Enjoying horror…

Playing a small student game called Hush (or at least attempting to do so since I suck at any kind of challenge-based gameplay), made me realize how important the fictional aspect is for the enjoyment of horror.

Hush is a game set in Rwanda during the massacres between Hutus and Tutsis. You play a woman who is trying to silence her crying baby so that the invading soldiers don’t find them.
I have a lot of ethical issues with this game (and “news gaming” in general). And I completely disapprove of the confusion it generates between the emotions caused by the gameplay and those by the narrative. But that’s not the point here.

The soundscape of the game is incredibly effective. It’s frightening, it’s shocking. But because it is real, or pertains to a real event, I can’t seem to get the same enjoyment out of it as I might from a similar scene in an actual horror movie or game. In horror fiction, it’s fun to experience the threat of death and pain, to be overpowered by a massive and mysterious force, to be faced with a bleak and hopeless situation. But only, it would appear, within the context of fiction. Experiencing a life threatening situation in real life is not fun at all. Even imagining experiencing a horrific situation that happened for somebody else, is by no means amusing.

And yet we love horror!

Horror is not really about being frightened, is it? Experiencing real fear is not fun. What we experience in horror fiction is not real fear.
Maybe the emotion triggers the release of some chemicals in our brain that, when confronted with a real threat, help our body to respond appropriately. But when in a comfortable situation, these chemicals act like an amusing drug. Maybe all the things we do for entertainment manipulate the chemical reactions that used to be of vital importance to survival and turn them into a source of fun.

But it’s only fun if it’s fake.

11 thoughts on “Enjoying horror…”

  1. Personally, I get no enjoyment whatsoever out of horror whether it is real or fake, so I can’t confirm your hypothesis. But I find the intellectual point you bring up to be very interesting.

    I would like to hear more about what you think of the game Hush, and what you think it does well or poorly. I haven’t played it, but I have read some reviews of it.

    I’m just finishing up a new post on my blog, that you might like to take a look at soon. :)

  2. One of my favorite quotes (which I also posted on the Tale of Tales forums) is…

    “I was not alone, for foolhardiness was not then mixed with that love of the grotesque and the terrible which has made my career a series of quests for strange horrors in literature and in life.”

    – H.P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear”

    …Mainly because it fits my attitude. I love horror, a lot. If you look at my game collection, a vast majority of it is made up for horror games ranging everywhere from the popular Silent Hill and Resident Evil games to games some people may not have heard of like Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth and Kuon. My book collection has Poe, King, Lovecraft (of course), and Hawthorne and I have a variety of horror films. Then for my birthday, I had my family take me to the Lemp Mansion.

    I don’t know what it is, but I’m fascinated with horrific themes. I do believe that some people (probably like myself) get enjoyment from the rush and the thrill that horror can create. My life is fairly dull and there’s not much excitement going on, so having my heart racing and pounding from getting scared lives things up a bit. Yet, part of me also thinks that this attraction to horror also comes from curiosity.

    No one truly knows what happens when one dies…We know what we’d like to think happens but no one knows for sure since the dead can’t come back and say, “Oh hey! Death is like this” and then explain it. So perhaps horror helps to satisfy our curiosity because if gives us something physical to see and experience. Sure, horror games are quite frightening but the idea of ghosts coming back either to warn the living or even to harm them really puts the fear of death behind us a bit because it makes us think that there’s something when we cross over even though we don’t realize our minds are doing that when we play…

    I do agree that it’s only fun though if its fake- or if we feel like we’re not in complete danger- because I really enjoyed myself when I went to the Lemp Mansion, a mansion that is said to be really haunted (well…if you believe in ghosts.) And look at all the people that travel to “real” haunted houses or places with a history full of tragedy. Something has to be pulling at them to make them want to go there.

    Though you have to question just how “real” these ghost sightings and encounters are. The mind if powerful and I believe that a lot of things that people claim are ghostly actions are nothing more than figments of their imaginations.

    Like when I was at the Lemp Mansion, I heard something that sounded like someone’s voice. My first reaction when I heard it was that it was from a ghost since I was in a house that was haunted but shortly after I heard it, I asked myself, “Did I really hear it? Or did I hear it because I wanted to hear it? Because I wanted something supernatural to happen since I’ve been expecting it?”

