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 Light, Dead 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?
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.
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.
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.
The Psyche and Survival Horror
PLAYERS may fight hideous monsters, suffer a rather. . . unpleasant death, and enjoy the process multiple times primarily because they know it is not real.
It is perhaps the fact that horror fiction – especially survival horror – is simulated that people tend to sit back and let the screams come at them.
“The danger is simulated, and this means you can enjoy it as a sensation without any consequences,” said Gladeana McMahon of the Centre for Stress Management in an article. “The same applies to a scary movie. The action is all on the screen, even if it feels like you’re living every terrifying moment.”
An appeal in simulation
The appeal of simulated fear, then, may lie in the fact that it can never happen in real life. As said by McMahon, “fear in a controlled environment is unlikely to cause any long-term health issues.”
She explained that extreme fear in situations of real danger can last for long periods of time. These experiences could even trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, and even lead to severe depression.
She even added in the article that this is why children get traumatized with monsters (especially clowns and mascots, who may come off as “unnatural” to them), especially when they are suddenly surprised.
Dr. Margee Kerr said in another article that while simulated fear may hold enjoyable experiences for others, the chemicals being released during the entire ordeal are almost the same as the ones people release in actual fight-or-flight situations. The article added that these chemicals “work like glue to build strong memories of scary experiences.”
Simulated fear, coupled with “memorable”” experiences and the absence of real threats, may be the reason why thriller and horror in media are appealing.
Doctors say that it is especially because the “natural high” from the flight or fight response can feel great (addictive, even) that people enjoy scary situations. Not only does this, then, explain why some people like horror movies and thrilling amusement park rides, but also why they like scary video games.
Kerr added in an article that to actually enjoy a scary situation, people have to know they are in a safe environment.
“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.
Kerr added that while the sense are directly tied to fear response and activate the physical reactions needed to respond to these fears, the brain takes little time to process that these threats are not “real.”
“Our brain is lightning-fast at processing threat,” she said. This might be the reason why the body treats simulated fear as if it is a real threat.
A Blurry Immersion
In Andrew Groen’s article, Dr. Andrew Weaver of Indiana Univeristy said it is because of this that players could easily immerse themselves into video games. By knowing just how immersed they are with the games they are playing, players can easily engross themselves into the game’s story – or just play for fun.
“As audience members, we’re pretty good at engaging in suspension of disbelief,” he said in the EuroGamer article. “At some level, we can choose to essentially forget that what we’re watching or playing isn’t real so that we can become fully transported into the story.”
Dr. Jamie Madigan (creator of the Psychology of Video Games blog) agreed with Weaver in the same article.
“Having control over the situation mitigates some of the fear,” he added. “[This is] because you can actually win or turn off the game.”
An Ancient “Trend”
Looking at the psychology of horror might mean having to look at it from a far-off viewpoint. In an article by Christian Jarrett, he said early hominids were not only dependent on the kill-sites of large felines for food, but they were also preyed on by carnivores. This “prey mentality” programmed some sort of “panic meter” that has evolved through time.
Jarrett added in the article that scientist Nobuo Masataka and his colleagues were able to find out that children as young as three could spot snakes faster than flowers on a computer screen. This is especially the case when the snakes are just not there, but when they are also poised to strike. Nobuo explained this is known as “prepared learning,” or the innate nature of man to be fearful to threats that were passed on from generation to generation.
Jarrett also added that another study by Christof Koch and his team showed that the right amygdala (the brain region also involved in fear) responds “more vigorously” to the sight of animals than to other pictures such as of people, landmarks or objects. However, with the emergence of media, the age of viewers seemed to produce different results from this underlying “nature.”
For instance, in an article by Sharon Begley, John Campbell of Temple University said teenagers and people in their early-20s “are more likely to look for intense experiences,” compared to their older counterparts.
Stuart Fischoff of California State University said this is more of a “stimulation fatigue.” As people age, they become more sensitive to their own physiology. The article added that middle-aged and older adults tend “not to seek out experience that make their hearts race.”
“Life’s [real] horrors scare them, or they don’t find them entertaining any more – or interesting,” Fischoff said.
This ages-old psychology may also be directly related to the subconscious.
“The pleasure comes from the relief that follows,” Campbell added in Begley’s article. “It provides a cathartic effect, offering you emotional release and escape from the real world of bills and mortgages and the economy and relationships.”
The Catharsis Theory that was mentioned is one of the many others that attempted to explain the appeal of being scared. Neurologist (and Father of Psychoanalysis) Sigmund Freud suggested that “horror was appealing because it traffics in ‘thoughts and feelings that have been repressed by the ego but which seem vaguely similar.”
