Gaming, Geek Culture, Psychology and Mental Health

Why Are Horror Games Scary?

Unlike most games, horror games don’t motivate you with the prospect of victory, but with the urgent need to escape. They’re about reacting to an uncontrollable environment, fuelled by our fight-or-flight response, which quickly spurs our fingers into action as we rapidly lose half our ammo trying to kill our attacker (or in my case, by firing in the complete opposite direction of the attacker). Usually, during the course of a horror game, you find yourself slowly moving through dark, futuristic corridors or some kind of dingy abandoned building, with limited ammo and supplies, low health and the sound of the heavily-breathing protagonist in your ears. You have to make your way past corpses and streaks of blood, just waiting for the next creature to jump out at you. Unlike in horror films, you can’t scream at the main character not to go into the cellar. You HAVE to go into the cellar. Horror games have never relied on gripping and extravagant storylines, but instead employ eerie sound effects and flickering lights to really get your heart pounding before the inevitable bloodbath begins.

Take this Dead Space trailer for example. No matter how many times I watch it, it will always get my heart pounding. (Warning: this trailer features a lot of gore, horror, death, blood, violence and jumpy scenes that some people might find disturbing or upsetting.)

Various studies have investigated what kind of factors influence our perception of horror in video games. Do women feel more fear than men? Do people with sensation-seeking/risk-taking personalities enjoy horror games more and feel less afraid? Are more empathetic people more likely to avoid violent and frightening games? In this blog, I aim to answer a few of those questions.

Defining Fear

Fear is our body’s reaction to situations, items or creatures which we perceive as dangerous. Signals of danger are transported around our body to the amygdala, a part of the brain residing in the medial temporal lobe, which then activates and releases chemicals to improve motor function and allow activities such as running, jumping or twitching those trigger-fingers on your Xbox controller. Our fear response to frightening media (TV, films or games) doesn’t differ too drastically to our response to real-life dangerous situations, though real-life situations may cause the response to escalate to a larger level than a threat on a screen. Some studies suggest that horror might only be scary because the events shown in horror games and films hold some element of realism: although we’ve never experienced a zombie attack, or an alien tearing our head off, these are all associated with blood, disease, injury or death, all very serious real-life threats. Despite the situation being unfamiliar, the horrific events depicted in horror are often comparable with other, closer-to-reality possibilities.

Do Games Need to be Realistic to Create Fear?

It stands to reason, then, that the more realistic a game is, the more fear it can create. To investigate this theory, scientists looked at two different types of realism: “graphic realism”, which depends on the quality of the graphics of the game, and “manifest realism”, which is a measure of how similar to real-life threats the events of the game are. In a recent study, graphic realism was found to cause more fear in participants than manifest realism, so despite events having closer parallels to real-life, the level of realism in the graphics was the most important factor out of these in deciding how scary a game was considered to be.

Differences Between Sexes

In the same study, men were found to be more likely to prefer horror, action, sports or shooter games than women, while women were more likely to play puzzle, simulation and card games. The male preference for frightening content might be because looking for danger and facing frightening situations have been historically rewarding for men, as this portrays them as brave and courageous, while women have been rewarded for avoiding danger. Females are also more likely to report more negative reactions, such as sleep disturbances after watching a scary film.

Sensation Seeking and Empathy

Highly sensation-seeking individuals (so those of us who are more likely to take risks, such as go bungee jumping or take part in other dangerous, thrill-seeking activities) are more curious about morbidity, showing more interest in blood and death, compared to less sensation-seeking personalities. Sensation seekers have been found experience fear less frequently while playing horror games, and find more enjoyment in these type of games, although they did not necessarily play horror games more often. The fact that they experienced less fear while playing games backs up a theory that sensation-seekers are not very sensitive to stimuli, so require a higher level of danger or excitement to get a thrill out of life, while more sensitive people might feel overwhelmed by many activities that simply don’t register as exciting with sensation-seekers. In the same study, people who scored more highly on a survey which measured their levels of empathy reported less enjoyment after playing horror games, suggesting that their empathy with the character could lessen their enjoyment of the game.

Horror Games Know What They’re Doing
The video below shows a selection of clips from Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It’s a pretty scary game, so if you’re sensitive to horror, maybe it’s best to give it a miss.

Studies have uncovered that games involving darkness, disfigured humans and zombies are considered the most scary, all of which frequently appear in video games, with limbless corpses strewn across the floors of dimly-lit corridors to make players more and more scared as they play the game. They might not be the most popular genre of game, but horror games have found their niche, and their recipe for making our hearts pound and our palms sweat. Horror games rely on taking control out of players’ hands. In horror games, you’re not the hero. You’re just another victim, desperate to escape.

If you’re interested in reading more about the fear responses caused by video games, this study gives a good summary of previous research into the topic, and newer research.

Related article: Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Featured image by Stuart Anthony on Flickr

5 thoughts on “Why Are Horror Games Scary?”

  1. I thought this was a really stimulating piece on the biological reasons we find horror games scary. I really love the Dead Space series – the first game was a masterpiece in survival horror, in my opinion. I liked your points about how horror games force us to pursue those counter-intuitive moments, such as exploring the morgue in Dead Space, and your point about how such fantastical occurrences such as aliens and zombies can be translated into relatable, real-life threats, which is why we find them so horrifying. I think the converse can be true as well, that it can be truly terrifying when we are contronted by something we cannot process or relate to, I guess it connects to the ‘fear of the unknown’ and is a great horror trope, too. Thanks for this great post.


    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I’m really glad you found it interesting. I agree with you that the unknown can also make things very frightening – maybe things like zombies are just the right mix of known and unknown, since we know that things like disease and the prospect of being badly injured are threatening, but we don’t actually know how to stop a zombie apocalypse/how to cope with that kind of threat. Maybe that increases our fear? That’s just an idea you’ve given me, so I don’t know if there’s much scientific grounding in it!
      I really enjoyed your blog post on apocalyptic settings in games and I’m looking forward to reading more!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome! I really enjoyed the scientific perspective on the subject. That’s a good point about zombies being a hybrid between the known and the unknown, maybe that’s one of the reasons they are such a recurrent and popular motif in horror culture. Thank you so much, really means a lot that you enjoyed reading it and likewise, I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!

        Liked by 1 person

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