I don’t react to horror movies the same way I used to. Once, I could feel the hair stand up on my arms, my pulse accelerating as someone walked down a dark hallway backed by a score of screeching string instruments, when the camera would pan over and reveal the reflection of a demon in the mirror or Pennywise in the storm drain. I still enjoy all those moments, but they don’t scare me anymore.
Maybe it’s because the sound cues or scenes have become too predictable. Or maybe the real world is scarier these days. But as much as I love horror movies, video games are the only form of horror media that make me scream so loud my neighbors come over to ask if I’m okay.
Of course, not every horror game is blood-curdling-scream terrifying. Something like Dead By Daylight is just some good, old-fashioned slasher fun, and if you play Friday the 13th: The Game long enough you can get pretty good at escaping Jason. But the crucial difference is that video games are an active medium instead of a passive one like film. With film, I’m usually watching a character from a third-person point of view run from the monster then trip on flat ground while I shout, “You probably shouldn’t do that” at the screen. Doesn’t matter if it’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Babadook, or A Quiet Place; beyond a quick jump scare, I don’t feel that dread filmmakers are aiming for.
Still, horror video games scare the pants off me even with comical commentary because they are an active medium and you usually play them from a first-person point of view. I’m dependent on my own survival. I can panic, hit the wrong key, and turn toward the monster trying to suck my soul or my brains out and instantly bite the dust. I have to do that over and over again until I can get past that part in the game. In Soma and Alien: Isolation there is a strategy involved to sneaking past the monsters unseen, whether that’s staying quiet so Terry Akers can’t use his excellent hearing to find you, or having a fast enough reaction time to set a Facehugger on fire before it can latch onto your face.
In a similar vein to Soma, Outlast and Outlast 2 leave you without a means to defend yourself. But instead of a flashlight, you have the night vision on your video camera that runs out of battery power pretty quickly. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run past battery packs in a flight of panic and ended up getting murdered in the dark.) These games use a lot of the same tropes from horror movies—light burning out, hiding in a closet, dead bodies dropping from the ceiling right in front of you—but the situation is way more dire because you are the main character, not sitting back on your couch watching a story unfold. Hell, for a 2D platformer, Inside gave me a good adrenaline rush multiple times, and the opening of Dead Space 2 still gives me shivers.
Other games like Until Dawn that have branching narratives often force you to choose between who lives and dies, stretching your moral fabric to its absolute thinnest. You feel personally responsible for the lives of all the characters, even if you think they are the most annoying people on the planet. In a game like Man of Medan (also from Supermassive Games), where the goal is to try to keep every alive, that guilt is laid on thick if you miss a crucial quick time event and are the reason a character is now dead. On the flip side, a game like Masochisia creates the same guilt, the same unsettling feelings by forcing the player to choose a victim from the eyes of a serial killer. It’s an emotionally intense game, not one to play casually. In comparison, I don’t feel personal guilt watching a movie like Seven, which is a genuinely creepy movie, because I’m not personally involved.
Since games are interactive, I don’t quite know what’s coming my way, even if I’m replaying a game. There’s always another storyline or another way of doing things that can make the experience different from the first time. You notice more details, just like when you watch the same movie over and over again, but they are less predictable than movies—and if you play enough horror games, that interactivity might desensitize you to horror movies, too. At least that’s what happened to me. Not saying I don’t feel unsettled or creeped out by horror movies from time to time (Ari Aster’s Hereditary did a number), or get an emotional attachment to characters, because I do. They just don’t scare me anymore, not like video games can, but I’ll stay on a quest to find one that will.
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