Why the dark and the monstrous fascinate us (if we're safe)

Why the dark and the monstrous fascinate us (if we're safe)

Before talking about horror video games, a premise: a few years ago I tried paragliding. The idea frightened and thrilled me in equal measure. I was afraid of falling into the woods of the Pisan hills, even knowing that I would be hitched to an experienced pilot, but at the same time I couldn't wait to hover in the air and observe the world from above. The moment when your feet come off the ground is imperceptible and in the blink of an eye you find yourself twirling in the clouds with the adrenaline rushing. Sure, the pressure swings are creepy, but when the glider picks up air and begins to rise again, terror and euphoria mix in a rush so powerful it makes you feel invincible.

This intense mix of emotions in which fear plays a strategic role occurs on several occasions. Often we voluntarily expose ourselves to situations that make us shiver because the fright causes a dopamine rush so strong that it leads us to states of euphoria or strong relaxation. Numerous studies, including those on the science of fear by sociologist Margee Kerr, have confirmed that situations of controlled fear or managed in safe environments, for example houses of horror, are able to trigger processes such that the physical reaction of fear immediately follows. that of our brain, which processes the threat as not dangerous because it is simulated. It therefore gives us a sort of pass to enjoy moments of terror in total safety.

Freaks and the other great classic horror films to see at least once in a lifetime Gallery 9 Images of Lorenza Negri

Look at the galleryThe amount of dopamine that is released in particularly exciting situations that stimulate us to physical-cerebral level is such a strong boost that in many cases, after a moment of fear, people start joking about what happened.

We experience similar experiences after a full speed rollercoaster ride, after a jump scare in a movie, or when we are playing one of the particularly scary horror video games. I have a friend who managed to finish Resident Evil 7 Biohazard by playing it exclusively in company. Being alone with Ethan in the Baker family's dilapidated house amidst rotting bodies and slurry of entrails made him so uncomfortable it terrified him. Then trying to play it in VR was out of the question. Capcom's title has received very positive reviews for its disturbing setting (the “banquet” scene is certainly one of the most revolting) and a pace so fast and full of tension that it makes your hair stand on end at every jump scare.

Resident Evil 7 Biohazard

Controlled fear situations such as those offered by horror video games are an excellent example of a type of creative terror with which to experience the alternation of states of fear and euphoria that return, to the end, moments of general enjoyment. One of the distinctive features of the video game is in fact that of letting us take on the shoes of the other and the first-person view like that of RE7 offers a highly immersive experience that greatly amplifies this complex emotional state. Monsters, ghosts, gruesome characters and supernatural forces are some of the most recurring elements that populate the horrifying imaginary of genres such as horror and science fiction. Think for example of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, first-person horror by Frictional Games, still counted among the scariest games despite being a 2010 title and which makes total darkness its ace in the hole; or Alien: Isolation (2014) by Creative Assembly, in which the very obsession of not being seen or heard by the xenomorph feeds a constant state of anxiety mixed with fear.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Describing fear solely in terms of monsters and supernatural characters is an understatement. There are in fact other forces at play, those that Mark Fisher defines as weird, "strange" and eerie, "disturbing", in the book of the same name "The Weird and The Eerie" (2016). The writer traces the fascination for the unusual and the obscure to what lies beyond our normal perception, cognition and experience; a type of attraction that implies a certain level of restlessness, maybe even a little fear, but whose complexity goes far beyond simple terror.

7 surprising horror video games to try immediately Gallery 7 Images by Sara Uslenghi

Look at the gallery The strange, weird, has to do with what does not belong, which cannot be reconciled with the familiar nor with its opposite. It is the combination of two or more extremely different factors that transforms the surrounding environment into something wrong, which should not exist, but is perceived as terrible and attractive at the same time. Limbo (2010) by Playdead is an example of how sometimes it is not necessary to use jump scare and bloodshed to create a creepy gaming experience. We take on the role of a faceless child, with two sparkling pinheads instead of eyes, looking for his sister inside a black and white world full of deadly traps. There are times when huge toothed blades suddenly stick into his skull, or we have to use corpses to overcome some obstacles. Limbo is not in itself a scary game, but it offers an experience of dismay and discomfort: we do not see blood or torn bodies but it is precisely what is not shown that generates that feeling of wrongness, of something that is intrinsically wrong, which Fisher links us to those perturbing situations that displace us, overturning any reference usually associated with the concept of terror. As a YouTube user wrote under a video with the crudest scenes of Limbo, "it's not scary, it's a wave of anxiety or shock that suddenly reaches our brain".


The eerie, another face of fear and a slightly different form of restlessness and anguish, is instead linked to spaces emptied by the presence of the human and in which the concept of agent in a complex relationship between absence and presence in the face of the unknown. With Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice (2017), Guerrilla Games has developed an emotionally exhausting gaming experience that catapulted us into the midst of the visual and auditory hallucinations suffered by Senua, the Celtic warrior protagonist of the game. Hellblade forces us to hear and see what Senua feels thanks to a sound and visual landscape that questions the objectivity of reality, in which she emphasizes her frustration and her sense of abandonment. The psychosis of Senua also becomes that of the player in a continuous questioning if we are fighting the demons of Norse mythology or one of the different personalities of the warrior.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice

So why are you attracted to all of this? Probably because we like that feeling of excitement and liberation that you feel after a good jump scare; or because we laugh when we think of that monster that she made us do without reason; because we escaped the Bakers thanks to the friend who gave us a hand for all those damn hours of play. Other times it is because we are attracted to what we perceive as distant and everything intrigues us that changes our understanding of the world and subverts the usual interpretations with which we experience. This fascination, as Fisher calls it, is also linked to the desire for knowledge of the unknown and what Hellblade is, for example, if not the myth of the journey of the heroine who discovers herself after a series of terrible trials and a challenge. , for us players, to experience complex situations or perhaps distant from our everyday life? The concept of fear is very complex: divided between the monstrous and what is obscure to us, it has allowed the different spheres of creativity to give life to numerous scenarios that allow us to experience its different shades, from the macabre to the disturbing. Aware of being within a simulated reality in which Jack Baker cannot harm us and that no creature hides in the darkness, we let ourselves be frightened.

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