In the same article, it said Carl Jung, another famous psychiatrist, argued that “horror touches on primordial images in the collective unconscious.” However, Begley also argued in her article that since there is no evidence of repressed feelings of drowned children on people’s unconscious (alluding to Friday the 13th, which stars a killer who was drowned), it is hard for psychoanalysis to explain this occurrence.
Begley still said it may be because horror films are predictable that they are appealing: for example, the girl who just had sex with her boyfriend has a high change of ending up dead, as well as teenagers who pick up hitchhikers. This is especially so for the fact that these films tend to have happy endings (except the ones that call for sequels, appropriate or otherwise).
Begley added that it may be because of an existential fear, that people can die anytime, that makes horror films (and perhaps in this case, any type of horror-themed media) so popular. What then makes players so willing to spend their last six bullets trying to defy reality through defeating hordes of hideous monsters?
An Emphatic Connection
Attachment may very well be another key in the mystery that is survival horror. Weaver added in Groen’s article that players tend to stay with the game (and get affected by it) not because of the story, but of the characters because of immersion.
This might be the reason why games such as those in the Silent Hill series are appealing: not because the monsters are scary or because of the eerie atmosphere, but because the game not only deals with monsters and the mystery of Silent Hill in general, but because it also explores the characters themselves, and their personalities. The Last of Us could very well be another example because of its rather emotionally-gripping ending. It is as if the survival horror genre is not simply a genre in itself, but a “thesis” exploring the characters revolving around it.
“If we do become immersed in a story, then the empathetic bonds we create with the characters will cause us to feel the fear they experience – much the same way we would in real life,” Weaver said, adding that fear does not always come out of the game, but from the characters themselves.
“[In] a lot of times, fear is born out of empathy for other characters,” he explained. “And making choices about how you interact with other characters has been shown to increase empathy.”
The article added that because of the psychological implications of the avatar (in any video game) becoming an extension of the player’s “self,” the issue of empathy has been particularly relevant in the genre.
And as if alluding to Silent Hill becoming a form of a character’s psyche, empathy does not simply end with the characters. Sometimes it extends outward to the other characters – especially to monsters.
“Pascal Boyer has argued that many religious entities thrive by being ‘minimally counter-intuitive’ – that is, they fulfill nearly all the criteria for a given category, but violate that category in one particularly memorable, attention-grabbing fashion,” Christian Jarrett said in his article, citing Moses and his encounter with the flaming (but not burning) bush as an example. “A similar account could explain the enduring appeal of horror monsters.”
This “defiance” to some “law” has been prevalent not only in movies, but also in other media like the survival horror genre. Resident Evil‘s Raccoon City is a perfect example of a city – it has buildings and it has people, the only catch is that all of them but you are zombies. Silent Hill‘s eponymous town is also a good example – in that it is a town with “people” and a budding local culture with a rather good surplus of fog and-or blood.
“Monsters are defying the general laws of nature in some way,” Kerr explained. “They have either returned from the afterlife, or they are some kind of non-human or semi-human creature. This speaks to the fact that things that violate the laws of nature are terrifying.”
Jarrett said that in this respect, “vampires” fit the “human category,” except they are undead, and “ghosts” are similar to humans but they have no body so to speak.
He also added that another emphatic factor might be the players’ tendency “to see agency where there is none.”
For example, clowns may have the capacity to provoke fear because their accessories (especially make-up) conceal their “true” emotions, eliminating the capacity of viewers to “read” them through their faces. Jarrett noted that a lot of villains in popular horror and thriller movies exhibit almost the same trend, only with masks or the “capacity to be invisible.”
And this could be the reason why people say only the first half of any horror film is the scariest because this is the time when the villain kills but viewers cannot ever see him or her (or it) in action, and why screamers are so scream-inducing because viewers cannot anticipate when and where the ghost or the villain is hiding.
In this regard, it may be perhaps time to dissect the bloody machinations that make the survival horror genre transcend in providing “the scares” to its players.
The Anatomy of Survival Horror
NOW THAT the psyche of the horror genre has explained how players tend to relive every single terrifying moment while staring at the face of digital death, it may be time to unveil the curtain behind the machinations of the survival horror video game scene.
It is imperative to understand that while films and other horror fiction rely on “minimal counter-intuition,” immersion, eerie environments, stunning soundtracks, and hormonal magic, survival horror relies on a different level of “entertainment.”
Ronnie of The Game Theorists explained on its feature on survival horror that the term “survival horror” in itself is a good combination of both the mechanism and the feelings the games wanted to convey, unlike other game genres. Survival horror, in itself, will give players an idea on what to expect: they have to survive through the experience – and the magical question beneath the bloodied curtain, is what experience?
When Ronnie compared survival horror game Limbo to Super Mario Bros. Wii, while they are both essentially platformers, they are radically different with the feelings they wanted to convey. Limbo had a rather dark premise while Super Mario Bros. Wii was yet another version of Sega mascot Mario’s adventures with his brother, Luigi. The latter is, at all levels, not as dark as the former.
