Let’s Talk About Survival Horror

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The differences between some horror games are like the differences between a haunted house ghost ride and being chased by an actual deranged killer. Being startled is one thing, but the feeling of being pursued by a genuine threat is as hellishly exhilarating as it is difficult to simulate. Horror video games such as Resident Evil (1996) and Silent Hill (1999) laid foundations for the concept of ‘Survival Horror’ as much as later titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010) and The Forest (2014) branched out and developed what it meant, finding new ways to milk the formidable dread of being stalked. The feeling could arguably translate to many mediums of art and entertainment, none however finding it nearly as easy to achieve as video games. When a player can digitally embody a character’s perspective, or further still, make a character to look just like them, then immersing the common individual shouldn’t be all that hard.

Friday the 13th movie poster

Films, on the other hand, must rely on a variety of tricks to achieve the fight-or-flight-tickling survival horror sensation. This can include stylistic choices, core concepts and often exploitation of the setting and the themes buried within it. Slasher flicks like Friday 13th (1980) commonly include a group of people desperately trying to escape a killer with their lives which, when done well, forces the viewer to consider their own mortality over and over. Apocalyptic horror films like I Am Legend (2007) can portray a single individual as the last surviving human, posing questions of society and seclusion to its audience while basking in the heavy dread of pure isolation. 

It is within this isolation that many horror films thrive, and setting is one of the more common tools to make it work. Of course the true requirement for audience immersion is quality acting, though setting can often act as a character itself, becoming in some cases the ultimate source of terror. Many horror films such as Backcountry (2015)Willow Creek (2014) and arguably The Revenant (2016) (the latter featuring one of the most savage bear attacks in film history) take place within vast wildernesses for this very reason. When things go wrong, there aren’t many places to go, and chances of survival decrease drastically. One of the most effective of these films, especially for the general British public, is Eden Lake (2004). When a couple retreat to the idyllic titular spot in the woods for a quiet weekend, their worst nightmares manifest in the form of a group of troubled youths. Armed with a capable cast and a believable plot, this violent thriller consistently raises question after horrible question of morality and group mentality, right up until its hair-raising finale. Not a lot of us will have come across bigfoot or even a grizzly bear in our lives, though trouble at the hands of ‘hoodies’ is something many are accustomed to. 

Of course isolation does not necessarily depend upon setting, and the plot of a film can have just as much bearing on this effect. Many stories tell of an apocalyptic age, one taking place after much of humanity has been wiped out, and focus on the exploits of a few survivors. Within films such as The Crazies (1973/2010), Doomsday (2008)I am Legend (2007) and Mad Max (1979) are insights into the psychology of people forced to outlive their species, along with a lot of wacky violence. When characters are thrown into a lawless world of gangs and deadly viruses, new and often brutal measures of survival are employed. Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007) centres around a small town overrun with, you guessed it, an insidious mist. Within this mist, however, are terrors beyond which they have ever known, and the only hope for a modest group is to lock themselves into the local supermarket. As the story progresses, antagonists become more numerous in the form of other survivors, and what follows is a potent and nightmarish surmise into what religion and mob mentality could achieve in such a situation. The story is told through the eyes of David Drayton as he tries to protect his son Billy from the gospel-preaching insanity of Mrs Carmody, and poses a harrowing choice between a world of monsters and the company of his neighbors as they slowly become monsters themselves. 

One must not necessarily wait for the apocalypse to explore the volatile chaos of a group of isolated people. This idea provides the base concept for many horror films from the prolific Saw series to smaller flicks like Await Further Instructions (2018) and Would You Rather (2012) wherein a congregation are held by some sinister means and forced to endure some psychological or physical torture. These films are an excellent vehicle for exploring the psychology of different groups when faced with a life or death situation. While a common trope is to bring a group of (supposed) strangers together for some hellish game, Await Further Instructions pits a British family at Christmas against some unseen, unknown threat that has contained them within their house. It is a brilliantly executed exercise into paranoia, xenophobia and the true meaning of family values when said family is pushed to the brink by an otherworldly threat. 

Alien horror movie poster 1979 showing an alien egg in space

Things not-of-this-earth have been a source of terror for centuries. Being lost in wooded wilderness is one thing, however space is arguably the ultimate setting for claustrophobia and pure hopelessness. Alien (1979) teased us with the idea that an extraterrestrial threat could reach earth while gleefully exhibiting the effects of just one of these organisms on a spaceship’s crew. Where it thrives is within the tight, winding corridors and vents of The Nostromo, where the crew are mercilessly picked off by the ultimate killing machine. Coupled with this internal threat is the vastness of space only sheet-metal’s width away. When properly considered, the extinction of the human race wouldn’t be all that hard (look at how we handle a virus outbreak) and the horror writers and directors who know this will always hit harder at our baser survival instincts. Stay safe, and stay alive. 



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The Diverse History of Survival Horror

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We’ve all been in these survival horror scenarios before.

You find yourself in the middle of a dark and creepy abandoned hospital, your only source of light a flickering flashlight. You’re searching for your missing daughter, and you have a gut feeling that she’s somewhere in this building. As you move deeper into the hospital, you start to feel like something is following you, and every shadow seems to hold a new threat. Suddenly, you hear a sound coming from one of the rooms and it sends shivers down your spine. You slowly push open the door and find yourself face to face with a horde of twisted and deformed creatures, their eyes glowing in the dark. They let out a blood-curdling roar, and you realize that you’re low on ammo.


What is Survival Horror?

“Survival horror” is a subgenre of the horror genre that focuses on a character or characters attempting to survive against some form of deadly threat, often in a situation where they are helpless or poorly equipped. This genre typically involves a combination of horror and action elements, as the characters must not only evade or hide from the danger, but also actively fight back against it.

