Horror is a genre that, despite the fear it can induce, remains popular across mediums. From the scary stories of childhood, to the many films that get pumped out of Hollywood year on year, horror is nothing if not durable. It took until 1980, however, for the question of why it’s popular to be addressed in a worthy manner, by Julia Kristeva in her book, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Powers of Horror detailed the abject, a concept that played upon both Freudian and Lacanian theories to explore its pervasive presence across art forms. While not discussed by her, games present another medium for the abject.
Abject literally means “being cast off,” used to refer to the casting off of the disgusting imagery or actions that can threaten a sense of identity. Dino Felluga, for a course at Purdue University, wrote a fantastic introduction to the abject and Kristeva, using one quote from her essay as a focus point.
“A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theater, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.”
This thrusting aside is abjection, and, as mentioned, places the person at “the border of [their] condition as a living being.” This border, the precipice of humanity, is something that someone backs away from through a process of catharsis – the abject reaction itself. Fainting, vomiting, and certain abject reactions can elicit the pleasure that catharsis brings about, while stepping back from this border and solidifying a sense of identity, separating the concept of the self and the grotesque other.
In her book, Kristeva references how all forms of entertainment and art– book, films, paintings, stories, and so on– are able to use the abject. She focused upon literature predominantly, however, citing writers such as Dostoyevsky, Lautreamont, and Kafka as being some of the most talented modern writers due to their use of abject horror. Giving the reader a means to experience abjection while remaining safe and able to walk away is an important side to modern media.
Outside of literature, many artists have given wholly new ways of exploring the abject. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s film, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog), begins with a scene that is infamous for being such a graphic form of the abject. The scene features a man taking a razor and cutting open a woman’s eye, while she’s alive, and allowing the liquid inside to leak out. There’s no context for the scene, no reason, and that style follows on throughout the film. Roger Ebert wrote on Un Chien Andalou back in 2000, discussing the subversive surrealism that cinema had never witnessed before. While he references how analyses of the film with psychological and existential theories of the self are futile, it undeniably inspires abject reactions.
Of course, Kristeva couldn’t have seen the oncoming new form of media that would embrace the abject and offer perhaps the most direct way to experience this limbo between identities without exposing ourselves to true abjection: video games.
One of the clearest examples of games that use the abject is Rule of Rose. Released in 2006 for the Playstation 2, it received average reviews across the board. You play as Jennifer, a young girl at an orphanage where there is a class system between the children and the higher abuse the lower. Punishments are doled out to children that do not meet certain demands by the higher class, some being absolutely atrocious. The game is somewhat popular in some circles, despite being the subject of massive amounts of controversy. Many people called for it to be banned, citing extreme cruelty to children and alluded sexual relations involving young girls. In fact, it gained so much negative publicity, that the game was never released in the United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand.
Unfortunately, due to its limited release, the game is hard to come by. At the release, Mikel Reparaz had this to say in his review:
“There’s no denying that Rule of Rose is extremely pretty, atmospheric and disturbing. Unfortunately, it fails on just about every other level. The gameplay is tedious, the scares are nonexistent and [the protagonist] is such a cringing, passive non-entity that you’ll likely identify more with her malevolent (but strangely endearing) tormenters.”
Many other reviews feature similar opinions– despite the controversial content it has some charm, if you can call it that. Reparaz touches on what makes the game poignant in that last phrase, describing the cruel children as “strangely endearing.” It can seem hard to understand what he means when reading about the events in the game.
I remember reading about Rule of Rose in my mid teens, at about age 15. I read about one punishment for the lead character: she was trapped in a bag while other children dropped bugs in, one after another. A spider, a praying mantis, a piece of food covered in ants. Once enough had been dropped in, the opening was closed and she was left trapped with the bugs. I had to walk away at simply reading about the ordeal. Take a step back, distance myself from this piece of the story.
