Horror Is Not Mainstream

With each new year, it feels like I'm watching another horror series becomes less horrific. Resident Evil, Alien, and most recently, Dead Space. What started out as pure, hardcore horror becomes a fun, popcorn-munching good time.

But hey, that's OK. It's the natural way of things. Horror isn't mainstream.

Much has been made recently about the addition of co-op gameplay to Visceral Games' upcoming Dead Space 3. I remember a similar batch of complaints came up around the introduction of co-op to Resident Evil 5.

Up front: Broadly, I think Visceral has earned the benefit of the doubt. I remember lodging some similar complaints when they first showed Dead Space 2, and that game was fantastic. So, let's cut 'em some slack. However scary or not-scary it is, it's a fairly safe bet that Dead Space 3 will be a fun video game.

On to the co-op thing: It's true, co-op gaming hasn't traditionally proven to be all that scary. When I think of a horror video game, I don't think about playing it with friends. I think about being alone, in the dark. Sweating. In front of a door. You know:

I have to go through the door. I have to! But fuck, man, I do not want to. If I go through the door, that means I have to pass through the flooded basement. There's nowhere else to go. And yet I don't want to go through the door, I don't want to go fucking near that flooded basement, because there's SOMETHING HORRIBLE DOWN THERE, BREATHING.

It's the sick thrill of horror. I've felt the same way in nightmares. Actually, I've long been of the opinion that horror games channel nightmares even more effectively than horror films. You're really there, you know? You want to hide, but there's nowhere to hide. Nothing for it but to press onward and hope you wake up soon.

Picture that iconic Dead Space image with another dude standing next to Isaac. Yup, not as scary. Co-op undercuts tension to a significant degree.

Have you ever watched a horror movie with your friends? It's fun! But it's not as scary as watching one alone. But then again, it is really fun -- and who's to say that making a good jump-scare co-op thriller isn't a great idea? That kind of thing could be really cool. It's not an accident that horror movies are so popular for couples on dates -- there's something fun (and kind hot) about grabbing each other as blood sprays onscreen.

So, OK, Dead Space seems to be more Resident Evil 5 than Resident Evil 2. Put another way, it's more Gears of War 3 than Gears of War. Put yet another way, it's more Aliens than Alien. Which brings me to my second thought here: There's a pattern with horror, isn't there? The first in a given horror series is truly scary, and subsequent entries are less scary and more bombastic.

It doesn't happen with every series, but it still happens a lot -- Evil Dead, Alien, Predator, the Resident Evil games and films... it would seem that the more popular something gets, the greater the chances it'll file down its teeth in pursuit of a bigger audience.

I asked Stacie Ponder, who runs the magnificent horror blog Final Girl and has seem way more horror films than I have, for her thoughts on the matter. She agreed with my basic idea that mainstream success and horror are incompatible, noting that the scariest films tend to be small-budget works made by a single (possibly deranged) director.

"Every big budget has a fleet of executives behind it looking to earn back that money," she said. "They've all got a vested interest in the property and a say in what ends up on the screen. It becomes filmmaking by committee and it shows. Some of the greatest horror films of all time -- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, and so on -- were made on shoestring budgets and were therefore solely the vision of the writers and directors."

On top of that deranged-auteur theory, there's something illicit about horror, something pornographic -- it's outlandish to imagine a mainstream film being marketed in the way that some of the films in Ponder's splendid "Awesome Movie Poster Friday" series are marketed. It's so smutty! Historically, publishers haven't quite known how to market horror games either, from that strange, tonally inaccurate Dead Island trailer to EA's dumb and off-putting "Your mum will hate Dead Space 2" ads.

"John Carpenter once said that horror is viewed maybe a notch or two above pornography by the masses," said Ponder, "and I don't think that consensus has changed much since he made Halloween." The best horror takes us to a dark place, in which we must imagine ourselves in the place of the terrified, the powerless, the victims -- and often, imagine ourselves in the place of their butchers, as well. Horror is exploitative by its very nature -- it exploits our fears and desires in order to titillate and entertain us.

Just like in film, the scariest horror games will likely always exist at the fringes. But hey, the fringes of the video game scene have never been more buzzing with empowered talent! There are a good number of brilliant, terrifying indie horror games out right now, and more on the way.

Benjamin Rivers' Home is a creepy-as-hell exploration game. Jasper Byrne's Lone Survivor is a freaky low-res trip through a post-apocalyptic purgatory. The prototype for Slender, which is based on the terrifying 'Slenderman' internet legend, was truly terrifying despite being low-budget and unfinished. (Which reminds me: The scariest damned thing I've seen in ages is 'Marble Hornets', a super low-budget YouTube series starring the Slenderman. Go watch it. It'll freak you out more than any horror movie to hit theatres this year.)

Back to games: I'd be remiss not to mention the game that jump-started indie horror: Frictional's Amnesia: Dark Descent. That sucker was and remains balls-to-the-wall terrifying. The team behind that game appears to grasp horror on such a fundamental level (basically: hide in a cupboard while the thing you can't see hunts you) that I'd be surprised if the sequel, A Machine For Pigs, is any less of a frightfest. Ponder agrees that sequels themselves aren't always anathema to fear: "I think any sequel can be as scary as an original work if the creators can find new ways to utilise the essence of horror, which is what makes the originals work."

