Why We Love Survival Horror

Drawn To The Beauty In Darkness

However one may view video games’ legitimacy as an art form, it is difficult to contest that with the rise of blockbuster franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil, they have become an integral part of Western culture.

As with the rise of previous kinds of media, controversial games have led researchers and the mass media to flirt with the idea that video games may be responsible for violence in society, including mass shootings. Despite these factors and ongoing conversations, major AAA game titles, most of them violent in nature, gross as much as the gargantuan Marvel Avenger movies. Not only that, these major budget games now employ A-list celebrities for motion capture and voice acting, bringing beloved video game characters closer to life than ever before.

As such, they influence culture and demand to be taken seriously. For many, games are taking the mantle from books and movies by having a profound effect on people’s lives at the peak time of their development, providing a lens with which to wrestle with difficult existential questions, mental health issues, and ultimately explore one's place in the world. In line with this blog's creed, this article will explore the uncomfortable reality that visceral survival horror helps people make sense of a world they can feel abandoned by.

Enter Survival Horror

Survival horror is not a new art form. It ranges from cult classics such as Alien and The Thing—which birthed an entire generation of survival horror—to modern-day franchises such as Resident Evil, which forced a cultural paradigm shift in what was thought to be possible with video games. Survival horror moves beyond a simple cheap jump scare; it immerses the audience into a world of terror, disgust, and fear—a psychological feedback loop that keeps one clawing back for more. James Cameron, one of the most successful directors of all time, once noted whilst making Aliens:

"It’s in our nature to be afraid of the unknown, but also to be curious and to explore, to use a flash light to delve into those dark corners—but god forbid that flash light should fail."

There is something tantalizing and yet chilling about this quote. Images flash through the mind of movies or games that invoke this sense of primal fear. It is suitably vague enough to claw its way into the mind and scratch away at the individual's own unique fears. But looking deeper, the quote serves as a metaphor for delving into those darker parts of the human condition that survival horror games allow one to explore, without repercussions. This is the lynchpin to the success of this genre.

When fear is experienced, the body is flooded with adrenaline, increasing sensitivity and awareness to the environment. At this moment, the body is prepped for battle—or to run like hell. In a false alarm—or, say, a jump scare—the body, once realizing there is no danger or the danger has ended, floods with dopamine, invoking feelings of joy and happiness. Overwhelmed with a sense of achievement at having survived, waves of euphoria and confidence sweep over the individual—the same effect of sniffing a line of cocaine. 
However, survival horror games go beyond simply flooding the body with adrenaline and dopamine. They use this as the appetizer, the cocktail to get the hairs standing on edge. (Such a visceral experience merits shifting to a more intimate writing style, which will be used for the remainder of this article.)

A good survival horror wants you to suffer the cognitive dissonance of, on the one hand, wanting to desperately run away and phone your mom, and on the other, facing your fears and peering into those dark shadowy corners, even as your flashlight flickers on and off. These games want your hairs to be standing on edge as the pattern-searching part of your brain races to make sense of shapes partially shrouded in darkness. Did that shadow move? Was it yours?
I would argue, in line with Nietzsche, that survival horror makes you face that which most terrifies you, and teaches you that if you embrace the struggle, and survive, you will be stronger for it, knowing you reached into the darkness and came out victorious. This is what initially draws us to survival horror.
However, it is not just restricted to fear of the terrifying and sinister; it uses these themes to go far deeper into the psyche. Good survival horror delves into deeper unconscious layers, which many of us wrestle with and desperately try to keep under wraps.

Often referred to as the "Shadow," conjured by Jung and popularized recently by Peterson, games allow us to gaze beyond our personas—the masks we don for everyday life—and peer into what is lurking in the dark recesses of our psyche. These games allow us to experience and explore these dark fantasies and urges, which Jung argues is needed to prevent the shadow from overwhelming us.

It can allow us to explore parts of our personality through metaphor, imagery, and, in a sense, "playing" with our own shadow, without actually living out acts which would be too dangerous or are not acceptable in a civilized society. The animalistic parts of ourselves can be unleashed; the morbidly bleak, curious, and dark aspects of who we are can explore some difficult questions about morality, reality, nihilism, and struggle.

Not only does this prevent us from casting our shadow onto others, and projecting our greatest fears, it is cathartic. As Aristotle notes, it is a type of cleansing in which you experience a tragic pleasure and come out feeling purified. When taken together and combined in just the right amount, these individual parts can be skillfully blended to bring about an experience that will be scorched into your brain.

The Descent Into Purgatory

Based on works such as Crime and Punishment and Alien, inspired by the artwork of Francis Bacon, and based heavily on the principles of the unconscious mind from Sigmund Freud, Silent Hill 2 can hardly be said to be superficial. Indeed this tragic tale of salvation through suffering, has received critical acclaim for its ability to terrify and move audiences alike. Its most recent incarnation, despite being cancelled, was so intriguing it created a hype and buzz that arguably propelled its creator into the mainstream.

