How VR Horror Games Mess With Your Head

From haunted houses in 'Paranormal Activity' to psychological scares with 'Here They Lie,' VR is finding it's a perfect fit for fear

From haunted houses in 'Paranormal Activity' to psychological scares with 'Here They Lie,' VR is finding it's a perfect fit for fear. Credit: VRWERX

I'm wandering through a dark house in Resident Evil 7, waiting for the jump scare. I know it's going to happen – the signs are there. In the kitchen, fat flies buzz around rotting food and everything is covered in so much grime that it's hard to make where the the dirt meets the darkness. Mannequins topple and move like stiff corpses, a TV buzzes static. The lights are out where I need them most, and the only door is, of course, locked.

Eventually, I manage to fix the lights, find the key, head to the back door and escape. And that's when the jump scare comes, finally, and I scream out loud even though most of my brain is aware that I'm in a brightly lit room in Los Angeles, being babysat by a tired Sony publicist who has seen a hundred of these reactions in the last 24 hours.

Experiences like this are the reason I'm convinced virtual reality is the future of horror. The monster will no longer just be on your screen – it’s whispering in your ear, or creeping up behind you, invading your personal space and preventing you from looking away. That frightful future is almost here, as evidenced by a series of early VR horror games – some still in development, like Resident Evil 7 and Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul – while two already-released titles, Here They Lie and Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood are all ready to take advantage of the technology to deliver scares in a whole new way.

Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul feels, to risk a cliché, just like being in one of the movies: one featuring a poorly-lit house, seemingly-possessed furniture, and the sinking feeling that you’re being stalked by something unholy. (Spoiler: you are.) Playing a short demo in a crowded conference hall did nothing to stop me from screaming at the numerous jump scares scattered throughout the 10-minute slice of gameplay (which, trust me, felt considerably longer). It's a reaction that the actual Paranormal Activity movies never quite managed to provoke.

"What VR horror has done has raised the bar on horror storytelling, for everyone," says Alex Barder, co-founder of virtual reality studio VRWERX that worked on Paranormal Activity. "If you're still making a regular movie on a movie screen, you really have to work that much harder to be able to compete with VR horror."