Ways horror games use psychology to scare the crap out of us

They're inside your mind

You walk into a dimly lit room, a single lightbulb dangling above a physically deformed man sleeping in a chair. Theres pus dripping from open sores in his face and there is a knife in his lap. Strands of brown hair are clutched in his hand. Your hair is brown. Theres no sound except for your ragged breathing and the soft noise of nails scraping across a chalkboard. You are alone. Everything is spiders. Suddenly the door shuts behind you, the light goes out, and you hear the chair scrape as the man gets up.

Long story short youre absolutely terrified and youre absolutely screwed. But why are you terrified? What about all that stuff makes you feel fear? We could sit around and spitball our two-bit answers, but for the sake of Halloweek we decided to throw some expertise in the mix. Enter David Rakison, Professors of Evolutionary Psychology (and avid gamer) at Carnegie Mellon University. Just like we got the dirt on how games lie to us about medicine, we sat down with an actual professional to figure out exactly how horror games terrify us.

Hello darkness my old friend

Why? Why always darkness? Its the go-to setting for horror games, and even scary scenes in regular-people video games. Heck, Amnesias main mechanic was based around it. Dr. Rakison explains why: Because darkness, at night in particular, has been such a recurrent context for humans throughout human history. Darkness has been an issue for us even before we were top rung on the food chain, and many of our current fears and phobias stem from back in our evolutionary past. We dont have a visceral fear of fast moving cars, but put me naked in a dark room with a few snakes and Ill lose my mind.

The inability to see what is around us triggers humans evolved fear mechanisms because it suggests that potential unseen threats may be close by, Rakison said. Humans were never the best at night: all of our predators were much more adapted to darkness. Therefore we grew accustomed to fearing the night and not wanting to venture off. Dr. Rakison also pointed out that many things we fear are associated with darkness and the night. Vampires, witches, ghosts, werewolves, all thrive in the night.

One is the loneliest number

Humans are a social species. Even for us gamers, during a casual bout of WoW you can interact with hundreds of other humans. The entire premise of Mario Party revolves around the fact that, on some level, humans like each other. One of the primary mechanisms in early human development is attachment, Dr. Rakison informed us, saying that we develop this notion that other people in our lives give us a safe haven when were around them. And so whether youre an introvert or extrovert, a good friend or positive social setting will always make you feel good. Which, of course, means that horror games kill all your friends and leave you alone.

What happens when youre alone, professor? In video games where you are alone, this safe haven (whereby somebody has your back) no longer exists and it triggers evolved mechanisms for heightened fear and vigilance for potential threats. Ah I see, thank you. Youre only one pair of eyes, only one field of vision, nobody to catch your mistakes, nobody to save you. Honestly it all comes back to tigers. If its night, a tiger can eat you. If youre alone, a tiger can eat you. When youre scared, just think of how it pertains to a fear of tigers.

Definition of definition of insanity

How many times have you had this conversation: Hi. Hi. How are you? Good! Good. And you? Oh just fine. Thats good. Yup. Ok bye. Bye. At this point that interaction has nothing to do with actually understanding how someone is doing and more to do with saying hey look Im just like you! Its a social contract that healthy, functioning individuals follow. But we would never expect The Joker, The Baron from Amnesia, Vaas, or any other absolutely insane video game character to respond with that vanilla script. And that kind of scares us.

Human interaction is often based on reciprocity and social contracts such that we have strong expectations about the way others behave, says David Rakison. In layman terms, that means we have expectations on how a normal person will act, and when they fulfill our expectations, were happy. Makes sense. So why did we know that one dude in Tomb Raider so obviously the bad guy when we first met him? Insane, crazed, and sociopathic individuals are social contract 'cheaters'. They are unpredictable, and unpredictable is very, very scary to humans who based their everyday expectations about others on this reciprocal behavior. If you cant guess what a stranger will do next, you will begin to feel a bit of anxiety. And that anxiety will only get worse when you realize that the stranger youre talking to is carrying a knife

You're beautiful, it's true

I saw your face, in a crowded place and now Im terrified because it looked nasty. Thats how the song goes right? Maybe not because extreme facial deformation is not only sexually unappealing, but it clues us in that there is something very, very wrong with that individual. The nurse in Silent Hill, everyone in Amnesia, this tactic is the go-to attribute to almost any horror game villain or monster. Pop out an eye, paralyze the muscles, scar the cheek, let the mouth hang, do whatever you want because all of it is sending a message.

Our resident Psychology Professor said there are two different reasons for why we react so negatively to physical deformation in the face. The first has to do with health. Because a pretty and symmetrical face tells us that the person is well enough to withstand the thousands of parasites that we encounter on a day to day basis, a denatured face tells us just the opposite: that theyre really sick. The second is all about self infliction, and that the person may live outside the bounds of typical human behavior according to Rakison. Aka theyre psycho?