The main character goes through some horrific ordeals, and must even punish another girl herself at one point. Contrary to what you might expect in a group of children, many are sadistic, lacking any form of empathy, happy to watch as a victim, a friend, squirms in humiliation. There’s no childish naïvety, innocent fun, silly imaginative games. Instead, there is torture and cruelty. It contrasts the images of children we tend to imagine, instead evoking the horror of films such as The Exorcist or The Shining, where children that should be sweet, cute, and wholly innocent are instead the opposite, creepy or disturbing.
There are many moments in Rule of Rose where the player may need to walk away. It’s rife with moments that are made to cause abject reactions. You may feel disgusted, you may want to look away, you may need to remind yourself that it’s a game. The juxtaposition of the abject with the young “endearing” characters is exactly why Rule of Rose is so captivating to many. It tries to balance the two together as a means of giving the player the experience of abjection, and allowing them the catharsis that follows.
One of the most famous and successful indie game developers at the moment is Edmund McMillen, creator of indie phenomenons The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy. Going back to his original games, he has never shied away from controversy: Dead Baby Dressup isn’t exactly a meaningful game; the name is, unfortunately, accurate to the content. Players can dress up a dead baby, in the vein of the many dressup games available online. Since then, his games have steadily improved, both in how fun they are to play and their use of disturbing content.
While he continued to make some questionable content, in 2011 The Binding of Isaac was released to the world. With influences from roguelikes, dungeon crawlers, and a little The Legend of Zelda, it received positive feedback from many critics. Past the gameplay, however, its content received much scrutiny, as its themes in religion (focusing mostly on Christianity, the game’s title being a reference to a passage in the Bible) and its grotesque body horror certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
In an essay on The Slowdown, Martyn Zachary goes in-depth on many different topics related to The Binding of Isaac, even opening with references to abjection and the game. He mentions Barbara Creed, and her book The Monstrous-Feminine, which discusses abjection in relation to women in horror. The Binding of Isaac, as referenced by Zachary, is laden with imagery that reflects Creed’s writing.
Others have criticised The Binding of Isaac to be a crude parody of religion that, rather than having any depth, is a work revelling in “puerile grossness”, as said by Bill Coberly in issue 13, “Luck,” of Five out of Ten.
I tend to agree with Martyn Zachary. While McMillen’s previous work was at best shock and at worst, misogynistic, The Binding of Isaac was a turning point. It blended abject horror, the imagery of vile things that would typically cause revulsion, with the cute art style that his games are known for. It takes steps to remove the intensity of any abjection to the content through this art style. By using the childish and therefore less revolting art style, The Binding of Isaac can stand upon the knife edge where abject horror exists. A sight of aborted fetuses, piles of feces the size of a human, and skulls turned into living hives containing thousands of flies would be, in any other environment, excessively disgusting, but here allows the player to have that abject reaction without the possibility of harm.
I have, so far, focused upon games that use juxtaposition and contrast to bring out the abject, however in March of this year we saw a game take on the challenge of portraying the abject on its own. Dark Souls has had some creatures that could perhaps fit the description of abject. The Gaping Dragon, for example, would be welcomed by Creed as a possible interpretation of the vagina dentata, a folk tale of a toothed vagina that would castrate men, another example of gynophobia in horror. Bloodborne, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s most recent title, strays away from his Dark Souls series in favour of a darker, more sinister world.
The player is a hunter, travelling across Yharnam, a fictional city. There is little explained early on, simply that those living in Yharnam have been infected by some sort of disease, turning them into hideous beasts. The bosses, in particular, feature some truly terrifying designs.
The One Reborn, for example, is interpreted by some to be a stillborn child, mutated into a gigantic beast of unidentifiable giblets and limbs. Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos, is an otherworldy creature with a tentacled head and piercing green eyes surrounding a pink, fleshy center. The horror isn’t limited to bosses, however. A Brainsucker can immobilise the player, insert a pale, thick tentacle into their head and, you guessed it, suck out their brain. Scholars are white, gelatinous masses of goo that stretch and reach out to the player, with a vacant stare. Undead Amalgams are the remains of many bodies, morphed together within a cart to create an aggressive monster that drags itself along the ground with its many arms, with bulging skulls poking out of the meaty mess that makes its body.
