Life is full of curiosities. One of these is our consumption of horror fiction, films and games. Why on Earth would we want to expose ourselves to something that provokes negative feelings such as fear, fright and anxiety? So, how can we make sense of horror? And, what is it specifically about Five Nights at Freddy’s that makes it such a good horror game?
These are the questions I shall attempt to explain in the following and analyse the game Five Nights at Freddy’s (Scott Cawthon, 2014) in the process.
In the past many attempts to explain why we indulge in horror fiction have taken inspiration from Freud with psychoanalysis, or more historicist approaches looking mainly for cultural triggers for our fears. These approaches can offer interesting insights as to elements that trigger us when engaging with horror; they fail to offer any satisfactory explanation as to why we engage with horror.
This is where evolutionary psychology (EP) is called for. Through the studies of EP is has been shown that we through evolution have learned to react strongly to potential threats through anxiety of a situation or fight or flight responses when faced directly with a threat. How does this relate to stories you might wonder. Well:
‘Learning about danger from direct observation can be very risky. As Öhman and Mineka (2001) pointed out, “if effortful trial-and-error learning was the only learning mechanism available, most animals would be dead before they knew which predators and circumstances to avoid” (p. 487). Hence, vicarious or social learning is an adaptive strategy in the domain of fear acquisition and precautionary behavior. Studies of children’s nighttime fears show that such fears are overwhelmingly determined by negative information, rather than conditioning or observation (Muris, Merckelbach, Ollendick, King, & Bogie, 2001)’ (9, Clasen, Under Submission)
In other words humans have through evolution shared stories as a way of vicariously learning how to deal with various situations. These situations include facing threats such as predation and disease. Hence horror stories could very like be part of our adaptive cognitive functions ensuring we from an early age learned what to fear and how to handle these fears.
The above is an extremely short explanation on what EP can tell us about horror. For more on this, with a deeper theoretical insight, I recommend looking up a few of Mathias Clasen’s articles on the subject.
Now, with no further ado, let us get down to it, and have a closer look at Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNAF).
The game is a take on the survival horror genre within video games. The player is cast as a night security guard at a children’s pizzeria. When the game begins we are situated in an office, without the option of moving around. The telephone rings and a man, the day guard, introduce us to the place and what we have to do. We are told the animatronic animals in the place tend to roam around at night time, and that we should not let them gain access to our office. Apart from this sparse information we are left to figure the rest out for ourselves. As mentioned you cannot move about and are therefore restricted to check the security cameras, trigger the light switches for the hallways on our left and right-hand sides, and trigger the closing and opening mechanism to the doors on each side as well.
Check out the link below to see me playing the game and gain a better indication of what the game is about:
What separates this game from many others is the fact that the games background story is quite vague, but much of it can be figured out through speculation and attention to detail. So, in everything from gameplay to story it is up to the player to figure out the specifics, which requires a higher degree of inquisitiveness, attention and ultimately immersion.
If you watch the video above you will see the inevitable result of such immersion in my first play through. It ends in a jump scare, which can be a horrible experience. The game preys on our main responses to horror, being fear and anxiety. Anxiety is built up throughout playing and having to survive the night, whilst the fear response is triggered in that final moment where you slip up and one of these animatronics appear right in front of you accompanied with a loud shocking noise.
In the following section I will take a closer look at how FNAF makes use of our evolutionary adapted fear triggers to build up our anxiety whilst playing.
Let’s take it from the top, as the first thing you notice upon starting the game is the fact that you are unable to move. This is an issue, as it incapacitates our freedom and undermines the possibility of flight. This in itself is enough to provoke a degree of anxiety in some as we are given no other choice than to face whatever is out there. Our only means of defence is closing a door when we spot one of these creatures outside the door, but the door uses a lot of power, and power is a limited commodity in the game and something we must preserve if we wish to survive the night. So as counterintuitive as it feels we must open the door again as soon as we hear the “animal” leave. Light also uses power, as does using the CCTV. In other words to beat the game we must blind ourselves to preserve the power, relying on one of our other senses, hearing.
Humans have bad night vision and darkness has been proven to increase fear and anxiety, and this is probably because it has proven a high risk factor in the past. FNAF utilises this quite a lot, as it impairs our vision by limiting how much we can use the light switches. And as if that wasn’t bad enough a lot of what we can see on the CCTV is of a bad quality and shrouded in darkness.
We are caught in a constant cycle of having to check cameras, check the hallways with the light, shut off access if an animatronic is outside and for a large part depend on our ears to detect exactly when to do what. But here we hit another issue. The sounds in the game. We especially have to listen for the footsteps indicating movement, but these noises are mixed up with the sound of children’s laughter for example. This is very unnerving because there surely aren’t any children on the premises, are there? The questions build up, the pace in which we have to work quickens and the stress builds up hand in hand with the anxiety.
So in the game we are faced with darkness, counterintuitive sounds, restriction of options and a fear of predation. But why do we fear these things, what is it that makes them frightening?
The short answer is they are uncanny. They resemble stuffed toy animals, but at the same time they are human sized. We know such a thing should not be able to move, yet they do, and they do so at incredible speed when the player isn’t looking. On top of this they have set facial expressions, which means we can’t see any intention in the masks; another trait provoking anxiety.
In conclusion FNAF exhibits many of the elements that provoke anxiety and fear in humans. This is combined with a great level of immersion helped on the way through gameplay and a story that promises hidden secrets and a horrifying history. There is a lot more to this game that I would love to address, but have chosen not to out of fear of making this longer that it already is.
We aren’t quite done yet, as I still have to address the issue of why we would play such a game. Yes, part of the explanation might be that we can learn from such experiences and improve our reactions to scary situations, but in truth the area of horror has not been researched enough to offer any conclusive evidence.
Another piece to the puzzle may be that there may be a correlation between our need for affect i.e. our need to be emotionally affected by e.g. media, and our relationship to horror. Studies show that people with a high need for affect also generally elicit more positive meta-emotions when dealing with horror. In other words, some people are able to enjoy horror because they can turn the initial emotions of fear or anxiety into more positive meta-emotions and therefore take something positive out of what otherwise is a negative experience. (Predicting Emotions and Meta-Emotions at the Movies: The Role of the Need for Affect in Audiences’ Experience of Horror and Drama)
The answers aren’t conclusive but there seems to be a general idea that horror can affect our emotional learning, conditioning us to situations that would be dangerous to experience in anything but a vicarious manner.
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Thank you for reading!
Clasen, Mathias. Under Submission. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Almost: An Evolutionary Approach to Horror Media. Forthcoming in Movies, News, Gossip. Ed. J. Barkow. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Bartsch, Anne. Appel, Markus. Storch, Dennis.2010. Predicting Emotions and Meta-Emotions at the Movies: The Role of the Need for Affect in Audiences’ Experience of Horror and Drama. Communication Research 37 (2): 167-190.