    That’s why I’d love to do an experiment where two groups of people are split up and each one spends the night in a house. One group is told that the house is haunted and is told some story about what happened. While the other group isn’t told anything other than it’s an old house and then see the reactions between the two to see if people experience supernatural phenomenons when they are expecting them to happen compared to people who aren’t.

    Anyway, Hush looks really interesting. However, I’m having trouble downloading it. I get the files on my PC but when I try to open the game, it gives me an error saying it can’t locate the file location. I checked the path and everything seems ok…Anyon else having trouble?

  3. I actually don’t consider myself a horror fan. But many of my favourite games are horror games. I think it is because the horror genre allows for more focus on story and atmosphere and works with a wider range of emotions.

    Especially the horror survival genre is built around the idea that the protagonist cannot possibly emerge as a hero. They are games about losing. They explore the concept of loss, of weakness. And that’s far more interesting than winning and being heroic.

  4. You know what I thought? That most modern games can be treated as being about loss, or death. You can almost always get your character killed and say “Okay, that’s how the game ends”. Of course, in most cases, it would mean that the game’s story was left unfinished… But even if we speak about the games which are not about winning, we still have to keep our hero alive to see the end of the story – of course, if the game doesn’t impement a character-switching-on-death technique, like cactus’s Psychosomnium.

  5. This game has a fascinating, if not truely horrifying (or depressing), theme to it.

    However, I cannot appreciate anything that the game has to offer. It works fine, as long as I type the letters in at the right time – however, if I don’t, it freezes up and locks the whole computer up. I can’t even do a hard shut down.

    I fancy myself to be a macabe fan. I enjoy creating horror (and other similar genre) characters – and I am going into video game design.

  6. I think that people like horror in pretty much the same way that people like winter: they enjoying venturing into a cold, dark, lonely place, because they know they can return home.

  7. Well if Aristotle was correct that the idea of Theatre (i believe this medium to be a lot like Theatre) then wouldn’t catharsis of the emotion of fear be the goal?

    As such, it isn’t fun to experience fear, but once you have survived the experience and the art provides a proper outlet you can release your fear and the emotion no longer has hold over you.

    Think about that, imagine if we could make games that provide a Catharsis for fear? or perhaps even brother/sisterhood because we understand the terrifying experiences of others?

  8. But is that a good thing? I always thought fear was a very good emotion because it keeps you out of danger and stimulates you to respond when danger occurs.

  9. Yes and no, human beings constantly over compensate mentally to “protect” themselves and that is the cause of most psychological disorders.
    For example, a person diagnosed with clinical depression may have gotten there through their mind’s over compensation. Depression sometimes occurs through putting someone in a situation where they are put in terrific pain but can’t escape. If this happens enough, when that person has the ability to escape from the pain they will not, and will cringe and take it. This isn’t because the person is messed up, but because the mind has learned to “protect” the person. And it would be, if the person was still in a position where he could not escape.
    Also, fear is mostly only appropriate in a situation of immediate life or death, like a bear chasing you down. In a situation where death is further off, like being a ridiculous glutton, fear isn’t going to help you. Love, however, for yourself will.
    Now a catharsis of fear would be inappropriate if we all lived in bear country, but i can say, in most situations, fear is another of our mind’s over compensations, and a catharsis of fear could help us. Remember though, we receive the Catharsis by experiencing the emotion, so t wouldn’t be like we didn’t have fear, we would have only fully experienced it.

  10. Assuming that horror movies, literature or games induce fear (which I personally doubt), do they achieve a point of catharsis? A point that “cures” you of fear? I highly doubt it. Not only do they have the effect of making your frightened of things you were never frightened of before (try watching Texas Chainsaw Massacre on a dark and rainy night just before you go to bed…), people who love horror movies keep coming back for more. They like experiencing the emotions that the movie provokes. If some of form of catharsis would cure them, then it wouldn’t be fun anymore.

  11. Yes true. I do agree that I’ve never seen a film or any art that provides a catharsis of fear. And i don’t know if it is even possible, I would just like to see if it is.
    And of course, Catharsis isn’t a permanent cure, It’s more of a temporary state.
    And you may be right about whether or not it’s fun any more. But I just would like to see the experiment.
    By the way, just because you might find this interesting, I brought up this conversation with my girlfriends Dad, he’s the head of psychology at Rochester College, in Michigan in the US. He said that when a human being has stressed build up on them, gradually, it has the same effect that fear does, that it is the same emotion only gradual instead of instantaneous. I found that incredibly interesting.

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