Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality Lets Horror Fans Scare Themselves

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor
virtual reality

With a new wave of virtual reality games, players explore new textures of terror.

Horror films have gotten pretty scary over the last 100 years or so, but even with the most frightening movies, we’ve always had a buffer; the screens we view them on serve as discrete boundaries. We can always see the frame of the TV, even if it looks like Freddy Kruger’s razor-claws might be on the verge of passing through.

But with the coming wave of virtual reality (VR) video games, spurred on by the development of Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, horror is about to make a hair-raising jump from the screen to inside your head. That reassuring border will soon disappear.

For many, the dread is present from the start. Engaging with virtual reality in the first place is an isolating and intimidating experience, requiring that a player wear a mask and noise-canceling headphones.

virtual reality

“For me, it’s the feeling of being trapped,” said Adrian Tingstad Husby, an artist on the virtual reality horror game Among the Sleep. “It’s so claustrophobic to have a dark, all-enclosing device strapped to your head.”

Maybe you momentarily feel as if you cannot breathe, but soon realize you can look around and move freely.

“That you explore the games by turning your head, like you do in real life, makes it eerily real,” he said, referring to the feeling of “being there” that many developers have echoed.

Yet virtual reality does more than move the screen really close to your face.

“It allows for new textures of fear,” said Sergio Hidalgo, the designer of the horrific dungeon crawl Dreadhalls. “It taps into your spatial awareness to make you feel that a creature has a physical presence.”

And these creatures do creepy things that monsters confined to screens can’t do, such as following you. A devious trick of Hidalgo’s is to dangle some obscure diabolical shapes at the edge of your peripheral vision and have them vanish the moment you turn to look.

“This way you feel like you’re being stalked, as if there was something else in the room with you, but the nature of the menace remains unknown,” he explained.

If you’re thinking virtual reality horror is some phantasmagoric mirage that the strong-willed can muscle themselves through, think again.

Cynthia Jones, a therapist at Duke University, has been using virtual reality for years to treat phobias — such as the fear of elevators, cockroaches and flying — and she noted that the human nervous system is wired in such a way that it is unable to distinguish between real and virtual terrors.

“You see babies responding to fear cues that they clearly couldn’t verbally understand,” said Jones, explaining how fear comes preprogrammed in our DNA.

As such, it’s relatively easy to trick the brain into being scared.

virtual reality

“Part of the fragility about our nervous system is that it can be deceived,” she said, which allows her to convincingly recreate scenes of panic, even though her clinic’s virtual reality gear was purchased in the ’90s and is far from photo-realistic.

Given its pure shock potential, technologically advanced horror could be the way many people first experience the new wave of virtual reality systems. This could be a good or a bad thing.

“I’ve had people who basically threw themselves out of the chair,” said Jones, and it seems to be a common theme.

Mark Paul, designer of the necromantic horror game Affected, has similar anecdotes. “The first few months of work on Affected were the most interesting in terms of me fearing my own creation,” he said. “The game would make me physically jump no matter how many times I played.”

And the worst — or, to horror fans, best — part? In horror movies, you could close your eyes and the movie would roll onward, but in virtual reality, that’ll only lead you head first into a wall. Prepare to get really scared.


Kill Screen is a video game arts and culture company that wants to show the world why games matter. Based in Brooklyn, Kill Screen publishes a website and a magazine as well as organizes events, such as the groundbreaking Arcade at the Museum of Modern Art and Twofivesix, which Mashable called “the TED of video games.” The New Yorker called Kill Screen “the McSweeney’s of interactive media,” and TIME said the writing was so “polished that they might help convince doubters that games are worth taking seriously.”

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