Fear of the Unknown: a Closer Look at why Fear is so Lucrative

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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Intro: For decades, even centuries, people have sought the rush of adrenaline that comes from fear and anxiety. It’s an integral part of most forms of media, including high-budget horror movies like The Shining and Friday the 13th, as well as cult classics like It Follows and The Blair Witch Project. These terrifying moments are often well-executed and successfully create a sense of horror and dread within the viewers. However, there is one aspect of this feeling that movies simply cannot fulfill: empathy.

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Although well-directed and acted movies can help the viewer identify with the characters, they are just that—characters. The viewer simply cannot fully put themselves into the shoes of the actor because they have no influence on events that transpire. This is where video games step in.

Unlike movies, the viewer directly influences the events in video games and is, therefore, better able to put themselves into the shoes of the characters. Outlast and Outlast 2 are both particularly well-suited to deliver this experience, and are the games I will be analyzing in this essay. Particularly, their use of disempowerment and setting to induce a sense of dread in the player, as well as the science behind why we enjoy being scared. For this essay, I will be focusing on the original; however, I will mention the sequel occasionally. Background: Outlast was created by developer Red Barrels on September 4th for PC, and still has an incredibly active community five years later. Outlast 2 was created by the same developer and was released on April 25, 2017. While both games were very successful, Outlast was far more successful – it was purchased by 2-5 million players on Steam, the leading game store on PC. Outlast 2 sold roughly 1 million as of the beginning of 2018, according to the game’s senior game designer, Phillipe Morin, who stated, “We’re getting close to 1 million units sold, so yes, we are happy.” While the sequel was not received as well as the first, it was still a huge success for a small independent developer who has only produced these two games, as well as an expansion to the first game, titled Whistleblower.

Outlast is “a tense, brutal trek” in which you will “be terrified as you discover the horrors that reside within Mount Massive Asylum,” according to IGN, which generally judges horror games quite harshly. Outlast 2 was considered less imaginative than the original and was generally reviewed less favorably, but it has still done fairly well in its two-year lifespan. Part of the appeal of these games is one of the most important aspects of horror: their unique settings. Both Outlast and its sequel take place in very remote places, far removed from any help. While this seems like a fairly cheap way to suspend disbelief about a story with large horrific monsters and loud noises, it’s much more complex than that. It does explain why you can’t get help, but it also helps build tension. In the first game, you visit an abandoned insane asylum in the middle of nowhere, which starts to make the player wonder about what could have happened in this place.

It’s so far removed from society, so what kind of things were happening here? What kind of experiments were taking place in this location that would warrant such remoteness? This question is posed due to xenophobia, fear of the unknown, an almost ubiquitous fear. As the player contemplates these questions, they start to feel more and more unnerved by the prospect of visiting this place. Eventually, they forget about the big, hulking monster that is chasing them and start to wonder about what else is in this place. They soon learn that the beast is the least of their worries. Another component of this xenophobia is the patients within the asylum. While most horror games ensure the only other characters one meets are hunting the player, Outlast takes a different approach. Throughout the asylum, there are patients, most of whom are either already deceased or simply ignore the player, in an almost vegetative state. About five minutes into the game, in the first room one enters, there is a group of patients who are all gathered around a TV. While this scene might sound innocent, the television is merely showing static. This odd occurrence makes the player wary of these patients.

They know it’s a horror game, so most try to avoid interacting with characters and sneak by, but in reality, these patients aren’t going to hurt you or even acknowledge your existence. Once the player realizes this, they start to lower their guard and continue their journey, almost immediately being scared by one of various possible events that follow shortly after. The player does not know who is friend or foe, who is trying to kill them or is just watching their favorite TV program, which might just happen to be static. At one point in the game, the player is walking down a fairly dark hallway filled with patients either just staring at the wall or lying on the ground. Towards the end of the hallway, there is a patient who is sitting in a wheelchair but is not paying attention to the character at all. The player likely does not even notice this character at first because they have passed by several patients who have ignored them, however this one does not. Once you walk near him, he lunges out of the wheelchair and tackles you, yelling in no discernible language, only to sprint away into the crowd, disappearing. One patient looks over at the character and immediately returns to his original state. While this does work well as a jump scare, it is also a very effective way of making sure the player is always on their guard.

Later, you walk through that same hallway again, and if you approach the character who tackled you, he curls into the fetal position, begging you not to hurt him. When I first played through this section, I simply thought it was a funny moment, and even a little fulfilling, as this character genuinely scared me and I thought that he deserved it. But after thinking about it, my opinion shifted. It made me realize that the patients aren’t trying to hurt you, they’re simply defending themselves. This gives the player a brief respite from the thriller aspect of the game and starts to bring back the psychological horror aspect of the game. Are you really the good guy? All you do is try to save yourself, and at several spots, you endanger others so that you can survive. What could have been so bad that these patients are terrified of anything and everything that comes near them?