All of those games, including the Amnesia sequel, have something in common -- they're not big-budget games from major publishers. It could even be argued that the essence of horror -- vulnerability, panic, loss of control -- runs counter to the things that make mainstream video games tick, things like power fantasy, mastery and progression. What's cool is that it's easy to be scary with limited resources -- after all, it's what you don't see that's truly scary, and it's really cheap to not show people monsters.

We may still get the odd big-budget horror game that's truly scary (the Wii U's upcoming ZombiU seems like a candidate), but by and large, mainstream games aren't going to be the ones that really scare our pants off. And that's fine, really -- fear is a dark, complicated thing, and it lives at the fringes by necessity. It's not the product of focus groups, or of user feedback.

Let the mainstream have their thrillers and their action-packed monster-fests. Let those games sell 5 million copies and spawn a dozen action-packed sequels. We'll find our scares someplace else -- somewhere darker, off the beaten path. In the shadows.


Comments

    A few years back I was doing interviews for a site with producers, actors and directors in LA. We went mainly through Lionsgate, which has come up from being an obscure studio to a rather large one now. Though we did get in on the ground level with some horror productions from other studios (Hellboy 2 was oddly considered 'horror'?) we also spoke to a lot of indie directors etc from the 8 Films to Die For competition held each year. These movies were quite often bland and average but quite regularly, you'd find some gems among them like 'DREAD' which I particularly liked. Point is, that in amongst the big budget movies we would get to see, the interviews we would get to do, we would be more excited about the indie projects, the lesser known names. It's the same with video games believe it or not. A new IP coming out excites me more than RESIDENT DEAD SPACE HILL 52 or whatnot. If it's a new studio showing what it can do, showing its creativity, then I overwhelmingly support it. When endless sequels are marched forwards though, creativity is lost, look at RE5 and RE6 for instance. As pretty as they are, RE5 lost 'it' and RE6 surely seems less than impressive at this point (Hoping though it doesnt turn out that way). Horror will always be niche, because the general populace won't embrace it like they do comedy, we'll occasionally have a RESIDENT EVIL 4 or a cinematic SCREAM (or more recently CABIN IN THE WOODS), but I can't put it any better than you did in the closing paragraph, so I'll leave it there.

    Excellent article.

    Nice article! Marble Hornets is pretty great. Reminds of Alien in the way you're constantly scanning the screen for the monster to appear. Ridley Scott deliberately put things like open doors in the background which the viewer can't help but watch warily, and Marble Hornet Entry #7 uses a similar sort of trick where during the car interview you can't help but notice the view in the rear vision mirror. Also reminds me of the great book "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski, with the theme of the film maker recording his own deterioration.

    The formula seems to be 1) make a good horror "thing" and get good word of mouth, 2) mainstream it a bit to cash in on the goodwill, 3) wonder why noone bothers with your successively more mainstreamed sequels.
    Dead Space was a good horror with interesting combat ideas, DS2 was an average shooter with an insipid story with horror trappings, DS3 risks being another tired shooter. For a similar example look at the complete loss of interest in FEAR (a game that had far better shooting and AI than DS). Unless a franchise can pull a rabbit out of a hat with an RE4 quality game it will be lost in shooter oversaturation.

    Dead Space is an interesting case. The first game still has real survival horror elements... I'd describe it as Action-Horror rather than just straight out action, but after the first game all the horror just got buried under the action.

    Silent Hill is still genuinely Survival Horror. Homecoming isn't very combat-heavy, Downpour strongly emphasizes the adventure component, etc.

    But yeah, horror is a niche genre. It always has been and trying to make it more 'mainstream' tends to ruin it (with a few exceptions... the first Halloween, the first Scream and the first Saw were all good films, and they weren't blockbusters but they were RELATIVELY mainstream IIRC).

      Scream was but I don't think I'd lump SAW in there as mainstream. Its sequels though, definitely as they became year by year institutions of Halloween (Another october! Another SAW!).

      Part 1 is a sensational movie, it's a pity the sequels couldn't hold a candle to it.

    There is a rich legacy of mainstream horror. Psycho, Exorcist and Jaws. All were big-studio bankrolled, and 'must see' movies of the day. They had a far-reaching audience beyond the gore hounds. And they were actually good.

    Today, there's more horrors bankrolled but those worth a damn tend to be made independently and outside of Hollywood (actually outside of the states entirely) - although every now and then you get an absolute rarity like Cabin in the Woods.

    Marble Hornets cost me a great deal of sleep.

    Over time, I think too many horror games wind up becoming action, and the only horror elements remaining are the gross-out factors or the occasional 'pop-out' monsters, which lose their effectiveness after a while. Not sure why this happens - the original devs move on? They've used up all their ideas on the first couple? They try to 'ramp it up' and in doing so wind up losing the pacing that made the first couple scary?

    I miss the really psychological horror games, like Eternal Darkness on the GameCube. It really shouldn't have been that scary, but that sanity meter totally messed me up. Especially the fourth-wall breaking stuff, like when it pretended it had deleted all of my save games, or when the volume would drop out with the fake volume controls on-screen, and then I'd go and try and turn the volume up, only to get blasted when it suddenly came back on. I kind of wish it got a sequel, but on the other hand I'm glad it didn't because then maybe it would have just become another RE5.

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