The Psychology of Horror Games

NOTE: The following is a version of an article that first appeared in the December, 2010 issue of GamePro magazine, which is now sadly defunct. Sorry for the dated game references. If you like, get out a marker and use it to update them directly on your screen.

Horror games are a bit of a problem. No doubt they’re popular, but that kind of IS the problem. “Fear is a noxious emotion,” says Dr. Andrew Weaver, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University who has studied the subject. “We generally don’t want to experience it, and the after effects of viewing particularly frightening media are not something that anyone wants.” So why do people line up to cringe at horror movies and operate game controllers with hands tensed into claws by what they see (or don’t see) on the screen?

dead space fear

Psychologists have extensively studied the attraction of horror, though most of the research has focused on films and has only recently included video games. A lot of what’s been found can easily be applied to games, though, allowing players to understand what scares them and letting game designers understand how to do it more effectively.

Scare Tactics

“What scares you?” is a personal question because we all have our own private fears –bugs, heights, inappropriate anime cosplay, whatever. But beyond the obvious fear of injury or death, there are some other proven sources of fear.

Unease about extreme abnormality and disfigurement is at the source of both our fear of monsters and “body horror” that relies on the graphic disfigurement or destruction of familiar forms. We get even more uneasy when we can recognize a distorted or supernatural form for what it used to be. The Dead Space games epitomize this idea: fellow humans are horribly mutilated to begin with, and you actually need to disfigure them further by blasting off limbs. This category also encompasses things that act or move abnormally, like the jerky, scuttling movements of the little girl Alma in F.E.A.R.

Fear of darkness and the unknown has its roots in biology –we’re visual creatures and our fear of darkness may be selected for by evolution. What’s that rumbling in the dark? Could be a tiger with a chain saw, so you’d better run. Alan Wake, for example, focuses on darkness to the point of making the flashlight an actual weapon.


It’s also worth noting that research on “excitation transfer” has shown that vague feelings of excitement or anticipation can transfer their emotional wallop when monsters or killers eventually barge onto the scene. This is why ambient noises and spooky soundtracks are so effective, though custom soundtracks do present challenges to game designers according to John Williamson, Designer on the Saw II: Flesh and Blood video game. “We are required by Microsoft and Sony to allow the player to turn the music tracks off or replace it with the Backstreet Boys or other music of their choice,” Williamson says. “Spielberg doesn’t have to contend with that. Would Jaws be as scary if you were listening to ‘I want it that way’ instead of John Williams’s haunting shark theme?”

Finally, it matters how much the events on screen are similar to things in real life. We’re not going to tense up watching one pixel menace another pixel, but as graphics and sound improve, the potential for evoking fear increases. This concept also addresses the fact that games with realistic, identifiable settings and threats can be more frightening. “Older children and adults are much more likely to be frightened by things that could actually happen in the real world,” says Glen Sparks, a Professor at Purdue University’s Department of Communications.

But why do so many seek this stuff out in the first place? Theories fall into three groups:

  1. Those arguing that it’s inherently appealing to be in the clutches of the horror genre
  2. Those that frame the experience as leading to worthwhile payoffs
  3. Those that say society makes us want to do it.

Let’s take a closer look.

Scare Seekers

Researchers say some people just have the right kind of personality for appreciating scares because they’re sensation seekers attracted to any emotional high, be it from sky diving, shark punching, or horror films. Other personalities are drawn to situations showing social norms being broken in ways that will probably never happen in real life.

But perhaps a more encompassing explanation of horror’s inherent appeal is how it helps us master our fears. This seems to be particularly important for youngsters, who flock to scary media as an ultimately safe way to exercise their emotional chops and deal with real-life scary stuff. “Watching a horror film gives us back some control,” says Andrew Weaver. “We can experience an adverse event through film and we know that it will end, we’ll survive it, we’ll go on with our lives.”


