So it’s the Halloween season, and things are gettin’ spooky up in here, so I wanted to take this time of the year to talk about some horror. I don’t like horror much, but I find it interesting to talk about. It’s a rare and impressive work that manages to get under people’s skin, and I think anything which can pull it off is worth talking about. The strange thing is that horror movies are the bottom of the barrel in the film industry, whereas horror games tend to be pretty well-revered.
I admit this isn’t a site about movies, but I’m nevertheless a huge movie fan. I spend about as much time in front of the big screen as the CRT screen. Although they’re two completely different beasts, I think comparing movies to games has a lot of value. They’re two opposite sides of the same coin: both are entertainment, but one is passive while the other is active. The two have completely different approaches to horror as a genre, and I think they can shed light on each other.
The first thing we have to ask is, what is the essence of horror as entertainment? The answer is subjective, of course. My personal idea of horror is anything intimate and deeply unsettling. Horror doesn’t just give you a quick scare and pump of adrenaline, it stays with you well after the fact. But if you’re trying to actively give someone these feelings, it’s easier said than done.
Part of the issue is that horror is even a genre at all. If someone goes to a scary movie or downloads a scary game, they go in with certain expectations. Horror movies have trouble getting through to people these days because they’ve existed since the beginning of film. Since games are a younger medium, they have the advantage of more uncharted territory. Horror film, on the other hand, is plagued by tropes, cash-ins, and dead-end ideas. Nevertheless, there are some movies that still manage to surprise people such as Mother, Split, and Get Out to name a recent few. To me, that means there are reliable ways to freak people out.
I’m going to go out on a limb and boil down the essence of good horror to a single word: investment. The instinct of fear is rooted in survival, most often survival of something mysterious or powerful. With an emotion like this, it becomes much more pronounced when the stakes are personal, and someone is directly involved. Horror games therefore have a clear advantage as an interactive medium, because the player has agency and responsibility in this dangerous situation. In a detached medium like film, the filmmakers have to use cinematography, character and world building, and intricate pacing to achieve the same effect. It’s not as easy to make someone feel afraid of the unknown when the unknown is affecting someone else. In his review of The Gallows in 2015, A.A. Dowd of The A.V. Club gave the film a D+, saying, “Making audiences care about the characters is always a more effective fear-generating strategy than just knocking off a bunch of dimwits in the dark.” That statement alone captures the point perfectly.
As far as pitfalls go, games and movies run into the same problems. And that’s important.
If you look at widely discredited horror games and horror movies, a lot of the same problems turn up. For example, some common gripes are linearity, predictability, and cheap scares. These things make horror feel manufactured and dull. A lot of poorly-made Unity games do this, and Five Nights at Freddy’s has taken heat for it. As movies go, look no further than virtually any horror sequel to see what recycling a formula can do.
Conversely, the best horror typically takes normal characters and puts them through hell. It also helps if that hell could theoretically exist in the real world. I like to think of this as the “what-if” template. Amnesia asks, “What if you woke up in a castle of nightmares?” Carrie asks, “What if the invisible bullied girl in your high school took unholy revenge?” Silent Hill asks, “What if you had to confront a world of your own fears?” while IT asks, “What if you had to fight fear itself?”
A fundamental difference between excellent horror in games and movies, meanwhile, is that they use fairly unique methods. Horror games use gameplay mechanics like sanity meters and limited resources to build tension. Horror movies use compelling character development. Horror protagonists aren’t particularly remarkable, which is intended to make them easier for viewers to project themselves onto. The viewer feels along with the character. All that remains is to manipulate characters to elicit genuine fear, as they slowly break down and change. In the climax of The Shining, we feel fear as a once-sane Johnny tries to kill his own family, not only because of Johnny’s downfall, but because this fear is easy to understand. We become invested in their survival as we imagine what it would be like to have this happen to us.
To conclude, if investment is the key to horror, then I’d say the greatest virtue to practice in any form of horror is patience. You need to really work over the audience to make them feel unsettled. Viewers want to understand the threat, to understand the unknown. Knowing this, let them make certain discoveries while withholding others. Make the initial sense of danger something relatively ordinary. Let the consumer scare themselves a little bit first as they go down a frightening rabbit hole. The slow burn of discovery will create something unforgettable.