Surviving Horror: Resident Evil 7, Fear, and the Beyond

The Fundamentals of Fear

Fear is an important aspect of human physiology:

  • Fear can induce certain bodily responses through neurotransmitters. Adrenaline, for example, makes the body more alert and gives a physical boost for a certain period of time, called an “adrenaline rush,” especially when people feel threatened.
  • The feeling of fear could be addicting, especially the feeling of “powerfulness” and euphoria felt after the fear disseminates
  • Humans are “pre-programmed” to be alert to certain threats, as seen in a research (cited below) where babies are more likely to react to pictures of snakes than flowers
  • Some experts suggest that certain fears are actually manifestations of repressed feelings in the subconscious and unconscious

THE NOTION of fear is a fundamental aspect of the human psyche. Even in a virtual environment, fear is a primary drive pushing players to survive a threat stuck inside a monitor – LED screens and all.

In all the years of video games and its existence, its development and the arrival of the “gamer culture,” it seems as if consoles and controllers are still in a state of progression. Games, too, did not allow themselves to be left behind. The same could be said to survival horror – and the genre seemed to show signs of evolution: an evolution of simulated fear. 

With new video games such as Dying LightDead by Daylight and 7 Days to Die making waves in the horror scene, and with new ones such as Resident Evil 7 to anxiously wait for, just how far has survival horror reached – and how will it evolve?

Though in spite all the screamers and the eerie backgrounds, the subtle details and the sinister soundtracks, there seems to be a hidden appeal when it comes to the pee-inducing, sleep-depriving genre. Reviews might say it lies in the story, but majority of gamers could be convinced survival horror’s main appeal lies in fear generation. But what makes fear so useful in video gaming, and what makes it so appealing?

 Fear Itself

The very nature of fear stems from a need to help the human body respond to a “fight or flight” situation, especially in the presence of threats. “The moment we feel threatened, we feel increasingly more strong and powerful physically and more intuitive emotionally,” said Dr. Robi Ludwig, a contributor for TODAY. “Being humans, we are hard-wired to be drawn to this feeling.”

This also helps people in immediate danger accomplish feats of rather incomprehensible nature. People lifting entire cars to save their loved ones and unbelievable use of instincts (sometimes from video games; this is a boy who saved his younger brother from a bear by using what he learned from World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game [MMORPG]) could be considered simple examples of the phenomenon.

Called an “adrenaline rush,” this feeling is characterized by heightened alertness and muscles becoming ready for immediate action due to high adrenaline levels. During the process, heartbeat quickens and breathing accelerates. Afterwards, these are all replaced by a sense of “powerfulness” and euphoria – a feeling of domination and a calming sensation, especially during the realization that the source of the threat is gone.

“Fear,” then, might equate a need for survival. Gladeana McMahon, an accredited counselor and co-founder of the Centre for Stress Management, said this was not just the reason why fear seemed to be such a natural human tendency.

 Mind Magic

Adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine are neurotransmitters. According to Dr. Melissa Stoppler of MedicineNet, while neurotransmitters transmit electrical signals within the nervous system, certain neurotransmitters are released depending on certain factors like stress and pleasure. These neurotransmitters may also very well be the reason why people enjoy thrilling and scary situations. They do, however, go deeper than the level of just stimulating “fun” from fear.

“It’s nature’s way of protecting us,” said David Rudd, a clinical psychologist at Texas Tech University, in an article. “When people are scared, the brain sets the whole body on high alert: the heart starts beating faster, the muscular system gets tense while attention focuses for immediate response to a possible external danger.”

Combined together, these neurotransmitters (along with some others) contribute to a fulfilling scary experience.

“Research suggests that while women watch horror flicks, the brain secrets neurotransmitter[s such as] dopamine, glutamate and serotonin. Thus, increased brain activity gets the state of mind alert for a while,” Shruti Ravi of India Times said. “Additionally, threat signals that pass through the hypothalamus (in the brain) will stimulate the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and opiates which has an anesthesia-like effect.”

She added that after watching said movie, the body will be calm and the “defense system” will become “more powerful,” and that the immune system becomes stronger for a while after the experience because of said neurotransmitters.

Endorphins, for example, mostly respond to stress and pain. Stoppler said endorphins act similarly to drugs like morphine and codeine; but unlike the latter, endorphins do not lead to addiction or dependence.

“With high endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress,” Stoppler said, adding that secretion of endorphins lead to feelings of euphoria, modulation of appetite, release of sex hormones, and enhancement of the immune response.

Adrenaline (another term for epinephrine) also act similarly like endorphins. WiseGeek explained that adrenaline is produced during high stress or exciting situations, and is a part of the human body’s “acute stress response system,” or the famous fight or flight response.

Mannequins are scary.
Mannequins are scary.

Adrenaline is released especially when a person encounters a potentially dangerous situation. WiseGeek said that through the increase of blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the lungs, adrenaline could give a person an almost-instant “physical boost,” or an increase in physical performance for short bursts of time.

Dopamine, on the other hand, is responsible for mediating pleasure in the brain. Dr. Ananya Mandal of News Medical said that dopamine is released when encountering stimulants such as food and sex, which are pleasurable for a lot of people.

“It (dopamine) is released during pleasurable situations and stimulates one to seek out the pleasurable activity of occupation,” Mandal explained in the article. Aside from this, she said dopamine can also help improve memory, focus and attention, and problem-solving.

 A Paranormal “Addictivity”

Apparently, the sensation people feel right after the fear disappears – the feeling of overcoming a threat – is addictive.

“The feeling of euphoria and ‘powerfulness’ after feeling afraid could be addicting,” McMahon explained, adding that this is especially the case when it comes to simulated fear. Simulated fear is what is commonly used to describe mechanisms in the entertainment industry with the primary purpose of causing fear albeit without the presence of an actual threat. Examples of these are “screamers” or the sudden appearance of unsettling objects (usually ghosts or monsters), eerie music, and disturbing graphics.

The article added that simulated fear, especially in movies and video games, is what makes the notion of fear so appealing to viewers. McMahon explained that this is why some people seek high-intensity activities such as dangerous sports, and why people are so thrilled with roller coasters and other kinds of simulated fear.

“It is not uncommon for people to want to push the envelope just to see how much fear they can tolerate,” Ludwig added. “There is a great sense of satisfaction when we can prove to ourselves we can handle more anxiety than we ever imagined we could.”

Though the fear “addiction” may not just be limited to the adrenaline.

According to Dr. Margee Kerr, a staff sociologist at ScareHouse (a haunted house in Pittsburgh) and a teacher at Rober Morris University and Chatham University, while “the natural high from the fight or flight response can feel great,” research from David Zald shows that “people differ in their chemical response to thrilling situation.” Kerr added that Zald’s research has strong evidence that the “natural high” from fear is not just about personal choice, and hormones might hold the answer.

As explained in the Atlantic article, dopamine is one of the main hormones released when people feel fear, and research shows that some individuals react differently with the dopamine – others enjoy the sensation, others do not. Kerr added that in his research, Zald described the reaction as “brakes” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain.

“It’s all about triggering the amazing fight-or-flight response to experience the flood of adrenaline, endorphins and dopamine, but in a completely safe place,” she said.

But the “fun” in horror does not stop with the mind games. It may also have something to do with evolution.

Rhenn Taguiam

Rhenn Taguiam is a frustrated journalist with a knack for comic books and video games. He likes pizza and pasta, and has an uncontrollable urge to gush over anything Super Sentai, Star Trek or X-Men. He is currently on his way to get his Master's Degree - unless he creates his own video game or graphic novel first.

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