The following is a lesson plan that I first used in my “Comparative Media Poetics: Cinema and Videogames” course taught at U Chicago in spring 2013. It didn’t really come into its own, however, until I re-taught some of the same material, with much greater success, in my course “The Moving and Interactive Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall of 2015. I’m especially indebted to the students in my SAIC course for helping me direct this material into its current form.
Horror has historically been an enormously successful genre in videogames. As many critics over the years have pointed out, horror stood out as the first major genre that showed game developers legitimately inspiring emotions in players, beyond simply excitement or frustration. “Back when survival horror games were a capital-T ‘Thing,’” writes critic Trent Fingland, “the gaming community was blown away by the discovery that video games—kids’ toys, really—could inspire genuine emotion. In that case: fear.”[i] Certainly, we see this in effect in Tom Bissell’s second-person autobiographical narration of his first experience playing the original Resident Evil: “For the first time in your life, a video game has done something more than entertain or distract you. It has bypassed your limbic system and gone straight for the spinal canal.”[ii] The types of excitement on display here about the potentials for emotional engagement in games have led some to claim horror as one of the “best suited” or “most representative” genres for games. Game designer and game design theorist Richard Rouse III, for instance, has claimed that the success of the horror genre in games was “inevitable,” offering the following explanation:
Games provoke [tension and fear] better than other media because there’s actually something at stake for the player. In any non-interactive media, the audience is seeing unfortunate events or life-threatening occurrences happen for another person, and the audience’s own tension is only possible through empathy with that character’s plight. In an immersive game, the player actually projects himself into that experience.[iii]
All of this is insightful, to be sure. But we should be wary of Rouse’s implication that the transition from non-interactive media to interactive media is a purely additive process, adding new emotional possibilities where none previously existed. In fact, it is probably better to just say that interactive horror and non-interactive horror are just different. As we transition across the divide, there are subtractions, as well as additions. That is: there are emotional responses that non-interactive horror can achieve that interactive horror cannot.
For an example, let’s look at a classic of the slasher sub-genre: Halloween (John Carpenter, USA, 1978). We’ll also be diving into points that Steve Neale makes about the film in his essay “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression, and the Look.”
A stylistic system of paranoia
With its enormous box-office success in 1978, Halloween heralded the arrival of the slasher sub-genre of American horror movies. The American slasher movie owes a lot to the original “body count” genre of the Italian giallo. Unlike gialli, however, slasher films drop all pretense to being a murder mystery. (After all, as they became franchises, these films’ killers became their most well-known characters.) Taking the place of the mystery component is a simple guessing-game of who will die in what order, and who will survive to the end of the film.
In Halloween, the very first thing viewers encounter is an extended first-person point-of-view shot. It’s a very literal point-of-view shot, with multiple cues indicating that what we’re seeing is supposed to be taken as an exact representation of what’s being seen through a character’s eyes. The handheld camera bobs, weaves, and swivels in ways that resemble head motions. On two separate occasions, the character’s hand reaches down, coming out of just about the portion of the frame we’d expect it to if the camera was strapped to his face:
The second time this happens, the hand grabs a mask, which the character subsequently puts on. As a result, our view of the rest of the sequence is itself masked:
This very literal first-person POV shot is the view through which we witness the first act of graphic violence in the film, perpetuated by the very person whose POV we are privy to. (This person is, in fact, the very young Michael Meyers, who, as an adult, will terrorize the town of Haddonfield, IL during the remainder of the film.)
This opening shot sets the stage for a visual system within the film. From here on in, viewers won’t see more of this sort of extraordinarily literal depictions of point-of-view. But there are many times in the film that we are greeted with much less literal, and much less obvious, point-of-view shots.
In several moments across the film, spectators find themselves seeing a seemingly-innocuous view of Laurie Strode, the film’s protagonist. Then, suddenly, Michael Myers looms into the side of the frame, and we discover that we have been roughly sharing his point-of-view of her.
