How Horror Games Are Helping Me Cope With My Abusive Past

Posted July 11, 2017 by John Clark in Video Games

I didn’t have a very good upbringing. Without going into unnecessary detail, a troubled home life is a big part of what got me into gaming, and it’s honestly not too far to say it may have saved my life. I initially began gaming, as I’ve come to find many people with painful backgrounds did, to escape–from stress, from fear, and from a life I felt like I had no control over. The victories in video games gave me a thrill of satisfaction I couldn’t get in reality, as did the sense of power from leveling up, fighting bosses, and finding clever solutions to puzzles. I started gaming around 1995 with the NES, but in truth, my passion for the hobby didn’t come until later, with the release of two games: Starcraft and Unreal Tournament.

See, my father was a schizophrenic who self-medicated through an addiction to manual labor and alcohol. (I think he also occasionally used harder drugs, but I was too young at the time to really remember specifics.) At only eight years old, I didn’t–couldn’t–understand the severity of his disorder, but without fail, he would work ten hours a day, almost every day, and then spend the rest drinking. Sometimes he’d do this at home; others, he’d go to a bar. With three children to take care of, however, he didn’t want to just leave us home, so he would instead take us to a place called Browser.

Browser was incredible, and one of my fondest childhood memories. Like almost any child in 1998, I was REALLY into Pokémon. My father tried, if inconsistently, to make us happier than he could ever manage to make himself, and when he could afford it, he got us cheap video games from the pawn shop. Once my 13-year-old brother got a Game Boy Color, we both became obsessed with Pokémon Blue. It wasn’t long before we got into the card game, having found out about it since we already played Magic: The Gathering (my geeking started young, as you can see), and Browser sold the usual array of booster packs, boxes, and holographic rares. Knowing how much we liked the place, my father would drop us off there after work, sometimes for four or five hours a night, while he went and got as drunk as possible at the bar in the same business strip.

More interesting to me, however, was the computer rental. At the time, we didn’t have a PC at home, and we only had a couple of wrestling games (that we played the hell out of, mind you) on our PS1. Starcraft and Unreal Tournament hooked me in a way that no games before ever had and were the start of my career as a serious gamer. Eventually, we got a copy of Starcraft at home, and I was playing Battle.Net for hours a night. Even at just eight years old, without a conscious grasp of how wrong things were in my life, I felt the need to escape.

I lived in fear, but not the typical kind. My father was not conventionally abusive, not in the way that people tend to think when they hear the term. He never struck me once as a child (though when I was 18, we did actually wind up getting into a rather vicious fistfight), and I do honestly think that he did his best a lot of the time. The problem was, due to his schizophrenia, he suffered from paranoid delusions. Being a very religious man, his delusions manifested in the form of demons; he would think people were possessed, or become abruptly suspicious of them based on the most strange or arbitrary factors. Sometimes these would confirm more mundane biases, such as his fairly blatant racism, and others, it would be something completely esoteric, like how someone walked or what kind of car they drove.

For a small child, living with a man who was constantly paranoid had an effect. I was conditioned from a very young age to distrust people and to treat every mistake as an enormously big deal. Mistakes, after all, were giving your ‘enemies’ a chance, and as far as my father was convinced, everyone was a potential enemy. The person passing on the sidewalk, the clerk at the store, the man in the car behind us, the cop pulling us over for a speeding ticket. This paranoia was so extreme that on multiple occasions, he would send my brother and I, both preteens at the time, on improvised ‘survival missions’. For example, sometimes he would give us a sum of money, drop us off downtown twenty or more miles from home, and then tell us to find our way home. “And remember,” he would say, “You can’t trust anyone.”

I didn’t fear my father, at least not most of the time. I loved him. I was afraid of everyone else, because I was taught to be. As a result, I didn’t have many friends; how could I? I didn’t trust, I didn’t open up to people, and I reacted harshly to attempts to be nice to me because I was told it meant they wanted something. Unsurprisingly, this led to me relying more and more on gaming to get away from it all.

I’m twenty-seven years old now, and it’s been a long time since I had to worry about my father, the hostile women he brought home, or the dangerous situations he would almost randomly drop us into. As anyone who had an abusive childhood can verify, however, the damage was done, and it has taken me a long time to deal with many of the consequences of that upbringing. For a long time, I had an extremely volatile temper, and it took extensive meditation and the patient efforts of some of the best friends I’ve ever had to pull me out of it.