There is no doubt about this; these games are deeply sinister, disturbing, and designed to unsettle the gamer. And yet these games sold in the millions, revolutionised survival horror, and are filled to the brim with symbolism of internal struggle, embracing the shadow, and redemption.

Silent Hill 2, perhaps the most critically acclaimed of the franchise, is the story of one man’s descent into purgatory, who three years prior to the events of the game suffered from the slow and painful loss of his wife to a wasting disease. The story begins with our protagonist James heading toward the town of Silent Hill, after receiving a letter from his deceased wife that she is there waiting for him. This calling card from the town of Silent Hill is in fact his call to a very dark hero’s journey, as James must battle with his inner most daemons, and make peace with his shadow. Imagine if, egos aside, HP Lovecraft, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Fredric Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud collaborated on a script, and you are getting closer to Silent Hill.

Silent Hill is a town shrouded in an ominous, thick fog which cuts it off from the rest of reality. The dense fog also gives the town the appearance of being almost partially formed, as if to be filled out by the protagonists own experiences and fears. Indeed Silent Hill mutates to torment the protagonist with their own unique version of purgatory, fuelled by their deepest fears and repressed urges. Hiroyuki Owaku, the writer of the Silent Hill franchise, stated that he based his games core principles on Freud’s psycho analytic theory, specifically the pleasure principle. Freud suggested that the driving force of the unconscious was for pleasure, to satisfy urges of anger and sexuality, which formed the core part of human personality. This is evident within the game, as we see that the protagonists core unconscious desires manifest into physical beings designed to elicit fear, disgust, and a peculiar sense of intrigue at the uncanny.

James experiences a purgatory filled with monster and symbols manifesting his struggle with obvious guilt, resentment and frustration toward his wife’s death. Ultimately these monsters serve as a metaphor to the player for the key to James’ redemption and ultimate salvation. Hints toward the decaying relationship with his wife begin at a superficial level, the hallways are reminiscent of a hospital out of your worst nightmares, cooler green and blue colours and plastic blood stained sheets draped over walls. Stained white sheets and gurneys are all common as you make your way through the hallways, representing the nightmare James must have experienced in the remaining years with his wife. Pillows can be seen as well, similar to the one we later learn James used to euphonise his wife.

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Going below the surface into Freudian territory, James’ sexual frustration and resentment toward his wife manifest as hideous, sexualised pair of feminine legs, spliced together to resemble an anthropomorphic human woman, but without a head, and only a torso. This ‘manaqueen’ represents ‘just a pair of legs’ as raw sexual urge, depicted throughout with violent imagery around domination, suppression of sexuality, and raw masculine urges.

The infamous Pyramid Head antagonist James must face has been a point of contention and open to varying interpretations. A seemingly muscular man dwarfing James, wearing a crude, brutalist inspired pyramid shaped metal contraption adorning his entire head, so that no facial features are present. This sharp angled helmet is designed to elicit feelings of fear and confusion as the masked man does not appear to be in pain to an obviously painful contraption. His lack of identifying facial features are designed further add to the fear of the unknown, and further, may serve as further ambiguity to what truly lies beneath. Your imagination is likely far worse then what they could animate. He wields a large and bloodied broad edged weapon, which he drags across the floor, hinting at influences of penetration and brutality. One suggestion is that Pyramid head is a personification of James’ ID, that is to say the worst or repressed part of the self: raw masculine urges, violent, sexual and brutal. In a word: animalistic. This manifestation of the ID is initially terrifying to the player as it appears to hunt James down. But on closer inspection it has been suggested (by players far more skilled then I) that in fact Pyramid Head guides James toward his redemption, as he must accept this part of himself to achieve salvation and learn how to survive with the pain of his great loss. Indeed when you complete your quest, Pyramid Head kills himself by falling upon a bladed weapon, his duty is done, the manifestation is no longer required as James embraces and amalgamates this shadow into his sense of self. As James begins to resolve his guilt and come to terms with his life experiences and pain, the game forces James to confront his wife and overcome his resentment, anger and frustration. It is symbolic of ultimate catharsis and release, explored though the means of struggle, desperation, and fear of exploring the unknown parts of our selves.

In wrestling with freedom from eternal self-punishment, the game highlights that suffering comes in many forms, dependent on the individual, and their willingness to break out of their eternal struggle. Speaking toward mental health, and resembling warnings found in ancient mythology of the folly of the human condition, you come into contact with other people stuck in their own personal purgatory. As you do so the environment changes to reflect their own past and anguishes. This allows Silent Hill to explore difficult psychological concepts and subjects through the lens of a hero on his own journey. Like any good tragedy, the other characters are intentionally two dimensional and caricatures, serving as warnings and allegories to the player, a personification of a lesson as they fail to learn, and are destined to repeat their own personal Hell over and over again.

For many, survival horror games will be glanced and judged at surface level as gruesome, morbid, and twisted. But for those who scratch below the surface their appears to be a wealth of interactive storytelling about pain, repression, embracing the shadow, and ultimately, growth.

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Elio Martino

Elio Martino

I am a registered Psychologist working in a private practice in Australia. My writing explores confronting, controversial areas of Psychology.