And down will come baby, cradle and all

Whenever we think of creepy children in games we think of F.E.A.R. Classic. Small child, barefoot, bein cray and running around all over the place, singing those nursery rhymes. Maybe its just us but children in horror situations instantly crank up the creep factor. And not just small humans, but actually children themselves. Is it the innocence? Is it the fact that theyre so out of place in that abandoned mental ward walking barefoot across dirty needles? According to David Rakison it all comes down our expectations and memories.

We have such strong positive associations with nursery rhymes and childhood, where we were so innocent and the world appeared non-threatening. This is true, so how to horror games screw with even our precious pasts? To make such situations intense and scary via negative cues, strongly goes against our memories and suggests that nowhere (and nobody) is really safe. Oh.

I wouldve gotten away with it if it wasnt for you meddling kids!

Spectres, ghouls, malevolent spirits: things that dont exist in day to day life. A woman scorned: pretty common. That may be the reason why we get so much less terrified when we discover the origins of the creepy crawlies. Once we know Aiden was ********* ***** ****** in Beyond it became less of the ethereal spirit and just another character. The reveal is always disappointing too, no matter what excuse the developer cooks up, when we didnt know anything about the bad guy we are generally more afraid. Why is that?

It has to do with understand the human psyche. No matter how whacked out an individual is, we can always assume they have basic human behaviors. But a creature unknown? We have no clue what the expect, and that makes us nervous. We cannot understand the psychology of a ghoul, says Rakison, but we can understand better the psychology of a human trapped in a ghouls body.

Poor Jesus, always getting hung upside down

Cults are pretty par for the course in most games by now. Los Iluminados in Resident Evil 4, The Order in Silent Hill, The Saturnine in Bioshock: Need a bunch of humans to throw themselves as the protagonist for no apparent reason? Make them really, really love Jesus. And while we can poke fun at it, you have to admit that walking into a room smeared with goat blood with people chanting Hail Marys isnt the most comforting thing. But religion is comparatively pretty recent compared to, say, our fear of spiders, so why does it still affect us so much?

It all goes back to our inability to deal with higher powers. Humans have evolved responses for many threats--the classic flee, flight, or freeze concepts--but these will not work with supernatural beings, Rakison said. Ever since human history began there have been accounts of divine power causing events beyond our understanding (volcanic eruptions, the changing of the seasons, etc). People lived and died by these teachings, and so it makes sense for us to be wary of when powers greater than us seem to meddled with. Messing with religious practices goes against many peoples beliefs about what is good and holy. And that scares us. Indeed it does, especially if you grew up Catholic. Just saying.

No love for spiders and snakes?

Feel that on your leg? Its the pricking sensation of a daddy long legs crawling through your hair. And dont move your keyboard, because under it is a black widow that will skitter right for your hands when you do. Get any goosebumps? If so, its because the number one and two animal phobias among humans are snakes and spiders. Actually snakes are the number one fear of Americans (followed by public speaking)? But interestingly these two intense fears arent featured in many horror games. Yes, yes Limbo has a spider or two, but horror games? One doesnt come to mind. Why is that the case?

I think that the reason for this is that although snakes are a real fear for humans, they are too common a fear; that is, they are all too real, Professor Rakison said, Scary video games try to go beyond this real fear to pit gamers against unreal fears, those that we cant even conceive of. It seems, at least in video games but probably in the real world too, that the unknown is more scary than the known.

Youre a wild child! No really, you were partially raised by wolves

Long story short: humans are scared when we dont know whats going on, when were not with pretty people, actually just when were alone, when children are being weird, when religion is being weird, spiders anything, snakes anything, when its dark, when someone responds in a way were not expecting, and when we have to speak in front of a moderately sized crowd. Man that absolutely sucks. It makes sense though, during this Halloween season youll find yourself getting scared at the silliest things. And then youll realize, youre basically always scared.

How do you avoid getting terrified? Well according to our resident psychologist...you dont. All of what makes us fearful are things that have been pounded into us after thousands and thousands of years of betting wrong. The man who doesnt fear the dark? Yeah hes dead, leaving all of the fearful individuals to replicate. Natural selection and evolution at its finest! And so, the next time youre scared shitless during a horror game, remember, youre only alive right now because you have those fears. Embrace them. But seriously, avoid public speaking.

And if you're looking for more, check out Top ways video games lie to us about medicine and top scariest moments in unscary games.

Zach was once an Associate Editor for Future, but has since moved into games development. He's worked at EA and Sledgehammer Games, but is now Narrative Director on League of Legends and Valorant at Riot Games.