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I have always had a rather complicated relationship with horror. On the one hand, I love it. The sensation of feeling uncomfortable and even scared can be an exhilarating feeling, and many different forms of media (movies, books, games) all capture that sensation really well. On the other hand, I hate it. So many forms of horror – particularly visual forms – rely on a method of scaring the viewer or player that I absolutely detest.
So I always end up approaching the topic of horror from the viewpoint of someone who has never been able to fully dive into it. So much of it drives me away, and yet some of what drives me away is what is appealing to others.
But I wanted to write on the topic of horror because of a particular phrase I’ll encounter every now and then when a horror game is being discussed: “this game isn’t scary.”
The phrase has always baffled me. It very clearly begins from the premise that the individual saying it played the game and was not scared by it. Which is certainly a valid response. A particular scary thing does not need to be scary for every person.
But the statement “this game isn’t scary” does more than simply suggest that the player thinks there is nothing scary about the game at all. The context in which the claim is brought up – often in response to other players discussing the parts of the game that they found scary – means that other people should not find those things scary. It is a way of taking that individual’s experience and using it as a basis for saying someone else’s experience is wrong. I did not find this game scary, and that must mean it’s not scary, and so if you find it scary it must mean there’s something wrong with you.
I’ve written on this subject from several different perspectives, but it’s always important to get a good grasp of the important distinction between elements of a game that are purely subjective, and elements that can be viewed in some sort of objective manner.
Of those two, horror falls almost entirely within the former. What we find scary is mostly personal, and what we are looking for in a horror experience is going to differ as well.
So for this essay I wanted to explore some different ideas of what “horror” means, and what different people consider to be “scary.” Because how we talk about these things – or fail to talk about them – creates problems for what a horror game experience really means, and just as importantly, impacts what kinds of horror games get made.
It’s Not Horror, It’s…
The first problem we have to confront is that we don’t really have a good language for talking about horror. We have a handful of words to talk about this stuff – horror, scary, terror, frightening – but the terms don’t have much of a distinct meaning. It’s common to see these words used interchangeably, and we generally just categorize everything under “horror.”
So sometimes the phrase “this game isn’t scary” is explained by trying to describe how it’s not scary, but instead something else. It’s not really horror, it’s terror. And thus, we can make distinctions that allow us to protect the precious categories without needing to lose any kind of credibility.
Why jump through these mental hoops? Because if I am a fan of horror games – and especially if I publicly declare myself a fan of horror games – then I may find that my love of horror games is in some way wrapped up with my identity. I am a “horror game player.”
But then what happens if I don’t like a particular horror game? What if I play it and don’t find it scary? If my personal identity is somehow tied up with liking horror games, then surely that must mean I like all horror games. So if I don’t like a particular horror game, it must be because it’s actually not a horror game. I wasn’t scared by it, so it must be the game’s fault. It can’t be my fault.
This conclusion could be true. Maybe a game isn’t all that scary because it has such poor execution that any attempt to scare players falls flat.
But what happens if that game is really popular? A lot of other people find it scary, but I still don’t? Well it still can’t be the case that I’m wrong. Instead, the problem is that other people don’t really understand what’s scary. It’s not that the game’s horror didn’t appeal to me personally – that I am desensitized after playing so many horror games or have particular tastes that aren’t satisfied by the game – but instead the fact that the game wasn’t scary and other people just don’t realize that. Or I need to specify that I like games that are “scary,” but not games that are “frightening,” because frightening games have some quality that make them different – and usually, make them lesser.
But this process doesn’t really help anything. The refusal to acknowledge that maybe different people have different ideas of what horror is, and to try to come up with excuses to explain away a subjective disagreement as objective mistakes, all creates more problems for talking about horror games than just refusing to talk about the subject at all.
