Cry of Fear and Surrealism in Horror

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.

pic-1The 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.

ic-2I 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.


Night Terrors

By: Michael “Mitch” Mitchell (horror alum)

Horror can mean different things to different people. For most, horror in the classic sense is sitting around and watching scary movies — the films that feature the inhuman, the supernatural, and all manner of evil in between. For some, horror is reading a book that they can’t put down, while still being afraid to turn the page. But with horror becoming more and more prominent, people are trying to find new ways to scare and be scared.

One of these ways has been finding new methods of storytelling. 2007’s Paranormal Activity jump-started the found-footage genre, while video games have evolved over the years from psychological horrors like the Silent Hill games to more action-heavy survival-horror titles like the latter Resident Evil games. Somewhere in between those, though, is the upcoming augmented-reality game, Night Terrors.

mThe game, which utilizes your cell phone’s different features to create its experience, turns your own home into the setting of its story. The idea is that you’re playing the game with all the lights off and your headphones in while holding the phone in front of you to progress through the game. If you’ve ever seen someone playing Pokémon GO with the AR feature on, it’s kind of like that!

As you walk through your home, the game maps your environment to detect where walls, ceilings, and the like are. In doing so, it can create effects such as paintings falling down the wall or rubble falling from the ceiling above you. It also uses this to guide you through the story itself, leading you room-to-room in order to save the little girl who’s being trapped by malevolent entities. On your way there, your camera’s light will occasionally flash, creatures will jump out at you, and you’ll hear all kinds of strange noises that you can’t help but feel are actually there.

This last part is especially important — the game’s creators have gone a long way to make a binaural experience that elevates the sound being background noise. There is a directionality to the sound; if something sounds like it’s coming from your left, it’ll get louder as you turn and get closer. Listening to the sound is a big part of the puzzle, as the game asks you to do what instinct tells you not to: Follow the haunting noises.

It’s hard to put into words just exactly how scary the use of sound can be. If you’ve never experienced something that uses three-dimensional sound, you’re in for a (scary) treat. At one point during my play-through of the demo, a little girl whispered in my ear and I actually turned because my body knew where the sound was coming from. At other times, I heard noises growing louder and tried to aim my phone as close to the edge of my periphery as possible, for fear of what I knew was inevitably coming.

If you’re a fan of horror, you’ll want to give this game a try. It asks you to fully immerse yourself in the experience, and if you’re willing to do so, it’s guaranteed to scare. The full version will be out on Halloween, but if you’re eager to give it a test run, there’s a demo available as well. I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I gave it a try, but I definitely wound up more scared than I expected to be.

But that’s part of the fun — finding new ways to enjoy horror, finding what does or does not scare you, and letting yourself kept swept up within an environment created to scare. And the best part of Night Terrors is that the environment is whatever familiar location you choose it to be — your apartment, your basement, your dorm… your choice!

(Below is a slideshow of some pictures Mitch took while playing the game.)

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Video Games – A New Potential For Horror

By: Kathryn Clark

I’ve always been a fan of horror in all shapes and forms. Much of my childhood was spent reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and trying to hold séances with homemade Ouija boards without my parents finding out. I’ve also loved video games since I was little, so it makes sense that these two loves would eventually combine. Now, video games are my absolute favorite way to experience horror, because they’re the only form of media where the audience is in control of the story.

Now, when I say that the audience is in control, I don’t mean that they get to choose what actually happens in the story. Obviously every video game has limits to what choices the player can actually make, and many games have scripts that they force you to follow for the sake of the plot. If the game wants you to go explore the creepy basement, then it’s not going to progress until you give in and explore the basement. But even when you’re given only a single option, you still have to be the one to make the choice to keep going. In a book or movie, the action moves at the same pace no matter who is reading or watching. In a video game, you set your own pace. It doesn’t matter if you’re following an immutable script – you’re still the one who chooses to press the buttons and make the story progress. Nothing happens unless you make it happen. And this active participation is exactly where the true potential for horror lies.

My freshman year of college, my best friend and I decided to play a game called Outlast. In it, you play as a reporter named Miles who sneaks into an asylum with the intention of exposing its illegal and unethical practices. You quickly become trapped inside its walls, and must embark on a complicated quest to unlock the doors and make it to safety. She played the first bit of the game, which was fairly spooky and had some good jumpscares, but I didn’t actually consider it to be scary.

