Halloween is just around the corner, and we all know what that means: spooky movie marathons, desperate last minute scrambles for cheap costumes, and way, way too much candy. More than that, though, it’s that one time of year when we allow ourselves (if only a little) to slip back into the mentality of the pre-modern era, a time when we understood our universe not as a chaotic flux of impersonal particles banging about at random, but as an enchanted cosmos—a realm thick with the activities of unseen powers, both benevolent and wicked, a realm where we are open to hauntings and visitations, demonic curses and divine blessings. We may scoff at gods and fairies in the daylight, but in the dark hours of chill October nights, when we are alone in the house and we hear a knocking beneath the floorboards, we clutch our phones under the covers and whisper, Siri, are ghosts real?
To celebrate this month of terror, Love Thy Nerd’s writers are sharing some of their scariest moments in gaming. If you’ve got one you’d like to add, sound off in the comments below or join the conversation in our Facebook group!
Bioshock: C.T. Casberg
Despite being raised entirely secular and believing nothing supernatural whatsoever, I was always easily spooked by ghost stories and the like. Games have been especially scary to me. When you play, you’re not a witness to the terror, observing the incident after the fact behind the safety of the camera. Rather, you’re the victim, and the monster is waiting for you just around the corner.
My biggest scare—and the only time any game’s made me shout in fright and drop the controller—came in the first Bioshock. There’s many creepy things about Rapture, the game’s setting. It’s a crumbling underwater city infested with deranged citizens who’ve overdosed on substances that grant them superpowers, after all. Monsters in retro diving suits stalk its creaking, waterlogged halls, tailed by zombified little girls who plunge syringes into the dead and dying. This is not a nice place! Despite all the creepiness, though, the player eventually gets into that regular videogame rhythm. Move carefully. Kill lots of things. Grab everything that’s not nailed down.
That’s when I got complacent. I entered an area where blasts of steam intermittently clouded my vision. I heard movement—but when don’t you hear movement in a city slowly being crushed by the weight of the ocean? Another steam blast. I came across a desk lined with goodies. I plucked them with my grubby paws. More steam. I’m blinded. It clears. I’m safe.
Well, that wasn’t so bad. I guess I’ll just turn around and OH MY GOD THERE IS A PSYCHO DENTIST STANDING BEHIND ME AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH—
I don’t even remember what happened next. If you’d like to get a taste of the terror, check out this YouTube video of another player’s first experience with the dentist. (Warning: Lots of swearing!)
Amnesia: The Dark Descent: Drew Dixon
I cannot remember a game that has produced a more visceral response in me than Amnesia: The Dark Descent. When I first loaded it up, the game informed me that I should not try to win the game, and if I ever see an enemy don’t fight it, just run. The game also encourages you to play it in the dark with headphones, which only increases the terror. I nearly abandoned playing this way several times but somehow by sheer determination I was able to make it all the way through—playing primarily at night and always with headphones.
Amnesia kept me interested because of a simple game mechanic: sanity. Your character, who suffers from amnesia, explores an ancient castle while trying to recover the memory of his past. The castle is very dark, and the more time you spend in the darkness the more sanity you lose. You are equipped with a lantern with limited oil and a limited number of tinder boxes with which you can light various candles and wall-hanging torches. These temper your plummet into insanity. Given your limited resources, such plummets are inevitable, and when they come they are incredibly emotional experiences.
This brings me to the moment I nearly quit playing the game. It was in one of the final areas called “The Choir”, a vast area with very fast-moving monsters—ones that you couldn’t outrun. Given that the game had trained me to run from monsters every time I saw them, this was just too much. It’s hard to explain monster confrontations to anyone who hasn’t played the game so I won’t try. I will say that I remember sitting in front of my computer literally debating back and forth about whether or not it was worth it to load the game back up.
(If you’re interested in witnessing the sheer terror of Amnesia, here’s one very popular video. Warning: Lots of swearing!)
Spy Fox in Dry Cereal: Gwen Leong
Remember those first games you played when you were only a wee lil pup? Remember the first time one of them scared you? Allow me to hearken back to the days of MS-DOS and those good ol’ point-and-click adventure games by Humongous Entertainment. My brother and I were glued to the computer screen, eagerly playing our newest acquisition—Spy Fox in Dry Cereal. It booted up with an intro-sequence of a villain yammering on. His words were quickly lost on us. We zoned out and waited impatiently for the good stuff to start. And then—
And all it took was the maniacal laugh of William the Kid, booming from the speakers, backed by a thunderous soundtrack—to send my little brother and I screaming for Mom.
There’s something about the imagination at a young age. All the stories seem bigger, the stakes are higher, and any threat of peril sounds absolutely terrifying. The scary, foreboding music in Disney movies made me shake in my little Velcro shoes, which probably explains why that audio jump scare remained a fixture of horror in our minds. It didn’t matter how many times we played the game, we would always scramble for the mute button during that intro sequence. That laugh STAYED scary.
Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture: Madeline Turnipseed
Our story opens outside the gates of a red brick research facility in the picturesque English countryside. I mastered the interaction mechanic, listened to a little dialogue, then followed the only road into town. Which is when the sun flew.
Every time you travel to a new region of the map the time of day changes and the sun leaps in the sky, shadows contracting or stretching out on the ground. The first time that happened, I felt like someone flicked the world and we were spinning out of control. I tried to hide under a tree or lay down on the ground, but by that time it had stopped, and I realized the futility of what I was doing. Were that the case and Earth kept careening on its axis, there would be no place to hide or run. And that scared me even more.
Silent Hill 2: Jonathan R. Clauson
Running into the Wood Side Apartments, the radio in James Sunderland’s pocket went blissfully silent. In the town of Silent Hill, the only warning that one of the many straight-jacketed “patients” (read: monsters) lurked nearby was the static on the radio—which thankfully had just gone mute. Running through the fog enveloping the town, the silence in between these encounters had become both a comfort and terror. My character, James, was not a super soldier, a retired cop, or even part of paintball club. He was a simple clerk whose awkward animations and voice acting reinforced the idea that James was truly a weak man, out of his depth in a town that wanted nothing but to eat him alive.
It was this tension that permeated the game of Silent Hill 2 from start to finish. The opening moments of James going down a long wooded path echoes Orpheus descending into Hades, and I was along for the ride. The atmosphere, the game’s horrible combat, and a camera that felt like it was on a rubber band all coalesced into perfect miasma of dread and tension. Thus it was that when James and I stepped into the narrow hallway of the third floor of Wood Side Apartment and the static noise started back up, my heart very nearly beat out of my chest. Slowly, ever so slowly, we crept forward to see what waiting for us.
We crept forward to a junction in the hallway, and at the far end a small red light glowed behind a set of prison-like bars. As we inched closer, a soft silhouette of a giant, imposing figure just…standing there, doing its best impression of Hannibal Lecter, filled our view. The static noise rose to new levels of terror-inducing decibels and James and I jumped into the nearest room.
Having this eight-foot-tall evil apparition in a filthy butcher’s apron with a giant red metal pyramid for a head standing there, not moving, and giving off a sense of malevolence wasn’t even the most terrifying part. Upon exiting the room the creature was gone—along with the static. The transition was as jarring as flipping a light switch, taking me to new heights of ecstatic terror. Nearly 20 years later I can still remember the feeling of terror, the clothes I was wearing that night, the smell of not so clean dorm room, and the freezing cold air from the Michigan winter outside.