This is your brain on horror

This is your brain on horror
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Patrick Stafford knows what scares you and knows why you love it.

In George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel, 1984, the protagonist Winston is tortured by a totalitarian state. He is finally brought to Room 101, where his torturer, O’Brien, warns him of the horrors within: “The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world”.

Each person brought to Room 101 is faced with their worst personal fear. For Winston, that means being gnawed to death by rats. He gives in.

The word “horror” can mean completely different things to different people. It’s why the best media in the genre goes heavy on suspense and light on monsters – before the hooks and chainsaws come out, this is primarily matter of psychology. 

Video games use this to their advantage. Amnesia turned so many heads in 2010 not only due to its no-weapons strategy, but its mechanic: players aren’t allowed to even look at the monster that’s chasing them. Dead Space crafts unworldly music with crescendos strung throughout the game to keep the player constantly on edge – never certain of what’s behind the corner.  

The unknown. It’s what developers have been using against players for years – and it’s what makes players of horror games coming back for more. Story-telling is about showing, and not telling. In horror, it’s the opposite: showing too much tempers the fear.

“Video games are different when it comes to horror,” says Teresa Lynch, a PhD student and researcher at the University of Indiana – she specialises in video game horror. “If you’re watching a scary movie and you know there’s a monster in a room, you might shout out, “don’t get in there”.”

“But playing a game, you have to put yourself in the line of sight of a threat. Developers are manipulating those experiences in order to heighten fear.”

Are they ever.

The different types of fear >>
It’s almost boring to acknowledge it – the unknown is the core of fear, and by extension, horror. But as Frictional Games creative director Thomas Grip explains, it gets a little more complicated than that. 

“Just thinking, “when is the next scare going to come at me?” is the basic form of that unknown. That someone is going to pop out of the box,” he says.

“That goes further into a brooding feeling of being unsure of the situation, and there being an uncertainty to it. It’s about being unable to control the immediate future of what’s happening.”

If facing the unknown is the primary driver of fear, then agency is its twin. It’s why so many people fear flying – it isn’t cruising at 32,000 feet that’s the problem, it’s the knowledge they’re not at the controls if anything goes wrong. 

It’s also why survival horror games such as Amnesia, Silent Hill or even a game like The Last of Us strip away weapons from the player. 

“If people feel less empowered, they’re going to feel vulnerable,” says Lynch. That goes for the digital realm as well. In fact, Teresa says research points out the type of fear we feel when playing a video game is very much the same type of fear we have in real-life. 

“When we see a threat, we get a very rapid emotional response. And that’s similar to the way we would react in the real world,” she says. “It’s engaging that type of fight or flight response.”

“I think that’s where video games depart from more traditional media –you tend to become much more engaged with the character you’re playing.” 

So what is that response? What is it that triggers in our minds while playing a horror game? 

For Thomas Grip, it’s all in the anticipation. 

“When a torturer gets someone to talk, the scariest part is not the pain. It’s them slowly putting on the gloves, and place instruments in front of him,” he says.

Grip says there’s something inside of us – something carried through evolution, perhaps – which enables us to identify a threat. When ancient humans saw a rustling piece of grass, assuming it was a ferocious animal ready to devour serves them better than pretending it’s nothing at all. It’s how we’ve survived. 

“Let’s say you’re walking through grass and you see it moving. It might not be a tiger, but if you run and ride, you’re safe. If you’re a skeptic and don’t care, then it might be a minority occurrence but you will eventually get mauled by that tiger,” he says.
“Evolution has been more kind to people who are constantly afraid of moving shadows. I believe that’s built into us.”

Lynch says it’s true –we have an instinct to stay alive.

“Psychological tension is one way to heighten the fear experience, and also increasing levels of what we call adverse tendencies, or negative effects – negative emotional experiences which lead to fear.”

“This is why we see things like disgusting creatures, because disgust is an adverse reaction to things in your environment. They compound into fear.”

“Fear is one of the most powerful experiences because it’s relevant to survival.”

It’s one of the few emotions which actually cause people to act, Lynch says. You might feel happiness, joy or even sadness, but these rarely prompt you to make an immediate action. 

Fear is different. Fear sends electrical signals through your organs, causing you to run faster than you would otherwise. It heightens your senses, raising the hair on your appendages to feel more sensitively.

“There is a rapid ramping up of your motivation systems when scared. It takes away parts of the body that aren’t relevant to survival,” says Lynch. 

“We even see resources being depleted from something like a digestion system, because when you’re running it doesn’t matter. You just need to get away and you need energy to do that.”

Even your sense of smell increases, she says. The body pumps as much energy into the systems needed to detect threats and subsequently get away from them – which is why people in fear studies have reported being able to smell bad odors. 

This is where Lynch’s research comes in: playing a horror game evokes the same type of fear and reaction that would occur in real life. As far as the mind is concerned, what you’re looking at isn’t fake – it’s the real deal.

“I had a person in one of my studies who said they actually picked up their console after an intense situation and threw it,” she says. “Those reactions can be incredibly intense.”
“And these reactions can stick with you beyond just an initial jump scare. And then you can even end up in the opposite direction – what happens when you get so overloaded that you simply stop experiencing fear?”

“Maybe you reach a point where you aren’t having a fear experience – you’re just chopping down characters in your way.”

Grip says this is actually a significant problem. If you’re mowing down enemies in a game like Devil May Cry, for instance, horror themes are hard to break through. This is one of the criticisms many players have of Dead Space – at some points the enemies are too many to be afraid of.

“Because a player can be so expectant of an enemy, the experience has had its potential fear reduced,” he says. 


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