A Slice of Psychology – The Horror Genre

Are humans scary? That’s simply a question about humans: the anatomy and behaviour of Homo sapiens, not a question meant to provoke thought about our actions on a grand scale. Treat it as it is and mull over it for a second: “Are humans scary?” We see humans every day of our lives. Even those who dread making prolonged eye contact with strangers commuting- No, even if a person doesn’t leave their home, what about a mirror? A video? Or perhaps a reflection of themselves on the screen? Note the last three examples in particular. Those situations detach most relevant interaction that anxiety would stem from. The mirror, the video, and the reflection simply present the structure, the form, of a person. It’s highly improbable to go a day without seeing a human and the layperson isn’t inherently afraid of the human form so the answer to the initial question seems clear enough. So, what happens when you watch this:

Once the game transitions from a cutscene rendered in-game to full-motion video, the atmosphere changes instantly. Compared to today’s standards combined with a time where photorealism is so popular, perhaps some may find it low quality. Nevertheless, there’s an eeriness to it. Maria’s anatomy is that of a human, undisputedly so. She has two eyes, two ears, a mouth, a nose, eyebrows, limbs, etc. all where they belong. Everything is in place, but it’s wrong. Not wrong to the extent that it’s comedic or looks “buggy”, it’s only slightly off the mark. The facial animations are the culprit, the face acting more like a mask than usual. It tries to wear the correct emotions, but the transitions are either too slow, too quick, or nonexistent. The audio seems to drag slightly and it seems out of sync. It’s unsettling, but why? Why don’t we recognize it as it is, an FMV with nuanced cracks in the presentation? 

Let’s look at another game called PT, a title that has etched itself into the annals of horror video game history, despite it only being a piece of a bigger picture. In the game, your character initially enters a doorway and wanders a well-lit hall. There’s nothing to do. For a while, you can barely interact. The bathroom door is locked. The front door is too. Despite the windows and glass allowing you to peak outwards into the night, there’s no escape. Would anything be out there for you anyway? There’s one more door down a set of stairs, lit only by a hanging bulb. You approach it and low and behold it opens- to the same hall you just left. As you continue this loop, eternally descending downwards, everything starts to change. A banging on the bathroom walls, a light swinging to and fro, darkness encroaching on the house, and staggered steps behind you, cut only by a dragging sound. You know what that sound is, from whom it comes from. You’ve seen her already.

Lisa is perfect. The sounds she makes, a mixture of raspy breathing, moans, and groans, are all distorted with a strange filter. She shares the same anatomy as a humanoid, but her stance and posture is odd. The way she moves is completely inhuman, shifting about in place erratically causing motion blur implying a speed at which the human eye can’t keep up. This movement is despite her already deceased appearance which you see when she grabs you; however, most of the time she’s surrounded by darkness. This creates a brilliant contrast of being swathed in darkness to the deathly pale skin seen in the light. The light reveals a reality better left well alone. The dark causes you to be unable to discern any facial features, almost dehumanizing her. The FMV had a similar effect with the lighting being above the characters, casting deep shadows on the eyes and eye sockets. Those eyes in the darkness are almost reminiscent of the predators which sought to hunt the human population at night, or perhaps it’s more akin to the light of an angler fish.

PT presents Lisa in a horrifying light, what with the jumpscares and noises, not limited to subtle clues or purely ambiance like in the shown Silent Hill 2 cutscene. I would posit in this instance then that PT is more horrifying than what I would describe as creepy. Yet, these have all been descriptions of what has happened. It has yet to touch on why these events are scary. Jumpscares are one thing, but why exactly does the erratic movement cause our hearts to beat so fast? And why have a good handful of monsters in fiction taken up a human-like appearance anyway?

