A case against the most overused of all the horror game tropes: the jumpscare

Because there are usually better ways to scare the shit out of us

We’re barely two weeks into October and I’ve already had enough of Halloween. That’s not to say I’ve had enough of horror because that, my friends, is impossible. As a self-proclaimed Mistress of Darkness – think Morticia, but shorter, fatter, blonde and with none of her style or flair – I spend more than my fair share of the year soaking in the darkness, even after the doorstop pumpkins have rotted away. But I’ve just had enough of the holiday, and the endless parade of paint-by-number jumpscare simulators all clamouring for attention this time of year.

Does that sound unfair? Maybe I am being a touch unkind. I suppose a Morticia-in-training shouldn’t apologise for that, but it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm when my inbox is full of press releases foisting the same handful of recycled “terrifyingly good” yarns at me, games that use the same scares and tell the same story – albeit in slightly different ways.

Phasmophobia
Phasmophobia. Image: Kinetic Games

Phasmophobia? Phasmophobia is not one of these. A slick and genuinely unsettling – if occasionally janky – ghost adventure, the latest title to catch the attention of horror YouTubers has done so for all the right reasons. Layering a surprisingly sophisticated experience within real-life limitations – few things are more terrifying than seeing something otherworldly rise up between the washer and dryer of an otherwise unremarkable laundry room – it offers the occasional jump scare, yes, but it’s the world crafted around them that’s so incredibly well designed. The smudged fingerprint on a light switch. The angry, angular scrawl from a disembodied hand. The silent swing of a door opening by itself. A single word whispered into the static.

These are the things that really mess me up; the small, missable, perhaps seemingly inconsequential touches that build a whole so much greater than its disparate elements, perhaps because the medium historically delivered games that implied far more than they showed. Of course, this is due, in part, to the limitations of the medium at the time – Silent Hill’s iconic fog exists not just to shroud the player with uncertainty, but also to disguise its truncated draw distance – but also because what happens in our heads is often significantly more distressing than anything an SFX master can convey on screen.

Unlike film, there’s no option in games to hide behind tented fingers until the scary bits are over. You can’t poke your head out when the screams have stopped. There’s an agency in gaming that you simply don’t get anywhere else. Video games anchor you tightly to the character and the world around them, unsure if the flicker in the corner of your eye was a trick of the light or something more sinister. But as the industry matures and evolves its graphics, narrative and sound design, it feels like we’re moving away from these gentle, atmospheric psychological horrors and nudging ever closer to Ring-esque, PT-esque jumpscares.

Oh, PT How you lie at the centre of all that is right – and wrong – about contemporary video game horror.

PT
PT. Credit: Kojima Productions

And look, it’s not because I’m numb to jumpscares. Between us, I’m that rare horror aficionado that plays a disproportionate number of spooky games and yet inexplicably cannot be desensitised to them. It doesn’t matter that I grew up on a (wholly inappropriate, of course) diet of ’80s slasher movies that sowed the seeds of my lifelong fear of clowns. It doesn’t matter that I will play pretty much any horror game going. I will still shriek at the jumpscares. I will still scream an expletive and yes, I will still involuntarily scrunch my entire body into a tiny ball during tense cut-scenes. But it’s such a cheap – and predictable – way to frighten us. Because, while we might not know the particulars, we do know it’s coming… and forewarned is forearmed.

There will always be a place for games that gross us out with body horror and delightfully terrifying misdirection, but they’re capable of so much more than that, too. It doesn’t always have to be about demons and scuttling old dears, boss fights and tedious stealth sections. Games like SOMA and Layers Of Fear prove that horror doesn’t always have to be noisy and obnoxious. Layered slowly and discreetly, it can surreptitiously build a scaffold of fear around a player without them even knowing until it’s too late. It can subvert every expectation until they’re standing outside a door and they have no idea why they’re too afraid to open it.

You can keep your jumpscares and boss fights – these are the kinds of games I’m looking to terrify me this Halloween.

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