What is fear? Is it the goose bumps, the raised heart rate, the dilated pupils, or the sense of an imminent threat? When was the last time that you truly felt scared—and I mean scared? Was it when you watched that scary movie where gore was more present than the story? Or was it when you played Dead Space, where that dead body wasn’t as dead as you thought. The lack of fear in society may be caused by the desensitized culture surrounding horror; I attribute it to the misattribution of fear with gore and jump scares.
To truly understand where this lost art went, I explored the facets of culture that define what scares us. I found the best place to start was in my first personal experience with true fear.
When I was 12 years old, my dad returned from his long day of strenuous work at the hospital, but to my surprise, he came home holding a video game. He told me that he had read online about a new game called BioShock. Being a rash and naive child who hadn’t been truly afraid of anything, I quickly snatched away the game and sprinted downstairs, while screaming “thanks!” It was exhilarating! Finally, a video game I didn’t have to pay for by pulling weeds in the back yard for six hours. I quickly inserted the game into the disc reader and sat lightly on our large couch in anticipation. I played the game and after only two hours had passed, I was horrified. I had never seen such a graphic game. People mutilated and torn apart by a six hundred pound giant in a scuba suit with a drill hand, charred human remains of mutant junkies, and children running around with large needles filled with a synthesized super power compound. I turned off the game, took it out of the disc reader, walked upstairs, and placed the game back in the hands of my father. “What’s wrong? You didn’t like it?” he asked me. I explained what I saw, and he made me walk downstairs and play the beginning sequence again for about 15 minutes. Quietly, he stood up, removed the disc, placed it into the case, put it in his coat pocket, and walked upstairs. Later that night, I laid awake in bed sweating, just thinking about the fear that game made me feel—and still feel. My eyes were dilated and my heart was pounding—I couldn’t sleep. The game was all I could think about. But with that restlessness, came the adrenaline. I felt alive! It was addictive—I wanted more—I needed more. So, I quietly snuck upstairs and took the game out of the cupboard where it was stored. I tiptoed across the floor tiles, stealthily and quietly, until I reached the downstairs door. This was my big moment. I was going to conquer this game, beat the fear whether I was allowed to or not.
Since the moment I walked across that creaky floor, I have never felt as exhilarated, alive, or rushed. There have been instances that have been close. But, as the years have passed, I have noticed the slow decay of this feeling in video games. This may be attributed to my maturing and developing, but I believe current games have lost that spark.
True horror is the feeling of complete despair, hopelessness, and the unwillingness to peer around a corner when you hear a creak from the adjacent hallway. True horror is the rush of adrenaline that pumps through your veins and makes you twitch at the slightest moment of danger.
The decay of this sacred art is not easy to remedy. Our culture today attributes the ideas of gore and mutilation as horror and fear, but if you ask your parents about the movies of the ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s, they will tell you that the movies were just different. To counteract the situation, people need to accept the toll of a little less gore, and embrace the idea of the unknown. Because, in the end, it is the unknown that will always appease security and comfort, and force a person out of their comfort zone.
Horror, as a genre in video games today, just doesn’t seem to exist. Triple-A developers just don’t care to do them anymore. BioShock was my entrance into the world of terror, and Dead Space was a step in the same direction, but if you look at the same series today, both in their third iterations, they just aren’t scary. Where Bioshock walled in the player in a glass prison surrounded by the terrifying vastness of the deep sea, Bioshock Infinite’s setting took place mainly on sunny airships high above the clouds. The same can be said about Dead Space 3; neither of these series are horror driven anymore.
While BioShock’s newest sequel moved to story as the focus point of the game, many other titles moved to combat and gore over fear. Shock value and mutilation beats atmosphere or tone. Dead Space 3 got rid of the dark setting and claustrophobic spaces, but kept the full body amputation required to kill many of the enemies. Resident Evil 6 is more about fighting ridiculous mutants than fighting for survival. Big games today just don’t care about the scares.
The same can be seen in film horror. The first Saw was successful in creating a tense and unpredictable world where this killer, with a twisted sense of justice, could force his victims to do anything he wanted. The gore was minimal, and most of the film involved two men just talking in a bathroom. However, as the franchise developed, and the amount of victims in each film became larger, the films lost their focus on characters and why we should care about their safety, and just moved to hurting or killing them as soon as possible. Resident Evil, the film series, also moved from horror to large fight scenes with mutants like its videogame counterpart.
The only avenue for good scares in videogames seems to be the indie route. Slender was a scary game that became popular because it was successful in eliciting the reaction intended, fear. The first Amnesia also achieved the same fortune because of its focus on survival horror that made up for a rather lackluster story. In a mainstream capacity, quality scary movies and games just don’t really exist. Horror is dead, it will come back at some point, but until then, I’ll just have to get by playing Outlast.