If you’ve been to this site before, you may know what’s coming next. Today, I have for you a paper titled Uncanny Behaviour in Survival Horror Games, written by Tinwell et al. in 2010. If you have access to the full paper I encourage you to read it as it’s written quite well, certainly less boring than the usual research paper. I’ll be summarizing the participants involved, the experiment method, and the conclusions. If you’d like to skip this summary, scroll to the Header below titled [Conclusions].


The following is the Abstract for the paper:

“This study investigates the relationship between the perceived strangeness of a virtual character and the perception of human likeness for some attributes of motion and sound. Participants (N=100) were asked to rate thirteen video clips of twelve different virtual characters and one human. The results indicate that attributes of motion and sound do exaggerate the uncanny phenomenon and how frightening that character is perceived to be. Strong correlations were identified for the perceived strangeness of a character with how human-like a character’s voice sounded, how human-like the facial expression appeared and how synchronized the character’s sound was with lip movement; characters rated as the least synchronized were perceived to be the most frightening. Based on the results of this study, this article seeks to define an initial set of hypotheses for the fear-evoking aspects of character facial rendering and vocalization in survival horror games that can be used by game designers seeking to increase the fear factor in the genre, and that will form the basis of further experiments, which, it is hoped, will lead to a conceptual framework for the uncanny.”

The majority of these people were students, but not exclusively as an untold number of “professionals working within the academic sector and video game industry” also contributed to the total 100 (p. 10). Moreover, these charts don’t necessarily denote that those in the 18-24 age bracket all have advanced experience in video games. That said, they are very similar…

(These numbers can be treated as percentages, e.g. 83%, given that the total number of participants were 100; however, I won’t be doing so in this article save graphs. Additionally, I don’t know how they measured player experience. Likely participants were asked to self-assess themselves in a short survey, though whether this took place before or after the experiment I don’t know.)

As for the experiment itself, as was described in the Abstract, participants were shown thirteen video clips of these characters from the following media, as well as a real human (p. 11):

  1. Emily Project (2008)
  2. Warrior (2008)
  3. Mary Smith – The Casting (2006)
  4. Alex Sheperd – Silent Hill Homecoming (2008)
  5. Louis – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  6. Francis – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  7. The Smoker – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  8. The Infected – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  9. The Tank – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  10. The Witch – Left 4 Dead (2008)
  11. Lillien – a Chatbot character (2006)
  12. “[A] realistic human-like zombie” – Alone in the Dark (2009)
  13. A real human

I make a point of specifically identifying everything the participants reacted to because I want you to pay attention to both the release date and choices of characters/games. They’re interesting choices to be sure, especially considering that Left 4 Dead, a game with a slightly cartoony art style, makes the bulk of the list. Ultimately though, without being able to view the same clips as the participants, I can only make surface remarks about it. Everyone who has seen SFM videos knows that the quality and depth varies wildly depending on the creator. 

After viewing these video clips, participants were asked via an online questionnaire questions involving the strangeness, familiarity, and how human-like characters looked and sounded. Importantly, a question was included about the facial expressions of the characters, asking which part of the face showed either a lack or exaggeration of emotion. Two other important questions were about how synced the audio was with the character and a question about the qualities (tone, pitch, speed, etc.) of the voice (p. 11).


From the results found, there were four main conclusions (p. 21):

  1. “Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of human likeness of the facial expression. 
  2. Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of human likeness of the character’s voice. 
  3. Uncanniness increases strongly with increasing exaggeration of articulation of the mouth during speech, and this relationship is of more significance than that between uncanniness and middle and upper facial expression. 
  4. Uncanniness increases with increasing perceptions of lack of synchronization between the character’s lips and the character’s voice.”

reviewing and reflecting

Upon reviewing the Silent Hill 2 FMV, we can see that both points 3 and 4 apply. Connected between them is a focus on the mouth and lips rather than other options participants could choose such as the eyes or forehead. I believe this was a fairly easy assumption to make, but it’s best to know there is research that affirms the opinion; however, what of the other questions posed? I suppose the uncanny valley can answer a few of them, especially in Silent Hill 2, but what of the erratic movement in PT? You could sweep that under the rug and attribute it to the uncanny valley as well- I don’t think that’s wrong, although it could also be a result of what I talked about before: a biological response to potential danger. See this short article on spiders for a quick and dirty explanation.

