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Positively Horrifying

Is horror in the interactive medium truly harmless? Why are we drawn to horror? What kind of people are horror fans? A look at Alien: Isolation is used as an example in combination with psychiatric research to delve into the matter.

Let’s face it: horror has a bad rap. From angry parents vehemently voicing their disapproval of the subject matter in EC Comics’ line of horror stories in the 1950s (Vault of Horror, Tales From The Crypt, etc), to manipulative politicians using the genre as a scapegoat for their own negligence, the public always looks down on horror. But perhaps there is a bright side to all this despairing darkness. Perhaps, although there are potential dangers lurking under the cover of horror, there are also certain beneficial effects which are intensified when the medium through which they are conveyed is increasingly immersive.

When it comes to new media, i.e. video games, horror becomes exceptionally potent as a feeling, and so too does its effects, both positive and negative. Unfortunately, research on interactive media has only been done on the effects of violence in the action genre, with the few experiments done with horror games relegated to theory concerning what kinds of experiences engage full-throttle fear in the player. This shortage of studies is because the medium is still in its infancy. However, research on horror in other forms of media are still viable as a basis for information. After all, interactive media is not wholly a new form of entertainment, but a combination of existing forms: a balance of the pre-constructed visual and audible elements (not unlike film) with the wiggle-room of guided freedom in its chronology (like in the act of writing). And so in the interactive medium, the player is at once both the creator and the audience, the one in control and the subordinate, and this relationship is especially important and personal in horror because it pulls the player into the fiction through implication and due responsibility.

With games, this relationship goes beyond empathy, because we identify ourselves as the protagonist. We don’t just feel what the protagonist feels, but feel that the protagonist’s emotions are our emotions, that what happens to the protagonist happens to us. In Reacting to Graphic Horror by Tamborini, Stiff, and Heidel, a study was done on the levels of empathy and arousal (excitation, whether anxious or otherwise) when viewing horror. The researchers found that individuals who daydream and are highly imaginative have an aversion to horror and even try “coping mechanisms” such as looking away from the screen or covering one’s eyes. The study suggests that the viewers who enjoy horror are ones that see the film as simply a film and don’t imagine the fiction to be real, even momentarily. In regards to Alien: Isolation, this detachment occurs when the player focuses on the game mechanics (crafting items, searching for a place to save the game, etc) over the narrative threat of a looming Xenomorph.

However, due to the music and editing, the player is still susceptible to a state of arousal regardless of if their conscious mind permits it, which could be either positive or negative. In Effects of Music on Psychophysiological Responses to a Stressful Film, Thayer found that dissonant music heightens stress and incidentally, so does an increase in the amount of anticipation. In Alien: Isolation, this can be taken to a debilitating extreme, where the level of anxiety is made far greater than when watching a film due to the prolonged nature of interaction in the game and the incessant, inescapable nature of distressing sounds in particular. In the game, the moment the score of stringed instruments scream to signal that the alien has been alerted, a biological response is triggered in the player: adrenaline starts to pump through the player’s veins.

Other studies were done that specifically focused on this lingering state of arousal from the viewing of horror. Individuals are left in this state from both intense, short scares and prolonged terror, the effects of which could be positive or negative (Individual Differences in Arousability, Sparks). Some (about ten percent) enjoy an adrenaline rush with higher levels of physiological arousal after watching a horror film, which lingers so that “any positive emotions you experience – like having fun with friends – are intensified” (Why Some People Love Horror Movies, Tartakovsky). This could bring people closer together. Relationships could be formed and/or strengthened after experiencing horror entertainment. But Alien: Isolation is a single-player game.

It’s within shared experiences that the beneficial aspects of horror surface. In Mundorf’s, Weaver’s, and Zillman’s research experiments, male subjects evaluated their own fear and believed that they were more frightened than both peer females and males, whereas female subjects thought their female peers were more frightened than they were and that male peers were much less frightened. Interestingly, male subjects actually reported higher levels of boredom for themselves and their same-gender peers than did females, while females underestimated the boredom level of males. This means that males generally pretend to enjoy horror in order to use it as a tool to reinforce their perceived bravado. It can make males more confidant and horror games can be a lot of fun to play in the company of others. Although only one may be playing at a time, it can still be a fun experience to watch someone play and the experience becomes a positive one. If Alien: Isolation is played in this context, it would be beneficial.

However, if played alone, horror games exhibit the prolonged and intensification of negative emotions experienced afterwards, only they’re much harder to alleviate. “‘Negative emotions are stored in the amygdala [which] in contrast to positive emotions are particularly resistant to being extinguished,’ Sparks said.” And of particular note is the fact that “Cantor’s research found that college students who watched scary movies or shows before 14 years old had trouble sleeping and felt anxious about typically safe activities or stopped engaging in them altogether” (Tartakovsky). These effects were noticed with horror films which typically run between ninety and one-hundred-twenty minutes long, whereas games can last upwards of eight hours. And in the case of Alien: Isolation, possibly more than twenty hours. The ramifications of these effects can only be greater and as horror becomes both the cause and the effect, the genre turns into an itch one has to scratch. But it would be wrong to believe that the genre itself sets this loop in motion. External factors (personal relationships, childhood traumas, etc) would have to be in place for the gravitational pull to bring the individual in as a fan (or a distress signal has to be sent in order to catch the Nostromo’s attention).