Then it was my turn to play.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I became a complete wuss the moment that the power was in my hands. Now, I had to make decisions about how to react, whether Miles should hide in a locker or keep running. I was no longer a passive observer; if Miles died, it was on me. This was my first time playing a horror game, and it made me feel vulnerable in a way that I had never experienced before. It was almost as though I had become Miles, as though I feared for my own safety rather than simply the safety of a fictional character. I quickly reached the point where I physically could not make myself move forward, and had to hand the laptop back over to my friend. When I did manage to make myself continue playing, it would sometimes take me ten minutes to make it to the end of a single hallway, even when there was nothing standing in my way. As I said before, I wasn’t at all scared when my friend was the one playing. But something about being the one in control of the story – even if all I had to do was press a button – is absolutely terrifying.

I’ve been hooked on horror games ever since, despite the fact that I still struggle to actually make myself play them instead of wimping out partway through. No matter how many movies I watch or books I read, I’ve never found anything that horrifies me in quite the same way that games can. If you’re a fan of any other form of horror, then I highly suggest that you give video games a try. If you need some suggestions, there are plenty of free games available online, as well as some that you can buy for a reasonable cost. Just don’t blame me if they make it hard for you to sleep at night. After all, this was your choice.

Fear the Freddy

boe 1

By Allyson Boe

When I was in elementary school, I spent a majority of my free time on what I thought to be the coolest video game website ever, There are thousands of games to choose from, created by over thousands of developers, but somehow I made the mistake of thinking that an “addicting game” with the title, Escape from 1428 Elm Street, would be a good idea. I wound up playing what has scarred me for the past seven years.

I’m not a big fan of anything terrifying to begin with, so I’m not even sure how I made it past the title screen. I had heard the name Freddy Krueger before, and so had my best friend, Jenna, who played by my side, but I never knew his story until we managed to spend an entire day over our summer break trying to beat the game.

When you begin the game, you type in your name and your birthday (which you later see on your tomb stone in Freddy’s backyard). Your friends supposedly dare you to go into the ominous house on Elm Street and you think, “what could possibly go wrong?” but once you walk through the front door of the house, there’s no turning back. Until you can defeat Freddy, you’re trapped, and trust me this isn’t easy.

Boe 2Boe 3Take your time and explore the creepy, old house, picking up strange objects that you will need later on. As you move from room to room, search for anything that will help you escape Elm Street. Don’t be surprised by the excessive amounts of blood you will find in each area you enter (and no, the graphics don’t get any better either). But whatever you do, be careful not to fall asleep in the bedroom that looks oh so comfortable (well, not really). If you do, Freddy might just make his way into your dreams where you must defeat him before you can even wake up and escape from the house.

On top of all of that, even after you think you’ve made it out of the house, you have to defeat Freddy one last time in his yard. Look out; he will be coming at you with his claws. Use the gun you picked up from his house to hold him off. Once he’s down, douse him in holy water. Maybe, just maybe, you might make it out alive.

To tell you the truth I haven’t played Escape from 1428 Elm Street since that summer going into fifth grade. I can still remember Jenna and I sitting in front of my computer monitor for all those hours, wondering if we would ever make it out of the house alive. When we finally stopped playing (no, we never actually beat it), I couldn’t stop thinking about Freddy Krueger. Somewhere in my ten-year-old mind I was convinced that if I went to bed that night, or any night at that, he would make his way into my dreams. For the remainder of that summer, I slept with all the lights on in my bedroom. And when that didn’t work, I found myself retreating to my brother’s bedroom or my parent’s bedroom where I slept until school began up again in the fall.

But when it comes down to it, the choice is yours. Will you choose to play? Or won’t you? You don’t believe in urban legends now, do you?

Don’t Move: A New Take on Horror in Video Games

By: Brianna Autrey

Like horror? Great. Like video games? Perfect. Like horror video games that force you to choose a characters unpredictable (but surely gruesome) death? Even better! A PlayStation 4 exclusive game, Until Dawn, might catch your interest.

