Safe Places: Horror As Therapy
I can hear them calling to me from Hell
There is nothing pleasant about playing P.T. - the playable teaser for the now cancelled Silent Hills video game - at least not on the surface. The game, which can be completed in 45 minutes if you know the solution, places you in the never ending halls of a house haunted by a dead woman, a talking fetus, and a self aware swarm of cockroaches. It is the scariest, most uncomfortable virtual experience I have ever had, and while I admit it is thoroughly disturbing to to point of costing me sleep, I can’t stop playing it.
I have had P.T. for over a year. I know it inside out and backwards, and if you were to watch me play through it you would likely make the same observation that my partner Emma has: I traverse the virtual halls clinically, without a sense of suspense or performance. It is much more thrilling to watch someone else play P.T., like my brother, for instance, who has a sense of direction when playing horror games that can best be described as Craven-esque. No, when I play P.T. I play it wholly for myself despite my passion for sharing it as an experience. I steep in the dread and explore my own way, which sometimes runs contrary to the media's atmosphere.
My sixth or maybe seventh time playing through the game, after it was profoundly clear that there was nothing left for me to discover outside of the occasional bone chilling glitch, I began to question my motivation. Why subject myself to this unpleasant spiral descent into despair time after time, fully aware that no reward awaits me at the game’s end? The answer, I realized, was deeply personal, and when I told Emma about it I had to hold back tears.
I play P.T. because it makes me feel safe.
There’s a monster inside of me
I am a victim of gun violence. When I was 19, my father and I were held up at gunpoint on a pier in Costa Rica, he was shot in the chest, and I carried him to safety after the gunman fled. As a result of this incident (about which you can read more over at Dork Shelf) I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The best way I can describe my disability is to say that it’s like every yesterday was the worst day of my life. The memories of that brutal, bloody life event follow me around very closely, and in a way, I am obsessed with them. I have walked the streets of Costa Rica with a bleeding man on my back every day for almost ten years in my mind. As such, certain stimuli – popularly referred to as triggers – can send me into a paralyzing state of extreme panic.
Realistic TV gun violence, images of guns similar to the one used by my father’s assailant, humid weather: these are my most common triggers, and they have the effect of sending me into various states of distress. The world is a haunted house for me, and at any moment some spring loaded jumpscare is ready to turn my into a jibbering mess.
The feeling of being triggered is not identical to the dread induced by horror media, but it is close. When the humidex is particularly Costa Rica-like the dread I feel in the pit of my stomach, the ache I feel in my joints, and the pin-cushion hypervigilance of my senses is as if I am immersed in horror, but without the safety of a fourth wall.
This game is purely fictitious. It cannot harm you in any way, shape, or form.
When I boot up P.T. and cross its first threshold into the eternal virtual hallway of the damned I start to sweat a little. Just enough that I get a bit of a chill when the air around me moves. I know every terrible thing that is going to happen to me for the next 45-90 minutes, and there is nothing I can do to stop it short of turning off the game.
All these heightened feelings produced by the P.T. – terror, guilt, life or death urgency – they are intimately familiar to me, but when I experience them outside of a game world they are immediate, dangerous and wholly of the present tense. I can't remove myself from a panic attack. But in those computer generated halls I can feel the familiar physical symptoms of horror, dread and panic while also being granted a distance to analyse them.
It is thanks to horror media that I can access my symptoms from a safe distance, allowing me to treasure the thoughts and images that keep me up at night. The screaming of reality is eternal, harsh and too in-the-moment to truly deconstruct or understand. In these safe places, haunted by the worst nightmares we can share with each other, we are permitted to think about what scares us so that we might better accept the real horrors of a world indifferent to suffering.