Scaring Us Silly: How VR is Making Horror More Realistic Than Ever

By Becca Caddy on at

Games developers and film-makers have been creating spine-chilling experiences within the horror genre for decades. Combining haunting soundtracks, shadowy threats, elements of surprise, otherworldly aliens, unsteady found-footage camerawork, grotesque imagery and so much more to scare us silly on big and small screens alike.

But now the immersive possibilities of virtual reality is opening even more doors. The nature of VR tech allows those working in entertainment to create even scarier experiences, because they engage more of our senses, turning us into active participants rather than passive players or audience members. Therefore they feel more realistic than ever before.

There are already some interesting examples of virtual reality in the world of film. A new gory project from Anthony C. Ferrante (the guy behind Sharknado) made headlines last year, complimentary VR experiences were built for the likes of Paranormal Activity and Insidious, and then Scott Stewart teamed up with Seth Green to create Holidays. And that's just to name a few.

And it’s the same story in gaming. Over the past few months, a handful of games developers have released titles that push the horror genre to its limits in virtual reality, like Resident Evil 7 and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.

As the tech advances, more studios are likely to experiment with VR tech to craft scarier experiences and keep horror fans hooked. But what is it that makes a more immersive experience more horrifying? And crucially, should we tread carefully when it comes to scaring people out of their wits in a virtual world that studies suggest in many ways feels just as real as the physical one?

VR and Horror: Perfect Playmates

Margee Kerr, Phd, sociologist who studies fear and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear explained that there are all kinds of reasons why we feel fear.

“Anything that disrupts our senses can startle us and activate our threat response (sympathetic nervous system). So, bright lights, sounds, touches, and anything that disrupts our sense of balance. Optical illusions inside VR are great for this,” Kerr says. “In terms of the content we're afraid of, that is largely based on a person’s personal development and the time and place where they are born. Some may be afraid of zombies, others ghosts, others snakes etc.

“There are characteristics of things that appear to be universally scary: sharp things (needles, knives, teeth), large things, things that are coming towards us at a fast pace. It's all about manipulating our systems of prediction and keeping us in a state of uncertainty and anticipation--that's really where fear lives.”

Although games like Alien Isolation and movies from The Exorcist to The Ring have scared audiences for decades, VR has a lot of potential to make the scares seem more, well, scary because our perceptions can be manipulated in even more ways.

Catherine Allen, a digital producer and director specialising in VR and AR for the BBC and others, explained: “When we put on a VR headset, we are really very vulnerable. We allow our visual and auditory senses to be temporarily overridden. If you can't see anything in the physical space you're in and you can't hear anything in that space either, your physical body is at risk.”

“While our bodies are still in physical space, our minds are tricked into thinking we are elsewhere. It's weird enough getting your head around the bizarre concept of being in two places at once, let alone then being frightened in the virtual space you're in,” Allen says. “Overall, all the conditions are in place for a general state of tension and anxiety that a VR horror experience can really play to.”

Simon Harris, Executive Producer VR, at Supermassive Games, the studio behind Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, agrees. “Immersion is key to making something scary,” he tells us. “This is the same whether the content is for a TV based medium or VR. If the viewer is not immersed in the situation then it won’t be scary. With VR you have a massive increase in immersion. It’s a lot easier to create that feeling of being present in another world and build the fear for the player.”

New Tech - Same Scares

Because virtual reality feels so real, it’d be easy to use graphics to simply create terrifying experiences that cause players or viewers to jump out of their skin -- the modern day equivalent of the ghost train. But the debate over whether jump scares and easy wins should be included in virtual gameplay has been ongoing, with many suggesting it could be dangerous or just plain lazy.

Simon Harris explained: “You do need to be clever and handle things with intelligence and finesse. You can get an initial reaction with an easy jump scare, but keep trying to do that and the participant will just become de-sensitised.”

In this way, virtual reality can be more scary than a regular game that you play on a screen, but storytelling plays a vital role when it comes to building narrative and keeping people coming back for more.

“You have to understand what emotions you want the player to be feeling and look to build them. Developers need to create an environment or scenario that makes the player’s hairs on the back of their neck stand up while they look nervously around your world,” Harris explains. “At that point you know you are doing a good job and you can choose to further heighten that feeling - or back it off a little before ramping it up again.”

It’ll be interesting to see how these boundaries get pushed in the near future, with many experts believing that the marriage of virtual and real world experiences will be the most exciting area of next generation entertainment..

Sol Rogers, CEO and Founder of VR studio REWIND explained: “Using peripherals will also add to the immersion of the experience. For example, force feedback weapons and vests for shooter games create an extra layer of realism, and when you’re faced with the possibility of feeling real-world pain in a virtual game it really affects the way you play.”

But it’s not just the addition of real hardware to a (mostly) stationary game that could augment the experience, but the building of a physical environment that allows people to move seamlessly between the two.

“In terms of adding more immersion through tech, I’ve seen some interesting development around physical spaces,” Harris says. “These introduce physical aspects to the experience through props or effects in the same way that ‘4D movies’ do. This does potentially increase the immersion over and above what you can get through a home VR headset.”

We’ve already witnessed a number of virtual reality devices being built into physical experiences in the horror genre, from Derren Brown’s VR-fuelled Ghost Train at Thorpe Park and The Void in the United States and expect more and more to appear over the next year.

Uncharted Territory

In a more traditional gaming experience, eliciting such strong reactions from players might be highly desirable. However, the same content could be exponentially heightened to new levels within a VR context. And because the medium is so new, it’s difficult to gauge what our responses will be.

Countless studies have been carried out in recent years, many citing the rubber hand illusion, that point to the fact our brains may perceive our bodies in virtual worlds as our own. The implications for therapy, rehabilitation and more life-like experiences is huge. But what does it mean for being really, really scared?

“Werner Herzog has commented that an interesting thing about VR is that when the user closes their eyes, they often still feel they are in the space,” Allen says. “The illusion of presence means that you can't just avert your eyes to get away from it. This means people can feel trapped.”

As well as the psychological minefield of creating such scary experiences in VR, developers need to create the best experiences even when it feels like there are limitations to the hardware that’s currently available. For example, uncomfortable headsets, motion sickness and a relatively small range of motion due to tethering could all create an experience that’s more tiresome than terrifying.

But Harris believes it won’t be long before tech catches up. “I think the key advancements in the next few years will be about the core VR tech itself,” he says. “This is very much the first round of consumer headsets. In the future we’ll see higher screen resolutions and faster refresh rates as the VR experience gets even better.”

Responsible Development

The debate over whether video games incite violence has been ongoing for decades. Many argue that it can trigger violent behaviour in those with underlying psychological disorders, whilst others suggest it could actually decrease instances of violence.

Whatever your stance on the role videogames play, it’s clear that virtual reality is still an unknown quantity in this respect, especially given the heightened emotional vulnerability and convincing instances of virtual embodiment in these spaces.

Right now the general conclusion is that it’s too soon to tell, so all we can do is approach virtual reality with caution. Which is just as important whether you’re creating a calming, therapeutic experience or an environment designed to terrify people.

“The old saying goes that with power comes responsibility”, Catherine Allen says. “I urge VR creators to come to their work with a duty of care towards their audiences. Make horror experiences by all means, as they can be great fun making users feel alive. But please test rigorously throughout the entire process. Do a risk assessment and keep a risk log. There's lots of exciting potential for spooky, clever and fun VR - let's approach that opportunity in the best way possible.”