In Urbano’s Projections, Suspense, and Anxiety, a Freudian lens is taken to get to the bloody, pained root of horror, which, he says, is presented through four representations: the uncanny, the monster, the mise-en-scene of violent assault, and the mise-en-scene of “all hell breaking loose.” All four of these most often appear in a combination and rarely alone. The violent assault serves to heighten suspense and is uniquely visual-- we fear what threat looms just beyond the frame. But in “all hell breaking loose,” we are fully immersed as we ourselves are assaulted by the raucous music that berates our ears when everything is falling apart and destruction and death seem all but inevitable, an effect Alien: Isolation revels in. But actually, “all hell breaking loose” is the trauma of birth, as these 4 representations are the stages of Freud’s analyses of anxiety, only in reverse, so: the uncanny is the failure of repression, the monster is a straightforward projection, the physical assault is a “perfect” representation of the anxiety of an upcoming but not yet visible danger, only to conclude with the breaking-down, aka the destruction of the world (being removed from the womb, from that which is safe) in the helpless and unmanageable trauma of birth. The difference between the third and the fourth is that the assault is anxiety as a signal of danger and the breaking-down is automatic-response anxiety; assault brings suspense, breaking-down brings panic.

In Alien: Isolation, these stages take place throughout each mission: while the alien is the projection, it mostly looms unseen for a majority of the game, while the androids are undoubtedly uncanny because their faces are expressionless yet their movements are human. And the manner in which the androids grab the player (the game is first-person, so these actions feel more personal) in an assault while the player is crouching simulates an abusive parent lifting you up as a child since your perspective is close to the ground like a child’s. In every mission, the player escapes back to the womb in an empty elevator or tram car, only to be expelled into another hostile environment elsewhere. We feel compelled to go on so that we might return again to safety.

We turn to horror in entertainment for two reasons, notes Urbano: to bring out our fears so that we might overcome them, and because the ego reenacts its helpless situations because they’ve been eroticised in a masochistic manner by the mind. In the latter reason, the entire body becomes erogenous and anxiety becomes the foreplay to a desired (but feared) unconscious realization of disintegration-- it’s own death as a reliving of its birth. Horror, then, becomes a fetish which is strengthened in individuals who experienced more negative feelings of helplessness early in life. But in addition, there are certain developed personality quirks that make distinguish one who feels satisfied after experiencing a piece of horror entertainment from one who merely enjoys the aforementioned social posturing of horror.

Most fans say they’re “satisfied” after watching a horror film (Brown). But roughly equal amounts of them say they either experience positive (soothed) or negative (unsoothed) emotions as well as that satisfaction. Brown found in his research titled Living Through The Horror that most fans “empathize with the villain,” an act impossible in video games where the player is directly personified in a weak character, so there is a distinct victimization at play in horror games. He also found that fans are of an avoidant, but not anti-social personality character style where humor was most often used as a coping mechanism. Those that were “soothed” were also more narcissistic on average than the unsoothed fans.

The soothed group were left with asymmetrical and depressed thought patterns. These were the individuals that felt a self-described positive effect. The unsoothed group showed signs of asymmetrical and depressed thought patterns 100% of the time, essentially the same tendencies as the soothed only to an unfortunately greater extreme. And worse still, the soothed group also showed signs of paranoia that were absent in the unsoothed group. Brown’s study failed to reflect that the data he collected also showed that “schizotypal” personality characteristics (essentially: social anxiety, paranoia, the inability to form or maintain close relationships and having strange perceptions and superstitious belief in ghosts, telepathy, etc) were also prevalent in the fans. It also failed to reflect on how the unsoothed crowd were more avoidant, yet less schizotypal than the soothed crowd. But all in all, Brown’s findings suggest that horror is closely tied to persons who are themselves already horrified. His findings are not showing the effects of horror, but rather the demographic that is horror fans. Without the nurturing social effect of horror entertainment, these individuals would find it even harder to place themselves within society.

These fans are alone and they desire things that reflect their ostracisation. The horror genre, in a way, reaffirms their perceptions of the world and themselves. It appeals to negative thought patterns and feeds into that. But in games in particular, it encourages reclusiveness by only being single-player, scratching the itch of malignancy which is more similar at this point to a scab which is continuously re-opened and kept from healing. The horror fan wants blood because the horror fan is bleeding. The horror fan wants Isolation because the horror fan only knows isolation.

[Disclaimer: I, myself, am a horror fan and I don't mean to offend anyone. I'm merely presenting facts from the research I've gathered. I continue to watch horror films and play horror games, as well as read horror stories.... I just do it all with the added fear that I'm making things worse for myself which only means I enjoy it more.]

Works Cited

Brown, N. L. (2008). Living through the horror: An investigation of how and why people enjoy horror films. (Order No. AAI3318647, Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, , 3837. Retrieved from (621760196; 2008-99240-227).

Individual Differences in Arousability: Implications for Understanding Immediate and Lingering Emotional Reactions to Frightening Mass Media; Glenn G. Sparks, Melissa M. Spirek & Kelly Hodgson; Communication Quarterly Issue 4 Volume 41, 1993

Mundorf, N., Weaver, J., & Zillman, D. (1989). Effects of gender roles and self perceptions on affective reactions to horror films.Sex Roles, 20(11), 655. Retrieved from

Tamborini, R., Stiff, J., & Heidel, C. (1990). Reacting to graphic horror: A model of empathy and emotional behavior.Communication Research, 17(5), 616-640. Retrieved from

Tartakovsky, M. (2012). Why Some People Love Horror Movies While Others Hate Them. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 8, 2014, from


Thayer, J. F., & Levenson, R. W. (1983). Effects of music on psychophysiological responses to a stressful film.Psychomusicology: A Journal of Research in Music Cognition, 3(1), 44-52. doi:

Urbano, C. (1998). Projections, suspense, and anxiety: The modern horror film and its effects. Psychoanalytic Review, 85(6), 889-908. Retrieved from

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