Horror and the Role of the Audience



You may have noticed I’ve been thinking about horror a lot lately. I don’t know if what I’m writing is a straight up horror novel, but the concept has gotten in my head, regardless. I find myself analyzing it over and over again, trying to figure what works, and why it works.

Horror hardly ever works on me as intended. My wife is something of a pansy, so I can’t often watch horror – even zombies, who aren’t so much horror any more, as they are fill-in chainsaw fodder. But for some reason, she’s all right with horror games. She actually enjoys watching me play them. We made it through the entirety of Resident Evil 4 together like that: Her internetting or knitting or interknitting while I mowed down thousands of ethnic stereotypes in the name of generic white guy justice.

Now I’m playing Dead Space 2, but I always wait until she’s around so we can go through it together. I’ve found something strange when she watches me play: The experience is actually, if not scaring me, then at least disconcerting me a bit. Even stranger because, although Dead Space 2 is well put together, it’s certainly no masterpiece. Lots of cheap jump scares, unrelated noises, repeating enemies. It’s not scaring me because of its content, but because of its audience.

My wife.

Because she’s jumping, flinching, swearing and occasionally screaming — we’re talking a long, sustained fear-shriek that she made me promise to never tell anybody about — her behavior is influencing me. It gives me stakes. It’s triggering the protection matrix in my brain. I’m scared because my wife is here, and she’s scared, so I better get my shit together in case these necromorphs make it out of the TV.

I can play the same game by myself, in the dark, and nothing. It’s just a game. I’m jogging leisurely around space stations, casually mowing down undead aliens like it’s a nuisance. On my way to a meeting, necromorphs, no time to goof off today. But play it in the middle of the day in a well lit living room with my wife, and it’s a horror experience again.

That concept extends beyond gaming, too: I love horror movies. Seen more than I can count. But one hasn’t actually scared me, in the slightest, since the American remake of The Ring. That was an all right flick, yeah, but nothing outstanding. For raw, pale little kid terror, the Japanese version of The Grudge was way better.

So why did The Ring scare me? Because I watched it in a room full of friends – it was the last horror film I can remember that I viewed in a group scenario.

The group is scared.

You are a member of the group.

Protect the group!

The uncontrollable empathetic connection of a room full of friends augmented, if not outright created the fear scenario. I wonder what this says for horror books? I feel like they’re generally considered more effective in the genre than most other mediums. Horror books are widely perceived as scarier than horror movies or TV shows. But that’s all backwards, isn’t it? We can share every other media experience as it occurs except for books. We can watch movies together; we can play, or at least watch somebody else play, horror games together; we can go to an art gallery with friends and observe the works as a group. But reading books is a solitary experience. I suppose there are audiobooks and author readings — but that feels like different media than pure reading.

Somehow, in books, we recover the sensation of being lost in a strange and alien world, all alone. And it’s terrifying. But we don’t get quite as lost in games and movies. The fear response is weakened. We need the group, or some other raised stakes, to recover the experience.


10 thoughts on “Horror and the Role of the Audience

  1. Metacognition

    I think it happens because of the peripheral surroundings. When watching a movie or enjoying a video game, you’re still aware of your physical surroundings. You know that you’re still in your house, safe and sound. But with a book, your eyes are focused on the words you’re reading and you’re picturing the world in your mind. When a book draws you in, you’re no longer really aware of your surroundings. Are you still in your house or are you transported to that haunted mansion?
    Thus movies and video games need that extra oomph to push it back into horror. As an example, your experiences with horror within those forms of media with a group and group mentality.
    At least that’s a possible reason.

  2. Kyle

    Amnesia, I know you hear about games a lot, is truly horrifying. With family, friends, or alone it’s a very mental ride.

    Books give you a chance to reflect on the horror is such different ways. ?

  3. LukeBbtt

    I always find that horror games/movies are less scary when I am with a group. A scary moment can always be quickly defused by a joke. This never works when I am watching/playing alone.

  4. AR

    First of all, on The Ring:


    I watched it with a group of friends while we were waiting for some girls to come over, so we could seem strong and unaffected while they were screeching and cringing and clinging onto us in terror…and needless to say, all of us were jumping and shouting “Oh, shit!!!” and elbowing each other–in terror.

