Survival Horror: How the Sublime in Resident Evil Shapes Immersion

by Keith Jackson

Imagine a cool and breezy autumn night. The bare branches of trees tap against the window, playing with your senses and making you feel like someone is watching. You and your friend sit nervously in a dark room, alone and bored. Your friend suggests playing the game you rented from the local Family Video, but you’re hesitant. The game that you chose is Resident Evil, a video game filled with such grotesque and persistent horror that you may fear leaving the volume on. Your friend, not offering to helm the controller, is your only source of courage. The game boots, and the infamous title Welcome to the world of survival horror, in bloody red, flashes. Your heart drops. The game loads and the eerie music, consisting of random thuds on a piano and ambient noise nothing shy of uncanny, pours into the dark living room.

You’ve just entered the world of survival horror.

Resident Evil came out in 1996 but has since been re-released in special editions and remasters. I revisited Resident Evil recently, not just to look at the game a source of entertainment – though much was had – but rather to analyze the game for its merits and how it stacks up against Edmund Burke’s ideas on the sublime.  Burke defines the sublime as “a state of astonishment with some degree of horror” (53). Video games offer a new way of experiencing fright and, through immersion, can potentially create an even greater sense of fear than movies and television do. What Resident Evil does very well is create a sense of both internal and external obscurity, characteristics that are necessary to the sublime (54).  

 In Resident Evil, you do not quite know what awaits you in the next room. Will it be more zombies limping around, groaning and absorbing every bullet? Be sure to burn their bodies, purging them of the virus, or they’ll rise again stronger and faster. Maybe zombie dogs lie in wait? Mutated frogs and nearly God-like super beings, mutilated by biochemistry to kill all uninfected – these are what you hope isn’t beyond the next door. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke says that obscurity comes in two forms – one that is internal, or the imagination, and one that is external (54). Both add to the experience of the game and both add to the terror.

Externally, the player can’t see what is happening onscreen. As Burke explains, “when we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of apprehension vanishes” (54). In the case of this game, the apprehension is never lifted. Burke considers how night adds to our dread but, even in the light, Resident Evil is able to make the player feel like they are always kept in the dark. The level design – which is the environment the developers have chosen for the game – makes the player feel claustrophobic. The tight hallways, littered with bodies and various artifacts, the dim lighting, and obscure camera angles (which were  always a nuisance until the release of Resident Evil 4) keep the player from fully understanding what they are seeing or will see in the steps they take towards completing the game. What you may hear coming through your speakers may not reveal itself on screen until the camera angle shifts. You may begin to imagine things yourself.  

This brings us to internal obscurity. In certain situations, the player is forced to resort to their imagination, especially on their first play-through, when noises and level design are fresh and new. Through internal obscurity, Burke claims, “the passions are even stronger and more intense” (55). With external obscurity, the player seeks clarity within the game, but when this obscurity is internal, the player becomes traumatized by their own thoughts, a prisoner in their own mind. It is within the mind that the player may fall prey to their own insecurities, making the wrong move or being too cautious while entering a room. Making one mistake in the game can result in quick and relentless punishment or death. It is often internal obscurity that causes a player to die and restart from their last save.

Because the game does so well with both internal and external obscurity, Resident Evil can be an experience some don’t wish to have ever again. Balancing the need to survive (ammo, health, etc.) with external and internal obscurity causes the player to question themselves and the moves they make on screen. All three together are what make Resident Evil a pioneer for the genre, and these elements are emulated in almost every horror game since its release. Through horror games, we get to live what George A. Romero, Wes Craven, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King have captured in movies and in stories. The sublime inches closer and closer to our brains through levels of immersion unrivaled in other mediums. But, at the end of the day, what anyone really cares about, what really matters, is getting scared half to death while your friend giggles under a blanket on the couch.

 

Works Cited

Burk, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.       Oxford Up, 1990.

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Halloween: A History

by Madeline M.H. Grosh

Halloween is a holiday widely celebrated across the United States and Western Europe. Caught up in the excitement of the holiday, many do not understand the mysteries and the fears that make up the original reason for its creation. Halloween is renowned for being the one day when you are able to wear a costume, stay up late, and ask neighbors for candy. The holiday may provide an adrenaline rush once a year in today’s society, but hundreds of years ago it was the ultimate test of evil versus good.

