The Psychology of Horror

When you go to the local cinema, or buy yourself a Horror Video game you aim at one of two things. Having a great laugh, because the attempt at “horror” will be pathetic, or become absolutely terrified. One would think that after watching a few dozen horror movies and having played all those Resident Evil games a person would be resistant to all the “tricks” horror offers. That is true, in part. Certain horror games use the same techniques over and over again, creating a predictable environment for the player. One of the most commonly pointed out “tricks” in Dead Space was the use of vents for Necromorphs to enter through. Dead Space had some horror elements, but in the end it turned out to be more of an action game than horror. Scary enemies and dark environments are not enough for a hardened horror veteran to roll over. You have to aim at the brain.

Silent Hill 2

I love subtle hints.

Psychology of Horror

You do not need a degree in Psychology to know what people are afraid of. It might be spiders, the dark, tight spaces, weird noises, anything could trigger a fear reaction in us. The problem is making a person genuinely afraid all the time, keep their nerve string strung up throughout the game, or at least when you want the player to be strained. Zombie horror games try to address the horror zombies should be causing, but over the years they became much better at (just like in the Romero movies) show how humanity’s worst enemy is humanity itself. I do not blame them for not trying, but it is hard to make somebody scared when he is holding a shotgun in his arms.

What is it that usually works on people in games? From what I could see there were two approaches most commonly used. Shock and Environments combined with Enemies. When something suddenly screams into your ear, or your tunnel begins collapsing when a horde of creatures is approachingthat is what I call shock. You create a short scenario where adrenaline begins pumping and uncertainty sets in. One game which reminded me of that was F.E.A.R. The static radio, objects falling down, strange visions. It was a game that tried to keep you uncertain throughout. On the other hand, it is easy to over-saturate the experience, making any next “shock” hold a much lesser effect.

I do not think I have to explain the use of environment and “creatures” to you. Think of the Aliens series, Resident Evil, these are games that rely on dark places and specific types of enemies. Darker, uncertain, you feel you will see them around the corner, or under you, or above you. Not counting behind you, since that is more of a “Shock” tactic. The problem with this technique is that eventually any fear disappears when the player has enough practice with your choice of enemies. He knows how to counter them and he has the weapons to do so. A sort of, “I have a heat-seeking minigun, your statement is invalid.” meme.

Pan's Labyrinth

Just like the nurses in Silent Hill so too did the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth create an air of unease. They are both “almost-human”, but in a twisted way.

How do you make people scared then? It is not as hard as you might think, you just have to look what did the games that managed to scare you do. First on this dissection table I would wish to take Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

True Horror, not Action Horror

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a horrifying game. I played it during the day and was scared. When I played it during the night I almost panicked when I heard some noise in the kitchen. This is the one thing Amnesia focuses on, noise. Every step, every chain rattle, every closing door could mean an approaching monster. You focus your senses on your surroundings so much that when “they” do finally appear you are not prepared. As you hide in the dark corner, waiting for the monster to leave, you hear its every breath, its every step. As you sit in the dark you hear the faint sound of scratching and your screen becomes distorted the longer you sit. The more insane your character becomes the more the world around you becomes distorted, but your lamp which would offer you some comfort is the very thing that gives you away to the monsters.

As you progress through the different chambers every locked or slightly open door becomes its own horror element. Do you *want* to find out what’s on the other side? The big burly manly man would open the door, in his own brave manner, but for how long would he support this facade? As you discover more and more of the Baron’s experiments you feel a mix of emotions at the same time. Dread, Anger, Fear.

Amnesia The Dark Descent

The mix of lighting creates a feeling of safety, yet at the same time some of your confidence is gone. Is it really safe here?

You might think that creating such “horror” is only possible in Amnesia, since you lack any effective weapon to fight the monsters you meet. The truth is much different. If the protagonist even held a sword or pistol, how much good would that do him or you? There is a certain feeling that if you have a way to protect yourself you feel much safer. What about Metro 2033? Or Project Zomboid? In both games having a gun does not equal to you being a God of War. On the contrary, it is your wits that allow you to prevail, conserving ammo, searching every dark corner for supplies and then using it as best you can. I spoke of this in my article on Survival Horror, so let’s ask ourselves the question, “How do we fix Action Horror?”


About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
Other posts by

Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

2 Responses to The Psychology of Horror

  1. Luis Guimaraes says:

    Yet another great article on Survival Horror.

  2. Danielle says:

    I agree w/all you said somewhat. Though, honestly, running out of ammo or other resources is not really ‘scary’, it’s more of a panicked “oh shit” kind of moment. And it can actually get annoying for me, or just anger me when I run out.

    In Silent Hill, the fear is much more real–there are moments of scarcity of resources (again, more annoying than anything else) but its scare factor is from a combination of not knowing wtf is going on in general totally, plus even when you do know bits an pieces, your mind is still in a state of ‘WTF?’–not due to lack of knowledge, but more to the outrageous, insidious, freaky as fuck situation that you almost can’t wrap your head around. But the overall story, environment, music (and lack-thereof), lighting, and the way it unfolds makes you believe those bits and pieces, and that’s scary.

    The example pic you showed “there’s a hole here…it’s gone now” has many interpretations, which is very unsettling. Of course the message itself is very unsettling.
    It’s all psychological–like the persistent ache you get in your muscles–except this is in your head. It won’t go away. You think about it long after you’ve stopped playing. I’ve encountered a similar feeling when I would get into deep depression–a dark, black hole you can’t crawl out of. In both cases, a complete mind-fuck. That is the type of fear Silent Hill mastered and, as of so far, hasn’t been matched.

Leave a Reply