Bloodborne is a gorgeous game. The architecture alone is beautiful. A Gothic style, reminiscent of more than a few churches and cathedrals I’ve seen. When you look up to the sky, at the pale moon, sitting above the spires of buildings, you can’t help but look in awe. Then, you look forward, at the street or path ahead of you. Monstrous creatures await, some that are the stuff of nightmares, some I’m sure have kept people up at night.
There are more than a few creatures that look like failed experiments, too. A theme in Bloodborne is eyes, the more the better, and some creatures, such as the Garden of Eyes, have a few more than you’d expect.
Bloodborne doesn’t stick to one trope to invoke this disgust and fear, either. While some are, like the Garden of Eyes, an inhuman monstrosity that should not exist, other enemies, such as the Bloodlickers, are a form of body horror. Playing to a fear of the unknown, using the invisible Lesser Amygdala, Bloodborne reminds players that they’re in a world they do not understand. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it reminds players of weakness, of their inconsequence in this world where everything is stronger than you.
I’d argue that calling Bloodborne a horror game isn’t wrong. It may not fit tropes of horror– be it survival, action, or otherwise– but it constantly disturbs the player. Through imagery, as well as the story which contains some gruesome details, it sticks to its guns throughout. At no point does Bloodborne let up on the horror, yet joining this with the feeling of satisfaction for winning, the huge difficulty curve, creates a perfect environment for involving the abject.
Abjection is a form of catharsis, as is the gameplay of Miyazaki’s titles. A key point in the ‘Souls’ games, as well as Bloodborne, is overcoming obstacles, of becoming better, not just in your character, but in your own skill as a player. The abject, the object, concept or action that disturbs us, must be cast out with abjection, and Bloodborne creates abject creatures that tug at primal fears and inhuman designs to allow us to cast them out through combat. The big text that lights up the darkened screen after every boss fight, “PREY SLAUGHTERED,” is the final moment of the abjection process for each boss. The segment is done, we have preserved our identity and kept safe by proving our worth over the abject. Rather than using the juxtaposition of something endearing and abject or something cute and abject, Bloodborne offers its own form of abjection in the gameplay, allowing the player to come and stand in the face of the abject before distancing themselves.
Of course, other games have toyed with the abject. Silent Hill 3’s ending, which toyed with religion, involved the vomiting and subsequent ingestion from another character of a God as a foetus, to be defeated by the main character. Similarly to how Bloodborne offers the cathartic abjection through its combat, this marked the end of the game, a progression through the abject horrors you had witnessed. In 2011, Steve Spittle wrote an essay titled “”Did This Game Scare You? Because It Sure as Hell Scared Me!” F.E.A.R., the Abject and the Uncanny” that discusses F.E.A.R. and its use of uncertainty to cause terror.
Horror, disgust, violence, and atrocities are not jokes, they are not ideas to be gamified. Instead, they are ideas and emotions to be used to promote this catharsis of abjection, to explore the realm between us and the other, to strengthen our sense of identity by witnessing and removing the abject monstrosities.
As the great books and artworks that Kristeva cited used the genre to do more than get that pulse rising and adrenaline pumping, so do the best games. Horror needs to threaten the very ideas of ourselves, challenge our identity, and then let the jouissance follow. In a medium where we can get even closer to the gruesome fantasy, being able to manipulate the player into abjection is even more important, and even more effective. Bring me close to that “border of my condition as a human being”, and let me look over the edge. Then, will you truly have made horror.
Hannah Dwan has contributed to Playboy, Rock Paper Shotgun and more. You can find her on Twitter at @hoeyboey.