How Empathy Takes the Fear Out of Horror

After playing Saya no Uta – The Song of Saya this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about horror games. And when it comes to me personally, I have to accept that all my life I have been a complete wuss when it comes to the horror genre.

While watching a horror movie or playing a horror game, I am usually okay—probably thanks to my endless string of curses breaking up the immersion. However, when I am lying alone in bed later that night, I know that the real horror is about to start. I have what you might call an active and gruesome imagination, and I am more than capable of scaring the crap out of myself. So with its graphic images and disturbing plot developments in mind, I knew what lay around the corner for me thanks to The Song of Saya. But did those little night terrors continue for long? No, they did not.

To explain why, let’s look at my experience with a well-known horror movie. Back in college, I got two free tickets to see the American version of The Ring. I had no idea what kind of movie it was but I decided to take my girlfriend to see it. Incidentally, I loved the movie—but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t constantly haunted by an irrational fear of TVs for the next several months.

In fact my fear of that movie persisted somewhat over the next few years, even as I watched the Japanese version and its sequels. However, upon watching the prequel film, Ring 0: Birthday, my fear completely evaporated. Why?

How Empathy Takes the Fear Out of Horror

Because while in the other movies Sadako is the villain, the Ring 0 casts her as the protagonist. She is an incredibly sympathetic character: a girl with powers she doesn’t understand trying to live a normal life. Of course, that doesn’t stop the other characters in the film from actively trying to ruin her life.

So by the time evil Sadako appears near the end of the film, we are cheering her on, rooting for the deaths of all the characters who wronged her. The film establishes Sadako as such a sympathetic character that forcing people to watch a video of weird imagery seems like a small price to pay for the sins committed against her.

My contemplation of The Song of Saya, brought me to a similar understanding of Saya and Fuminori as they can be seen by the player in a same light as Sadako. By seeing why they are raping/murdering/eating people in a slow, step-by-step progression, we in turn support them despite knowing that their actions are immoral.

How Empathy Takes the Fear Out of Horror

Being on the monster's side is not unique to Japanese games, however. Both of the Batman Arkham games have you play a similar role. While Batman is a superhero to us, this is only because we know what is going on with his backstory—we know his fears and hopes as well as his motivations. But to the criminals who have no such information, he is an unkillable horror monster on par with Saya or Sadako. He strikes from the shadows, picking them off one by one like a creature hungry to dine on their sins.

And that is why once you see the person behind the “monster,” fear simply evaporates. In other words, it's hard to fear what you understand on an emotional level.

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