Path of Inquiry – Psychological Horror in Media
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In most horror settings the protagonist is merely placed in a familiar setting and the scares are derived from monsters that suddenly spring out and attack the character. While these can be scary in a startling way, they rarely leave a lasting impression for how scary they are. Whereas such games as Silent Hill approach scaring the protagonist—and, by extension, the player—in a somewhat different fashion. There are often multiple layers to the “reality” around the main character. Sometimes the player is never entirely certain what is real and what isn’t. In games like this, the entire environment and everything in it is crafted to build up an increasing sense of foreboding. Places that would otherwise seem almost comforting and safe are often the most dangerous traps. Hospitals suddenly become like the worst legends of mental asylums and start to ooze blood and rust from crumbling ceilings and cracked tiles. Music is often replaced with silence in order to build tension. The transitions are often subtle at first to create a feeling of dread and increase as the character’s mental state deteriorates. I feel this is a far more effective style of horror.
Psychological horror relies on completely immersing the viewer in the scenario it generates. Protagonists are rarely someone powerful in any way. They are mundane and clumsy, quite often fumbling with whatever makeshift weapons they find lying around. Their fear and confusion at their surroundings and the situation they find themselves in makes them all the more believable and sympathetic. It is easier to identify with the terrified teenage girl trying to escape the hellish wasteland that was once a mall, or the worried father tearing apart a ghost town to look for his child. These could be anyone we know, they could even be family members or friends, and because of this we are drawn into their stories much more readily than a battle-torn combat hero or a ten-year police veteran. It’s this sense of vulnerability that makes the scenario all the scarier. Usually malevolent, it works against the protagonists in any number of ways, from blocking passageways and trapping them, blanketing areas in thick mist or plunging the characters into darkness. Areas will twist themselves and grow more hellish over time, and yet, there’s still a lingering sense that all these things are really taking place in the protagonist’s mind. This fact is often driven home by comments other characters will make, that no one else sees the monsters or surreal landscapes. These realizations are shaking to the characters, as the realization sinks in that they may have been attacking characters, as the realization sinks in that they may have been attacking other people in what could only be described as a fit of madness. The truth is usually never explained in-game, thereby left up to the imagination of the players to sort it out. This uncertainty also adds to the overall experience.
The mood of the game is entirely created by the environments and music, as these elements saturate the player’s experience on an almost subconscious level. When a player is completely focused on a task in game, the music is often tuned out until a sudden and often jarring change is heard. Sudden silences when there had previously been a low hum, or the sudden clash of something mechanical or industrial in place of silence has a very profound effect on a player’s experience. It’s perceived as a threat, a warning to sudden and immediate danger that is descending on the character under the player’s control and therefore triggers a fight or flight response. The use of sounds not normally found in musical scores creates a sense of unease, building on the unnatural nature of the surroundings. Heavy percussion mirrors hammering heartbeats, and the tempo can quite often mimic heavy footsteps rushing up on a person from behind. All of these are carefully designed to be triggered at key points in a setting or storyline, with camera angles twisting suddenly to create a distorted view of the character and surroundings. All of these elements work in tandem to create a sense of urgency and tension, or a chilling fear. The environment itself is treated as its own character, given a personality and menacing presence with its design and music, and thus it becomes an effective tool for both story telling and scaring the pants off the players. After all, its entire existence is designed to literally mess with the characters and the person playing them.
One of the most important elements in a game is the setting, and when it comes to the survival horror genre, it’s even more so. Rundown towns, abandoned cities, common places turned into war zones are all common elements. Yet psychological horror games take these places a step further. What once started out as skating around technological limitations actually became very useful methods to create a menacing environment. Thick fog that made it almost impossible to see more than a few feet ahead of the character, out of season snow, locked gates topped with razor wire that was rusted and encrusted with gore, streets that ended suddenly because they opened up into bottomless chasms were all ways of masking invisible walls that the player couldn’t go past and graphical pop-ups where the game engine rendered new buildings. Yet the way they were presented made that unnoticeable in the face of the fact that anything could be lurking in the thick fog and often did, or the sudden shock of running forward only to be stopped by a road torn apart by something entirely beyond the scope of human skill. These are the first signs given to the characters that all is not well in their new surroundings, and it’s shortly after that realization that things begin to truly dissolve around them. As the players progress through the story the environments continue to deteriorate, walls and floors crumbling to reveal endless darkness or scuttling monstrosities held back by rusty chainlink fences and twisted pipes. Hospitals known for being clean and places to heal are suddenly bloodstained and blanketed in a thick layer of filth, with gurneys overturned, beds occupied by decaying things hidden away with stained sheets, and wheelchairs driven by nothing chasing characters down the twisted corridors into the grasping claws of creatures disguised as nursing staff. Schools suddenly become prisons, holding in wailing and sobbing shadows of things that might have once been children while nightmarish monsters chase after the protagonist. All of these are used to take the player’s preconceived notions of what is familiar and safe and turn them on their head, effectively yanking the rug out from under them.
These are the reasons why psychological horror is a more powerful story method than shock or slasher-style horror. Immersing the player in a world that is carefully crafted to be its own character is a very powerful storytelling tool. Giving them a character that is so relatable, one who is an average person and incredibly sympathetic in their reactions to their surroundings that mirror the player’s own disbelief and dawning dismay and often disgust or anxiety is very important. The player may laugh at character’s reactions afterwards or at a few poorly acted lines, yet when they play they experience it through the character’s eyes and have similar emotional reactions. The music and the use of camera angles and surroundings stay with the players, almost haunting them in a way. Between a well-made soundtrack and a highly developed setting that evolves over the course of the game and the player’s journey through it, the scares can have a very lasting impression. As such, psychological horror is a well-defined storytelling medium that brings out aspects of ourselves that we rarely think of until after the game is played. Or perhaps it’s more that the game plays us.