Nasty and Restricted- how horror benefits from scarcity
In 2014 at the Gamescom trade fair in Cologne, Germany, PlayStation announced a mysterious new game. It was a playable teaser created by new developer, 7780s Studio, and was available as a free 1.3 GB download. Media coverage of this announcement was very subdued, usually amounting to a few lines written amongst more exciting coverage of the event. But it was downloaded and played, and soon its secrets were revealed.
The teaser opens in first person perspective, with the player character lying on a dirty concrete floor. You stand, and walk through a door into a well-lit suburban hallway. The clock on the end table indicates that it is 11.59 pm. It’s quiet and there’s no sign of life apart from the radio. The news report coming through details a horrible family murder. You walk down the corridor, and it’s a hallway you’ve seen before- friendly, beige, generic. Soon enough, you find the steps that lead down to the basement. You walk through the door and arrive back in the first hallway.
You’re stuck in a loop. And you’re going to be stuck in this loop for some time.
What then unfolds is a masterpiece of video game horror. Christopher Grant sings his praises in an article for The Verge, calling it “…something entirely new in the video game space,” and “…one of the best horror games I've ever played and the best game I've played this year.” David Houghton for Games Radar claims that the game, known only as P.T., “…has changed my whole scale for what a good horror game is, not just in quality, but in ethos and philosophy too.” Soon enough, players began finishing the game and unlocking the secret ending on mass, revealing that it was a playable teaser for a much more familiar video game franchise. 7780s Studio wasn’t responsible for the game, because 7780s Studio doesn't exist. P.T. was actually created by Konami and renowned developer Hideo Kojima and film director Guillermo del Toro. It was a teaser for a new addition to the Silent Hill horror game franchise.
There are a lot of things about P.T. that contribute to it being one of the most notable pieces of horror media to be created in the last few years. The teaser utilises horror tropes that engage audiences in ways that are arguably more profound than graphic violence and jump scares. The realistic sound effects, generic suburban setting, hanging lighting fixtures that change colour and swing when pushed, and the lack of a clear narrative voice or objective leaves the player feeling uneasy, and much more susceptible to the fear that comes with the simple slamming of a door. But it’s not just in-narrative that P.T. creates a terrifying atmosphere. The developers included fake crash screens and glitches in the sound and images that appear to be real bugs. The game feels rough not because it is a teaser, but because there appears to be something deeply wrong with it on a paranormal level. And, while I was watching a playthrough, I could have sworn that a figure was following the player, staying just out of sight except when the player spun around. Noted game hacker Lance McDonald noticed this too, and discovered that as soon as the player retrieves a flashlight at a certain point in the game, the model of a ghostly figure attaches to the player and actually follows you as you walk through the house. It wasn’t my imagination. I was convinced that the fear was just getting to me and it was all in my head, but no. P.T. leaves you feeling haunted, in a very pervasive and literal sense.
I want to talk about P.T. because it exhibits one of the most powerful tools that horror writers and artists can use when attempting to create audience fear- scarcity.
After Silent Hills was canned in 2015 amid disputes between Kojima and Konami, P.T. was removed from the PlayStation store and is no longer available for download. There is a version that exists as a fan remake of the teaser, but you can only play the original P.T. if you have a PS4 with the game already downloaded onto it. So, I have not played P.T. and I probably never will. The game is fascinating and full of cryptic puzzles and hidden content, so discussions of the game still abound online. There is still plenty of interest in this title, and part of that is down to its absence. What would the game have been like if it was finished? Could Silent Hills have been one of the greatest video games ever created? There will always be an air of mystery that surrounds this game, and it is this mystery that contributes to the emotional power that this teaser possesses in the cultural world of survival horror games. I’m sure this was not intended, but there’s no denying the fact that players new and old become drawn to the questions and unknowns that still plague the project. Scarcity is a powerful aspect of the paratheatrical, which I have discussed before. If you want your horror game to extend the experience of audience fear beyond its traditional boundaries, then scarcity is an excellent way to spark engagement, even in those who can't access your work. And P.T. is certainly not the only example of horror media that benefits from its scarcity.
While a breakup between studio and creator can lead to a work becoming inaccessible, there are plenty of other ways in which horror media has been made scarce. In the past, outright censorship of horror films and novels could elevate the cultural status of a work from 'just scary' to 'societally dangerous'. For example, in the 1980s Britain was in the midst of a moral panic surrounding so-called ‘video nasties.’ These horror and exploitation films were gaining popularity in the new VHS market, where unregulated independent films were making their way into the innocent homes of British video watchers. Naturally, these low budget horror films sparked an outcry over the degeneration of civil society. The fear-mongering of the video nasty era was legendarily outlandish- during a hearing in 1982, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America stated that “…the VCR is to the American film producer... as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” The cultural gatekeepers of the time were convinced that widespread access to home video was leading to filmmakers indulging in their perversions to the detriment of the viewing public.
