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Virtually Horrified: A Comparison of the Effects of Horror in Games Versus Film

While films and games are both capable of creating truly horrific atmospheres that evoke dread in their audience, the interactivity of games creates a more immersive experience for the player that results in a more intense feeling of terror than movies.

Eva Wierzbicki, Blogger

November 30, 2016

14 Min Read

Horror, whether it be in books, films, or games, is a complex and confusing genre. Many people are revolted by any form it comes in, while others revel in the thrills it can provide. Those who enjoy horror not only subject themselves to watching actors in horrific situations on a screen in movies, but they willingly take the controls and become the characters in the horrific situations of video games, all for entertainment. While films and games are both capable of creating truly horrific atmospheres that evoke dread in their audience, the interactivity of games creates a more immersive experience for the player that results in a more intense feeling of terror than movies do.

The horror genre is diverse, encompassing different sub-genres for any taste. According to the horror critic website “Horror On Screen,” horror films depict different common tropes, such as gore, visually and psychologically disturbing content, and monsters, killers, and paranormal beings, all of which have several sub-genres in themselves (Horror Genres and Sub-Genres). Games are classified differently, as their genres are usually labelled based on gameplay (such as first-person-shooter or a side scroller) rather than overall theme and content, as movies are. Therefore, games have much more leisure to make any game scary and classify it as horror. But do all of these really count as “horrifying?”

“Scary” and “Horrific” are two very different things. Something “scary” generally is so because it startled the player, or appears as creepy. Horror doesn’t rely on jump scares - it creates an atmosphere that keeps its audience on edge and deeply disturbs them. While something scary lasts for a moment, horror is the buildup to that scary moment, and that tension lasts and causes deep emotional effects. However, people also tend to use the terms “horror” and “terror” intermittently. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King explains his distinction between something that is horrifying and something that is terrifying. He believes that while the audience feels horror similarly to disgust, terror is the fear that should be aimed for (King, 18-37). His use of the word “terror” aligns with many other scholars’ definition of horror, especially when compared to “fear.”As explained by Craig Lager in his 2010 Gaming Daily article Horror Needs to Mature, fear is a survival response. While it is easy to scare or startle players by making something creepy suddenly pop up with a loud noise, that isn’t horror (Good). Isabel Pinedo, author of Postmodern Elements of the Contemporary Horror Film (2004), claims that “Horror is an exercise in recreational terror, a simulation of danger not unlike a roller coaster ride. Like the latter, people in a confined space are kept off-balance through the use of suspense and precipitous surprises achieved by alternating between seeing what lies ahead and being in the dark” (Perron). Philosopher Robert C. Solomon stated that horror “is an extremely unpleasant and even traumatizing emotional experience which renders the subject/victim helpless and violates his or her most rudimentary expectations about the world” (Prince, 135). That being said, it is possible to create a tasteful combination of terror and startling aspects as long as the jumpscares are not the main dynamic of the game. The game Slender: The Eight Pages, for example, relies heavily on jump scares, but it shouldn’t be shoved aside as a cheap game for thrills. Slender uses suspense to instill a deep sense of dread in players leading up to the inevitable jump scares that Slenderman’s appearance triggers. When the player looks at Slenderman, there is a loud blast of noise as if a piano were being struck, making his appearance startling every time. But it is the anticipation of his arrival and the constant heartbeat sound effect reminding the player that he is coming for them that turned the game into a phenomenon.  

However, imparting fear within the player is not a guarantee if they are not in the proper mindset, unlike jump scares which, unless excessively repeated, will usually at least startle their audience. The main thing horror relies on is its audience’s willingness to use their imagination enough to buy into what they are seeing. As Bernard Perron, professor at the University of Montreal, eloquently puts in his article Coming to Play at Frightening Yourself: Welcome to the World of Horror Video, “Fear depends on our perception of a threat and our coping potentials, and that the simulation of danger draws on the psychology of the aforementioned emotion” (Perron). An audience member has to be willing to get scared in order to feel fear from media.