Survival horror scenario abandoned hallway

In survival horror games and movies, the protagonist is often portrayed as vulnerable and in a disadvantageous position, such as being stranded in an isolated location or being pursued by a powerful and deadly monster. The goal of the protagonist is to survive by using limited resources, solving puzzles, and making strategic decisions.

The genre is characterized by its emphasis on suspense, tension, and fear. The atmosphere is often creepy and foreboding, with a focus on creating a sense of dread and unease for the player or viewer. The genre often incorporates elements of science fiction horror, with storylines that involve the supernatural, mutants, or viral outbreaks. It’s challenging to effectively trace the history of survival history because it overlaps with so many other genres. Instead we will just give a brief overview as it relates to video games, movies, and books.

Survival Horror in Games

The survival horror genre is most commonly associated with video games, and here its roots go back to the late 1970s through 1980s, with the release of horror-themed cartridge games like Haunted House (1972) and Sweet Home (1989). These early games established the basic formula of a character navigating through a dangerous environment while facing off against frightening creatures.

The survival horror genre came into its own in the 1990s with the release of Alone in the Dark (1992) on the PC and Resident Evil (1996) on the PlayStation console. These games popularized the genre with their combination of survival mechanics, such as resource management and puzzle-solving, with intense action and horror elements. The success of Resident Evil in particular paved the way for other successful survival horror franchises like Clock Tower (1996) and Silent Hill (1999), and it was Capcom who first coined the term “survival horror”..

Logo for Resident Evil survival horror video game

In the 2000s, the genre experienced a resurgence in popularity with the advent of new gaming technologies and a greater focus on creating immersive and atmospheric experiences. The release of games like Dead Space (2008), Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010) and the Outlast series brought a new level of intensity to the genre, emphasizing psychological horror and creating more intense, frightening experiences for players.

In recent years, the survival horror genre has continued to evolve, incorporating new technologies and gameplay mechanics to create more immersive and terrifying experiences. For example, Until Dawn (2015) allows players to control multiple characters and the game changes based on decisions made, while Dead by Daylight (2016) features one versus four gameplay where one player is the killer and the other four attempt to survive. As virtual reality games become more popular, survival horror will continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in the world of horror gaming.

Other popular survival horror video games include: Fatal Frame (2001), Resident Evil 4 (2005), The Last of Us (2013), and The Evil Within (2014). The Last of Us also being a fan favorite tv show.

Poster for The Last of Us survival horror video game

Survival Horror in Movies

Much like in gaming, the history of survival horror in movies can also be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s, with early films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) setting the groundwork for the genre, and later being followed by movies such as The Thing (1982) and Predator (1987). These films established the basic formula of characters facing off against dangerous and terrifying threats, often with limited resources and weapons. 

The 1990s saw survival horror being blended with other subgenres, such as “body horror”, with films like Candyman (1992) and Event Horizon (1997) bringing a new level of intensity and gore to the survival horror genre. These films expanded on the core formula of survival horror, incorporating elements of science fiction and supernatural horror to create even more frightening and suspenseful experiences for audiences.

Shot from Candyman survival horror movie

In the 2000s, the survival horror genre experienced a resurgence in popularity with the release of successful films like The Ring (2002) and Saw (2004). These films brought a new level of psychological horror to the genre, exploring the dark and twisted thoughts and motivations of the characters in a way that was both terrifying and thought-provoking. Other great movies from the era include 28 Days Later (2002), The Descent (2005), The Mist (2007), Eden Lake (2008) and The Ruins (2008).

More recently, the survival horror genre has continued to evolve and expand, with newer films bringing an increased level of realism and immediacy to the genre, creating more anxiety-inducing and unnerving experiences for audiences. You can find survival horror happening in the woods with The Ritual (2017), in the snow with Frozen (2012), in a alligator-filled hurricane with Crawl (2019), on a deserted island with Sweetheart (2019), and under the water with movies like 47 Meters Down (2017) and Underwater (2020) 

Other popular survival horror movies include: Buried (2010), The Shallows (2016), A Quiet Place (2018), and Alone (2020).

Scary island in survival horror

Survival Horror in Literature

The history of survival horror in books and comics can be traced back to the Gothic novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). These early works established many of the core themes and motifs that would come to define the survival horror genre, including the use of suspense, tension, and fear to create a sense of danger and unease. A lot of the genre owes thanks to the works of Lovecraft as well, which often feature investigative narratives and characters struggling to survive insurmountable odds.

In the 20th century, the survival horror genre continued to evolve and expand in the world of literature with the publication of books like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1975), Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006), and Comac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), along with the creation of popular comic book series like The Walking Dead (2003). These works brought a new level of intensity and realism to the genre, exploring the fear and desperation of characters facing off against dangerous and unpredictable threats.

Moving into the 21st century, the genre has continued to thrive in the world of books and comics, with the publication of works like Josh Malerman’s Bird Box (2014) and of graphic novels such as Grant Morrison’s Nameless (2017). These works bring a new level of sophistication and complexity to the genre, exploring the psychological and emotional aspects of survival in the face of horror and danger.

Other popular survival horror books/comics include: 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles (2002), The Last One by Alexandra Oliva (2017), The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2018), The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling (2019), Below by Laurel Hightower (2022), and The Deep (2015) and The Troop (2016) both by Nick Cutter.

Final Thoughts

Today, the survival horror genre remains one of the most popular and enduring and diverse subgenres of horror, attracting fans with its multitudes of settings and its combination of suspense, tension, and fear. The genre continues to evolve and expand, with new games, movies, and other forms of media that explore new and exciting directions for survival horror.



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