True terror is an emotion that no human wants to experience. There are few who wish to be in a powerless position against a threat or against a terrifying creature.
But why we love to play horror games; What happens in our brains and we go from simply observing horror through a movie to becoming active participants in horror through a videogame? The answer lies in psychology us.
There are several studies on the science of fear that suggest that sensation gives people a “natural flush”. Our adrenaline rushes, endorphins and dopamine are released and we get excited because of these short bursts of terror. This is why games like Silent Hill are so popular.
“I believe that it is in our nature to find pleasure in what we have called recreational activities of fear, that is, those kinds of activities that frighten us pleasantly” author and psychologist Mathias Clasen emphasizes in Digital Trends. “Horror is just a particularly intense kind of entertaining fear. We evolved to find pleasure in playing with fear because we learn important things about ourselves and the world that way – what the world’s dangers are, how we react to our fear, and how we can deal with negative emotions like fear and anxiety ».
That’s why horror has grown into such a powerful genre in every medium and takes on so many forms. She was always one look into the inner human soul. It gives us a visual way to experience and face our fears, insecurities and sins.
Since they were introduced, horror games have thrown us into these emotional states that we never wanted to experience in the real world. In the 1988 classic game Splatterhouse, the protagonist is constantly killing monsters, but his most painful moment comes when the protagonist’s lover turns into a monster and must be destroyed. The game plays with our emotions and crushes them, making everything more personal.
A game doesn’t have to be a terrifying horror experience to elicit this feeling. Even a game like the lively Earthbound translates the fears of childhood and adulthood into a charming RPG. These games throw us into conflicts we would never put ourselves in, allowing us to look within and learn something new or deal with past traumas.
The “sweet” horror
For some, even this digital experience can be very real. Clasen argues that most players don’t want to get that close to their fears.
“You’re not in danger when you play a horror game and you know it”, says Klassen. “The moment you forget that – the moment you get so immersed that you forget it’s just a game – it stops being fun. It is no longer playful, no recreational fear but real fear, and that is not pleasant at all. I think this is why VR horror games are a niche market. It’s very real for most people.”
That’s where the “horror sweet spot” comes into play. According to psychologist Coltan Scrivner the best experiences require careful planning to make sure there isn’t too much or too little fear. When there is too much of it, the horror eventually surpasses the entertaining fear. When there is too little it ends up being very boring.
That’s why the best entries in the Resident Evil series are so masterful. The fear is always there, but it is not very strong. The third person perspective it makes them a little less personal than first-person games, but you still feel a little powerless along the way — at least during your first playthrough before you figure out where all the monsters are hiding.
As psychologists Scrivner and Clasen point out, there’s a reason why zombie horror games are so popular. As seen in The Last of Us, Telltale’s Walking Dead, and Resident Evil, the human element brings an endless wealth of emotional possibilities. In these games zombies lurk, triggering some primal senses as we stand on guard waiting for an attack. This makes for an almost absolute experience of entertaining fear.
“Zombies trigger many aspects of our morbid curiosity. Their rotting flesh affects our curiosity about physical injuries. Their predatory nature influences our curiosity about violence and predators. And their nature – not quite dead and not quite alive – taps into our curiosity about the paranormal. So zombie horror games usually have something for everyone.” says Scrivner.