And so, several now-famous horror films were banned. This came as a result of the government’s decision to make the selling or supplying of a video that the British Board of Film Classification hadn’t reviewed a crime. The list of banned films included works that are considered horror classics today, including Last House on the Left (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and The Evil Dead (1981). Some of these films arguably live up to the reputation implied by the ban- Cannibal Holocaust, for instance, is widely considered to be one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and was still banned in Australia up until 2005. Of course, there’s a lot of shlock featured on the illustrious list of banned video nasties, including films like The Driller Killer, in which an unstable artist takes to the streets to kill homeless people with a DIY portable power drill. Films of this calibre certainly have their defenders, and are horror classics of a different sort. But these films, where the horror amounts nothing more than a bad special effect that barely registers as shocking in today’s media landscape, greatly benefitted from the cultural status of censorship. As S. Mark Gubb writes in his defence of the film for Wales Arts Review, he was first brought into The Driller Killer’s cultural narrative as a child when he saw the video cover at the shops-
“It alluded to something that was way beyond my reach at the time – a blood-soaked forbidden fruit, only to be accessed by adults… I would look to catch a glimpse of the cover whenever we went to the store until, one day, it was gone. I remember wondering why until my much-older cousin who had managed to get in to see The Evil Dead at our local cinema even though he wasn’t 18, explained to me that a group of films had been deemed so violent and scary that they had been banned.”
Was The Driller Killer banned for being 'too scary'? No- it was banned because at one point the eponymous killer drills a hole in someone’s head. But, to the general public who cannot independently verify the content of an banned film, it certainly seemed like the government was protecting society by legally suppressing 'nasty' content. And to horror audiences, banned content essentially represent media that is of a higher quality- or, too scary for the general public. Are The Evil Dead and The Driller Killer comparable in terms of quality of horror and cultural value? That’s a question for another time. Regardless of your opinion, all of these films were categorised together as horror films that were shocking and ground-breaking for the time (even if that wasn’t actually the case), and so all enjoy the status that came with scarcity. When something is banned or pulled from shelves, the mythmaking begins and a cultural narrative forms around it. These films became artefacts and, like P.T., develop a following and have their horror elements enhanced by a lack of ready access.
The larger question posed by scarcity in the paratheatrical experience is about more than just banned or pulled media gaining cultural interest because it’s ‘good’ horror content being denied an audience. It’s clear that quality can have very little to do with scarcity.
So why do audiences become so interested, even if quality is not guaranteed?
In this capitalistic, hedonistic, instantaneous media landscape we all enjoy, is there maybe some unknown thrill in wanting to see a movie that is banned in your country, or a game pulled from online stores? Perhaps there’s an element of the forbidden fruit, as Gubb recalls, that inspires audience curiosity because audiences aren’t really used to being denied access to media anymore.
Even though The Driller Killer is no longer banned, there still lingers this aura of transgression. If you Google the film, the phrase ‘video nasty’ still pops up on the first page of results. It has become a shorthand of sorts to denote the most extreme and potentially exciting horror films of the 70s and 80s, even if that isn't true for every film on the list. And even if horror media isn’t banned for being 'too scary', its removal by other means still leaves its loyal audience wanting more. P.T. was released as a free and instant download to be consumed quickly and inspire future sales. I’m reminded of movie theatres selling overly salty snacks to guarantee that you’ll come back to the candy bar looking for something else to buy to quench a thirst you didn’t really have. But Silent Hills will never exist, and that thirst will always go unquenched.
Modern audiences want what they have been promised. Modern audiences want to assess that aura of transgression and mystery for themselves. And modern audiences really don’t like hearing that word-
What do you think? How has scarcity impacted your relationship to a film, play, book, or game? Is scarcity limited to the horror genre?
Please share your musings in the comments!
Byrne, C 2005, ‘20 notorious video nasties’, The Independent, 27 September, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/20-notorious-video-nasties-5348084.html>.
Grant, C 2014, ‘Why 'P.T.' is more exciting than 'Silent Hills,' and the future of the video game demo’, The Verge, 21 August, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://web.archive.org/web/20140822100227/http:/www.theverge.com/2014/8/21/6039889/why-pt-is-more-exciting-than-silent-hills-and-the-future-of-the-video-game-demo>.
Grubb, J 2019, ‘Silent Hills: P.T. fans release remake for PC’, Venture Beat, 4 January, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://venturebeat.com/2019/01/04/silent-hills-p-t-fans-release-remake-for-pc/>.
Gubb, SM 2019, ‘In defence of… The driller killer’, Wales Arts Review, 29 November, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://www.walesartsreview.org/in-defence-of-the-driller-killer/>.
Houghton, D 2016, ‘P.T. is still the purest horror game around, and one of the smartest on PS4’, Games Radar, 31 October, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://www.gamesradar.com/au/why-pt-first-real-horror-game-years-and-best-game-ps4/>.
McDonald, L 2019, Twitter, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://twitter.com/manfightdragon/status/1170859463508557824>.
McWhertor, M 2014, ‘P.T. is a new interactive horror game for PlayStation 4 and you can try it now (update)’, Polygon, 12 August, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://www.polygon.com/2014/8/12/5995459/pt-interactive-horror-teaser-playstation-4-demo/>.
Phelan, L 2014, ‘Film censorship: how moral panic led to a mass ban of 'video nasties'’, The Independent, 13 July, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/film-censorship-how-moral-panic-led-to-a-mass-ban-of-video-nasties-9600998.html>.
Rad, C 2019, ‘The messy timeline of P.T., Hideo Kojima's Silent Hills horror masterpiece’, IGN, 10 January, viewed 29 May 2020, <https://www.ign.com/articles/2019/01/09/the-messy-timeline-of-pt-hideo-kojimas-silent-hills-horror-masterpiece>.
P.T. still © Konami
The Driller Killer VHS cover © Wizard Video