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

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

To this regard, media and reality seem to be two things the brain finds hard to differentiate.

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.”

Die monster! You don't belong in this world!
Die monster! You don’t belong in this world!

 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.

 Catharsis Theory

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.”

Where are the goddamn flashlights in this game?!
Where are the goddamn flashlights in this game?!

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.

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Rhenn Taguiam
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.
Rhenn Taguiam

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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