The Halloween tradition can be traced back to the Celtic Samhain festival of the autumn harvest. This festival took place during the time the Celts believed to be the end of summer, what we now consider to be late October or early November, and just prior to winter because the first frost had not yet set. The Celts believed that, along with winter, evil spirits also arrived. This festival was meant to bless the Celts, who protected themselves from the evil spirits by wearing costumes, chanting, and holding sacrifices. Around this time of the year, as Cindy Dell Clark states, the Celts would also celebrate death, life, and the art of moving between the two worlds. They believed priests could see into the future during this season.

As Europeans made the pilgrimage to America, many religious holidays were brought to the New World. As the beliefs of pilgrims and American Indians intertwined, Halloween continued as an annual harvest festival to celebrate ghosts and spirits, as well as the lost and loved. When the Irish traveled to America after the potato famine of 1846, the poor would wander from house to house begging for food and money (Clark). Typically, the household would request the beggar to perform a “trick” in order to receive the food/moneythe “treat,” hence the term “trick-or-treating” (“History”).

The celebration of Halloween thus became a fixture in the American society and holiday system. Not only did the holiday continue to develop and grow in America, but many other countries, including Germany, accepted Halloween as one of their own. Since the 1990’s, Halloween has become more celebrated and known throughout Germany, particularly in areas heavily influenced by America during the Cold War, i.e. the Dahlem neighborhood of Berlin. Trick-or-treating has become a fad for children, while costume parties have become common among adults. Many of the elderly German generationtypically grandparents of the current generationsimply see Halloween as causing vandalism and problems for children (Connolly and Neate).

While Halloween began as a festival to protect the locals and keep the evil spirits away, it grew and adapted. Now, it is a national holiday that celebrates the dark side and the physicality of the unknown. Rather than completing a trick and receiving a treat, trick-or-treaters now simply expect a treat with a costume of varying identity. With the evolution of a festival came the excitement of a holiday, but one should never forget the roots and reasonings behind an eventespecially one so grand in nature.

 

Works Cited

Clark, Cindy Dell. “Tricks of Festival: Children, Enculturation, and American Halloween.” Ethos, vol. 33, no. 2, 2005, pp. 180–205. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3651928.

Connolly, Nicholas, and Rupert Neate. “Holiday Backlash: Germans Cringe at Rise of Halloween.” Der Spiegel. 31 Oct. 2013: n. pg. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

“History of Trick-or-Treating.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Nov.

2016.

Monstrosity: No Clowning Matter

by Emily Barsic

His face peers into yours with a bright red painted smile, but only he knows his real emotions hiding behind the mask. Despite his fake smile, he begs you to laugh at his painted face and squeaky nose and quirky actions. As he comes nearer, uncanny fears arise. You know that the person you fear standing before you is only a person … and yet he is a clown, which makes your mind define him as monstrous.

Clowns have a long history. They have been around since 2500 BCE when Pygmy clowns served Egyptian pharaohs as entertainment. Clowns not only served ancient Egyptians but were also a pivotal part of entertaining royalty in ancient China. In ancient Rome, they were fools known as “the stupidus.” Hopi Native American societies included clown-like characters “who interrupted serious rituals with ludicrous antics” (McRobbie). Medieval European court jesters provided a way for people to poke fun at the feudal system and the royalty in charge. What connects all of these historical clowns is that their profession allowed people to make fun of serious issues and certain morals. Clowns have provided a way to enjoy rule-breaking throughout history, as “academics note that their comedy was often derived from their voracious appetites for food, sex, and drink, and their manic behavior” (McRobbie). However, although clowns have been seen as quirky and satirical throughout the ages, the idea that clowns are monstrous to those who fear them is a relatively new concept.

So, what exactly is it that makes clowns terrifying in our day and age? Andrew Stott, who is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo, finds that “clowns have always been considered socially marginal, always on the edge of society” (qtd. in Waxman). Although clowns have not always been seen as monstrous, clowns have always had a unique ability to comment upon society in a satirical way. Their jokes have not been seen as serious comments; they were regarded as entertainment. Therefore, clowns have had a peculiar way of living on the margins of the world; they did not fit into normal societies, as they were given special permission to criticize those with social power. Being “on the edge of society” is one reason why clowns may be viewed as monstrous by those who fear them today.

Clowns are also seen as monstrous due to the conflict between their outer physical appearances and their identities, as their faces may not truly reflect the inner emotions that they feel. Not only may their faces not truly reflect their emotions, but their actions and behavior may contradict their actual personal identity. This deconstruction of the psychological border between inner motives and outside appearance incites a common cultural fear: the fear that a person may not be who he or she portrays himself or herself to be.

