What makes a good horror experience?

(this is a personal opinion article)

The truth is, it depends on a lot of factors: cultural, religious, gender, age, personal phobias, the list goes on. Some people are frightened by monsters, others are more scared by ghosts and the supernatural, others are afraid of more psychological themes.

So, what should be the best path to create a true horror experience?

In my opinion, we should first try to discover what are the fears that are more common to us, no matter what race, gender or creed. The fears that are inherent to most of us, our primal fears.

Some of these could be:

  • fear of darkness;
  • fear of death;
  • fear of pain and sorrow;
  • fear of the unknown;
  • fear of blood;
  • fear of gore;
  • vertigo;
  • claustrophobia;
  • etc.

But then we also have more deep, psychological fears:

  • insecurity;
  • abandonment;
  • loss;
  • hopelessness;
  • betrayal;
  • etc.

How we explore those fears is also of matter. We can’t choke the audience (in this case, the player) with continuous exposition to these elements, or they will simply become boring, or worse, ridiculous.

While some designers and directors prefer a more direct approach through the usage of shocking imagery and jump scares, others prefer the more subtle, psychological approach to horror (my personal favorite).

I like the more subtle approach because it keeps the tension high, leaving the spectator to wonder when will things happen, feeling uneasy and uncomfortable. Also, most of the times this technique is used, there is a long forewarning before bad things happen, because this serves to create a feeling of unease, panic even sometimes, because the audience knows that something bad is about to happen, and there is no way they can stop it. It’s not a matter of “if” but of “when”, the sense of dire inevitability, the feeling of powerlessness in face of impending events.

A good contrast is the original Silent Hill (1 to 4) and Resident Evil (1 to 3) series. While Silent Hill always primed by his subtlety, using more mature and personal themes in its narrative and building the atmosphere and raising tension and suspense, Resident Evil opts for a more direct approach, using lots of jump-scares and emphasizing more the action component. Both are great series, both are survival horror, but they have a very distinct, quasi opposite approach to the horror element.

For Under The Rain, I want to follow the more subtle approach, very similar to Silent Hill 2 (my all-time favorite game), where we have a main protagonist who is experiencing a very bad moment in his life, feeling like he is summoned  to an eerie place to face himself, his sins and fears.

It also helps that I am using an established horror icon for most part of the lore of the game, borrowing many elements from Lovecraft’s tales and tie them in to the story’s narrative, making a sequel of sorts to his stories.

It is also satisfying when a horror experience produces a cathartic effect on the audience, letting them feel that in the end the trial was overcome, giving them a little hope when all is said and done. This does not necessarily mean that the story will have a happy or good ending…

So that’s it, my two cents on what I believe makes a horror experience a good (or bad?) one.

See you on the next post.

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