eyes wide as saucers completely paralysed. I had a shot a game a friend told me about called Erie… Never again. Five Nights At Freddy’s, no matter how much people call it unscary Youtuber bait, still makes me shit myself with fear.

    I went through a bit of a horror game phase, more to test myself than anything, even though I was really bad at dealing with them. Though for all the terrifying, trouser-soiling experiences that horror games bring, I still like to indulge in them, at least from a viewing perspective, less so from a player one. There’s something that fascinates me about the concept of being able to use programming and twisted ideas so effectively it can terrify the person playing. Kind of like how sadness is a terrible emotion; many films are considered fantastic if they can move you to tears, and I’m inclined to agree. A horror game strikes me as brilliant if it can instil fear in the player.

    It’s one of the reasons I feel horror lets plays became (and still are) so popular. For those people like me who want to indulge in a genre of gaming which they themselves are too scared to play, seeing someone else play them, and their presence helping dumb down the fear part really does help. Granted I’m a MASSIVE wuss, but nonetheless I’ve always had this weird fascination with fear, ever since I was terrified by the exoskeletons in Terminator. You want to look away but can’t, and I’m the same with horror games. I don’t want to know what horrific monstrosities lie within, but I also kind of do, thanks to my gloriously annoying curiousity.

    To summarise, I guess where some people can be confused and say ‘Why would you want to terrify yourself?’ the answer is ‘I don’t’. I want to experience a piece of art that exceeds at what it set out to do incredibly well, to see how they did it, to open my mind to new ideas… the fear is just a part of that. I should stop here, though. At this rate I’ll end up writing an article of my own.

  25. RARARA says:

    Maybe you should try Half Life 2, especially Ravenholm? Creepy, but you’re completely in power and can take care of the bad guys in hilarious fashion.

  26. Stevostin says:

    Very nice article (as are generally all Pip’s stuff IMHO)

    While I completely get the wall (had the same when I was a 10 yo who absolutely wanted to see Gremlins but couldn’t stand 10′ of it) it’s worth mentionning that even worse than being unable to play scary game is the point where you can’t at all be scared by a game/movie/books. I don’t feel anything when I play the dark descent because all I see is the video game craft. I see model, assets, texture, gameplay. I don’t get involved. I instantly reach the point of managing the threat like a gameplay element (as a consequence I dropped the game pretty fast because it stopped to be interesting).

    I can still be scared in the “natural” way (someone mentioned creepers in Minecraft : game not especially designed to be scary but scary moments occur). Japaneses horror movie and David Lynch’s stuff were often scary last time I checked. BTW I disagree with Adam: scary is enough, and actually it may be better if there is no point. Because being scared is an intimate trip inside yourself in places you’re not even awared of. Bringing traditionnal narrative sense into this can be diluting the important stuff into less important stuff. Overall I see scary experience as a way to establish unexpected and exciting connection inside the brain (at least as long as I can stand it).

    The game I am having a hard time to launch is The Walking Dead 2. First one was very scary in the “constant low intensity fear” way and the story got so intense I had a hard time to breath during last chapter. Awesome game for sure but I really have to be in a good shape to launch anything more in that vein :P

  27. sinister agent says:

    Man, I am so bad at horror games too. I’ve never liked most horror films either really, but then most seem to be about sadism and torture porn than actual horror. I’m okay with films though, they seldom get to me. But games, when they do it right, oh god. I still remember the wordless look of dread I shared with a cousin the first time we played System Shock 2, a game neither of us had ever heard of.

    I was playing Stalker 3 just yesterday, and came to an underground station of some kind. I’d gone up and down a few levels, via tunnels and stairs, and aside from some brainwashed soldiers and a couple of easily swatted swarm-type mutants at the entrance, there was nothing.

    It was awful. I was looking for a shelter as I expected an emission any time soon. Go outside in an emission and you’re dead, so I was checking this unmarked place on the map, hoping it’d be somewhere safe to run to if the emission came while I was exploring a nearby field. So I had to make sure it was empty, right?

    But the further I got, the emptier it was, and the more tense and terrified I got. Every corner that proved empty made me even more scared of the next. Eventually I came to a doorway, beyond which was the largest room I’d seen yet, so dark I couldn’t see the other side, with a few pillars to throw shadows around and hide god knows what.

    I stood at that doorway for ages, scared out of my wits to go on, knowing that something awful was going to happen. Eventually, I went in. There was nothing. The room was empty, and I got to the other side intact. It led to a short corridor, and on the other end of the corridor… was the exact same fucking doorway.

    I turned and fled for the open air, deadly emissions and all. Fuck that bunker. I am happy being a massive coward, thanks!