“They’re both platformers, but the word ‘platformer’ doesn’t necessarily clue me in on the feelings each game will evoke, like the terms romantic comedy or chick flick do,” he explained.
Eerily Perfect Presentation
“When you hear the term survival horror, you get a good idea what the mechanics are going to be like and the frame of mind the game will likely put you in,” Ronnie said. “The mechanics as well as the visuals and sounds will also put you in that frame of mind collectively.”
Unlike other genres such as Fantasy, Action and Adventure that could be specified and combined together with one another, Survival Horror is too specific a genre that it speaks lengths away from Mystery (that could range from murder mysteries) and its other related game classifications.
For example, while both the Castlevania and Megaman series are both classified as platformers, they convey different “feelings”. Castlevania is not only a medieval-fantasy platformer, it also has a gothic punk-slash-Victorian motif to match its dark storyline. Megaman, on the other hand, is a science fiction-platformer and has a lighter story (ironically mostly set in a post-apocalyptic world).
Ronnie explained that while the above examples could be classified with a more personal taste, games under survival horror need not be classified further. The term itself is more than enough to explain what players should expect it to be about.
“The term survival horror not only describes the mechanics of the game, but also the feelings the game will evoke when you play it. And the mechanics actually help to evoke that feeling,” he said. “Survival horror games are meant to unsettle the player – they can do this with bleak, foreboding imagery, creepy sounds, traditional jump scares and the like. However they can achieve this with the raw mechanics of the game as well.”
Put it simply, because survival horror is a genre for a video game, not only does it have to scare the player, it has to conform with the “rules” of video games. Because video games are interactive, survival horror not only has to be scary, but the player has to be scared while interacting with the game’s environment.
Understanding the difference between entertainment through literature, film and gaming meant developers had to take leaps to send the scares spiraling not just through the screen, but to make the players transport themselves inside the setting – like the aim of many video games, to make the player feel as if he is experiencing the story himself.
“When you play a survival horror game, you don’t expect to just breeze right through it. You expect merely to survive until the end,” Ronnie explained.
And true to its category, survival horror games feature quite a wide range of features that not only challenge players, but it forces players to be engulfed in their personal nightmares.
“You’re likely have to ration your ammo and health items and carefully manage your inventory,” he added. “This just adds to the tension when you’re worrying about whether or not you should use this green herb right now or wait to use it later.”
Unlike in other videogame genres where winning with A’s in high scores, in item gathering, and in maybe even beating bosses in the harshest of difficulties, survival horror pins players in a situation where they just have to survive to win, because survival is more than enough to win the game. Thing is, the environment makes survival close to improbable, and it will take the players their wits and conquering through their fears to dominate and finish the game.
“The players are actively involved in the horror happening on the screen,” Ronnie explained. “It’s not the hero of the film deciding whether or not to use their last bullet to defeat this demon, it’s you.”
“As opposed to sitting on the couch telling the actors on-screen not to go in there, you as a player have to make these choices – choices that have lasting consequences on your chances of survival,” he added. “These choices only serve to add to the tension of the situation.”
Ronnie said that this is also the reason why monsters tend to startle players when they jump from around corners, and these startling events have lasting effects on every game’s evaluation.
“It’s not just scary because it startles you,” he said. “It’s scary because you, as a player, also have to deal with it.”
The appeal of personal horror, and what makes games more ultimately scarier, is how survival horror (or just horror in general) whips out something ordinary and twists it into the extraordinary. Called the uncanny, this is perhaps what makes pieces of thriller and horror all the more memorable for even the most toughened of players.
Gaijin Goombah explained in an episode on horror (inspired by a series of Extra Credits specials on horror and the uncanny) that a fundamental aspect of making horror games memorable is making the psychological appeal stick after the game – and not a lot of games have that kind of appeal. Citing examples, he said Amnesia was a game that was indeed startling, but did not have that kind of psychological after-stay. As an adult, he finds himself unfazed with conventional American horror that has jump scares, blood and gore. They were upsetting, they were disgusting, but they were not objects of nightmares.
The key, Gaijin Goombah said, lies in the children.
He said Five Nights at Freddy’s will be the one game he will never play because it was able to condense years’ worth of childhood nightmares into two hours of gameplay. What he did not find in Amnesia, he found in Five Nights – he found what scared him the most as a child. A game was able to tear through his psyche and dug up nightmares from his past: animatronics, mascots, clowns, the dark, and what lies in it.
And perhaps with these things in mind – from the basics of fear, to its evolution and the fundamentals of survival horror – where does survival horror go from here? Will Resident Evil 7 and upcoming horror titles evolve along with video gaming’s venture into virtual and augmented reality?
This is something we have to learn and see for ourselves when these games hit shelves (and online stores) in a few months’ time.