Why do we like scary entertainment? Psychologists have come up with a number of theories, including a need for catharsis, a curiosity for abnormal behavior, and a heightened sense of empathy for protagonists when they triumph over something evil. As someone whose adolescence was marked by a steady diet of Stephen King novels, I think our attraction to distractions that frighten us has something to do with coping with real-world horrors.
When you experience a scary movie or book, you’re exercising your human capacity for fear within the confines of a safe environment. Part of you is frightened, but part of you knows you’re not actually in danger. This dissonance between perceived and actual danger is pleasing.
Last night as I was drifting off to sleep I had that common experience of being briefly jolted awake with the sensation that I was falling. Maybe this is some kind of inherited primal reflex to train us primates to not fall out of the trees we’re sleeping in. I’ve never really given it much thought. But last night I noticed that right after I got this temporary fright, I experienced a rush of biochemical calm. Maybe, I thought as I conked out, my brain produced this jolt in order to flood my bloodstream with chemicals that made it easier to sleep.
Maybe scary entertainment trains us to function instead of freezing up when something scary happens in real life. Maybe catharsis helps us believe that a peaceful state exists on the other side of a frightening experience. Could this be the ultimate purpose of horror movies? To teach us, in essence, how to endure our fears in order to not let them get the best of us?
The emergence of VR has featured a number of scary experiences that frighten us in ways we’re not used to. I’ve gotten serious willies playing the Brookhaven Experiment, a zombie shooter game on the Vive. Arcadia Flats, a 360 werewolf thriller from Mechanical Dreams, directed by Joe Jacobs, included a scene shot from the inside of a car that made me jump.
Artistic expressions of horror and terror, in any medium that’s brand new, exploit the lag in our understanding of that medium in order to blur the line between apparent and real danger. The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out of millions of people (yours truly included), in part because it was situated in a cinema verite loophole–we bring an expectation that what we see filmed with “amateur” production values is more real.
When we talk about whether or not VR “should” scare us as much as it sometimes does, it’s useful to remember that the movie Psycho scared audiences into avoiding showering. When you revisit any 1980s slasher flick today, you’re likely to notice the crummy (by today’s standards) special effects. We seem to go through a process with horror entertainment, first getting scared pantsless, then warming up to the conventions of the medium (which explains the popularity of the Scary Movie franchise and meta-horror like The Cabin in the Woods), and, finally, relegating these experiences to the realm of schlock or camp. What was once scary can even become funny over time, a sure sign that a fear has been conquered.
VR horror has come along precisely at a time when we need to be scared. I’d argue that exercising our capacity to endure fear is vital at the moment we slide into the presidency of a man who is an expert at exploiting fear to his advantage. I’d go further to argue that it is our moral obligation, as creators of VR experiences, to push the medium as far as possible into the realm of terrors heretofore unimaginable. We need the tools to persevere through our fears. It’s good to remind ourselves that no VR creator can make an experience that’s nearly as scary as being a Muslim, an LGBT person, or the child of an undocumented immigrant in America in 2016. For some of us, it’s always possible to just take off the headset when things get too scary.