Mathias Clasen’s paper titled Monsters Evolve: A Biocultural Approach to Horror Stories, published in 2012, explains that horror fiction should be viewed from both a constructionist ontology and positivist epistemology POV. He makes the case of our jumpy attitude to sound or movement to be the result of a hardwired response to threat. Even if the modern example which causes such a reaction is fictional, it’s likely we still react as older humans who did so were more likely to survive: natural selection (p. 223). Yet, he also affirms that a fear of  monsters such as zombies can also stem from a sociological response, e,g., the manifestation of a fear of consumerism of cold war anxiety, and a biological response, e.g., “infectious agents” that can spread violently (p. 225).

In summary, due to the initial familiarity we feel towards something, should it begin to act or move strangely, that uncanny feeling is even more pronounced. Specifically the articulation of the mouth, as well as the sync between the voice and lips, provides a great deal of uncomfortableness to the viewer. Other actions such as erratic movement could be a result of an ingrained attentiveness, developed early on by humans and cultivated by natural selection, in order to survive a potentially life-threatening scenario. And so many monsters are human because they’re precisely what we know and become exactly what we don’t. Does that sound weird? Well, look in the mirror. Yes, really.

Giovanni B Caputo published a paper titled Strange-face-in-the-mirror Illusion in 2010. In it, he describes the phenomenon of staring at a mirror in a dimly lit room, only to begin to see one of a spread of things. In his experiment, the two most common reports by participants for what they saw were either their own distorted face, or what were generally described as “fantastical and[/or] monstrous beings” (p. 1007). Before, a similar distortion effect, the flashed face distortion effect (FFDE), would occur when a person would be presented with two cycling faces in their periphery. When attention was focused on the middle ground between them, the faces in the periphery appeared to change and were registered as distorted and maligned. There are many videos on YouTube for you to do this yourself. Here’s one of them:

This doesn’t explain the mirror illusion however. Some such as Maclen Stanley cite the Troxler Effect as the culprit. You can read his article here. I would highly recommend this article as well on the Scientific American. The most interesting part is the inclusion of images taken from a research paper where Caputo replicated his study under different conditions. Instead of a participant looking at themselves in a mirror, two participants stared at each other in dim light. Given that some participants were artists, they were able to reproduce what they saw. With the knowledge that this illusion isn’t isolated to mirrors, it makes me wonder if the strangeness of paintings, typically portraits, aren’t a symptom of this or a similar effect.

Principally, for games in a 3D landscape, dynamic lighting would theoretically be the easiest thing to experiment with. Casting shadows on character models from different angles and playing with perspective are a good route to go and I believe this is understood. For games that are 2D such as most visual novels, there’s the option of playing with lighting as well. Although, depending on the artist(s), their workload, and intended release dates, I’d generally opt to focus my attention on voice acting and sound design. Lip sync is of course unnecessary, therefore the ability to direct your voice actors to change their tone, pitch, and cadence are important. It would also be interesting to play around with the sound artificially. I highly suggest this not be done standalone as it may just come across as clumsy and amateur, so a combined focus on the soundscape is necessary.

I don’t refer to just music, but the ambient sounds when the music clears. Faint breathing under the crashing of rain, barely audible to those who pay attention. Utilizing directional audio to mimic passing movement behind the player. In cases, I would even justify asymmetry between what the player and player-controlled character experience; e.g., audibly- whispers directed at the player/whispers unheard by the character in-game. Visually- the appearance of something in the distance, not overtly making itself known but not hiding itself either, yet no comment of it is made. In any case, I leave it up to you, the reader, to perhaps try and implement some of these tricks in whatever products you create. 

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