    Secondly, on your wife’s reactions:

    My wife and I watch several shows together, and I find that stuff that woud normally not phase me has an effect on me when I’m watching it with her. Due to some past experiences, my wife doesn’t deal well with certain scenarios, so I get hypersensitive to those and similar scenes when watching shows/movies. It feels like I’m actually feeling the hypertension and fear for myself, when actually, I’m just screening for those reactions in my wife. Now, ironically, she actually gets fed up with me doing this–when I pause/skip or suggest that she turn away–because she is not screening for me, she just goes along naturally with her own feelings, and so, I find myself feeling like the oversensitive pussy a fair amount of the time.

    It’s the same thing with kids…I now have two, where two years ago, I had 0. (My older son’s birthday is actually tomorrow so that statement is still, as I write this, technically correct.) Ever since having my boys, I have enjoyed The Godfather immensely more–if you want to really, really understand The Godfather, have a son–but, I have felt a lot more vulnerable and sensitive to certain things since having them that never effected me before, in my life, because I am imagining keeping them from being exposed to or keeping them out of those situations to the best of my ability.

  5. Anne

    Books force that world into your head, instead of having it linger on the outside, on a screen, so that you can dip your toe into it. It’s the same reason that you can face a situation alone and be a total chickensh*t but be brave in that same situation if you’re protecting others. Others can draw you out of that immersion in your own mind, even in real life, but the nature of reading is such that you can only do it alone, not just because it would be impractical to read and react simultaneously, but because your mind is responsible for constructing so much of the experience.

    1. Robert Brockway Post author

      Interesting to think of the protection impulse applying to fiction. I’m assuming since media has become such a big part of our lives, that studies have been or are being done on the biological basis for our interactions with media. Why do we respond differently to, say, drama in video games (almost entirely absent, or superficial) but moreso in movies and TV? That must be one hell of an interesting field of study right now.

  6. Redager

    Here’s my theory on this, with some Science! There is a part of your brain called the empathy zone. When you look at a person and empathize with them, it lights up. Now, what is weird, is that when a person is reading a book and really gets into it, that same zone will often light up in a person. The working theory right now is that this part of your brain makes you think that things are happening to you. In other words, when you feel sorry for someone, you feel that emotion because of a part of your brain thinks that whatever shitstorm is actually shitting on you. For many people, the closer you are to a person, the more this zone lights up.
    If you read a horror book and this part of your brain is turning on, then your brain thinks that you are the one being chased by an unseen terror and you get scared because of that. Now, why does this happen to your when you read and not when you watch things by yourself? Reading is the most interactive of all media, even more than video games, when done by an avid reader. In a movie you watch something and you are removed from it. In even the best video games, you are still watching something. In a book, you create a world in your head. You create the characters. You give them voices and personalities. You’ve probably seen this while writing, when your characters become so real that they will fight you, the author, and bend your will to meet theirs. In a away, you create this world in your head, that you are a part of, that a part of your brain thinks is absolutely real.
    Combine this with your protection reflex (which is very likely related) and you have a system set up to scare you every time. The other people in the book are real to your brain (you care about them) and they must be protected, just like you must protect your wife when she screams, which triggers the adrenaline button in your brain.
    Most horror games put you by yourself going down dark corridors, combine that with the inherit disconnect with video games and there is nothing going on in your brain that tells your there is a threat to you or a person you care for, the empathy zone doesn’t do anything, there is no need for adrenaline and therefore no scare factor.

      1. Redager

        Here is a link to the actual study I was referring to. It was done in 2007.


        However if you don’t want to read that whole thing. This is a break down of the study, along with some interesting stuff about animals feeling empathy.


        This link is to another study where they found that people who watch videos of others doing tasks, that the corresponding parts of the viewer’s brain lit up. This happened even with amputees who could perform the same task, but with a different part of the brain


        Our brains are fascinating

  7. Josh

    I think a large part has to do with empathy. If, say, you’re watching a show with a significant other, and this show wouldn’t normally bother you (say it’s a torture scene from 24 or something similar), but begins to bother you when you’re with a person it bothers, it’s just empathy.

    I think basically it means we’re not sociopaths. Congrats!


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