Overthinking It: Crafting Effective Horror

As a massive wuss, the concept of horror has always fascinated me. I would insist on watching scary movies, even if the end result would be that I ran out of the room or hid behind a pillow until the spooklums went away. So I have, especially over the past months (maybe even year), given a lot of thought to what makes good horror and what doesn’t.

I will state right off the bat that I know that what is and isn’t scary is a highly subjective thing. If you are looking to create a horror experience, keep in mind that you won’t be able to make something that will scare everyone. People are too different. You might be able to make something that will scare most people, and that’s a pretty big achievement right there.

That being said; horror is not necessarily about scaring the audience. It could also be going for unnerving or unsettling them. Making them feel uncomfortable, or even unsafe. Perhaps your aim is to fuck with your audience’s mind to such a degree that they start to question the fabric of reality itself. Challenging and messing with someone’s perceptions can be a good way to create effective horror.

I will be looking at this subject mainly as it relates to videogames, and talking about the different tools and methods as if they apply universally, which in this case I take to mean “affects most people” (as I’ve understood it through years of observation and conversation). I can’t account for every outlier and exception, and can really only speak from personal experience. There is every possibility that I will get it completely wrong, or miss enough stuff that it opens up for a part 2.

The first and most obvious tool to turn to for many designers/writers/developers is jump-scares. People like to refer to these as lazy and shallow, and it’s often with good cause. It’s easy to horribly abuse jump-scares, something we see in the Dead Space games. It doesn’t take long for people to get used to them, and honestly they startle more than they actually scare. For me personally a jump-scare that truly startles me has a high probability of triggering an anger response rather than one of fear. And when I’m used to them they’re regularly more annoying than they are startling or scary.

That is not to say that all jump-scares are invalid. Like any tool they can be used most effectively. In my opinion there are two central components to using jump-scares wisely. First off they have to be in combination with other tools. Jump-scares do not work so well on their own, but when combined with a build-up from a good atmosphere and a sense of actual threat they can be highly effective.

The second part is to not use them too often. I’ve seen this happen many times, where they throw out the jump-scares like rice at a wedding. I’m easily startled, so I’m likely to jump every time, even if I see it coming, but it doesn’t feel especially scary. Good horror tends to rely on a build-up of tension, and a jump-scare works best when it’s a culmination of this tension. However, when it is over, some of that tension is gone. It found its release. So if you put a jump-scare in every (or every other) room, you will constantly kill any tension you are trying to build up. This can be mitigated by having what jumps out be a genuine threat, but even then it will quickly turn into “oh, here we go again”.

Use jump-scares sparingly, and/or when the player/audience least expects it. If you are really good, you can make it so that even though they know it’s coming, they know what will trigger it, they still experience abject terror at the thought of it happening. Alternately you can really fuck with them by having it not happen at all (at least not when they think it’s coming). Play with their expectations a bit.

Next up we have the monsters, a subject that is both simple and tricky. What people tend to fear the most is the unknown. This is because we have imaginations that can conjure images infinitely more terrifying than anything we can actually create. If you let your audience see the monster, it starts to become a known. If you let a player kill the monster, it loses a lot of its threat. This can be mitigated by making victories costly. Maybe they know the monster can be defeated, but it will take a toll on them, and might not even be worth it, so they dread the idea of entering combat.

This is a fine line to balance though. If you overdo it with the idea that “hard == scary”, you run the risk of turning it into tedium. See, when a player/protagonist dies, the tension tends to die with them, and immersion goes out the window. It is possible to subvert this, though. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem the loss of sanity can lead to many ways for the game to mess with your head. Not just the head of the protagonist, but actually going meta and messing with the player in unexpected ways. Like you’d enter a room, and something will happen that kills you, and then suddenly you’re back outside the room as if it was just a dream or a vision. You died, but you didn’t, and you’re not sure what the hell is going on.

So the trick is to keep them on the edge where they think they could die at any moment, but it doesn’t actually happen. They might survive by the merest inch, consider themselves lucky and be forced into using their precious resources to get into a state where it’s safe enough to move on. Maybe nothing ever actually touches them, but they are regularly reminded what happened to other people and could happen to them. There are several ways to go about it, and all could work if you are good enough to pull it off. Their imagination is your ally. It might also be an idea to allow them to run away. Feeling hunted triggers powerful instincts when used right.

There are of course certain monsters we do see all the time, and yet consider incredibly scary. The most prominent example in my mind are the xenomorphs from Alien. We know what they look like, we know what they do and we know they can die. We don’t know where they came from, whether someone made them or they occurred naturally, or why they are how they are. We do know they’re a very real threat. It’s a mix of mystery and certainty that combine to form a monster that we don’t want to see, yet feel fascinated by. I think all the scariest monsters have some mystery and intrigue to them. It helps our imaginations make things feel worse than they might actually be.

