Horror is a strange, even paradoxical, genre. We read horror literature, watch horror films, and play horror video games to experience fear, a basic negative emotion associated with danger. Why anyone would want to experience such emotion is a puzzle onto itself.
A different question, for those who do want the experience, is what medium provides the most of it. Traditional horror media such as horror fictions and films invite their audience to witness as horrible scenarios unfold, but not to influence those scenarios. In contrast, horror video games let players project themselves into a terrifying fictional world that they can act in and upon.
You might think that the first-person, active experience of playing a horror video game would be scarier than the third-person, passive experience of reading horror literature or watching horror film. Is it?
A study suggests that it is. Author Kyle Madsen tasked 50 university students with either playing the horror video game P.T., deliberately chosen for its life-like graphics, or watching the same game being played. Participants’ electrodermal activity, respiratory rate, and heart rate were taken to gauge their fear response, and all participants were asked to report on their levels of fear after having completed the session.
All physiological measures rose significantly more in response to actually playing the game than in response to simply watching the game being played. Though player and viewer self-reported fear did not differ significantly, the researchers suggest that ‘player agency’ – the experience of engaging with the virtual environment as though actually being there – is what caused the enhanced physiological response in the player condition.
Another study supports Madsen’s conclusion. Teresa Lynch and Nicole Martins asked players of horror video games what it is that is most scary about those games. Together with the uncertainty of darkness and fictional monsters such as zombies, participants ranked the interactivity of the experience at the very top of the list: Simply being able to act in and upon the horrific game world contributed powerfully to the game’s scariness.
Although these results are interesting by themselves, they do not tell the whole story because not all kinds of virtual interactivity inspire fear. The interactive experiences have to be of a certain kind – the scary kind, to wit. To explore what it is about horror gaming that makes it the scary kind, my collaborator Mathias Clasen and I have analysed the acclaimed horror video game Amnesia: The Dark Descent from 2012, as well as the genre more generally. The study was recently published in the journal Academic Quarter.
We argue, first, that horror video games are not sui generis. The horror video game harkens back to horror film and literature, and some of the devices that make horror in these media scary likewise work to make horror video games scary. For example, like the woeful protagonist of a horror film, the player of a horror video game usually meets with an unknown and hostile presence whose nature is only gradually revealed. So too in Amnesia. The tried-and-true formula of withholding information stimulates the imagination of viewers and players and is a powerful driver of suspense. We want to know what is out there.
But horror video games can do much more than rehash genre staples. They can leverage the interactive nature of the video game to gut-wrenching effect. A number of recent video games, such as 2015’s Until Dawn, invite the player to customise the experience through choosing which scares will feature in the game. Though some players doubtlessly opt to stay clear of their personal phobias, most do not. The frightening nature of horror video games is inherently attractive to players, who typically look to maximise, not minimise, the fright.
Another potent source of scares in horror video games such as Amnesia is sound. Like horror films, horror video games feature ‘acousmatic’ and ambiguous sounds that induce anxious tension. But unlike films, it is the players themselves who react to these ominous sounds, and who have to make the decision to approach or avoid. While the latter may seem the obvious choice, it may not be. Horror video games challenge players by revealing creepy and potentially dangerous locales that may hide resources crucial to their progress. Players must decide if the potential reward is worth the risk, and to do this they rely on information from the senses – from their eyes and ears. In horror games, such decisions can be fatal. They represent a source of intense anxiety for the player, one that is integral to the medium.
Finally, as a related point, we argue that the interactive nature of horror video games allows players to simulate terrifying ‘agentic’ scenarios, such as that of being hunted through narrow corridors by a rabid predator. Non-interactive media cannot do this exactly because the scenario is eminently ‘agentic’ – it is about making tough decisions and carrying them out in exceptionally stressful circumstances. The demands of playing a horror video game are therefore very different from those of reading horror literature or watching a horror film. It is an altogether more active and life-like experience.
Horror video games may be more frightening than other horror media due to the immersion and interactivity they afford the player. If so, we should expect the experience of horror video gaming in virtual reality to be exceptionally scary. In the image above Mathias Clasen, co-author of a new study on horror video games, looks to be confirming that hypothesis – at least in his own case.
The interactive scares of horror video games work remarkably well, and in our study we suggest that they do so for ultimately evolutionary reasons. They offer ‘agentic’, consequential, and sometimes customisable experiences that mirror those of real-life danger. The human fear response evolved in response to the kinds of dangers that our ancestors faced, and those dangers were not told or watched; they were lived. Horror video games allow us to simulate what it is like to make life-and-death decisions under conditions of great danger and uncertainty. They approximate more closely than horror in other media the kinds of terrifying scenarios that have historically endangered our kind, thereby giving shape to our common fears and phobias. That is why horror video games may represent the ultimate (mediated) scare.
Jens Kjeldgaard-Christiansen is a PhD Student at the Department of English at Aarhus University, Denmark.