The psychology behind horror games

The psychology behind horror games

Within this research thread, I started off by conducting and doing some primary research. I played a variety of popular horror games in order to find out myself features that are used within horror games and what psychological features are played upon to create fear for users. The games I played were Amnesia, Slender man, Outlast, Layers of Fear and Silent Hill. Within all of these games, I identified a lot of common features that were used; they all had dark lighting, some sort of abnormal creature/ monster/ enemy, some sort of lighting source (due to the dark lighting of the setting) like a torch, lantern, camera light, I also noticed a lot of the horror was created from the atmosphere and sound; for example within Slenderman, Amnesia and Layers of Fear they use sound triggers to pre warn you the monster is near which instantly increases the intensity of fear.

I conducted some secondary research by looking into previous studies into the psychology behind horror games and the features used. There were my findings:

  • Vulnerability – Being vulnerable and somewhat helpless, not being able to fight back to defend or protect yourself; From my primary research I noticed that Amnesia used player vulnerability because you can’t have weapons to fight off the monsters, your only option is to run and hide.
  • Darkness – The inability to see your surroundings because it triggers humans evolved dear mechanisms because it suggests unseen threats may be close by. Dr David Rakison a professor of evolutionary psychology at Carnegie Mellon University stated that many things we fear are associated with darkness and the night like vampires, witches, werewolves, ghosts and so on [1](Betka, 2013)
  • Children and nursery rhymes – According to Dr rakinson the reason why children and nursery rhymes crank up the fear factor is due to our expectations and memories. We have positive associations with these factors like innocence, so by using these in threatening and frightening situations goes against our previous assumptions and memories
  • Ghouls, monsters and malevolent spirits – With humans you instantly assume and know they will have normal human behaviours, but with any of these creatures, their behaviour is unknown and instantly makes players nervous
  • Spiders and Snakes – Despite being a huge common fear to people, interestingly enough they don’t appear so much in horror games because they are too common. The unknown is more scary than the known says Rakinson.
  • Abnormality – Researchers have associated this to be horrifying  because as stated it’s ‘abnormal’, for example if the enemy has abnormal features players would feel uncertain by it because it’s unpredictable as to what their behaviours will be. 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 they’re 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 they’re psycho?” [2](Betka, 2013)
  • Being alone – This relates back to vulnerability, you can only protect yourself from dangers and threats. A fear I discovered people have and what I have is the concept of someone being behind you, following and stalking you, it’s very threatening and intimidating and instantly makes you feel on edge. A lot of games I played within my primary research stage used this feature, for example slender man, you’re alone in a forest and he follows you and shows up in close by places to make you aware he is near.

Within this research area, it was essential I studied in the format and structures of horror games. From doing some primary and secondary research, I gathered these findings:

  • Strong sense of place – Players are aware and understand what environments are known as spooky and dangerous like dark woods, mental hospitals, abandoned houses and so on. Due to previous horror films and games it has already been encoded into our minds what settings are creepy and threatening.
  • Atmosphere to create horror – Using your own mind to terrify you by using mental cues to create more horror from the player’s surroundings and atmosphere than actual physical horror
  • Subtle changes to the environment – When something becomes routine in horrors, it’s predictable and no longer scary but if minor changes are made they can excite the players curiosity and increase the fear factor
  • Anticipation – horror games need a sense of anticipation, it’s extremely effective especially if it’s dragged out because it informs the player something horrible is waiting to happen, once the event has happened the tension is lost, build up is key in horror!
  • Ambiguity – Never showing what the enemy looks like at the beginning of the game, allow the player to create their own mental image of the enemy which is more psychologically frightening.
  • Character control – More control over characters allow for more horrifying experiences because the character becomes somewhat an extension of yourself, this would especially be the case for VR because ultimately you become the character.  ‘Teresa Lynch at Indiana University in Bloomington is studying the ways games evoke fear. She has found that the level of interactivity in a game – how much control players have over their character – determines how frightening it is. When there is a lot of interactivity, Lynch thinks the brain can trick you into feeling that what happens to your character happens to you.’ [3](Heaven, 2015)
  • Empathy – Psychologist Mark Davis suggests that there are different types of empathy. The first is ‘Perspective Taking’. This is putting yourself in another’s shoes. The second type of empathy is ‘Personal Distress’. This is feeling another’s emotions. For example, while playing a horror game, you may start to feel scared when the character in the game is being chased or threatened. This process is called ‘emotional contagion’. VR will intensify these features


[1]Betka, Z. (2013) Ways horror games use psychology to scare the crap out of us. Available at: (Accessed: 20 November 2016).

[2]Betka, Z. (2013) Ways horror games use psychology to scare the crap out of us. Available at: (Accessed: 20 November 2016).

[3]heaven, douglas (2015) How the scariest video games use our own minds to terrify us. Available at: (Accessed: 20 November 2016).


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