I believe almost everyone will agree that a good atmosphere is essential to an effective horror experience. But creating a good atmosphere is easier said than done. If you are really good, you can make the environments brightly lit and colourful, and it will still feel like horror to those going through it. There are several factors that go into a good atmosphere.

Silence is a powerful tool, as it lets our friend, the imagination, work overtime. Leave people alone with their thoughts for a while, and they can come up with the most gruesome ideas for what has happened.

Drop hints. Little messages, either scrawled onto the walls or random bits of paper. Perhaps a full log entry, text or audio or even video, that explains a little bit about the place you’re in and maybe makes some mention of strange happenings. Or it could be as simple as showing evidence of damage that make the audience start guessing at what could have caused it and/or why.

Make things seem wrong. This can often be more effective when it’s really subtle, but try to instill your audience with the idea that something is not quite right here. It might not have to be super-subtle, but if you make it too obvious it could run the risk of seeming silly. This is the uncanny valley issue of something that seems to be normal, but we can still tell it’s not exactly so, and it nags at us, especially if we can’t quite put our fingers on it.

And of course there is the issue of pacing. It won’t help much how eerie, unsettling, disturbing and wrong your world feels, if you can’t use it properly. There is a lot of psychology that goes into making good horror, and understanding when to have stuff happen, and more crucially, when to have nothing happen is important for creating the tension that will make people uncomfortable and scared. If you go too long without anything happening people grow complacent, which could be the perfect opportunity to hit them with something if your timing is good. And if things happen too often there won’t be an opportunity for tension to actually build up to effective levels. Unless you’re a master of the human psyche you could use focus groups/gametesters to experiment.

You might have noticed that the recurring keyword here has been “imagination”. Whatever you’re trying to do, and however you’re going about it, the human imagination will forever be your strongest tool and best ally. It’s not easy to give them just enough to work with without telling them too much. I do believe it’s a skill you can train though. Keep at it, and keep learning, and you might be the next H.P. Lovecraft or Stanley Kubrick.

All that, and I didn’t even get to discussing games I think have done well, and games I think have done not so well. Perhaps I’ll make a part 2 after all. We’ll see. What do you think makes for good horror? What have I missed? What did I get wrong? Please leave a comment for further discussion.



Posted on February 2, 2013, in Games, Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think that sound has a lot to do with it as well. The scariest level that I’ve ever played in any computer games is the Shalebridge Cradle in Thief III. There is a low level almost imperceptible audio backdrop that puts the player on edge despite there are _no_ enemies on the first half of the level. If the sound wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be anywhere as scary I think. There’s something there that lights up the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala and puts you on edge as part of your survival reaction. System Shock II/Bioshock does a similar thing with hissing steam and dripping water, the sound of cameras etc..although it’s not done quite as well as Thief III. Check this playthrough starting with this video here:

    • I knew I’d forget something. Yeah, audio can have a huge impact on whether something is scary or not. I’m sure scary books and comics exist, but good sound design adds an extra dimension to the terror.

      • Thinking about it some more, I think I’ve come up with my “Amygdala theory of horror” which basically uses this tiny pea-sized part of your brain to induce terror in the owner. I’ll have to see if I can’t write it down later on when I have some more time today.

  2. The thing in my mind is that ‘horror’ is not the same thing as ‘frightened’. Not even nearly. Fright is an immediate fight-or-flight trigger that floods your system with adrenaline; horror is the slow buildup of tension. Your jump scares example is good in that regard, because it shows exactly what horror is not.

    The xenomorphs from Aliens are actually the perfect example of the dichotomy. When they’re unseen, they’re a horror element: an unseen, potentially omnipresent lethal threat that has the person on edge, forced to deal with their own imagination amplifying every little oddity into an atmosphere of terror. But when they actually appear, they become a fright element: an enemy to deal with in a high-stakes life-or-death situation.

    You want to hear an idea I just thought of? A horror game that does kill the protagonist sometimes, out-of-the-blue, with little indication of how you died and what killed you… that then puts you into the body of a different protagonist. Almost like that ZombiiU system, but with more unseen killers. Imagine exploring, say, a haunted house, knowing full well that behind every corner something could kill you. It’d obviously have to balance horror with gameplay frustration, though.

  3. Oh if you’re interested – Terri Brosius is both the voice of SHODAN and Lauryl in Thief III. She’s also the voice of Ava Johnson in Deus Ex – Invisible War.. She seems to feature in most of my favorite games 🙂

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