How Empathy Takes The Fear Out Of Horror

After playing Saya no Uta — The Song of Saya this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about horror games. And when it comes to me personally, I have to accept that all my life I have been a complete wuss when it comes to the horror genre.

While watching a horror movie or playing a horror game, I am usually OK — probably thanks to my endless string of curses breaking up the immersion. However, when I am lying alone in bed later that night, I know that the real horror is about to start. I have what you might call an active and gruesome imagination, and I am more than capable of scaring the crap out of myself. So with its graphic images and disturbing plot developments in mind, I knew what lay around the corner for me thanks to The Song of Saya. But did those little night terrors continue for long? No, they did not.

To explain why, let’s look at my experience with a well-known horror movie. Back in college, I got two free tickets to see the American version of The Ring. I had no idea what kind of movie it was but I decided to take my girlfriend to see it. Incidentally, I loved the movie — but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t constantly haunted by an irrational fear of TVs for the next several months.

In fact my fear of that movie persisted somewhat over the next few years, even as I watched the Japanese version and its sequels. However, upon watching the prequel film, Ring 0: Birthday, my fear completely evaporated. Why?

Because while in the other movies Sadako is the villain, the Ring 0 casts her as the protagonist. She is an incredibly sympathetic character: a girl with powers she doesn’t understand trying to live a normal life. Of course, that doesn’t stop the other characters in the film from actively trying to ruin her life.

So by the time evil Sadako appears near the end of the film, we are cheering her on, rooting for the deaths of all the characters who wronged her. The film establishes Sadako as such a sympathetic character that forcing people to watch a video of weird imagery seems like a small price to pay for the sins committed against her.

My contemplation of The Song of Saya, brought me to a similar understanding of Saya and Fuminori as they can be seen by the player in a same light as Sadako. By seeing why they are raping/murdering/eating people in a slow, step-by-step progression, we in turn support them despite knowing that their actions are immoral.

Being on the monster's side is not unique to Japanese games, however. Both of the Batman Arkham games have you play a similar role. While Batman is a superhero to us, this is only because we know what is going on with his backstory — we know his fears and hopes as well as his motivations. But to the criminals who have no such information, he is an unkillable horror monster on par with Saya or Sadako. He strikes from the shadows, picking them off one by one like a creature hungry to dine on their sins.

And that is why once you see the person behind the “monster”, fear simply evaporates. In other words, it's hard to fear what you understand on an emotional level.


    10/10 article. Analogy at the end was perfect.

      Absolutely. This needs to be spoken about more. The very same thing happened recently with the movie Mama. Based on a short film, the movie went to great lengths to humanize the villain, essentially robbing the movie of any scare factor. The short was a lot creepier. No exposition, a horrific monster, no when's or why's. Just pure creepiness. I agree 1000 times with the Ring thing. Although, I saw the original first, the sequels soon after, and the American movies after that. Again, spot on.

    good article, i hate say no uta, damn thats a boring VN and story, although the images are pre sweet

    Support for murderers/ rapists? Not sure if its the right place for your empathy. Batman doesn't murder, rape or eat anyone.

      I think the point of the article went strait over your head...

      Great read, short and informed. That last statement summed up everything you said prior perfectly. I think it has become one of the biggest problems in horror games and movies of late in that the writers just give too much insight into why the "monster" is doing these things. Better to leave it unsaid and let the mind decide on it's own what back story you will give it.

    "So by the time evil Sadako appears near the end of the film, we are cheering her on, rooting for the deaths of all the characters who wronged her."

    Yeaaahhh... I don't know... What this actually makes me think of is a discussion I read recently on that guy who wanted a PS3 in prison, and what essentially comes out is that a majority of people seem really really keen on punishing people, whether they personally know them or not, in even more gruesome ways than the perpetrator ever did anything. As opposed to understanding prison is a place for rehabilitating as well, with the ultimate goal of reintergration back into society. It's really quite sickening what some people seem to want done to pretty thieves and the like.

    Might seem a bit tangential, but basically while I can enjoy a good revenge movie, I found the revenge in Ring 0, and many others to be less about justice (see your analogy) and more about, well... showing horrible shit, but kneejerk responses that ultimately just lead to more pain and suffering for everyone involved, until everyone is either dead or a VHS monster.

    Ultimately I think you were supposed to sympathise with and pity Sadako... but empathise... well I don't want to judge, and I guess I 'get' the payback urge as a concept. But rooting for gruesome deaths is just not something I find easy to do, but hey I don't much like horror movies so I suppose I'm not really the audience for most.
    Interesting article either way.

    I think the same can be said about the majority of everyday people. Once you understand who they are and why act a certain way, its hard to just outright hate them.

    What the Christ is going on in that first picture?

    The problem with empathising with the monster is realising that you are empathising with someone who does the things that made you uncomfortable and how easy it would be for you to become like them. Or maybe that's just me.

    Last edited 26/05/13 7:45 pm

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