Mand wife and kids have a tough time believing that I fear nothing supernatural. Because they do. They fear all of them. Ghosts, goblins, werewolves, wendigos, all that claptrap. I just don’t. When they tell me that this is strange, considering I’m the only one of us who goes to mass every Sunday and literally eats the body and blood of a man who came back from the dead, I distract them by showing them my latest Day -Glo Virgin Mary statue which plays Ave Maria.
My youngest teen, Sharkie, gives me a list of her scariest games ever. Apparently one of them is bound to give me nightmares. I start with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard because everybody says it’s terrifying and the original Resident Evil game did genuinely scare me, back in the days when I experienced fear. I am sorry to disappoint the legions of people who have needed underwear changes exploring that house, but for me the most frightening thing about it is that they are still using tape recorders as save points.
“But what about the jump scares, Dad?” asks Sharkie, as I switch it off after six enjoyable but not remotely terrifying hours.
“Jump scares, jump schmares,” I say. Most video games use jump scares, don’t they? Every time a whoosh of fire comes out of a block in a platform game, that’s a jump scare. Jack Baker saying “Welcome to the family” isn’t any more of a jump scare than tearing right into some spikes on a new screen in Sonic the Hedgehog. They both make you go, “AARGH!” Also, in Resident Evil 7 you have weapons. The minute you are concentrating on ammo resources and targeting the head, the game becomes a shoot ’em up rather than a scary experience.
“Ah,” Sharkie says, “you need to try the weapons-free genre.”
So I go through Outlast and The Evil Within and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I like the idea that all you can do is run and hide in those games, replicating far more accurately what would happen in a real-life supernatural horror situation. Each has a genuinely anxiety-inducing atmosphere … which is utterly shattered when I take a few goes to get past a particularly scary bastard because I realize I’m just playing a game. When you die and come back, it’s like the lights going on in the cinema. Again and again and again.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent may have given me nightmares, but I’ll never know because it told me to “play with headphones on in a dark room”. Don’t tell me what to do when it comes to video games! Don’t you know who I was!? I ran a cable outside into my garden and played it under the blazing heat of the midday sun, with the sound running through some tiny Sony SR7 speakers I used with my Walkman in the 1990s. Couldn’t see or hear a bloody thing. Didn’t scare me tied there. That’ll show them!
Sharkie suggests I switch genres and try the more hack-and-slashy Bloodborne. Immense fun. But no game that asks you to name your character at the beginning can be scary when your default video game name since Kevin Toms’ Football Manager in 1982 has been Pants McPants.
I get annoyed with myself for not being scared playing Little Nightmares II, because that is genuinely a work of art; Breathtakingly disturbing visuals and that whole “I have woken up in a world I don’t understand” quality. But once again, multiple restarts ruin the total immersion that true horror requires.
The very nature of games – control, via a controller – is the opposite of the helplessness you feel when you watch a horror movie and can’t control anything. The moment a character investigates the scary sound in the dark basement chains you to the horror momentum until the character meets their grisly end. It’s shocking and scary, and you are emotionally invested. At the precise moment horror should be the most terrifying in a video game, you die. And return. Alive. The spell is broken.
But I was scared playing Resident Evil in the 1990s. And Silent Hill. Why am I not scared now? The cliche to reach for here is that real life in 2022 is scarier than any manufactured horror. Covid, wildfires, the war in Ukraine, disinformation spread by governments whose arrogant malfeasance kills our elderly parents. Those are some resident evils.
But I think it’s more than that. I grew up with equally terrifying things when I was younger: the threat of nuclear war, Aids and getting my head kicked in by Stephen Gibson. I was still scared of Salem’s Lot. But supernatural scares require a supernatural imagination. A belief in the possibility of anything. And the older we get, the less willing we are to believe in possibilities. In my 20s anything was possible. In your 40s? Life shrinks. Opportunity shrinks. The world shrinks. You realize you’ll never safari the Serengeti or dive the Great Barrier Reef. Depressingly, you stop believing in everything that you can’t see with your own eyes. The things that pay the rent, feed your kids and keep your aging body ticking over. You can’t be scared running away from wendigos in Until Dawn if you can’t even walk the day after kicking a ball around the garden with your kid. No. Survival horror video games won’t scare me until they release Resident Evil 12: The Doctor Calls About Your Stool Sample.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism