By: David St. John
The following content contains suicide and blood.
A traditional way of making a horror story is to make the conflict concrete and definite. For example, in Frankenstein, Victor’s creation directly attacks and kills people, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the creature is real and is responsible. A different and very interesting approach, though, is to make the conflict less defined and leave questions – who is committing the horror? Is the perceived horror even real?
An example many people could be familiar with is The Turn of the Screw, which involves ghosts, where it is debateable whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the narrator’s imagination, but this is not the example I want to talk about.
The story I want to introduce is a video game called “Cry of Fear” which is about a teenage boy named Simon who wakes up alone after apparently being run over by a car. He is without injury, but the town he was in is abandoned with the exception of strange monsters lurking around. As Simon progresses through town, he also traverses sudden nightmarish dreamscapes where the world warps and twists around him. Is this all real, or all in his head?
I think this video is one of the best examples of psychological horror because it is very surreal. A lot of other monsters follow (for the most part) physics, and when a vampire or something attacks you, that’s the conflict at hand you need to face. When things begin to turn to the surreal in “Cry of Fear” the conflict becomes less concrete because the players don’t know what’s physically happening or what has caused all of the people to be replaced by monsters.
I think the use of surrealism in horror can allow the genre to expand more directly to the psychological. In the case of “Cry of Fear”, the monsters follow a theme; many of them commit suicide in their attack dynamics. For example, one monster shoots itself in the head while another drops on top of you while hanging from a noose. What could this all mean for Simon? If the monsters are more grounded in his mind than reality, does that mean he is suicidal? Is he depressed? Depression and self-hatred are big themes in the game.
What I’m saying is I love how surrealism in horror can tackle psychological issues that are otherwise difficult to approach through the use of fantastic elements. Subjects like depression are tricky because there are few ways a monster can objectively represent the psyche, but twisted perceptions and all-out surrealism allow the author or creator to define the rules. In this way, a monster or setting can be tailored towards the minds of the characters.
The mind can be truly terrifying; when you are the monster that’s plaguing you, how can you survive? This is one of the most frightening yet most interesting questions I can think of relating to horror because a battle with yourself can be one of the most difficult battles to overcome. When it feels like a whole other person is in control of your mind, your options can become limited, especially when you’re almost trying to kill yourself. In addition, the story feels personal, sometimes relatable, because more often than not the struggles of the creator are weaved into the plot.
If anyone is interested in the game, it’s free on steam, and many youtubers like Markiplier do “Let’s Plays” of it. It’s a very creative story, although with a few cliches, and I also think everyone should be exposed to the deeply personal aspect of horror that can be achieved through surrealism.