The Circus of Horrors
It may be useful to look at some of the different forms of horror, and give some sense of why people find them terrifying. The fact that these different forms of horror exist doesn’t mean that they need to appeal to everyone. Indeed, you may well find that there are certain forms of horror that you don’t understand. That doesn’t mean that you have bad taste, nor does it mean that it’s not horrific. Instead, it’s a matter of taste. In this sense, horror is like comedy: we find different things to be funny, and we also find different things to be scary.
The most common form of horror to encounter nowadays is the “jumpscare.” This is where something surprises the viewer or player. For example, you walk through an empty room to pull a switch to open a door somewhere. When you turn around, you see that some monster has appeared behind you, which usually roars or screams at you. I will note that when I talked about not enjoying horror, I was referring to these jumpscares.
A lot of other people dislike these jumpscares as well, but there are plenty of popular horror games that rely upon them. Perhaps the most notable is the Five Nights at Freddy’s series. Generally, jumpscares work by setting the player on edge by making them feel uncertain when the jumpscare will happen. The fact that it is a surprise is important. When done properly, both the jumpscares and the time between jumpscares will be a source for terror: the player will be scared waiting for a jumpscare that could be coming any moment, but will still be scared by the jumpscare itself. That feeling of tension or even anxiety is as much a component of horror as anything else. And in some sense, the simple way in which it can be implemented and its power in making players feel scared helps show why it’s so common.
Another form of horror is “cosmic horror.” Often using the mythology of H.P. Lovecraft, cosmic horror presents the viewer or player with a powerful force that cannot really be understood, controlled, or even fought. Some sort of unknown and unknowable evil – and sometimes not even an “evil” in any real sense – becomes the antagonizing force that needs to be escaped.
The premise of cosmic horror is that we as human beings often like to feel important and in control of our world. And by contrast, things that make us feel irrelevant, weak, and helpless can feel terrifying. Especially if that power is something that takes away our power not because it is evil, but because it’s just so powerful it doesn’t even care. The idea of the Cthulhu mythos, for example, was that these gigantic god-like entities could easily destroy human beings, and did not really care about human beings, so much so that any attempt to worship or fight them was irrelevant. The result was that everything we thought to be important and true – our role in the universe – was shattered so completely that it would leave us with nothing else but madness.
A third form of horror we could point to relies on the concept of death and degradation. In particular, using mental deterioration like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The idea is to confront players with their own mortality in a way that gets them to actually worry about the concept of death, rather than merely tuning the thought out as background noise.
The thought of death itself and ceasing to exist can be powerful, but because it is so ever-present, it is harder for us to feel genuinely scared by the concept. But the idea of degrading and still existing without being us can be more powerful. Some people feel more susceptible to this form of horror, being more scared of the idea of degrading, especially people who have some form of indirect experience with the process of losing our memory and identity. As a result, this form of horror can be the most personal, and thus the most subjective – it might be appealing to some but not others in a more drastic way than other forms of horror are.
These three forms of horror are not the only things people find scary. I give these few examples to help explain what can scare us, and how different that horror can be. Jumpscares are horror, but a different form of horror than cosmic horror, which is different from the loss of personality.
The idea of what “belongs” in a given category is often unclear, because we aren’t well-equipped to tackle these issues. And so when it comes to something like horror, we often rely on very simple tests: what scares me? Those things are horror, and anything outside of it isn’t.
But that metric is poor, because it assumes that everything must revolve around our personal tastes. We can, of course, avoid games that don’t appeal to us. A horror game that relies on a form of horror we dislike does not need to be played. But our choice to avoid it cannot – on its own – mean that the game does not belong to the category of “horror,” nor can it mean that the game does a poor job of being a horror game.
So when you encounter a horror game that doesn’t appeal to you, you may feel the impulse to say “this game isn’t scary, it’s not really a horror game.” But check that impulse. Is the game not scary just because it’s something that genuinely isn’t scary, or is it just not scary for you? Those are two very different claims, and the claim we are making has radically different impacts on how we talk about horror and horror games more broadly.