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Why Do I Like Surivival Horror?

When I describe survival horror or try to discuss an example movie, people often question my interest and affection for this subgenre. Superficially, survival horror (SH) is gratuitously violent and dark. But in contrast to its parent genre of general horror, good SH is a delicate balance of sensory extremes like gore, and extremes of narrative and character. These latter extremes fascinate me. Furthermore, I enjoy the game-like elements of survival horror, the concise new ideas, and its self-awareness as a subgenre.

In "What is Survival Horror?" I list several distinguishing elements of the subgenre. Three are especially relevant to appreciating SH: human fallibility, human resourcefulness, and hero or victim. I enjoy the realism and unpredictability of dynamic, multidimensional characters from normal backgrounds thrust into abnormal danger. In SH, some apparently-heroic characters reveal themselves as cowards or villains, while other characters are surprised by their own strength and courage. Characters survive by willpower and action, avoiding both catatonia and hubris. (In contrast, many victims in general horror die in screaming paralysis.) Some movies even use audience recognition of famous actors to emphasize "hero or victim," killing those characters we expect to survive and revealing obstinate heroism in others (e.g., Deep Blue Sea).

Artistotle may have been the first to explain that plot is character, that the actions of characters propel a story. Thus, interesting characters doing interesting things make an interesting story. SH is an extreme example of character-driven narrative. The story is primarily the characters' story: their survival, and their revelations and changes under duress. As with science fiction, characters confront the alien/unknown and try to master the situation, perhaps by containing or destroying the evil. But this effort is primarily a crucible for their character development, as their success is decided by their altruism and selfishness, teamwork and betrayal, confidence and spite. A SH story succeeds or fails on how interesting the characters are. Good SH has smart characters with smart dialog making smart choices. SH characters have more than just a fleeting nobility before death. They show a persistent heroism in adversity.

At its best, SH use complex, dynamic storytelling. It challenges audience assumptions and plays against type. Gore is often sudden and realistic (e.g., The Thing), offset by slow, sterile scenes of grim anticipation, and grounded in a naturalistic protrayal of human beings (including sweat, exhaustion, and physical shock). These sensory extremes are an adrenaline rush, while the intriguing characters and story are mind candy. The gore is a vehicle for story, not an end in itself. Still, there is always some danger of retaining a "mental poison": disturbing images and experiences. This is a relatively-minor concern for me, because I have a vivid imagination that independently conjures both joyful and horrorific images and ideas. But SH is clearly limited in audience appropriateness and appeal. Also, some general horror or slasher horror may present itself as SH (e.g., Event Horizon). This is usually disappointing and leaves me without a redemption plot to temper the mental poison.

I enjoy SH for its game-like elements. (Thus, SH games are especially enjoyable.) The setting is constrained, as are the resources. There is a rhythm to the action, often alternating between the characters' "turn" and the chaos' "turn." The isolated or post-apocolyptic settings enforce the rules: there is no deux ex machina, no incoming rescue team. (When there is a rescue team, it will never arrive in time, etc.) At least some characters triumph in SH. In many general horror movies, evil wins: a vicious surprise at the expense of the audience's hopes. Of course, many SH and general horror movies end with "the lady or the tiger" (e.g. Screamers), mocking my simplistic expectations (and foreshadowing a possible sequel).

Finally, I enjoy SH for its new ideas and its nature as a subgenre. I enjoy fiction most when it presents new ideas, as with speculative fiction. SH is often speculative fiction, especially when the evil is created by humans. I like short fiction, especially movies or short stories, because I can get the new ideas without investing more than a few hours. SH is inherently restricted in length: the intensity and coherence of the story depends on a finite amount of time. For this and other reasons, SH is a very self-aware subgenre. Genre cues and cross references are common. Masterpieces are few, and thus widely known and respected. It's a niche subgenre with a limited fanbase. But as a dedicated fan, I enjoy the cues and homages.

I enjoy survival horror for a variety of reasons, especially the extremes of characters and storytelling. Its game-like elements, new ideas, and subgenre style are also attractive. While possible mental poison is a risk, my gamble usually pays off through compelling stories of ordinary humans overcoming extraordinary peril.

The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible. -David M. Ogilvy (more quotes)

Created by Kym Buchanan | | 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