By Esmeralda Voegele-Downing
“What’s the point of a scary movie?” my friend asked, “it’s unpleasant.” We were creeping homewards through a gnarled country lane in the dark. Streetlights numbered residents of the nearest village 1:10 (so - two streetlights) and we’d been missing their company for a mile. Now we were breathing October ghosts into the single white beam of a phone torch. The next sound from her mouth was a laugh. She made me aware that the phone’s battery wouldn’t survive the journey home. Thanks to scary movies, though, I had a hunch we would.
Horror films are not feel-good viewing in the same way that having a fracture set is not a feel-good experience. Both, though, are necessary. In the world of scary cinema, the reigning subset with the most to say on life and its counterpart is survival horror. It’s a title used almost exclusively for video games, or incorrectly as a synonym for peril in general. True, all horror hinges on some incarnation of the death threat, but this does not make every instance worthy of the crown. While horror media can, collaterally, offer a vicarious exorcism of anxiety, it is in a survival horror that this flourish is dealt with the urgency of a killing blow. Although there is sparse theory available that acknowledges it outside gaming, Richard J. Hand’s 2004 essay in Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear offers readers a foundational definition.
“It would be misleading to consider the genesis of the survival horror game as descending exclusively from game culture. “Survival” is a central concept in many examples of horror culture, and the “survival horror” in literature or film presupposes a narrative in which the reader/spectator follows (rather than “plays”) the journey of a protagonist[…] One of the most useful literary antecedents to survival horror is a work of children’s literature, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).”
Indeed, it lurks in children’s books. It’s not just a cheap Hollywood skit; the anxiety this category deals in is, I argue, the ultimate. Hand goes on to say that “all forms of survival horror are labyrinthine journeys” which holds true when applied. A protagonist in a survival horror wends a way to their climax with more purpose than one does in a gore-fest, from which we expect no real moral education. There’s a difference between the crescendo of 2016’s Hush versus the dazzling brutalities of Final Destination and its blockbusting ilk. Real survival horror is present when Beautiful American Teenagers try to escape the Blair Witch’s forest, less so when they are pinned to the bottom of pools, having their insides forcefully prolapsed through the anus by the pressure of the drain. Whenever lives are five-minute puppet shows put on by the grim reaper itself, characters’ ultimate survival is incidental, and as such, really out of their control. I’d build upon what Hand says about the survival horror maze. It’s simply not enough to be dragged through it - one must get up and walk.
The villain exhibits amoral indulgence, and the hero exemplifies resourcefulness. It’s a thrill in itself to realise that both ends of this spectrum are shocking.
You’ll recognise this phenomenon by its anatomy. As the name suggests, survival horror challenges protagonists to face off with the worst imaginable thing, knowing their odds are at best 50%. It reads clearest through realism. Moviegoers see fewer lasers, cursed tapes, ectoplasm vomit, hearing-impaired bikini babes, and ensembles of spunky antiheroes with fates plastered on their foreheads. The initial circumstance will unfailingly force viewers to acknowledge that there is nothing between the hero and themselves but bad luck. This is the film that takes a microscope to the moment of death, so plots depend on the here, the now, the visceral and quick, with perhaps the exception of Kubrick’s The Shining - although its pacing definitely appreciates a hellish immediacy by the end. As a result, we see most of the sub-genre occupy just one setting, and one small cast.
The timeline won’t span 27 years like Stephen King’s It, the location won’t allow expansive goose-chases as in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (the open-world element of which could explain why survival horror games, full of player autonomy, sometimes make less of a clear-cut parable). On the menu each time is entrapment with a side of diminishing options. The place is here, the time is now. Phone lines are cut, doors barricaded, tyres slashed. The danger is organic. Ideology. Impulse. Revenge. Bias. Hatred. No miracles, no ex machinas, no easy escape. It’s my conclusion that these films are purely concerned with human capability. The villain exhibits amoral indulgence, and the hero exemplifies resourcefulness. It’s a thrill in itself to realise that both ends of this spectrum are shocking.
Survival horror is the tired lawyer, offering us a will-writing service. It wants to know whether we think our affairs are in order.
Survival horror is the cinematic freak accident, a sudden late diagnosis. The ‘what if’ that statistically you needn’t lose sleep over, and yet. It is not the unkillable bloodthirsty doll, eager to frighten you out of your seat for a moment. Survival horror is the tired lawyer, offering us a will-writing service. It wants to know whether we think our affairs are in order. Take Halloween, The Thing, The Strangers. There is peace, and then, like a lightning bolt, there is the probability of death. It’s nearly always unreasonable and motives don’t much matter; there will be no settling in court. A protagonist here finds no grip on their aggressor because unfairness isn’t the lesson, but preparation, instead. Horror that hoists both barrels and says “think fast" is a sanguine examination of instinct, and lets us practise dodging. Masochistically, it’s the language of paranoia. It’s a fire-hazard of a feeling, and many icons have lit the match lazily but effectively through metaphors of women - it was while watching one of my genre favourites that I was once driven to put 999 on speed dial. This is home invasion, survival horror’s darling, and it loves catastrophising to make a point. As Philip K. Dick said, “strange how paranoia can link up with reality now and then.”