Interestingly, though, this co-opting of horror only really happens if the player or viewer knows that what he or she sees is fake. In one famous experiment researchers had subjects watch a movie featuring authentic scenes of live monkeys having their brains scooped out and of children –I kid you not– having their facial skin peeled away in preparation for surgery. That probably makes you squirm a little just reading it, and the vast majority of the study participants refused to finish watching the films despite the fact that the scenes could probably be outdone by the more grotesque movies playing at the theater down the street. We seem to need to know it’s fake.

The After Horror High

A second set of explanations for horror’s delight posits that we hate the horror, but like the proverbial man who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, we love the relief that comes at the end.

Excitation transfer theory, which was credited earlier with enabling spooky soundtracks to do their job, has also been hypothesized to give us a kind of “Thank God that’s over” high. Glen Sparks says that “People become physiologically aroused due to the fear they experience during the media event–and then when the media event ends, that arousal transfers to the experience of relief and intensifies it. They don’t so much enjoy the experience of being afraid –rather, they enjoy the intense positive emotion that may directly follow.”

Also related to the climactic end of many spooky narratives is what I think of as “comeuppance theory” but which most other researchers call “dispositional alignment.” We like seeing villains get what they deserve in the end, and we’re willing to endure a lot of squirming over the fates of their hapless victims along the way to make the payoff worth it. Heck, we may even insist on it.

Fright Mastery

Finally, a third class of explanations deals with the social benefits of enduring terror. “For males in particular, sitting through these films is sort of a test,” says Andrew Weaver. “It proves (to oneself and, more importantly, to peers) that one is man enough to handle it.” One twist on this concept even goes so far as to say that media steeped in horror gives people a way to demonstrate their adherence to societal norms about males being “protectors” and females being “protectees.” Your mileage may vary.

until dawn

This so-called “snuggle theory of horror” might sound like so much sexist nonsense, except that one famous study supported it by showing that men who were paired for the viewing of Friday the 13th, Part III with women who pretended to be afraid were more likely to say they enjoyed the movie and were attracted to their viewing partner than were men who watched the horror film with women displaying mastery of their fear. Likewise, women said they liked it better when their male viewing partners acted tough rather than afraid. Of course, individual results may vary depending on how much the person in question is disposed to conform to such norms.

What about Games?

This all begs the question, though, about how games may differ from horror films. One potential stumbling block relates to the issue of control. Like roller coasters, movies are largely outside the viewer’s control aside from being able to make them go away entirely. Indeed, one study that asked participants to watch a horror movie let some viewers hold a remote control. Relative to those who had to watch empty handed, these people reported being less scared whether they actually used the remote or not.

But while gamers always use controllers, that might actually work in their favor as well. “I deconstructed the Saw movies to being about choice,” said John Williamson. “The subject (there are never victims in Jigsaw’s world) is given a choice; it is up to them to see if they can muster the will to solve their test. Wondering if we would have the ability to muster up that will in the Saw universe is the parallel to yelling to the character on screen in a traditional horror movie, don’t open that door!” It’s quite a bit more immediate and intense if you’re the one opening the door or springing the trap.

And games do have other strengths. That same sense of control can create empathy for the characters in a game, and this kind of empathy has been found to make fans of fear freak out all the more severely. When you choose a character’s actions or even appearance you begin to identify more with him or her. “The fright reactions that teens and adults experience typically spring from an empathetic relationship with the character/victim,” says Andrew Weaver. “If viewers can put themselves in the shoes of a character who is afraid, they are more likely to experience that fear too.”

Finally, one area where video games could surpass movies is in the social arena. The most social part of watching a movie is talking about it afterwards. Games can also do that, but they present the additional possibility of letting two or more people brave the fear together and experience it simultaneously through the magic of multiplayer gaming. So you can prove your stuff (and brag about it) in real time, not just by talking about it later.

All this said, though, the psychology of scary games is an area ripe for study and experimentation. We probably haven’t seen the end of it and you can look forward to being horrified by the results.

15 thoughts on “The Psychology of Horror Games

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