In “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers a further reason why the physical appearance of clowns can be disturbing: a monster is “defeaturing, self-deconstructive, always in danger of exposing the sutures that bind its disparate elements into a single, unnatural body” (9). Clowns have the capability of being seen as monstrous because of their painted faces, which give the clowns a  “defeaturing” or disfigured appearance. The clown becomes “self-deconstructive” in the eyes of people who look at clowns, as they do not know how to classify the clown’s emotions within the available categories, such as happiness or sadness. Lastly, this breakdown reflects the “danger of exposing the sutures that bind its disparate elements into a single, unnatural body.” As those who view clowns realize their unusualness, the “single, unnatural body” of the clown begins to break down.

Cohen also writes that “The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible,” which confirms that “deconstructiveness” is a large aspect of determining monstrosity. The monster’s “‘deconstructiveness’. . . threatens to reveal that difference originates in the process, rather than in fact” (Cohen 14-15). If we look at the “fact” behind clowns, we realize that clowns are people who have emotions just like us, despite their “always happy” painted-on face. This revelation is not scary or monstrous; it is just “fact.” Therefore, the monstrous fear of clowns “originates in the process” of categorizing clowns within the social margins.

Although these psychological aspects of clowns certainly explain why clowns can be seen as monstrous, this reasoning does not explicitly help us understand why clowns are feared today but were not in the past. One reason that clowns are more feared today is due to the media’s reports about killer clowns in the past few decades.  For example:

John Wayne Gacy was charged with the murders of 33 people, mostly adolescents, committed over the course of the previous decade. Gacy worked as a clown for charity – so there was a lot of preexisting fear around this image of a dangerous clown. And for the next 25 years, appearances kept happening . . . East Chicago in 1991, Washington D.C. in 1994, South Brunswick in 1997. When you think about what first made people afraid of clowns, it’s tempting to pin it to Gacy or movies like It, Poltergeist, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space [sic]. (“America’s creepy clown craze”)

Images of the clown as a monstrous killer were replicated in the film industry alongside the news media, provoking fear not only in imagination but also in real life. John Wayne Gacy displays the manic, murderous, uncanny, and unpredictable behavior that fosters fear. This categorization of Gacy as monstrous for the terrible behavior he indulged in as a clown makes it easy for the media to profit from the fear that clowns are killers.

So the next time you see a scary clown movie, watch for the signs that prove clowns embody the cultural fear that everyone may not be who they present themselves to be.

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Cultureedited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 7–16.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriguez. “The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian, 31 Jul. 2013, smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-history-and-psychology-of-clowns-being-scary-20394516/.

“America’s creepy clown craze, explained – Vox.” YouTubeuploaded by Vox, 11 Oct. 2016. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.

Waxman, Olivia B. “The Surprising History Behind the Scary Clown Phenomenon.” Time.comTime Inc., 6 Oct. 2016, time.com/4520149/clown-attack-sighting-craze-history/.

The Uncanniness of Regression in Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls

by Aidan McBride

In his 1924 story “The Rats in the Walls,” horror writer H. P. Lovecraft breaks his usual mold, moving away from typical science fiction stories and taking a decidedly more Gothic approach.  The story diverts from cosmic horror to give us a much more human villain and creates horror not through cosmic indifference but through the parallel it draws between humanity and our animalistic nature. The story constructs this parallel through the device of the rats in the walls, the sound of which only the protagonist can hear and which are revealed at the end of the story to be a reflection of the fact that his ancestors were ritualistic cannibals. Throughout The Rats in the Walls, the uncanny is clearly seen through the direct comparison between humanity and a primal inhuman state that is prevalent throughout the story. A connection may be seen both between the protagonist and the deadly swarm of rats and between the protagonist and the human-cattle species discovered beneath the protagonist’s ancestral home. By exposing of the repressed ancestral urges of the narrator, the story gives us the chilling message of the inevitability of the regression to the primitive stages of man.

It should first be noted that the uncanny monster is something different from a strictly cultural or personal monster. The uncanny, as described by Sigmund Freud, is related to things repressed coming back to light. Freud’s central argument is that the fear of the uncanny is not caused by any manner of grotesqueness or categorical crisis but instead comes from something repressed. That is to say, something known in some capacity but which one is unable or unwilling to actively think about. Freud would argue, for instance, that one is not afraid of a zombie because of its disgusting form, but because it brings up the fact that death is not something we can understand, and we do not want to face that ambiguity (Freud).