Because of horror’s reliance on immersion, horror games and horror films are completely different experiences. Both films and video games can create eerie atmospheres, but they are much more intense and lasting in games. When watching a movie, players can curl up safely in a blanket and watch the screen from a distance for one to two hours. They can even close their eyes and let the danger pass, unburdened with responsibility. When playing a game, however, players are actively exploring the haunted house, or running from monsters in the dark woods. Suddenly, they control the rhythm, and they have to fight to survive. This creates a much stronger and more acute sense of dread and fear in the player, one that is hard to imagine for those who have never taken the controls of a horror game. In order to progress the story, they must spend hours, maybe even days, slowly making their way through every area and facing whatever terrors they may come across. Suddenly, players control the rhythm, and players have to fight to survive. For example, watching an actor hide in a locker is a completely different experience from choosing to hide there yourself, gazing through the gaps in the metal in fear. In movies, the audience knows that that person is going to be discovered in their hiding place - the tension of the scene has to be released somehow, usually with the character getting caught. In a game, however, if the player is hiding in a locker, they don’t know if the monster will find them. In movies, anyone can die without affecting the audience, but in games, the goal is to stay alive and continue the story. In a general survival game, if the player is hiding, it isn’t scripted as to whether they’ll be found or not, and knowing this makes the experience even more horrifying. As creative director of Supermassive (creators of Until Dawn), Will Byles puts it, “The fundamental difference between film and game is the obvious one of passive observation versus active interaction. A movie, no matter how good, can only be observed… the audience can feel can only be at best empathic… Games have the opposite starting point… The emotion that you can feel as a player… is in the first person. It is your fear that you are feeling, rather than characters fear with which you are empathising. First person emotion is much stronger than third, which can help to quickly build a sense of fear” (Gera). This concept of dread being amplified tenfold may be difficult to believe for those who have never taken the control of a horror game, but it is there, and it is acute. If you watch a movie five times, you will see the exact same thing five times. But if you play a horror game five times, it will be different every time because it’s not precisely planned out - it’s meant for interaction.

However, just because horror games are more easily able to conjure up emotions of fear and dread doesn’t mean that they are necessarily better at horror than films are. In fact, it is rather difficult for games to truly be classified as “horror.” There are many techniques used to elicit fear in players, such as what Pascal Bonitzer has called “blind space” - the player’s limited field of vision, such as the fog in the Silent Hill series. This, especially combined with the use of audio to create an environment in which the player cannot pinpoint the enemy, creates the unnerving feeling that “the enemy is virtually everywhere” (Perron). But even with these, players can be pulled out of the intense immersion by the repetitive nature of games. A flaw in horror video games is that although there is an actual threat (if you die, you’ll lose some progress), dying will force you to repeat an area, which lessens the tension and horror of that area, moreso the more times you go through it. As Bernard Perron says, “All too often, the interactivity of games can undermine their scariness, rather than enhance it” (Perron). In movies, the viewers are forced to just experience the horror and shock once - there’s no stopping or backtracking. This can make the experience of watching a horror movie make the audience feel more helpless. And yet, movie watchers can too be pulled out of immersion simply by realizing that they disagree with the characters’ actions. This is a slight strength for games, though, for not only do the players get to control their character’s actions, but they typically have options within the game mechanics, such as choosing whether to hide, dodge, evade, or fight the monster. These can vary too, such as being able to shoot and run or use the flashlight at the same time. According to Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen, authors of Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, and based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, “In an optimal experience, the participant is able to exercise control without completely being in control of the situation” (Perron). Rachel Helps, on her post on the online magazine Kill Screen, also made the point that horror games create a “cognitive dissonance” within the player, for they know that they must continue playing in order to progress, but they do not want to actually explore their surroundings (Helps). This cognitive dissonance is an excellent example of what horror should convey: Forcing players to do things they don’t really want to do, yet succeed in in order to fulfill their curiosity of how the game transpires.