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      In the end, the actual “scary things”, the monsters and whatnot in Stalker weren’t really all that scary. Stalker was at its scariest when you were scaring yourself. What I still love best about Stalker from a horror point of view isn’t the dark bunkers or the twisted mutants or getting your brain melted or any of that jazz, great as it was.
      It’s the subtle, niggling, nameless “wrongness” of the Zone. All of it. Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere you go just feels ‘off’. And while I haven’t been to the real place myself, I’ve heard a fair few people say that’s not even invented, that it really is like that (although I guess with less instances of the sky trying to eat you).
      For all its bugs and flaws, the original is an incredibly easy game to get immersed in at times.

  28. Bookbuster says:

    I have the exact same reaction to horror games – stress without enjoyment. And the stress of it escalates far too quickly for me to make it those moments of catharsis that make the stress worthwhile. And, well, sometimes when I do manage to play through something horrific, I don’t even get that moment of catharsis. I really pushed myself to get through the Ocean House Hotel in Vampire: Bloodlines, for example, but completing it didn’t leave me with a feeling of relief or even satisfaction so much as burning desire to never, ever play through it again.

    But I really love reading and hearing about horror games. I think I’ve read the entire Silent Hill wiki from a to z. Five Nights at Freddys? I eat up all of the lore and fan theories like delicious candy. I think it allows me to admire the craft without having the stress reaction.

  29. Ennui says:

    Playing Amnesia several years ago was surreal because I have never been that terrified in a game before. I couldn’t make it more than a few hours in because playing it was so intensely stressful. That part in the early game when you’re running through semi-flooded passageways with the loud splashing footsteps of an invisible demon in pursuit right on your tail… good god. I rarely even laugh out loud when I’m alone at the PC, but that shit had me screaming loud enough to wake the devil alone in my house as I ran away from that thing.

    Not having any way to defend yourself from the monsters lurking in the dark was terrifying – and I’m the sort of player who BLASTS through most FPS or action titles without giving a second thought to anything “creepy” (because I know I can just shoot it in the face).

    It reminded me of playing Wolf3d as a little kid… I loved watching my dad play but when I took the controls and he left the room I was too terrified of the Nazi dogs to open the door and leave the first room of the level. It took 5 year old me a few months to get over that and actually play the game. Hiding in a corner holding my breath behind a set of shelves in Amnesia while I watch the monster looking for me just feet away in the dim light is the only thing that has ever given me that same crippling terror that I remember feeling about those goddamn pixelated Nazi attack dogs lurking in the next room while trying to work up the 5 year-old courage to open the door and face them.

    I have an Oculus DK2 and I’ve been tempted to try it out with Amnesia or Slender or something but I’m kinda worried I may actually frighten myself to death.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      Try The Mental Torment, or any of the Oculus Horror demos. Its fucking horrifying. I can do about 5 minutes, as others said above its just stressful and not at all fun, and the jump scares leave me feeling like someone actually just assaulted me. I am however a nervous wreck.

  30. Deccan says:

    There was one evening where I could play Dead Space no longer; my nerves couldn’t further endure the frazzling sense of imminent bodily violation. I plonked the controller down and sought a better-lit room.

    It’s always mystified me that people accuse Dead Space of relying on jump scares. There might have been one or two, both planned and intriguingly emergent, but for me it was all about the sound design and the knowledge of what the necromorphs would do to you if they caught you, combining to create a sense of dread that was exhausting to soak in for lengthy periods. This feeling would rise and ebb like a tide, and sometimes – being pursued by the invincible morph; trying to slide the bunkbeds back into place before the stasis wore off – it was like a tsunami that just engulfed you, causing a strong physiological reaction.

    The only time that dread was completely absent was in that one accursed room. You know the one. I got off the train and immediately noted the little candle by the door. “That’s…different,” I thought. Upon entering the room…well, with one exception I’ve never had a game inspire actual *revulsion* before or since. I spent a while drinking it in, knowing what a rare feeling it was. Hats off to the devs for that achievement; only System Shock 2 has managed a similar thing.

    Then I never finished the game because the final boss reversed the controls and had a 30-second unskippable cutscene if you failed. Win some, lose some, devs.

