So, it's horror week: Let's have a quiz about what is scary. To the right, you will see two images: Your job is to determine which is more frightening.
Things in each image show scale: On top is a spider that has caught a small finch and is happily eating the bird. On bottom is a plain, fuzzy spider just a hair bigger than a quarter.
I submit that traditional horror (the less you know, the more terrifying something is) would point to the beastie on top. It is bigger and more dangerous in appearance. It is also mysterious: What species is it? Where does it live? Does it normally eat birds? Look at the size of it!
On the other hand, the lower spider is fairly easily understood at a glance: It is medium sized, brown, and maybe a little on the long-legged side but overall fairly plain. We are familiar with this sort of spider and are therefore more comfortable with it.
But conventional horror would be quite wrong. The top spider is the golden orb weaver: spindly, hook-legged, spooky black-and-yellow coloration, and capable of growing up to three inches across. It is not, as one might assume, the "bird-catching spider": the image was a carefully chosen fluke that almost never happens. They are poisonous, but not even as much as a black widow. You'd get topical irritation, swelling, and blisters that would go away in 24 hours.
The right-hand spider, the nice familiar one, is the brown recluse. One of the nastiest spiders in existence. It looks much plainer but is much more dangerous. The word "necrosis" is appropriate. I won't describe it, nor will I recommend that you google "brown-recluse bite." The end result is stomach churning and terrible. Don't do it. (But you will now, probably, because I've piqued your curiosity.)
I use this as an example, because the maxim I mentioned earlier is clearly not quite true. I think it comes from the misunderstanding of the we-fear-what-we-do-not-understand meme. In fact, many of the things we find the most terrifying we know quite a lot about. I am scared shitless of the brown recluse, and that comes from a very intimate understanding of the creature. Some things are scary not because of mystery, but because of familiarity.
With that in mind, here's another image. Which of these two things is scarier?
I was late to the party with Dead Space and only just beat the game last week. I enjoyed it: I like most third-person shooters that haven't gone the cover-based route of Gears of War or Uncharted. And certain similarities between itself and another favorite of mine, Resident Evil 4, repeatedly struck me. But I saw one significant difference: I found RE4 terrifying. With the exception of a few specific segments, Dead Space didn't scare me at all.
What makes RE4 so brilliant is that it completely disregards the primary rule of the horror genre: It openly dispenses of the psychological unknown and mystery that made something like Silent Hill 2 a hallmark title. The scariness of RE4 is like that of the brown recluse: not coming from the unknown or the mysterious but from its sheer dangerousness.
Visibility is really quite good save for a few occasional moments. Even if you can't acutely see what horrible thing is after you, at the very least you can hear it, because swelling music almost always accompanies enemies just before they show up. Additionally, the nature of the nasties you fight is fairly easily tenable: A vast majority of the opponents are human-ish, with only occasional appearances by more monstrous foes.
A Spanish peasant is about to drive a scythe into my skull, and I spy another behind me…and oh shit has that old lady got a knife! I think I'll hide in this tower…and oh fuck are they throwing moltovs at me? Shit, shit, shit.
Some have complained that this sort of action-based tension simply turned RE4 into an ordinary shooter, but for me it was brutally effective: I really didn't want to die. I didn't think, "Damn, I just lost an extra life" when I lost like I would do in Contra, but rather the much more visceral, "Oh god, is my face still attached?"
RE4's difficulty worked so well precisely because the game gave you just the right number of tools to survive. By comparison, Dead Space gave you a hand gun so overpowered that you could easily kill anything in a matter of two or three hits, which makes things much less scary.
And every time you start to get a little too familiar with the endless Ganado swarms, RE4 throws something different at you: the chitinous Novistadors; giant, troll-like creatures; or a massive, tentacled caterpillar centaur. But these opponents always make up brief, stunning set pieces. Compare this to Dead Space, where the very first enemy is arguably the scariest looking thing you encounter, and everything subsequent either looks exactly the same or only marginally different.
The culmination of this tension-relief gameplay is undoubtedly the scariest opponent I've ever come across in a game.
They were brilliant. And terrifying. And horrible. They were specifically designed so that the first time you encountered one, you almost certainly would die. Or — at the very least — would stagger out of the room unbearably maimed (only to encounter another one blocking your way in the hall).
My first confrontation with a Regenerator is one of my most vivid video-game memories because it didn't die. At all. I had the Striker (a high-powered shotgun) and fired all twenty of my shells into it, which reduced its limbs to pieces and sent it sprawling to the floor. It wriggled, leaped with just its torso power, and latched its needle-filled jaws into my throat. I barely survived and ran.
But it grew legs again, and chased me. I didn't make it. In desperation, I unloaded the entirety of my remaining arsenal. It still didn't die. Then it reached out — its arms stretching from halfway across the room –opened its jaws at a right angle, and bit my head off. I shat myself.
The fear of regenerators stuck with me. Even when I got the infra-red scope and could take them out with ease, I broke out in goosebumps every time I heard that glottal, soggy breathing. I still do.
Things become scarier when you know how dangerous they are. They become less scary when you know how to deal with them. A brown recluse is dangerous, yes, but also exceptionally non-aggressive except in rare circumstances. You can dispatch the spider fairly easily with jar and a piece of paper, or even a pair of tweezers if you're quick. The boot always works, too.
Nevertheless, even though I now understand that headshots and knee shots lead to extended invincibility and room-clearing melee possibilities, I'll still remember the way I jumped and agonized over every twitch of a pitchfork the first time I played RE4.
And that's the thing about horror: the fear itself almost never lasts, but the impression the fear makes stays forever.
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