The Rats in the Walls is narrated by an unnamed member of the Delapore family, who discovers a property that has been in his family for over 17 centuries but was mysteriously abandoned when the narrator’s ancestor murdered every other member of his family for undocumented reasons. The narrator vows to fix up the estate, Exham Priory, much to the horror of the surrounding neighbors, and he is eventually made aware of the various stories and myths surrounding the Priory. The most disturbing of these details is that, briefly after its abandonment, an army of rats “swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent” (Lovecraft 244). The narrator largely dismisses these stories, but he finds that he is haunted by horrid nightmares of a swarm of rats descending upon a group of “beasts and man alike” (244). The narrator is also disturbed by the distinct sound of rats scurrying in the walls, a sound which none of his servants can make out.

The narrator sets out to find the source of the noise and, in the process, uncovers a massive cavern underneath his newly restored property, which houses an ancient city. Upon further investigation, the narrator finds skeletal remains of human and creatures that he describes as sub-human, quadrupedal-humanoid beings, who were raised, it is implied, to be cattle for the Delapore family. The narrator describes these creatures as having “skulls which were slightly more human than a gorilla’s” and mentions that the image of them “denoted nothing short of utter idiocy, cretinism, or primitive semi-apedom” (252). This immediately creates a sense of the uncanny in two regards. First, Delapore is forced to come face-to-face with beings of his ancestral past, bringing to life that which he has repressed, and, second, the appearance of these beings is almost human, but not quite. The story concludes when Delapore, driven to madness by this horrific discovery and compelled by some ancestral yearning, devours one of his compatriots and is sent to an asylum, the whole time maintaining his innocence as he claims that it was the rats who had eaten the man.

The uncanny is most easily viewed in this piece through the semi-human skeletons found beneath the house. The narrator and the men who accompany him, all of whom are described as men of exemplary character and strength of will, are genuinely horrified when they stumble upon these uncanny remains: “Of seven cultivated men, only Sir William Brinton retained his composure; a thing more to his credit because he led the party and must have seen the sight first” (252). These skeletons are meant to terrify, and the reason is clear enough. Humans, especially in the time period immediately following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, like to think of themselves as better than animals, something in a wholly different category than the other living creatures because our capacity to think and our bipedal nature largely set us apart in that regard.

These skeletal beings are stripped of everything that makes them “human” by these standards. However, they are also indisputably genetically human. Being raised as cattle, their living conditions are abhorrent: “The quadruped things—with their occasional recruits from the biped class—had been kept in stone pens. . .” (253). Their capacity to think has been stripped, as has their very bipedal nature, making them into something the narrator describes as sub-human. This is uncanny because it clashes clearly with the notion that humans are a different class of being than animals. In every way, these beings act as animals. However, they are genetically indisputably human, and this is what scares us.

The other uncanny connection comes from the narrator and rats in the walls. The creatures are constantly described as savage beings, consuming everything in their path with horrific ease, and Delapore is the only one who can hear them. On top of that, Delapore frequently dreams of a swarm of rats devouring everything in their path, including humans. Their savage nature is contrasted, however, with Delapore himself, who is a well-to-do man from a wealthy family that had fallen on hard times in the previous few generations. He is proper, normal, and acts as any upper-class member of society should act.

However, the uncanny again shines through when the narrator eventually gives in to his primal instincts and devours his friend, which fully connects him to the all-consuming rats. His entire life, he has been repressing the truth of his family’s past, scoffing at the stories of the rats and ignoring the pleas of the neighbors, who insisted that the Priory is an evil place. He alone could hear the rats because he alone had the urging of the Delapore’s, the desire of the rats to devour human flesh. He hides this truth from even himself; on a conscious level, it is possible he does not even know. But somewhere deep down within himself, the sounds of the rats beckon him to go lower and lower into the Priory, towards the monument to his ancestor’s gluttony.

With this story, Lovecraft makes a case that the uncanny is not only for things which an individual has repressed about him or herself. Instead, uncanniness can be familial or cultural, living on through family ties, through ancestral history, and even through evolution. The uncanny exists everywhere there exist artificial borders, slowly beckoning into the present to remind us of what we used to be and what we still could be.

 

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Penguin,

  1. 123-162.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Rats in the Walls.” H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, edited by S. T.

Joshi, Barnes and Noble, 2011,  pp. 240-255.