  31. mcbob13 says:

    Horror games are not really true horror games. True horror isn’t jump scares or over reliance on gore or “disturbing imagery”. How can you experience horror if there is no peril? if you die in a game, you simply load your last save point and continue on, that’s where you lose your fear cause you now now what to do/avoid. A game that doesn’t allow save points but you must keep playing until the end or if you die, the game is over would be a more interesting game mechanic. I understand that starting over from the beginning would suck as you would retread everything that you saw and done would dull the experience.
    I sat and played Amnesia the dark descent in one evening, it was a great experience since I didn’t allow myself to leave. A machine for pigs was boring, as I been there done that. Once again I played it one evening. Alien Isolation wasn’t scary, due to the alien always being around, it just got to be something else that got in your way while you worked your way to the level exit. Horror is a personal thing, our fears are personal and no game could be directed to everyone’s own personal fears.
    Pathologic was to me a scary game, not from the images or story but from failure in saving people from the plague, I personally dislike failure in my life so when I failed in saving a character, I feared about continuing on due to me making the same mistake that cost me a valuable character. I had to summon all the courage to just to finish the game 3 times playing the 3 characters and still I failed in saving several characters, I didn’t care about my health in the game but the characters well-being. I learned about myself and really felt fear at the end the day, dreading who would die the next day.
    Game should be less about gore, jump scares, disturbing images and more about common fears that we all share, and spiders aren’t scary, just annoying.

    • GameCat says:

      Yeah, that’s quite a paradox – in order to make horror game really scary and tense you can’t kill a main hero.

      Ideal system would be like save system from Dark Souls (whatever you do, it stays to the end of the game, you can’t get back) and something that would punish the player/hero that isn’t death.

  32. Miresnare says:

    I got wrong off the missus while playing Outlast. There’s a jump scare that made me shriek, throw my headphones off and wheel myself backwards. Brilliant.

    PT is also a very good little game. It keeps ranking up the unpleasant and oppressive atmosphere until you feel really grubby.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      Play it on the DK2 with Vorpx.
      Crawl into foetal position.
      Rock back and forth.
      Cancel your phone contract.
      Shun the outside world.

  33. AJLange says:

    You can do it. I believe in you.

    (But I’m also one of those weird people that thinks Silent Hill 3 is better than 2. It’s the female protagonist, gets me every time. Give it a try after 2, maybe.)

  34. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    Don’t start with Silent Hill 2! It’s good, but you won’t be able to tell because it’s super effective at what it does and will wear you out.
    The Amnesia games are vastly inferior, but also way less scary, so that was probably a good entry point.

  35. kael13 says:

    Hmm.. I went and looked up that painting some more on another website and, having just watched it last night, it reminds me a hell of a lot of the film Under the Skin with Scarlet Johansson. This description of the painting seems so similar to Johansson’s character in the film;

    “In “Judith and Holophernes” (found in Hall 90 along with Caravaggio), the biblical heorine Judith, a traditional example of vitue and chastity, is shown about to decapitate her despised Assyrian enemy whom she has tricked by seduction while keeping her purity safe. ”

    As for the movie itself, it felt a bit disjointed but did it in such a way to make you feel very uneasy.

  36. totem42 says:

    Same problem. Scary/creepy movies or games are just exercises in pain for me, there’s no reward at the end. I think that folks who don’t have a problem, or enjoy such things, have the ability to turn off, or ignore, their acceptance of the illusion. They settle in, get all fighty/flighty/adrenaliney, and then say “well that was sweet, back to reality” and let the illusion go. I find that I can’t let the illusion go, and I get stuck in a state of wanting to hide in a cave with a pointy stick for hours. probably indicative of deeper issues, but regardless, there’s plenty more bits of entertainment to experience in this wide world, so I’ll happily leave the pant peeing and artistic appreciation of deep primal mind tweaking to others.

  37. The DCG says:

    I believe my problem with horror (in movies and games, at any rate) is an over-active imagination. Which sounds a bit odd, because who is going to say: “Yes, I’m an unimaginative sod, that’s why I can watch/play this!” But that isn’t what I mean exactly, so bear with me. What I think my issue is, is that in the interim, the build up, the rising action my mind subconsciously creates something horrific. Then the demon jumps out of the corner and eats my face and I’m all “Augh!” but then I’m over it. Then, that night, my subconscious, annoyed at the pettiness of the actual scare, unleashes that which it had created. Over and again. For days, weeks, even months (off and on) in one notable case. Nightmares, broken sleep, sheet-soaking sweats- the whole gamut.

    “Psychological horror,” or thrillers, or what have you are almost worse. The notable case, above? That was “Silence of the Lambs.” First, my enterprising subconscious decided what was really wanting was deep immersion into the mindset of the victims – as one clawed at the walls until one’s fingernails broke off, mind bending under the stresses. Then, and worse, my wonderful imagination decided to delve into the villains. What mindset reaches that? Let’s try it out, shall we? Nightmares where _I_ am the horror, doing horrible things I believe (in the dreams) to be reasonable and purposeful.

    Those two together – no jump-scares because of creating worse ones; no psychological scares because I’ll empathise too much – they make even the cheesiest of horror all but inaccessible. Why can’t I control my imagination, separate fiction and reality like I do while reading? I haven’t the foggiest. I’ve never read a good, compelling book that I’d consider horror, so I can’t really compare…