Drew Barrymore in 1996’s Scream is at the phone, not dressed for a fight. The deaf heroine of Hush enjoys her evening in a secluded cabin, unaware of the killer on her porch. In 2017’s Gerald’s Game, a woman is chained to her bed with no hope of release, hearing footsteps in her kitchen. 2008’s The Strangers, despite featuring both parts of a heterosexual couple, decides that it is the girlfriend of the two who alone will endure the first excruciating game of he’s-behind-you. You’re Next from 2011, an entertaining bloodbath, knows well that a woman is the clichéd central figure of any home invasion film. By now, it is a reprehensible and reductive over-borrowing from rape narratives, committed largely by male writers milking the psychological poignancy.
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychoanalyst, noted this scenario manifesting in the nightmares of female patients. Pinkola Estés called it “The Dark Man Dream”, a pattern that warns dreamers of impending harm to something they hold as dear as their own life. The omnipresence of this scene in horror cinema confirms a conscious resonance. As the heroine trembles within four walls that may as well be her own ribcage, her as the still-beating heart, Estés says that “consciousness is the way out of the box, the way out of the torture. It is the path away from the dark man. And women are entitled to fight tooth and nail to have it and keep it.” The specific interpretation of consciousness here, we can decide. In a global reading, anyone of any gender can be this woman. Survival horror likes to remind us that there is always something bigger than us coming, wheedling at complacency through domestic metaphor. Do you always lock your front door? Did you buy life insurance? Were you reckless with that information earlier? Did you drink and drive? If the dark man enters your home, what will you do? You’re alive, but the window of time you were assuming that’d remain true for is drastically shortened. You find yourself pondering, as you slam a door and scramble to push a wardrobe in front of it, as you dig through your rucksack and realise you’ve lost your map, as you watch the day turn to night and back again from where you’re trapped, just how much the habit of assumption could cost.
In these fables, the world is often cruel, but they illustrate that we still may meet it with heads on our shoulders we intend to keep.
So, I answer my friend’s question about the point of a scary film with, ‘to be scared’ - emphasis on the verb. Disaster strikes whether we’d like to recognise the chance or not, and if a character can hold themselves steady through the flinch, there is perhaps a lesson viewers can learn. Those who fare best in these films are those who release misplaced faith in outsourced justice quickly. If a viewer can stomach it, these films demonstrate that in life, until one releases the grip on how they’d have liked things to turn out, there is figuratively no future. In these fables, the world is often cruel, but they illustrate that we still may meet it with heads on our shoulders we intend to keep. Tough love, inarguably, but I do think there’s love in these scary films, somewhere. Just maybe not in pool-drain prolapses.
There is a defining moment in these scary movies for the victim when nearly all is lost. They’ll have suffered an introductory round of wounds, psychological or physical, and the audience will know there is more yet to come; we have an instinct for brutality like that. Whenever it arrives, and it does, a divergence happens. Protagonist A is lost to the ordeal, because they commit to what Seth Grahame-Smith describes in How To Survive a Horror Movie as the “1st Deadly Sin: Doubt”. In such examples, we see our shadows, as Jung would have put it. A human at their most chaotic and unwilling to try, this tragic protagonist goes out with a whimper. Do not, these movies beg, lose faith in yourself. There are things worth living through this for. With the grey of the mundane flung into blacks and whites by life and death, Protagonist B will seem to take heed. When everything dear has been upended, they grieve, and in doing so touch reality. They touch consciousness.
A survival horror is in a way always a pitting of the righteous soul against The Dark Man. A character bent on attaining survival embraces the dark and adapts. They may take on aspects of monstrosity to do this, but in the final moments of struggle, they often recall, encounter, or feel a totem of what makes them themselves, just before neutralising the threat once and for all. The threat sees no such thing, having continuously raised the bidding above where the survivor estimates their means. This demands real certainty in response, each time the affirmation louder and fiercer, “Yes, survival is worth this. Yes, I am worth this.” The most triumphant to watch of these protagonists are those who make no bones about the fact that they’d undergo anything to hold on to life. This character becomes enlightened, conveying to audiences that the soil at rock bottom is far more fertile than we thought. That we are worth fighting for. This is the point.
The gift that the thought experiment of survival horror bestows on viewers is consciousness - there are glorious flames in our own lives and selves that we do indeed have the ability to protect from going out, so let’s ensure they aren’t taken for granted. This is how the unlikely survivor walks free. Battered. Bearing a bite mark from jaws of death. Taking a little of the grave with them as a token of their brush with it. The Victorians made a jewellery trend of that, though. Memento mori. It means remember death. Or, rather, remember life.