Many of the shots of Laurie and other characters in the film, in this way, sustain a sense of lurking menace. Even if we don’t see Michael stalking the characters, we begin to be more and more concerned that he might be lurking just out of frame … as he has been so many times before.
Neale writes that this technique serves to
generate a tension across the gap between, on the one hand, the knowledge and look of the spectator and the characters, and on the other hand, a knowledge on the part of the spectator that Michael might be the subject of the camera’s point of view. [iv]
Notably, none of these moments results in violence, leading Neale to write that “The system threatens, so to speak, but never attacks.”[v] I like to dwell on what it might mean for a cinematic system to “threaten.” We have an idea here that there are certain ways of presenting a view of characters that are somehow inherently menacing. I ask students if they agree, and if they can list off any that don’t occur in Halloween (or that Neale doesn’t mention).
I pull out another quote from Neale, continuing on this same thread:
In other words, the sequences in the film in which these structures of knowledge and looking are present coincide with an intense inscription of threat, aggression, and potential or actual diegetic violence. What is at issue, in a sense, is control of the frame. The distribution of that control across the instances of the spectator, the film’s subject of enunciation and its characters is articulated very precisely around the figure of Michael: will he appear, when, where, and in relation to whose look?[vi]
This line of thought leads Neale to the idea that Halloween‘s stylistic system is one of paranoia. It’s not the film’s characters who are paranoid, Neale points out. (In fact, most of them are frustratingly, blissfully ignorant during most of the film’s running time, much to the audience’s consternation.) Instead, it’s us, as viewers, that are encouraged to be paranoid, about what the film is going to do to its characters. “It is the spectator who is prone to such fantasies,” Neale writes, “investing the film itself and the figure of Michael with an omnipotence and aggressiveness which cannot be fully controlled.”[vii]
Neale doesn’t discuss the film’s end, but at this point I like to turn to it, as it is perhaps the most paranoid moment in the entire film, and buttresses Neale’s analysis nicely. During the climax of Halloween, Laurie attacks Michael several times, seemingly overpowering him and killing him. He gets back up, though, and Laurie has to be rescued at the last minute by Michael’s psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, who shoots Michael. Michael falls out the window, but when Loomis moves to the window to check the body, there isn’t one: even after being stabbed, shot, and falling out of a second-story window, Michael has still evaded both death and capture.
It’s an ending that leaves plenty of room for a sequel, of course (and the film would have several). But the film doesn’t end at that moment. Instead, we get a series of shots, all uninhabited—simple views of the interior of Laurie’s house, then gradually pulling back to the empty streets of Haddonfield, ending on a shot of the old Myers residence. Throughout all of this, we hear Michael’s breathing.
The overall impression is that Michael didn’t so much escape as lose his body. And, in losing his body, he has become even more powerful, as he has also lost his visibility. His vulnerable body, which the viewer was able to see, has evaporated, and he has been absorbed into the cinematic system itself. There is no more distinction to be made between the film’s shots and his point of view: Michael has invaded the very mechanisms of the movie. Since our watchful eye can no longer catch a glimpse of him, he is even more of a danger now. (I am highly indebted here to Adam Hart.[viii])
Paranoia, Suspense, Apprehension, and Terror
After showing clips of Halloween and going through the salient points of Neale’s essay, I open up class discussion more on this idea of a “gap” between the knowledge of spectator and the knowledge of the film’s characters. Neale’s theory is, overall, built on the idea that our emotional responses to films are in part powered by a knowledge differential between ourselves and the film’s characters.
This gap or knowledge differential that Neale describes is similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense. But it’s not exactly the same. They cleave along slightly different lines. At this point, I started drawing on the dry erase boards, responding to student comments, seeing if we couldn’t map out different configurations of knowledge differentials. It was hugely productive! I have since made better-looking figures from the initial dry erase board sketches, but I want to emphasize that these slides were not part of my original visual presentation: I mocked them up following the insightful input of my students in the SAIC “Moving and Interactive Image” course.
