Virtual Trick or Treat: Terror in VR

I’ve always been a bit of a horror movie junkie. IT, The Exorcist, Halloween, the Shining—all are obligatory October viewing in preparation for Halloween. While I find these flicks entertaining, none really terrify me. I had concluded that these movies, and their modern-day counter parts, had become repetitive. I was left feeling jaded rather than scared. When I tried VR, everything changed.

Man in factory using AR

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I need to clarify something: I love to be scared by horror movies, but that doesn’t mean I like being scared in real life. Like most sane people, I dislike feeling frightened.

In recent years haunted houses have sprung up at theme parks dotted around the world. Unlike some of their lo-fi predecessors, the latest incarnation of the traditional haunted house now use convincing special effects, grizzly props and costumed actors to physically chase and scare the wits out of visitors. Once inside, rooms spin, passageways tighten, and bridges groan as you make your way through eerie surroundings. It’s immersive and frightening.

VR enables immersive horror games

I do NOT like horror houses. Being touched by strangers, even professional strangers, is just too creepy for me to enjoy.

So, horror VR I thought—perfect. It’s like a movie in that it all plays out in front of you and there is no real physical interaction.

At least that was the plan when I tried out a very basic horror game at Samsung’s 837 showroomin New York City.

It was such a simple premise. Put a headset on, put on some headphones and sit back in a large relaxing chair. But as soon as the game started, I was uneasy.

The graphics weren’t marvelous, and definitely not convincingly lifelike. But it was fascinating how quickly your senses can be made feel uncomfortable when the stimulus is unreliable.

Logically I knew I was sitting in a room full of people wearing a headset, but I *felt* I was in the world of this game: a dark Victorian mansion on a stormy night.

Thunder pounded in my ears, along with my heartbeat. Every time the candlelight failed in the game, I could feel myself straining to see what was out there… and then flinching away in fear. It was creepy and addictive.

As virtual reality technology gets more immersive and prevalent, my experiences will become more commonplace. In 2016, the Los Angeles coworking space Ctrl Collective built numerous room-size horror VR environments, which attracted more than 1,500 visitors.

Knott’s Berry Farm in Southern California admitted “patients” into a virtual reality psychiatric hospital where a demonically possessed killer was on the loose.

Recently, VR experience company The Void has been taking the idea of horror VR one step further by building elaborate, physically connected sets that allow users to actually walk, touch, and even smell the environment, instead of simply sitting still with headsets on.

VR popularity growing worldwide

It shouldn’t be surprising – after all, virtual reality is a rapidly expanding business. In fact, a recent Ericsson ConsumerLab study found 7 out of 10 early adopters expect VR to change everyday life fundamentally in six domains: media, education, work, social interaction, travel and retail. And more than a third of early adopters have shifted some of their video viewing on physical screens to video experiences in VR.

And it makes sense—because when I was sitting in that seat in that virtual reality game, I was a hell of a lot more scared than watching any horror movie. My body automatically reacted to what I was seeing and experiencing—I got goosebumps, I leaned forward in my chair, I looked around wildly. VR was definitely scarier than a movie—but safer than a haunted house.

At least I thought so until a friend managed to grab my leg at the exact same moment as the zombie in the game did and I yelled enough to scare a whole New York City block.

Ah well. Maybe I’m too chicken for horror VR after all.

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