Finding Serenity In Darkness: The Potential of Horror Video Games

Finding Serenity In Darkness: The Potential of Horror Video Games

Author: Michael Pementel

*Author’s note: The experiences of this author do not represent every individual with depression, Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder, or other mental illnesses. The following is based on the author’s observations through these art forms, as well as their own personal experiences.

Growing up with depression and Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder, horror provided me adrenaline where I could escape and find peace away from my mental illness. For me, there has always been something comforting in exploring the dark and macabre rather than stew in my thoughts and anxieties.

I‘ve also always had a deep love for video games; as a child and teenager I devoured video games, it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago to pursue my writing career that I took a step back from gaming. During my time in college, however, I began to learn other healthy coping mechanisms for working through my mental illness; one of these mechanisms was through film and learning how to read into narratives for reflection. Whereas when I was a child and teenager, art was solely a means of entertainment, as an adult I was beginning to learn how to utilize art to further understand my internal workings.

In college I had the chance to watch people play video games; one period that still stands out clear in my mind was watching my friend play Bioshock Infinite. The game’s end caught me by surprise in its existential weight and emotion; a seed was planted that day that would develop into my current passion for video games.

When I graduated, I bought a PlayStation 4. As I began playing more and more games, similar to what had happened with film, I began to see that video games represented much more than entertainment. Over time, as I thought about my life thus far with mental illness, I started to consider the benefits of playing horror video games.

The horror genre provides a space for safe exploration; when watching a movie, for example, you not only have the screen as a distance between you and the action, but you also have the sense of knowing what you are taking in is a fantastical narrative. There’s a comforting, yet exhilarating balance in viewing werewolves, slashers, and ghosts from your couch; whether you are by yourself with a bowl of popcorn or with a loved one, the atmosphere of your space provides security.

Video games also offer all these elements, with the major exception of requiring participation. You engage with a film or novel, having to shift your visual focus and open to emotion, but with a game, you have to give of yourself more physically. Along with this physicality, your performance also offers a way to absorb the atmosphere of the game world, making a more immersive experience.

image of Silent Hill 2, man standing on foggy street

Take the famous Silent Hill 2 for example, a game known as one of the most exceptional horror games to ever be. Unlike the hundreds of other games that are full of jump scares and shocking gore, the majority of Silent Hill 2 relies on its disturbing, moody environment, as well as its difficult subject matter. The game primarily revolves around themes of depression, grief, abuse, and other existential ideas. Running around the town of Silent Hill 2, players are not always bombarded by enemies; instead, the game focuses more on its surroundings, and the player taking in the atmosphere. In a way, Silent Hill 2 is a very meditative experience in how its mood slowly drifts through the gameplay and the player’s senses. Given the game’s reflective qualities, it is a game where players have room to explore both its world and themselves.

These strengths are found in other horror titles such as Limbo and Amnesia, as well as titles that include horror elements (such as What Remains of Edith Finch and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice). These titles, while they may contain some moments of typical action gameplay, rely more on players soaking in the narrative, characters, and themes. Some of these games directly focus on topics surrounding mental health (Hellblade speaks to struggles of psychosis and depression, whereas What Remains of Edith Finch is a meditation on grief). And in other ways, titles like Limbo function more as a metaphor of facing grief.

Whereas the horror genre is a medium willing to face the taboos and fears of society, video games stand out given their immersive details; meshing these two art forms allows for a profound means of exposure therapy. Not only do you have to view something that may be challenging, but you also have the opportunity to work through it. In my own experiences, video games and horror continue to provide me strength in how I focus on my mental illness. Rather than linger on fear, I find myself wanting to face a challenge head-on and look for a resolution.

As an adult, I look to games to see what they offer for growth; that said, there are numerous games I still play just for the sake of entertainment (even these more emotionally intense games can be entertaining). And that is where the connection between horror and video games becomes more profound – taking an environment that allows one to explore obstacles and making it entertainment is a remarkable combination for developing internal strength.

Image from Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Close up of girl looking at camera over horizontal sword blade

One of the greatest horrors of mental illness is how it feels like an endless cycle; the agony of not knowing when anxiety or fear will strike, the pain of feeling trapped in a never-ending loop. The horror genre requires one to face fear; video games require one to meet challenges and move forward. As we move forward into the future, with technology like virtual reality continuing to evolve, we may begin to see games and the digital space become a more prominent means of helping those who suffer from mental illness.

The horror genre is also a reminder of what it means to live; when you think of the grief the characters of Silent Hill 2 endure, or the drive Senua displays throughout Hellblade in facing her numerous external and internal horrors, it is all a reminder of what one is capable of accomplishing. Taking on obstacles through digital avatars can represent the capability of facing struggles and living beyond suffering.

In playing horror video games, you have the chance to be not only the champion of the narrative that’s presented to you, but also the opportunity to face internal struggles. It is funny to consider the healing potential of such a dark and at times uncomfortable art form such as horror; but in working through those beginning stages of discomfort, there is a reward at the end. Video games offer accessibility for lots of folks to venture out and role play the hero they want to be; the beautiful thing about art, though, is that the power of stories and characters have always had an ability to influence us beyond the page, beyond the screen.

Fear is never a comfortable feeling; when you have something knocking you down like depression or Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder, sometimes it can feel impossible to move forward in life. It’s ironic that I found such a peace in horror, that the macabre has provided me a means of grounding myself in life. Gaming has also allowed me to see more beauty in the world; running around creepy locales and completing objectives has allowed me to see more of myself.

When I explore horrifying worlds, taking in their chilling presence and grotesque visuals, I don’t feel afraid. I know what I’ve had to go through in my life has been more challenging than any ghost or monster; I know the beings who stalk the halls of a digital game are nothing compared to the numerous days and nights I’ve cried. What I feel when I play these games is alive; I feel proud of how far I’ve come, my drive to move forward, and the horrors I’ve overcome.