Many people question horror in video games as a duo; they’re typically more hit or miss than horror movies are. There are some well-known horror games that have broken the mold, such as Amnesia and Outlast (which by the way, Outlast is definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already – but that’s another blog post for another time). These games were more than just cheap jump scares, the gripping plot and well executed elements of horror made them stand out. Until Dawn deserves a part of that spotlight, too.

The plot of the game revolves around eight friends who return to a cabin in the mountains (typical but bear with me) where two of their former friends have tragically died. Boring? Turns out there are supernatural creatures that live in the mountains and, long story short, things hit the fan and they have to wait until dawn for help to come and rescue them. What makes Until Dawn stand out is that it’s an interactive horror game with a butterfly effect system. As you play as different characters, you will make the dialogue choices in the game you are presented with, find clues about future deaths that can be prevented; that’s where the butterfly effect comes in. Whatever choice you make will change the course of the game. You also don’t have much time to make that choice (maybe twenty seconds?) until the game makes the choice for you.

For example, let’s say a wolf aggressively approached you in the mountains, would you attack it before it attacked you or would you stand still to let it know you’re defenseless? Keep in mind, you don’t know how this decision will affect the game later and now you have about ten seconds left to pick because the countdown starts immediately. If you chose to stand defenseless, then the wolf will return later in the game to help you fight off one of the creatures. If you chose to attack it, the wolf will injure your leg before running off, the commotion attracted the attention of the creatures, and because your leg is injured you can’t outrun them so they capture you and your eyes are gouged out before the creature decides to eat your head whole. That kind of stuff.

The butterfly affect in the game isn’t the only noteworthy feature. The PlayStation 4 uses a motion sensor controller, and some video games take advantage of that. Until Dawn is, to much approval, one of those games. When your character is hiding from the creature, the words “DON’T MOVE!” will spontaneously pop up on your screen and damn it, you better not move because the creature will hear you and you will die. Your job as the player is to keep the controller as still as possible while you watch the ugly, blood dripping from their teeth and claws creatures sniff around looking for you. Needless to say, those are some of the most intense moments of the game. I also find the fact that you can’t tell what decisions you make will affect everyone’s mortality incredibly tense and pressuring.

Until Dawn is willing to make fun of itself, which makes the game even more enjoyable. The game and plot are purposely using cliché horror movie themes. There’s the classic teens who can’t control their hormones, some dumbass who insists on using a Ouija board and the dumbasses that agree to it, the one or two characters that you like and hope make it to the end (which is totally in your hands if they do), and those characters that insist on investigating every single weird noise even though they know there’s death around every corner. Those are the best. The silver lining is, even though that character was stupid and went to investigate the deathly sound, you as the player can still make choices that can get them out of that situation alive (or not if you really hate a character and want to kill them, I’ve done that).

I’ve refrained from going too into detail about the plot and characters of the game but I highly suggest watching a gameplay video or two of the game on YouTube, or read spoilers about it if you’d prefer. Until Dawn is steadily becoming one of those video games you just have to talk about.

Look Away: Horror and Player Punishment

By: Sarah Doukakos (friend of The Course of Horror)

One of the first things players are asked to master in modern games is camera control, especially in first person games. The camera is tied to an analog stick (usually the right stick), and that camera view represents the player’s eyes. Many game tutorials establish ways to help the player practice how to use their new “eyes.” Popular franchises like Call of Duty, Halo, and Skyrim train the player to quickly pan the camera around to check for danger or enemies, and act on that behavior. The player is encouraged to do this, and is rewarded in the game by discovering access to hidden areas or catching a glimpse of an enemy before they are seen themselves. If players aren’t aware of their surroundings, it means a quick death.

From these experiences we can see games have largely established a rule, where greater player sight or knowledge is a positive, and lack of awareness means they’re open to an attack.

However, many horror games force players to go against a key survival instinct and avert their gaze. They survive by remaining visually unaware of creatures that try to kill them.

Another key piece of game design is to try to make the player as active in the game as possible. They are not supposed to be passive viewers of their surroundings, but must work to either actively shape it or react to it. While in many other mediums the saying is “show, don’t tell,” for games it’s “do, don’t show.” That means constant player movement, of both their vision and their bodies to survive. Horror games upend player movement expectations as well. They’re encouraged to be blind, and often encouraged to be still.