Fear, though, I’ve never been able to cope with. I play almost every genre of game, from shooters and RPGs to sports games and racers, but I’ve never been able to deal with horror games. I spent so long living in very real fear that the prospect of experiencing it for entertainment struck me as a foreign concept. Even in non-horror games, the occasional jumpscare has been known to force me to put down the controller and step away for a few minutes to reorient myself. For a long time, I just ignored it; what was one genre of games to miss out on, after all? Many people avoided more than that.

In the back of my mind I could never really stop thinking about what I was missing out on, however. From Silent Hill to Resident Evil, legendary franchises with their roots in horror were rendered inaccessible to me by my own anxiety. Even brief attempts to play these games made me intensely uncomfortable, and for awhile, I gave back up again.

Then came Dead Space. Ironically, what ruined this franchise for many people is exactly what interested me about it. I heard that as the series progresses, it increasingly turns from Horror game into Action Shooter, and this appealed to me immensely. The scariest thing about horror games to me has always been, ultimately, the lack of power; of having agency stripped away and being forced to confront something stronger than me that I couldn’t beat. After living years of that in reality, the last thing I wanted to do was experience it in a video game, where I went to feel like I was in control of my fate. Ultimately, though, I began to feel paralyzed by my need to be in control all the time. I realized that in many ways, in both life and my gaming time, I was becoming risk-averse, scared to experiment or get out of my comfort zone.

Deciding it was time to overcome my fear of fear, I dug into my backlog and installed the first Dead Space. My first impressions weren’t strong, thanks in large part to the fact that the PC port of the original game is pretty damned bad. Despite the problems with the game, however, I found myself hooked early on. I softballed it to myself at first: I put the difficulty on easy (though this was partially due to the clunky controls) and blasted some heavy metal as I played, unable to really bear the anxiety of the creepy soundtrack and sounds of approaching monsters. Of course, this somewhat backfired; while playing music got me into the zone, it also meant that I couldn’t hear the necromorphs attacking, and I scared the living shit out of myself a couple of times as a result.

That was when it hit me. Every few minutes, I was terrified, but it was okay. Nothing was going to hurt me. None of the things I had suffered in my past were creeping behind the hallways of Dead Space‘s ship the USS Ishimura, trying to ruin my fun or send me into an anxiety spiral. The more I played, the more fun I started to have. Slowly but surely, the tense terror that I felt while I was working my way through the game started to feel healthy. I started to look forward to each level instead of dreading it, and I was able to begin valuing the experience for what it was.

To submit to fear is a terrifying thing, but to embrace it, to confront it, can be liberating. Soon I was turning off my own music, and even playing the game with headphones for a more immersive experience. I wound up really breezing through the second half of the game due to the easy difficulty and all of my upgraded equipment, but even so, there were a few occasions that started to truly scare me, and bit by bit, I began to accept that.

I’m playing Dead Space 2 now. I cranked up the difficulty to Normal–I don’t have higher in me yet–but thanks to the much-improved PC port, I’m at least able to play with a mouse and keyboard. I can certainly see signs of what other people have said about the series; that the further it goes, the less it feels like a horror experience and the more it starts to become a shooting gallery of particularly ugly enemies, but I can’t say that I mind. In a way, my progression through this series feels like what I went through in reality: What started as an attempt to just wrest some control over an aspect of myself that I was avoiding became something legitimately empowering and enjoyable. Isaac Clarke isn’t the most unique protagonist, but seeing him go through near-silent, struggling engineer whose journal entries paint him as scared out of his mind to badass who’s shooting his way through the necromorphs like they aren’t even a problem? I’m on board with that.

I’ve got a ways to go, mind you. ‘Survival Horror’ is something I think I can manage. As long as I can fight back, I’m finding that I don’t mind being terrified by my enemies anymore, but I’m not sure how well I could handle something like Outlast, where I’m literally helpless and forced to run away. But you know what? I think I’m going to try it eventually, just to see how I do. That’s something I couldn’t have said a year ago.

As a result, I have horror games to thank for teaching me something that a lot of people, I hope, never have to learn: that fear in our past doesn’t have to control us in the future. I still have a lot of hangups because of how I grew up. I’m uncomfortable in crowds, I need days of mental preparation to go anywhere that I expect will have a lot of noise (like concerts), and any time someone stands behind me in a line, even if they’re a kindly old lady, I start worrying they’re going to hit me from behind. These are issues I’ll be working on for a long time to come, but for the time being, I’m just happy about the fact that I can play a new genre of game and not feel like my real-life experiences have ruined it for me.

I’m still not playing Resident Evil 7 in VR, though. Fuck that.

About the Author

John Clark