I found some research notes from when I was concepting out a horror video game a few years ago. With a little bit of work, they are probably helpful to tabletop or LARP games as well.

To maintain a consistent terminology, the four levels of scare mentioned are:

  • Shock: A sudden or violent disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities
  • Fear: A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined
  • Terror: Intense, sharp, overmastering fear
  • Horror: An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear

In general, each of those scares is successively more appreciated and memorable.

Shock, or “Boo,” scares tend to release the current tension level, and may be considered cheap if they are not well executed. They are best used after ramping up the tension level, either to pay off the horror in the current situation, or to defuse it in order to bring in a new scare that the subject isn’t prepared for. For example, in the first use, a subject wandering through a room full of cadavers may suddenly have a zombie fall from the ceiling right in front of him, and give chase. In the second use, a subject wandering through the same room may see the body fall suddenly, but it’s just a corpse; however, while the subject was looking at the corpse, several of the cadavers sat up behind him and starting approaching.

Fear is that state that should be the base level of existence in the horror scenario. It is a proscriptive emotion; as long as the user can avoid the source of the fear, it is not especially intense. Fear is present when the subject is walking carefully, examining shadows, and opening doors slowly, prepared to run, but it is passive in these cases, simply building tension to be released later. Fear becomes a more active emotion when the subject is forced to choose between two unwelcome situations (e.g., venture into the dark room or stay in the hall waiting to find out what the increasingly loud growling sound is). Almost all situations in the scenario should be intending to at least minimally add to fear, preparing it to be unleashed into one of the other emotions.

Terror is mostly a completely active version of fear. The source of fear that has scared the subject is so great, that caution is abandoned in order to simply get away from the source of fear. Genuine terror is difficult to manufacture reliably, and will vary greatly from subject to subject. Individual phobias are probably the best triggers, and those are hard to use on an unknown subject (though it may be possible to create systems to figure out the user’s phobias in advance in order to trigger them later). The closest approximation to terror that may be reliably activated is certain death. A crushing ceiling, horde of zombies, or wave of vermin is likely to cause anyone to run, and it may invoke terror if enough fear has been built in advance.

Horror is supported by fear, but is largely different. Subjects can be horrified by something that they do not fear, and afraid of something that is not horrifying. Horror is best caused by situations completely out of the subject’s experience in a negative way; decomposing corpses, erratically moving zombies, and alien-looking creatures are all tried and true sources of horror. The best horror comes with the subject is allowed to use imagination rather than being shown; an opportunity to see something brings it further within the subject’s experience, and less horrible. The anticipation of something alien is often more horrifying than the horror itself. The elements of the scenario that are truly meant to cause horror should be given out in flashes and glimpses after being built up by text props, atmosphere, and noises. Only in extreme situations should they be seen long enough to quantify.

In general, within a horror scenario, the best scares will be accomplished by setting the user’s imagination against itself. The scares that the users will take away will be ones that wake them up in the middle of the night, or make them afraid to undertake previously unexceptional activities without leaving all the lights on. Years after Psycho, many people are still wary of letting their guards down completely in the shower. If one can accomplish a similar feat of making the ordinary seem dangerous, the scenario will be remembered and successful.

Scares

The following are based on common scares and phobias:

  • Acrophobia: A convincingly rendered virtual height can be almost as vertigo-inducing as in the real world. Traveling along a cliff or the edge of a tall building would inspire the fear of heights. Seemingly bottomless pits might be more or less effective.
  • Claustrophobia: Being in a tight place works very well in real haunted houses, and could work in a virtual one as well. Care would have to be taken to make the camera work correctly in third-person view.
  • Vermin-related Phobias: Insects, snakes, mice, and especially spiders can all be placed in the game as isolated objects or moving carpets of vermin. The X-Files trick of animating a roach crawling across the screen during these sequences is purely optional.
  • Autophobia and Nyctohylophobia: Being alone in the forest at night is a big fear for a surprising number of people. Again, this is something that is hard to replicate in a physical haunted attraction but no problem in a virtual world.
  • Brontophobia: This fear does not involve dinosaurs, it’s about thunder. A persistent external storm sound look with loud thunder crashes at significant moments could worry a large portion of the audience.
  • Trypanophobia: The fear of injections can be compounded with other piercing, painful items such as fishhooks and barbed wire. I’ve found my most successful scares in running RPGs involves a nightmare creature made of barbed wire and hooks with syringes for fangs.
  • Shock scares: Typically referred to as “boo” scares, all mediums make use of situations where the audience is suddenly accosted with loud noises and/or rapidly approaching threats. Care must be taken with these scares: if they are used with no build-up, they simply startle and seem cheap, while if they are used after build-up, they can deflate carefully built tension if done improperly.
  • Apparitions: In haunted houses, “haunted” would seem to be the operative word. Apparitions that move at the corners of vision or appear suddenly around corners then disappear can be very effective tensionbuilders or shock scares.
  • Frying Pan and Fire: A particularly fearsome scare pops up on one side, causing the user to run into an apparent escape route. Unfortunately, the escape route ends on an even scarier scene.
  • Static: A TV switches on to static, no matter how many times the user turns it off. Ultimately, this is a distraction from the real scare that is appearing behind the avatar.
  • Creepy Kids: Kids that don’t act like kids are scary. Spectral kids are even scarier.
  • The Uncanny Valley: Some of the most horrifying creatures are those that look and move almost, but not quite, like humans. Zombies, stutter-stepping ghosts, and twitching crazy people can all fall into this valley.
  • Creepy Dolls: An easy way to trigger the uncanny valley is with inhuman looking toys, particularly in partial lighting.
  • Torture Horrors: Many types of torture and murder involve mutilation. A quick road to horror is to show human bodies being mutilated in horrible and painful manners. Partial lighting with disgusting sound effects can make these tortures severely horrifying without involving full out disgusting images; the subject’s imagination can easily conceive of the pain of lacerations, bites, or contusions.
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