This comes full circle back to the fear of what this asylum could be doing since it is so far removed from society. Because of this fear, you feel out of place; you don’t belong in this area and have no real ways of defending yourself in case someone wants to make that clear by hunting you down. This fear leads to my next point: disempowerment. Disempowerment was a major focus in my previous essay on the horror of Subnautica and returns due to its importance. Simply put, disempowerment is the act of taking power away from someone – in this case, leaving the player capable of only two actions: running and hiding. This is where Outlast and its sequel excel. Most players are used to games where there are either few, or no threats, or the player is able to overcome any threat in their way. However, in Outlast this is simply not possible. There are no guns, no weapons whatsoever, and your character can’t fight their way out of any of the extreme situations they find themselves in.

You play as a reporter visiting an abandoned asylum, trying to uncover the dark subplots that slowly unravel as you run, hide, and record your journey. The second game has a similar premise: you start the game in a helicopter which, as everyone knows, always ends well in games. The helicopter crashes while you’re filming a news story in the area. In both games, you’re left with nothing but a recorder that requires batteries to use its night vision mode. As you explore, you start to feel a little better equipped, stocking up on those life-saving batteries, getting a lay of the land, reading documents to help you understand the environment. The game wants you to feel this sense of relief—just so it can crush it as quickly as possible. “Outlast” lives up to its title; the aim is simply to survive long enough to escape. There’s no need to defeat the villain or save the damsel in distress. The primary goal is survival. So, why do people spend money on a game that seems so cruel? Why would you pay to suffer and probably quit in pure rage several times? That’s an excellent question and has roots not in the world of entertainment, but in biology and biochemistry.

The Science: While devoting an entire section of a video game analysis to the biology of your brain may seem odd, there is a reason for it. What we enjoy, what we fear, what we love – it all starts in the brain. The amygdala, a small pea-sized part of our brain, is to blame for those times when you see a puppy and swoon, when you see that boy or girl and your heart stops, or when you walk into a pitch-black room and throw your game controller because a dead body falls from the roof in Outlast. All of these instances have one thing in common: our brain sends information to the hippocampus, which processes that information, and sends it to the amygdala, which determines whether you should approach or flee from the stimulus. This is admittedly a gross oversimplification, but it paints a picture. Essentially, your amygdala controls your emotions by releasing chemicals into your body that correspond to what generations of natural selection have ingrained in your brain.

So, how does this explain why we enjoy fear? Well, that is due to the specific chemical your brain releases when you are scared: adrenaline. This chemical is released when you are scared or excited. For example, if you see someone with a weapon or if you are having fun playing a sport. This overlap is a big reason why people seek the thrill of horror. Adrenaline can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and lung capacity, among other effects, essentially preparing your body for the worst. When you get this adrenaline rush, you essentially turn into a jittery superhero for a few minutes, which is why so many people enjoy the feeling. Your brain processes information faster, and your body becomes stronger and faster in an attempt to ensure your survival. In the case of Outlast, adrenaline does the same thing. Because your brain processes information faster and your pupils dilate to take in more information, you react to threats quicker.

This gives many players immense satisfaction: being able to escape something that they previously could not. This rush of adrenaline is far more important in games than movies. When you watch a genuinely scary movie, you still get that rush of adrenaline, but you can’t do anything to release it. This is part of the reason most people feel as if they’ve just had a few too many shots of espresso after experiencing scary moments in movies. Your body releases this chemical to prepare you for the fight-or-flight response, but you can’t do anything other than keep watching the movie. This is in stark contrast with games where, once your body has released adrenaline, you immediately begin to respond to the threat. Your body also slowly releases serotonin as the adrenaline begins to fade – a way of rewarding you for surviving. This chemical, responsible for feelings of pleasure or joy, is why you get that sense of satisfaction after escaping something in a horror game. Your body doesn’t release this chemical while watching horror movies because you have not engaged the fight-or-flight response.

The adrenaline sits in your bloodstream and does not actually get released for several minutes; afterward, it slowly fades away. In conclusion: Why do people enjoy horror? It all boils down to your brain and biology. Games like Outlast are capable of tricking your brain into perceiving a threat, releasing chemicals that essentially morph you into an overly caffeinated superhero. They then promptly release a subsequent chemical that generates a feeling of joy after surmounting the threat. Outlast and its sequel have perfected the craft of using your inherent biology to reward you for participating, rather than leaning on in-game accolades. Outlast doesn’t need to instruct you to survive, or reward you for doing so, because countless generations of natural selection and evolution have already completed the work for it. And games like Outlast benefit significantly from this. Through Outlast’s effective use of setting and disempowerment, it communicates the identical emotions one experiences in actual stressful situations, therefore your body reacts identically. So, why do we delight in horror? It’s all rooted in science.

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Fear of the Unknown: A Closer Look at Why Fear is so Lucrative. (2022, Aug 18). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/fear-of-the-unknown-a-closer-look-at-why-fear-is-so-lucrative/