This is the basic situation that Neale describes as omnipresent in Halloween. There’s the viewer, and there’s the potential victim, onscreen. Neither the viewer nor the victim see the killer (which I’ve labeled as “monster” here, so that this diagram can apply to more than just slasher films). In this way, they’re aligned. But the viewer has an omnipresent fear that the monster might be lurking around, one that’s not shared by the oblivious victim. Let’s call this situation paranoia: the viewer has no direct evidence that something is afoot, but feels a threat of potential violence that the victim does not.
A new and different situation. If the “paranoia” diagram refers to those moments in which viewers feel that Michael might step into the frame, this diagram describes what happens when he does. Here, the viewer gets direct visual confirmation of the monster’s presence. The monster definitely has their eyes on the victim. The victim, though, does not see the monster. This exacerbates the knowledge differential between victim and viewer. Whereas before, the viewer only suspected the presence of the monster, now that presence is confirmed … but only for them. The victim remains blissfully unaware.
Let’s call this situation suspense. After all, it confirms exactly to Hitchcock’s definition of suspense: the viewing public is alerted to the presence of danger, while the film’s characters remain oblivious.[ix]
(Note: we can name one slight variation on suspense, in which the knowledge gap is reversed, and the victim and viewer both possess information that the monster lacks. This type of suspense is usually confined to those moments in which the victim is hiding, and we await breathlessly to see if the monster will discover where they are.)
Finally, suspense is released: the victim sees the monster, and the monster sees the victim. A fight, or a flight, ensues. Everyone—victim, monster, and viewer—is on the same page here, so there’s no knowledge differential at work. There is, however, still the nail-biting matter of whether or not the victim is going to survive. Let’s call this situation terror.
Let’s say that, after giving chase, the victim loses the monster. Temporarily, at least, there’s no monster in view, for either the victim or the viewer. Again, there is no knowledge gap here between the victim and the viewer, because both of them know that the monster exists, and both of them presume that the monster might return. As a result, this situation is different from that described in paranoia. Instead of the monster not being present at all, there’s an assumption that they’re lurking somewhere. The victim and viewer just have missing information—the same missing information. Let the jumping at shadows commence! Let’s call this situation apprehension. It’s usually a momentary palette-cleanser, and can easily slide back into suspense or terror.
With the generous help of my students, we now have handy diagrams describing various emotional responses, all based around knowledge gaps and the alignment and dis-alignment viewers and characters. Let’s see if we can put them to use! See if you can spot some or all of the following situations in a clip from Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (John Carl Buechler, USA, 1988).
(Note: Friday the 13th Part VII is not a particularly good movie. But, as I like to tell my students, sometimes it can be easier to learn from mediocre movies than great ones. When a director is stuck at the level of “competence,” unable to ascend to “artfulness,” it makes the tricks they are using a little bit easier to spot. In fact, I love this clip—it’s effectively scary, but just over-determined enough that you can see the gears working beneath the surface.)
“Projecting Yourself into That Experience”
Let’s return to the matter of games. Rouse is absolutely right: when we’re playing a videogame, there is actually something at stake for us, because we’re actually projecting ourselves into the experience. And this is great! It allows horror games to be visceral in a way that horror cinema rarely achieves.
But there’s a definite trade-off. Since we effectively are the onscreen character in a horror game, we lose the chance to shuffle through the subtle gradations of knowledge gaps that we listed above. Horror games tend to be somewhat more monotonous in their emotional palette than horror movies, because they can really only offer two situations: terror (when the monster is onscreen and attacking us), and apprehension (whenever it’s offscreen).
There’s a trade-off in visual language, as well. In slasher cinema in the wake of Halloween, having the camera follow close behind the character became a surefire way to inspired paranoia and dread in an audience, in its subtle insinuation that the character was being stalked. (You can see this amply on display in the Friday the 13th clip above.) In a third-person horror game such as Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005), however, following close behind the player-character is just what the camera does, at all times. There’s no chance for varying up point-of-view, and no chance to actually leverage visual style to create tension.
