I’ve been thinking about fear a lot lately. Whether it’s things that scare me personally, or just tropes that apply to all facets of pop culture, horror is an integral aspect of the media we consume. While not a fan of horror games myself (I can’t stomach taking control of someone who is walking into a horror movie situation by my hand), I do like to indulge in a few horror films around Halloween. The origins of this tradition came from a fairly dark place in my life, and I think it’s the same dark place in everyone that explains the popularity of a genre focused on scaring people to their very core.
A few years ago, my grandfather passed away from old age. Although I had only spent a few weeks spending time with him, I felt like I lost a part of my own mother as well. The lessons that he imparted on her trickle down to me even today, and his presence was sorely felt hundreds of miles away from his home in Syria. For a while, I didn’t know how to cope with this loss. I first heard the news on the way to school, my mom barely able to tell me while holding back tears. And I, being the self-centered high school student that I was, couldn’t figure out how to feel. I still remember sitting at my grandparents’s house, telling them both that no, I didn’t want to eat or drink anything.
It was around this time of year when I heard the news, and my first instinct that weekend was to watch a movie. I believe it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was free on some digital download service, and I decided that it would do as background noise as I thought about other things. For those who haven’t seen the film, it’s basically a chintzy, very bizarre retelling of the classic vampire story, but with a much greater emphasis on the opulence and sexuality of its titular villain. It’s not an amazing film, but now I associate it with all of the emotions that come with losing a family member. The best horror films are the ones that strike a particular, deeply personal nerve with the viewer, which is why I find it difficult to recommend films of the genre to other people. Scenes, settings, and even specific kills all resonate with people differently, and I think that the best way to dive into the horror genre is to try a little bit of everything. Although it’s not a great film from a critical point of view, the 2009 remake of The Last House on the Left has stuck with me for a while because it dealt with sexual assault and parental nurturing in a really visceral, disturbing way. Replace the girl who is killed in the first act with my sister, and replace the parents with mine, and you basically have a recurring nightmare of mine. The thought that kind people could be brought to the brink of madness by the loss of a child is one of the scariest things I can imagine, and although there are objectively “better” horror films, these two came at just the right time for me to be disturbed by them.
As I said earlier, I have less experience with games in the horror genre. The genre as a whole is too intense for me, and I don’t need that much pressure when sitting back and playing a game. However, I won’t deny that there are some genuinely amazing things being done with the genre in the last few years. Amnesia: The Dark Descent scared me enough to delete it off of my hard drive after 15 minutes of play time, and even Gone Home plays with your expectations of a haunted mansion in some clever ways. However, the most interesting advancement in horror video games to me is the Oculus Rift. The Kickstarter-funded VR headset already has several first person demos available that showcase its ability to trap the player in a constructed universe. I can get through games like Dead Space, where the player has the ability to stop in a safe zone, and fight back with an arsenal of weapons. But as soon as the game occupies my entire point of view, and I can’t look away, that’s the point where I will never be brave enough to play games. It’s so easy to pause and look away, just to catch your breath or get away from whatever monster is chasing the protagonist. Just thinking about it makes me sick. I think this fear of being too engrossed in a scary experience comes from a genuine fear of responsibility in me. It’s easy to say that the characters in a film are dumb and deserve to die, but putting me at the wheel of an avatar’s fate requires a commitment and level of authority that I just don’t have. As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s to each their own when it comes to horror. Play a few games yourself, watch some scary movies with friends, and decide for yourself how invested you’re willing to be when the blood starts spraying, and the other line just won’t pick up the phone.