MMy wife and children find it hard to believe that I fear nothing supernatural. Because they or they do. They all fear them. Ghosts, goblins, werewolves, wendigos, all that bullshit. I do not do it. When they tell me it’s strange, since I’m the only one of us who goes to mass every Sunday and literally eats the body and blood of a man who has come back from the dead, I distracted them by showing them my last day -Glo Statue of the Virgin Mary playing the Ave Maria.
My youngest teenager, Sharkie, gives me a list of her scariest games. Apparently, one of them is bound to give me nightmares. I start with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard because everyone says it’s terrifying and the original Resident Evil game really scared me, back when I was scared. I’m sorry to disappoint the legions of people who needed to change their underwear to explore this house, but to me the scariest thing about it is that they still use tape recorders as save points.
“But what about scary jumps, Dad?” Sharkie asks, as I turn it off after six enjoyable but not remotely terrifying hours.
“Skip the scares, skip the schmares,” I say. Most video games use jump scares, right? Every time a fire breath comes out of a block in a platformer, it’s a jump scare. Jack Baker saying “Welcome to the family” is no more a jump scare than ripping spikes on a new screen in Sonic the Hedgehog. They both make you say “AARGH!” Also, in Resident Evil 7 you have weapons. As soon as you focus on ammo resources and aim for the head, the game becomes a shoot’em up rather than a scary experience.
“Ah,” Sharkie said, “you have to try the unarmed 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 these games, much more accurately replicating what would happen in a real-life supernatural horror situation. Each has a genuinely anxiety-inducing vibe to it… which is completely shattered when I take a few tries to pass a particularly scary bastard because I realize I’m just playing a game. When you die and come back, it’s like the lights were on at 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 in a dark room”. Don’t tell me what to do when it comes to video games! You don’t know who I was!? I ran a cable outside in my garden and played it in the blazing heat of the midday sun, the sound coming through tiny Sony SR7 speakers that I used with my Walkman in the years 1990. Couldn’t see or hear anything. Didn’t scare me at all. It will show them!
Sharkie suggests I switch genres and try the more hack-and-slashy Bloodborne. Huge fun. But no game that asks you to name your character at the start can be scary when your default video game name since Kevin Toms’ Football Manager in 1982 is Pants McPants.
I blame myself for not being afraid to play Little Nightmares II, because it really is a work of art; jaw-dropping visuals and that overall “I woke up in a world I don’t understand” quality. But again, multiple reboots ruin the total immersion that true horror demands.
The very nature of games – control, via a gamepad – is the opposite of the helplessness you feel when you watch a horror movie and you can’t control anything. The moment a character investigates the spooky sound in the dark basement chains you with the surge of horror until the character meets their gruesome end. It’s shocking and scary, and you’re emotionally invested. At the precise moment when horror should be the most terrifying in a video game, you die. And back. Living. The spell is broken.
But I has been scared of playing Resident Evil in the 1990s. And Silent Hill. Why am I not afraid now? The cliché to hit here is that real life in 2022 is scarier than any manufactured horror. Covid, the forest fires, the war in Ukraine, the misinformation spewed out by governments whose arrogant misdeeds are killing our elderly parents. These are 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 by Stephen Gibson. I was always afraid of Salem’s Lot. But supernatural scares require supernatural imagination. A belief in the possibility of everything. And the older we get, the less willing we are to believe in possibilities. At 20, anything was possible. In your forties? Life shrinks. Opportunity is shrinking. The world is shrinking. You realize you will never go on safari in the Serengeti or dive in the Great Barrier Reef. Depressing, you stop believing in everything you can’t see with your own eyes. The things that pay the rent, feed your kids, and run your aging body. You can’t be afraid to run away from the wendigos in Until Dawn if you can’t even walk the next day after playing ball in the garden with your child. No. Survival horror video games won’t scare me until they release Resident Evil 12: The Doctor Calls About Your Stool Sample.