A perfect example is the treatment of the Slender Man in Slender: The Eight Pages. The player can hear a crackle of electric feedback nearby, and their experiences have taught them to quickly spin the camera to see what the sound could be. When they do this and catch sight of the Slender Man, or linger on him for too long, it’s instant death. All of those years of being taught that they need to constantly survey their surroundings are being used against them.

In terms of player stillness, games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 break movement expectations. A creature, who is often more powerful than the player, will roam around looking for them. The player must conceal themselves and they must remain still. They have to watch and hope that this being that is breathing right next to them doesn’t notice them. They are encouraged to not do, but watch, and wait.

Many other games use these horror death mechanics. Minecraft punishes players who allow their camera to sit on the Endermen for too long, making the Endermen suddenly hostile to the player. Don’t Starve punishes players who look at or interact with characters that are hostile or evil by having their sanity meter deplete. At night the player has to sit next to a campfire, and can’t move, or the darkness will swallow them and kill them, so they wait by the slowly fading light. Don’t Starve’s expression of this camera and combat experience comes the closest in explaining why the player would be punished for their activity. The very Lovecraftian reasoning is this: there are some things that are too terrible for humans to see or comprehend. It’s better to look away and be still, just to survive another day.

Games that make the player watch and wait also break another element of many mainstream games: that the player is all powerful. Many games teach the player that they are a strong hero who can kill anything that comes across their path, that if they keep trying or get a bigger gun or stronger weapon that they can destroy everything. But horror games let players feel weak. They let them know that sometimes, there’s nothing to be done in the face of evil. Sometimes they have to sit and wait. That they are so weak and so frail that even looking at the face of their tormentor will destroy them. Some games ultimately let the player succeed by striking at the right moment, but often there isn’t a way to defeat these enemies. They only win by escaping, and living to tell the tale of those who could kill them with sight alone.

Sarah Doukakos is a Game Designer for Nickelodeon Digital, working with properties including SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Legend of Korra, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. In her past she worked as a producer at Cartoon Network, and her projects included the first Adventure Time game. She spends her spare time watching cartoons, playing a lot of Dark Souls and Minecraft, and creating game design curriculum for middle school students. 

Horror with a Joystick

By: Prashanth Vijayaraghavan

One of the most powerful mediums that can be used in horror is also the most over-looked. While nearly everyone has seen a horror movie, the amount of people who have played a “survival horror” video game is sure to be in the minority. While it is true that horror themed video games are not as popular as their silver screen counter-parts, because games are dependent on player input, they posses several advantages that add to the horror of a story, making them one of the best ways to scare. To demonstrate some of these benefits I will use the critically acclaimed game “Resident Evil 4” (2005) for reference due to its use of horror tactics that are now pervasive in the survival horror genre.

The obligation of video games that sets it apart from other forms of media is the direct engagement of an individual (known as the player) to control a fictional character on screen (known as the avatar). One result of this relationship that can be particularly scary is that your character can die, often times due to your mistakes. Since you control the character, it No matter your level of engagement in a movie, you cannot change the outcome of a protagonist, however in a video game, poor performance will have your character decapitated or mutilated in front of you, an example of which can be seen here. Additionally, you are not only responsible for letting your character “not die”, but also for progression of the story. While it may seem tense to watch a hero shoot through a wave of zombies, the situation is infinitely more nerve wrecking when it is you who must do the shooting and must depend on your own dexterity for survival.

Video games also have the advantage of being animated and programmed. Because they don’t take place in the real world, the grotesque and sinister nature of the monsters is only as limited as the artist’s imagination. Even a game that was created over 8 years ago (a very long time in terms of video game advancement) has creatures that can top any computer graphics or make-up artist in Hollywood, as can be seen in this short cut scene.  There is no “close your eyes during the scary part” in a video game. You must be engaged at all times.

Video games are look down upon by some, alien to others, and loved by many, yet every single person who has picked up a controller will speak to the uniqueness of this medium. It is this uniqueness that can makes video games one of the best methods to tell a horror story, yet these few aspects are just a taste of what survival horror video games have to offer the horror genre and story telling as a whole. For those of you who seldom play video games, I highly recommend giving a survival horror game a shot. It will be an experience unlike anything you’ve ever encountered. I’ll leave you with my most terrifying moment in “Resident Evil 4”. (Enjoy)