One of 2017’s most controversial games was derided for its gore – but is our interest in the disgusting such a new phenomenon?
Under the woeful glare of a full moon, rotting cottages, black lakes and rustling cornfields await the unlucky player in the hell of survival horror game Outlast 2 (2017). You play a stranded photojournalist, navigating yourself amid the psychos and jumpscares planted like booby traps in the wilderness whilst suffering increasingly traumatic flashbacks. Initially banned in Australia, the game has an unbelievably high level of gore and critics were lukewarm towards such over-the-top gruesomeness.
To an extent these critics are right. Indeed, the game verges on ludicrous with its constant supply of limb-chopping, eye-gouging, penis-castrating, Antichrist-birthing and so on. It is excessive, abominable, and repetitive. Yet I do like Outlast 2. The soundtrack is exemplary, and the game accomplishes the job of a survival horror—it scares the shit out of you. This is sometimes even linked to the gore, heightening the threat of violence in the game to such a level it’s like another character in the room (to paraphrase Tarantino). Moreover I enjoy the fear I get from it. Every step the player takes is like turning the page of a Gothic novel. There is an irresistible uncertainty to it, yet one which is safe, contained within the fiction of the game.
This idea of ‘safe’ fear may be one of the core reasons why Outlast has such a dedicated fanbase, but also why some of us enjoy fictional violence in general. ‘”People like to be scared, but there is scared, and there is “scared””’ (CNN, quoted by Jen Christensen) says Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychological professor of Utrecht University, Netherlands. Being ‘”frightened in a movie or play that is designed that way”’ almost gives us a frame in which to exert our desire to let go, surrender to fear.
Our hypothalamus is triggered in activating the flight-or-flight response, but then suddenly transforms into an ‘excitation transfer’ (Tricia Hussung, Concordia St Paul Blog), where such fears are soon replaced with a flood of dopamine as the scary moment passes, and the fear dies away. So we like that rise and fall, within the aforementioned frame of fictionality.
However, if such scary images slipped into real life, this would trouble ‘the border of what is unpleasant and threatening and may be violent’, losing that excitation transfer. In short, thus, we like experiencing thrills—so long as they’re the ones in the cage.
Even the popular market of buckets-of-blood horror like Outlast 2 may have an instinctive origin. Scientists have broadly agreed that, when confronted with a particularly disgusting image, something within us switches on and cannot look away. It is potentially related to our desire as a species to survive, to be aware of danger—’if you are shown a photo of a snake and a flower, your brain typically perceives the snake first. That instinct kept our ancestors alive’ (Jen Christensen, CNN). It is almost as if we are transferring unconscious concerns of our own lives onto these fictional images, despite knowing they are safe and unreal.
I also believe, after studying English Literature for nearly three years at Queen Mary, that such fascination and revelry towards the visceral is no new phenomenon. My dissertation, for instance, exploring medieval depictions of Judas Iscariot, discusses a text where Judas recalls his tortures in eye-wateringly explicit detail. For some reason it reminded me of a scene in Outlast 2 where a man with ‘JUDAS’ carved into his chest is tortured, also in eye-wateringly explicit detail. If one reads medieval Passion lyric, there is clear obsession towards the unsavoury injury of Christ, keeping him in that damaged, human state.
And of course, in the 19th century such a fascination blooms with works like Frankenstein, where Frankenstein collects body parts from graves that he sews together to create his monster. Or a cherished favourite of mine, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where one character, I’ll never forget, is left coiled and mangled after Mr Hyde’s dealt with him. Such pieces also vitally contain a psychological undercurrent of the unconscious savagery within every human, imagining the fantasies of something imprisoned, something that longs.
This psychological impulse, to me, is what truly defines horror. In Outlast 2 there is a monster called the ‘Inner Demon’ that swells in Blake’s flashbacks. Its has flaking skin and spiralling arms and rabid eyes and an unending, snakelike tongue. The monster troubled me a while—and because I was too scared to watch the game I imagined it instead.
But when I finally watched the creature in all its glory, it was nowhere near as terrifying as I imagined. It was then I realised, completely, that good pure horror, like those Gothic novels and even Judas’s story, hinges on the ability to slither into the mind and linger, to become part of the most eternal and private reality of ourselves.