A fantastic way of combining the greatest aspects of horror games (the immersion and interactivity) and movies (the helplessness of having to just watch what transpires) then is through interactive cutscenes, in which the player must do something horrific to continue the game. A prime example of this is the eye surgery scene in Dead Space 2. In the scene, the player watches their character, Isaac, clamber into a large MRI-like machine and willingly lie down to allow the machinery to hold his head down and his eyelids open. The player must then carefully align a needle, hovering above his eye, with his rapidly-moving pupil. If timed correctly, the needle will slowly insert into his pupil, the screen will flash a bit, and then the needle will slowly pull itself out, leaving behind only a small trickle of blood. Isaac will then climb out of the machine, ready to continue the game. If done incorrectly, meaning the player did not time the needle to when it was above the pupil, the entire piece of machinery holding the needle will suddenly thrust itself into Isaac’s entire eye, causing him to cry out in pain as blood gushes from his socket, leaving his head to fall limp in a gruesome open-mouthed death. This entire scene is an excellent and rare example of horror, not fear, in a game. As the camera slowly zooms in on the character’s clearly increasingly panicky face, teeth clenched, eyes moving around wildly, and his breathing and grimacing heavy, you can hear a rapidly increasing heart rate, all of the tension hinged on whether or not the player can successfully time a button click. Not only is the idea of performing eye surgery on oneself spine-tingling, but the interactivity, the act of having to actually do it in a game, makes it a true horror moment.

With such gut-wrenching requirements for the horror genre to truly be considered horror, it is baffling how so many people adore it. Many academics have noticed the strange allure of horror of all genres, and have tried to decipher its appeal. Psychologist Dr. Glenn D. Walters developed three factors that affect the allure of horror movies: Tension, relevance, and unrealism. Tension can be created through suspense, gore, mystery, terror, or shock, relevance refers to the film relating to the audience in some way, whether universally or personally, and unrealism refers to the audience’s knowledge that none of the horror is actually real, allowing them to freely enjoy it. In 1995, Deirdre D. Johnston conducted a study on 220 high school students who watched slasher films and found that there seemed to be four different reasons why they chose to watch them: Gore, thrill, independent, and problem watching. Gore watching is when the viewers have low empathy, a strong sense of sensation seeking, and, in males, an identification with the killer.  People who partake in thrill watching are characterized by high empathy and a longing for sensation and suspense, and tend to identify more with the victims. Independent watching is characterized by empathy for the victims with a desire for the outcome to be more uplifting, and finally problem watching is characterized by empathy for the victim but with a desire for the outcome to be more dark with a sense of helplessness. Indeed, there are many different theories on why people like horror, but none of them have provided consistent enough data to be considered true (The Psychology of Scary Movies). And yet, people to this day continue to study horror viewers’ stress levels and horror fans’ opinions in order to discover the reason why people would willingly pay to watch a group of people get murdered or devoured one by one, or worse, try to stop themselves from being murdered or devoured.

Video games and film are different mediums, and thus evoke horror in different ways. While films tend to dive more into plot and characters, creating very situational horror, games can create immersive, slow-paced, deeply stressful atmospheres that make the player dread moving forward. And yet, the genre isn’t perfect - many horror films and games use tactless jump scares to startle their audience rather than exploring deeply disturbing psychological horror. Films can easily be pushed aside as “not scary” if the viewers disagree with the characters’ actions, and the repetitiveness of games in certain situations can pull the player out of their immersion, out of the magic circle, and thus lower their level of fear. Yet both mediums have produced works that have terrified, thrilled, and captivated their audiences for years. And hopefully, with the steadily increasing popularity of horror games, more experimentation with different methods and styles of horror will emerge in the industry.



Works Cited:


Gera, Emily. “The Science of Fear: How to Measure Scares in Gaming.” Polygon. Vox Media,

Inc, 29 October 2014,



Good, Owen. “The Difference Between Scary and Horror.” Kotaku. Gizmodo Media Group, 14

March 2010, kotaku.com/5493012/the-difference-between-scary-and-horror.


Helps, Rachel. “Horror Games are Scarier Than Horror Movies.” Kill Screen. Kill Screen Media,

Inc, 31 October 2012, killscreen.com/articles/horror-games-are-scarier-horror-movies/.


“Horror Genres and Sub-Genres.” Horror On Screen, 10 June 2013,



King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Berkley Books, 1981.


Parsec Productions. Slender: The Eight Pages. Parsec Productions, 2012.


Perron, Bernard. “Coming to Play at Frightening Yourself: Welcome to the World of Horror

Video Games.” Aesthetics of Play. Department of Information Science and Media Studies

(University of Bergen, Norway), 15 October 2005, www.aestheticsofplay.org/perron.php.


Prince, Stephen. The Horror Film. Rutgers University Press, 2004.


“The Psychology of Scary Movies.” FilmmakerIQ. 2016 FilmmakerIQ.com,



Visceral Games. Dead Space 2. Electronic Arts, 2011.



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