The Art Of Fright


As much as we might not like admitting to it, most of us love being scared. It’s the whole reason that there is a horror genre, but not a lot of people know why we get scared or at least have rarely questioned what differentiates a good scare from a great scare. A good scare is simple in essence. It involves a short set up and a rapid execution, a short sharp shock to the senses usually achieved by something jumping out from behind cover or rapid changes in lighting.

A great scare consists of multiple levels and the use of both horror and terror to achieve maximum impact. A quick sidebar for a moment however, it is important that you understand the differences between horror and terror for the purposes of this column. Horror is defined in literature as the reaction when you witness something disturbing, a good example being a film like Hostel. Terror is the apprehension and nervous feeling you get when something bad is about to happen, so roughly 87% of any Dead Space game.

As any good writer knows, a great scare layers multiple elements on top of one another to slowly build tension. A mass of elements on the fear palette so to speak.

The first and, in my opinion, the most important element to creating fear is music. As a musician, I understand why but I’m aware that not everyone reading this understands musical theory. In fact, Laura wrote a column about music last year which you should check out. The concept of dissonance is key to creating music designed to scare.

Dissonance is that jarring feeling when two notes don’t create a perfect interval. The best example is the so called ‘Devil’s Interval’ which is a diminished fifth (or augmented fourth). Back in the middle ages, when people were obviously a lot less intelligent, the feeling of dissonance was attributed to the Devil. Thus the concept was practically banned in church music, which was the only music most people heard. Today, dissonance is still as jarring because a lot of popular music avoids it for fear of it not sounding nice and not selling many records. It is, however, very popular in metal. One of the most iconic uses being in the song Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath, in which the opening riff heavily utilises the dissonant tritone.

The next step in creating fear is a convincing setting. Games have often emulated the settings found in films, not that this is a bad thing. I am not accusing games of being unoriginal, rather the opposite. By using set pieces we already associate with terror it becomes a lot easier to invoke. Dead Space borrows heavily from Aliens and other films like Event Horizon whereas Dead Rising, as much as Capcom hasten to point out the differences, is very clearly inspired by Dawn of the Dead. The space settings often draw heavily on our inherent fear of loneliness, where other settings can draw on other common fears: heights, claustrophobia, failure and the ultimate fear, death.

In space no on... Wait wrong series.

Next we need a compelling antagonist, games have a huge advantage over film here as characters in games can look like anything the creator desires. If any of you have played the brilliant Amnesia: The Dark Descent you will know the sheer terror that is personified by The Collectors, I mean what the hell are they other than trouser-browningly scary. Of course, a lot of fear can also be generated by the abilities of a creature. Half-Life 2′s Poison Headcrabs dropped you to 1% health in one attack and Resident Evil’s Crimson Heads forced a player to think wisely about killing a zombie lest they come back as a rampaging hell beast with a serious craving for your face.

I still have nightmares about this.

Finally, how can we be scared of something if we don’t know why. Exposition is often shown through cutscenes or non-interactive segments during play, such as seeing Alma out of the corner of your eye in F.E.A.R or those sections in Silent Hill games where Pyramid Head is present but occupied doing something else. In the case of Pyramid Head, there are many sections in Silent Hill 2 where he is shown torturing and raping the other monsters. If that isn’t reason enough to be scared of the guy then you’re made of sterner stuff than I.

All of these elements come together to create a great scary scene or game. Think about all the previous times a game or film has really grabbed you and scared you. Remember, I do like you to shout back so I ask you GAMElitist readers, which game has scared you the most and why? Leave your answers in the comments.