There are some cultures that believe taking a photograph captures a part of your soul. Your job in Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly is to fight horror by recording it.
Playing as Mio Amakura, you and your twin sister Mayu unravel the mysteries behind the gruesome apparitions haunting Minakami Village. It is easily one of the scariest games ever developed.
Exorcisms in Fatal Frame II aren’t so much about vanquishing ghosts as they are uncovering stories with the Camera Obscura, an antique ghostbusting lens that will “take pictures of impossible things.” You take raw photos of ghosts as a remembrance of a dark past, shedding light on their pain, self-hatred, and regrets. Snapping pictures of the forgotten tragedies, you bring both exposure and reconciliation. The closer you get to the faces of the ghouls before snapping the image, the more their wounds hurt them. Many are lost in revery, whispering pleas for help and forgiveness.
For example, in the Osaka House, one of the first ghosts you encounter is Miyako Sudo, who entered the village trying to find her lost boyfriend, Masumi. Masumi was killed by the villagers, and in turn, his furious ghost killed Miyako. The legacy of murder echoes in the present as Miyako haunts the house, seeking both revenge and understanding. She continually wanders the house asking, “Why?” Camera bursts bring temporary peace, or at least rest, until her fury reawakens.
The camera itself has a lot of customization and can be upgraded using Spirit Points extracted during battles. Different film types increase damage, and swapping lenses results in new functions like slowing down enemies or blasting them back. But the camera’s most notable features are the Shutter Chances and the eponymous Fatal Frames. If you wait to snap a picture until that right moment of vulnerability when the ghost is about to eviscerate you, you cause them to drown in guilt over their sins. The camera motif is reinforced by the game’s visuals:When a ghost grabs you, the image colors get inverted. Often you’ll see the grainy noise filter of an old film on screen and a desaturated haze when a spirit passes by.
The total number of houses you actually explore are limited, but each habitat betrays the crimes of the damned. The camera angles are predetermined, and at times you feel like a distant observer. When you bring out the camera, it turns to first person mode, and there’s both a comfort to it and a voyeuristic terror of what you might see.
Mio and Mayu have a secret intertwined with another set of twins from the village’s past, Sae Kurosawa and her sister, Yae. Sae frequently possesses Mayu, forcing Mio to rescue her. But at a deeper level, Mio is haunted by guilt about a childhood accident that caused Mayu to injure her leg, giving her a permanent limp. Uncovering the past of the twins reveals the Hellish Abyss (Utsuro), a gateway to the land of the dead in which one of the sisters must be sacrificed.
There’s a room filled with dolls that were created by the father of one of the victims of the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual around which the game focuses. He tried to comfort his surviving daughter, Akane, with a doll in the image of her dead sister. Unfortunately, that doll became possessed by an evil spirit that caused Akane to strangle her father. In the Kiryu House, Akane and her evil doll will attack you in tight corridors, trapping you in a pincer that makes for frenetic battles. Akana hunting you together with her twin doll makes a scary duo that highlights that Mio is both there with her sister and all alone.
Simple things in the game are terrifying. A notebook that repeats the text “why kill? why kill? why kill?” evoked memories of The Shining’s “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” One of the worst was the appearance of the Folklorist, Kusabi. He is the only ghost who can kill you with a single blow. Worse, he is invincible, upping the tension even more as he charges you. His rage becomes almost understandable when you realize he was subjected to the mutilation of the Cutting Ritual. He was tied up by ropes and slashed multiple times by the veiled priests, then thrown into the Abyss. No wonder he returns with a vengeance.
There’s one ghost in particular who struck a nerve. A few years back, I lived in a tall apartment building. One day, I saw police had cordoned off an area along the sidewalk in front of the lobby. Someone had committed suicide by jumping. The security guard was shaken up, having actually seen footage of the fall. Another morning, we heard a loud crash outside of our building. We looked outside our window and saw a car had been totaled. A woman had lost control of her Benz and died in a terrible accident. People who lived nearby would often ask if the building was haunted. Shortly after we moved out, someone was shot in the bus stop outside our building. A friend of mine who stayed the night dreamt that a woman was hanging in our living room. Though I never experienced anything supernatural, it still give me shivers to think about living there.
In Fatal Frame II, there’s a Falling Woman ghost who screeches as she falls. On the ground, bones broken, she crawls towards you for her attack. She falls over and over, reliving that moment of impact. Confronting this spirit triggered triggered memories of my old home.
It’s these tragic stories that lead to the climax and the final revelation. The Crimson Sacrifice Ritual requires that one sister kill the other. In the canon ending, Mio must kill Mayu. Mio’s hands strangle Mayu, and the mark it leaves on her sister’s neck resembles a butterfly.
Mayu is thrown into the abyss, where she is reincarnated as a butterfly, joining the hundreds of other crimson butterflies who’ve also been sacrificed. Did her sacrifice even have any meaning since the village was already destroyed? The most terrifying part was that I didn’t have an answer I felt I could live with. It’s the kind of question that can drive one to the grave… and beyond.