I was a huge wimp when I was younger. The strangest things would unsettle me. Red Skull in the very dodgy early 1990s version of Captain America terrified me for some unfathomable reason. I didn’t sleep for days. Walking past Aliens action figures in Woolworths scared the life out of me, simply because I’d played five minutes of Aliens on the Commodore 64 and it was far too atmospheric for my overly imaginative mind. That’s how absurd it was.
As a teenager, I avoided many films and games. Things I would have clearly loved because of a great storyline, like The Shining or the Silent Hill games. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it did make me feel a bit daft that I hadn’t grown out of such fears.
And then the world actually ended. Or at least, the world I once knew did. My dearly loved father died suddenly, and it was beyond awful. In the space of about 30 minutes, I went from a fairly regular 23-year-old to a temporarily broken husk of a person. Turns out it’s even worse than you can imagine. It’s incredibly emotionally gruelling and horrific. It throws your world off-kilter, leaving you unable to trust in anything. Because, really, if someone can go from healthy to convulsing to dead in a short space of time in the middle of the night, why would you feel safe about anything ever again?
The world scared me for a long time. Strange noises at night, or ambulance sirens, would understandably unsettle me massively, but so would having a friend turn up unexpectedly or the ping of the microwave. I was a horrible ball of anxiety. Everything about life had the potential to alarm me and it was utterly exhausting.
Weirdly though? Games and films no longer scared me. Not one bit. I discovered this almost by accident by giving Condemned a shot, and realising that I felt nothing towards it. A creepy mannequin could move towards me and nah – it was as if my brain lacked that ability to be afraid. Except, of course, it was afraid of so much more than ever before. A game or film though? That didn’t count.
I tested the theory and watched films I’d normally avoid. Saw films were laughable (okay, they ARE laughable, but that’s how much of a wimp I used to be), and The Shining felt like a fairly lacklustre thriller with some interesting ideas. (I’m sorry. My brain wasn’t very well.) I’d spent years perceiving The Shining as my Everest. I was thoroughly disappointed that I felt nothing towards it. That was when I realised that this wasn’t exactly a good thing. I felt a bit empty. Like I was missing a core part of my being.
As the years went by, I assumed this was it. Emotionally, I improved, fortunately, but fiction continued to leave me unfazed. I looked on in wonder in cinemas when everyone around me would jump at the surprising scare. I felt like an emotionless alien for a moment. I missed being a wimp.
Then, something happened. In the past year, I felt little twitches. I watched Get Out at the cinema and found myself jump at one brief moment. Mentally, it was almost imperceptible, but it was there. Later, I watched Alien 3 with a friend and found a few moments ever so slightly…unsettling, I guess. It was hard to acknowledge what was reconnecting for me. Contextually, it was such a dormant emotion.
It was Layers of Fear that brought it to a head. On an adventure gaming kick of late, I never considered it scaring me. Why would it? Nothing else did before. It’s the tale of a father whose artistic ambitions slowly destroy his family’s happiness, as he descends into madness. A little like The Shining, almost. It promises jump scares, creepy moments, and general weirdness. The kind of thing that makes you question if you really did see something in the corner of your eye or not. It’s tightly written and very good. More importantly, it scared me. At last.
I played it late one Friday night with the lights turned off. The prime time to be alarmed, right? Not usually for me. I’ve experienced far worse things late at night after all.
The game had thrown a few ‘scares’ at me before. I’d backtrack and suddenly the room layout would be entirely different. Another time, I’d hear a baby crying softly in the distance. The usual things. Perhaps my heart rate had increased without me even realising. It didn’t seem so life-changing at the time. I turned a corner, and walked straight into some creepy paintings that I didn’t expect to be so in my face. Oh! That was a weird feeling. What even was that feeling?
I carried on, not quite sure of myself. Walking down a dark corridor, hearing a baby’s cry again, feeling ever so slightly…no, that couldn’t be fear…could it?
The lights came up suddenly and there was a creepy doll walking towards me with a distinctly sinister look on its face. I gasped to myself, feeling my breathing turn more frantic, as I paused the game and immediately turned the lights on in the room.
It’s a very weird feeling – being both scared and delighted. I felt so human again. One more piece of my brain had started working again like it used to, and it was amazing. And unsettling because, oh yes, it was 1am and a creepy game had just scared me! How great was that though?! At last!
It’s been 10 years since that awful night my Dad died. I have no idea how many more pieces of my brain need to reboot. I think and hope it’s relatively few now. I’m so grateful (and unsettled) that Layers of Fear reconfigured a big piece. It’s human to be afraid of the silly things. Not just the big things.