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What is Survival Horror?

Survival horror is usually considered a subgenre of horror or science fiction. It's largely a recent storytelling style, arguably born out of the illusion of safety and order in modern living. Its roots are the darker stories of many mythologies and other old stories, like the original Grimm fairy tales (ex. Hansel and Gretel). It's first distinctive in some Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft stories.

The defining ingredients are usually a small group of accidental protagonists, trapped by horrorific circumstances. They are seldom prepared for the horror, and any preparation or training proves largely inadequate. The horror is usually supernatural, although genetic engineering or aliens are popular substitutes. (Mere serial killers have their own subgenre between horror and thriller.) Isolated or post-apocolyptic settings are the norm: a cabin in the woods, a derelict ship, a plague-ravaged city, etc. Ironically, generic horror is usually just survival by fleeing, while survival horror is survival by fighting and escaping. Protagonists refuse to be victims (see "Hero or victim" below).

Survival horror movies are typically more "interactive" than others. There's a game quality to the scenarios, as protagonists must develop new skills and acquire useful tools, weapons, and information. There's a humble victory condition: just getting out alive. The audience may be more involved, silently or overtly pleading with protagonists: "Don't open that door!" (When my friends and I watch, we loudly criticise stupid choices.) (Mysteries have a similar degree of involvement, as many fans of that genre try to solve "who dunit" before the final scene.)

Notable examples of survial horror in movies include John Carpenter's The Thing, Aliens, Resident Evil, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, Ghost Ship, 28 Days Later, and especially Pitch Black (which I highly recommend as an intro and sterling example). Some might classify The Blair Witch Project as survival horror, but the protagonists don't/can't fight back. Night of the Living Dead is largely regarded as the seminal work of survival horror in modern movies, with Hitchcock's The Birds also worthy of regard. Many movies have limited segments or elements of survival horror (e.g. Bram Stoker's Dracula).

I enjoy survival horror in movies and especially in games, for the strong themes at work. These include:

The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. -Henry David Thoreau (more quotes)

Created by Kym Buchanan | http://KymBuchanan.org | This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Some content and curriculum based on work by: Maysee Herr, Rand Spiro, Lisa Bardon, Quinn Stanley, Larry Riggs, Pat Shaw, Sue Slick, and others at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Unattributed images are the work of the author or taken from Microsoft PowerPoint.

Last revised 6/8/16