Students are quick to notice this limitation if you show them bits of Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), or The Thing (Computer Artworks, 2002). I, however, like to show them something more interesting and experimental: a Siren game.
Siren is a franchise by Project Siren, which includes some former members of “Team Silent,” the development team that created the first four Silent Hill games. Its conceit is unusual. Players are frequently unarmed during its levels. Even when weapons are available, enemies can’t be killed. (They can be stunned for a few minutes, but they get back up again.). This means that stealth is an absolute necessity. Players must learn the distinct “patrol routes” of its enemies—zombie-like possessed humans known as shibito—and avoid them as best as possible. To facilitate this, the game allows players to “sight jack” enemies—that is, temporarily see the game from their eyes, as they shuffle through the areas the player must traverse. As a reference, here’s what that looks like in Siren: Blood Curse (Project Siren, 2008), the most recent (and, at this point, probably final) game in the franchise, and the one I have students play in-class:
In the original Siren (Project Siren, 2003), sight-jacking an enemy required players to temporarily give up the movement controls of their character. This led to the terrifying prospect that players may realize that an enemy had snuck up on their character only when they saw their character, immobilized and out of their control, from the enemy’s point-of-view. In offering this trade-off between character control and a non-egocentric point-of-view, Siren achieves what no horror videogame had previously been able to do. A momentary gap opens up between the player’s knowledge and the player-character’s ability to act, and it became possible to witness one’s own player-character being stalked from behind. Project Siren had discovered how to re-create Neale’s “system that threatens” in game form.
Siren: Blood Curse scales back somewhat on the unusualness of the original Siren game, in order to be more conventionally “playable.” In Blood Curse, players are now still able to see their character, and move their character, even as they jack into enemies’ lines of sight. The gap between player and player-character is, therefore, not as pronounced. As you can see below, however, there is still ample potential to see your character as viewed through the predatory gaze of a monster.
From here, I open discussion up, and ask for student impressions on the successfulness of Siren: Blood Curse. It is a difficult and often frustrating game, but it demonstrates well in small doses, and students are usually impressed by its potential. Students in the past have pointed out how, once players have experienced the first-person point-of-view of the shibito, it can be a terrifying shock to finally see them onscreen next to one’s player-character, a threatening view finally made manifest as a body capable of real violence. Others have noted that the game does an especially good job of the “will the monster find the hiding victim?” mode of suspense, given that, as seen in the first clip embedded in this post, players become privy to an unusually specific amount of information about the monster’s search.
What do you think? Does it work? Or does cinema still have the upper-hand in this area?
[ii]. Bissell, Tom. “Headshots.” In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. New York: Vintage Books, 2011. Pg 26. (Both times I taught this particular lesson, this had been included as course reading earlier in the term.)
[iii]. Taylor, Laurie N. “Gothic Bloodlines in Survival Horror Gaming.” In Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play. Edited by Bernard Perron. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & co., 2009. Pg 20. (This was assigned reading for the week when I taught this at U Chicago.)
[iv]. Neale, Steve. “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look.” In Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984. Pg 337. (Both times I taught this particular lesson, this was assigned reading for the week.)
[v]. Neale, Steve. “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look,” pp 337-338.
[vi]. Neale, Steve. Neale, Steve. “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look,” pg 340.
[vii]. Neale, Steve. Neale, Steve. “Halloween: Suspense, Aggression and the Look,” pg 341.
[viii]. For a wonderful examination of how slasher killers’ visible bodies are their most vulnerable element, and how they gain their power by lurking invisibly (and seemingly intangibly) outside of the frame, see Hart, Adam, “Something to be Afraid of: Placing Threats in Horror Film,” PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 2013.
[ix]. Truffaut, Françoise, with Helen G. Scott. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. Pg 73.