Psychological Horror – How To Really Get Under Your Skin

Image by Flickr User eysiojo23
Image by Flickr User eysiojo23

Hey all, Halloween is already upon us (did the month go fast or what?) which means it’s time to wrap up our weeks long look at horror games and what makes them tick. This week we have another excellent post from Sam Leung and I have to say that it looks like they saved the best for last! If you enjoy it, be sure to check out their blog at Cheese Toastie and Video Games! One more thing, don’t forget to check out the other awesomely spooky posts to be found this week at Games I Made My Girlfriend Play and A Life With Cyn!

Happy Halloween! Make sure you take some time for some holiday scares!


Game devs tackling the horror genre have their work cut out for them. There are so many different things that scare so many different people that it seems impossible to really pin down any one scenario that will freak out all of the people who play your game. Like Duck mentioned in his post on my blog, I find that personally it’s usually the things that are more unexpected that frighten me, not zombies or vampires or your usual run-of-the-mill ghosts. There are of course the exceptions, but I think on the whole it’s the things that I don’t understand or speak to me on a personal level that scare me the most. Although jump scares and horrific looking monsters might up the immediate fear factor for me, I’ve found it’s the more psychological horror that really get under my skin.

What I mean by psychological horror is the kind of horror that preys on the very real fears that arise in everyday life – the ones that most of us experience at one point or another and that we can’t help but relate to no matter how much we don’t want to. I think that’s why I find normal settings like an empty house or a dark alley much scarier than those of Doom 3 or Dead Space, because I really can’t relate to being stuck on an interstellar mining ship. That lack of empathy I feel for the character, because honestly I’m too old to believe that reanimated human corpses wandering around is actually a likely thing to happen – at least not in the way Dead Space suggests. I don’t need to be a scientist to find those monsters or the weird patchwork-looking guys from Amnesia: The Dark Descent a little dubious. Games like this rely on building that immediate fear factor I was talking about and instilling fear in you via gross looking monsters, jump scares and tense chase sequences. While there’s nothing wrong with that at all, I think for most of us that fear fades pretty quickly. I can’t imagine being kept up at night because I might be attacked by a flesh-eating zombie and OH GOD, WHERE IS MY TRUSTY CHAINSAW?

However, to me there’s another brand of horror that eschews such obvious fear tactics and seeks to affect players in a much deeper way. Why do so many games take place at least in part in an asylum or an abandoned mansion? Because those are places many of us fear. Aren’t we all kind of afraid that we might wake up in a padded cell in a straitjacket with an emotionally removed doctor telling us that everything we’ve ever thought was real was just a hallucination? I mean it can’t just be me… right? RIGHT?! My point is just that it doesn’t really take that much to creep us out. You don’t need tons of blood, gore or crazy bat-vampires flying at your face. It can actually be pretty simple. A subtle suggestion that all is not what it seems, that you might be losing it or that there might be something lurking in the shadows, but it equally might be your imagination are things that have personally terrified me. This type of horror is also pretty effective, because unlike zombies or vampires, which might scare some people and not others, we all have a general sense of fear, anxiety or uncertainty that can be targeted directly.

In fact some of the most terrifying moments for me have often been in games that aren’t strictly defined as ‘horror’ at all. In fact, sometimes horror is an incidental element of the game or just part of the overarching atmosphere. As I mentioned in a previous guest post, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines had some genuinely terrifying moments for me and it was mostly not the vampires or monsters that frightened me the most. It was the little things, like walking through a hospital or a dark alley at night, finding traces of blood in an empty room with nothing but a dentist’s chair in it or talking to that weird guy with the really pale face and crazy eyes at reception. A lot of the horror wasn’t necessarily in your face and it made the game much scarier for it. Likewise, games like Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us have at times scared me more than the Amnesia games ever did. Both games have a persistent atmosphere of tension and uncertainty that constantly wears you down. It feels like the game is just waiting for you to let your guard down before it pounces. Without going into too much detail and giving anything away, Beyond: Two Souls has made me nervous looking into mirrors or walking into dark rooms without first turning on the light. One of the moments that’s scared me the most so far in Beyond is walking into an empty garage and just seeing something… a face… or a doll… something just sitting there in the corner of the room and of course, you have to walk right by it. I couldn’t tell whether it was meant to be there or if it was something that would be completely innocuous with all the lights on. It’s that fear and uncertainty that the game seized so well right then that made the moment linger in my mind for a long time afterwards. It was something I could relate to and a fear that was natural – seeing things out of the corner of your eye, but enhanced for the purposes of the game. And it worked. It worked really really well.

Of course, I love the more traditional horror games as much as the next person and it’s not that games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs weren’t scary at all. It’s just that the truly terrifying moments, the ones that get under your skin the way you want a horror game to are the ones that strip it back and really play on the real fears we all have, whether those come from sources external or internal. And what better night is there to really ponder those dark depths of your mind that you don’t normally go to than Halloween night? Happy Halloween and remember to check under your bed tonight!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Hatm0nster says:

    Great post Sam! You’re right, nasty looking monsters and things pooping out at you aren’t frightening in any lasting sense. What’s really scary is the idea that we don’t know what’s happening around us. The more you can obscure in a horror game, the more you can hint at the player that something about their situation is wrong (without tipping your hand and just throw something at the) the easier it is to scare them. It’s about getting under someones skin and making them look twice at even the most innocent of surroundings. Monsters can definitely accentuate this, but it has to all be done in good time. And never overtly.


    1. duckofindeed says:

      That’s certainly right. Usually the scariest things are those you don’t see. The player’s imagination then gets the best of them, and they may even become afraid of things that may not even have been intended as scary just because their imagination makes them think there’s more to something than there really is. That’s the best way to make anything frightening, let the player do the work themselves.


  2. duckofindeed says:

    That is all so true. Monsters may be scary at first, but once you expect them and get used to them, they aren’t so scary anymore. The way to make a game scary and keep it feeling scary is the uncertainty. The things that never get answered. Something in a game that seems odd, but is never actually explained, leaving you wondering for years to come what it was, why it was there. The player then makes up their own story, and this makes it so much scarier wondering about the possibilities.

    One strange thing that creeped me out was in “Conker’s Bad Fur Day”, in the creepy level (of course). Yeah, the zombies were pretty gruesome, and the evil dolls were scary. But, one thing that was creepy was in the mansion, I remember if you go to the right place, this squirrel or something is there. She’s not a zombie or anything, just normal, and she starts to run, and she keeps running until she runs right into this bottomless pit, and you never see her again. It’s just creepy. And then I start to wonder, what is she doing there? Did she come here with others, and they all died, and she’s the last one left? Did she run into that pit because she was in such a panic? What scared her so much? And what did Rareware put this in here for? It is never explained, and that is why it is creepy, because I end up making up scary stories to try to understand what it all meant. (Woo, I rambled.)


  3. Reblogged this on TrueSelfGaming and commented:
    I love psychological games. It answers that question of “What would I do if….”


  4. drakulus23 says:

    I think FEAR, and Condemned Criminal Origins are two of the best horror games ever made.


    1. duckofindeed says:

      I’ve never played those. The only horror games I’ve played were the “Hunter: The Reckoning” series, and they were fun to play with friends, but they weren’t that great or that scary.


      1. drakulus23 says:

        I’d recommend FEAR and Condemned. You can get the whole FEAR Trilogy for under 20 bucks now and both Condemned games for under 10. Hunter The Reckoning was fun but not scary.


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