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Growing up, I had this mischievous practice of fooling my dad into renting horror games for me. “So what’s Silent Hill 2 about,” he’d ask, unable to discern anything from the blank Blockbuster Video box. “Your mom will be pissed if this one has zombies too.” A good poker face was necessary for success. “It’s a farming game where you tend to cows and crops,” I replied, trying not to snicker that I’d just given the synopses for Harvest Moon.
More often than not, I had him hook, line, and sinker. My weekend now spent with dim lights, drawn blinds, and the low-hum of the Playstation’s spinning disk drive. Sure, bamboozling my old man like that was dishonest, but I still don’t feel bad about it. Plunking me in front of a console was how my parents made sure I didn’t leave the house while they were off pounding back beers at the bar.
Horror is alluring to the introverted. Just go to any comic or entertainment convention, and it’ll be rife with folks that swear up and down that Jason Voorhees flicks or the literary works of Anne Rice got them through a difficult period of their lives. It’s a fucking bizarre notion. Why indulge in spooky media when you already spend so much time afraid of the world and your inadequacies?
For little-Kyle, horror was a distraction from what truly scared him.
It was 1999, and word through the elementary school grapevine was this video game called “Resident Evil 2” was scary as hell. My ears especially perked up when the kids that relentlessly bullied me for being fat would go on about how it gave them nightmares. Few mental images granted catharsis than that of my tormentors tossing and turning, screaming for their mommies over a damn video game. It made me want a copy for myself, even despite the warnings that it wasn’t for the faint of heart. Didn’t matter how scary it was, I’d beaten plenty of them before. If I could catch Mewtwo without a Master Ball in Pokemon, zombies were a cakewalk. So I hatched that first dad-fooling scheme, successfully securing a copy of Resident Evil 2.
My first anxiety-ridden steps into the world of survival horror seemed to echo throughout the marble halls of the Raccoon City Police Department. Given that the city was swallowed up by miasma of walking corpses, you’d figure this place would be loud with the hustle and bustle of gun-toting officers. But it was dead quiet. All that greeted me was a computer urging me to head upstairs and a typewriter that pined for an Ink Ribbon (an item you need to save your progress). I didn’t have one, so up the stairs I went.
Just before I opened a door, the red underbelly of some beast skittered across the outside of a neighboring window. The PlayStation controller hit the bedroom floor with a light thud as I dropped it to cover my mouth. I jumped, and badly — the first of many to come. Whatever that flash of red was, I’d meet the culprit on the other side of the door.
About midway through the corridor, an unsettling pitter-patter emanated from the ceiling above. There, a skeletal wad of sinew and exposed muscle gnashed its fangs. They call this ugly motherfucker the Licker, a Gigeresque beastie that was particularly fond of kids named Kyle that should not be playing M-rated games. I fumbled about the controller, trying to unload a pistol round into the Licker, but it was far too nimble for someone still trying to make heads or tails of tank controls. Only a couple of big swipes from its claws was enough to hit me with a “You Are Dead” game over screen. Worse yet, I had to restart the whole playthrough because I hadn’t respected the typewriter’s desire for Ink Ribbons. However, all that misfortune wasn’t enough to discourage me: this bastard was going down.
My head bounced off the proverbial canvas a few more times before the night was over. With each attempt, the Licker’s victory cry became all the more irritating. I was getting better, though, fine-tuning my plan of attack by swapping out the pistol for a shotgun and stockpiling first-aid sprays. After going many, many rounds with the Licker, it lay at my feet, writhing in agony as the last ounce of life left its body. Holy shit, it’s finally dead. I fist-pumped the air and screamed into a pillow in pure delight. That was the exact moment I became a survival horror fan. That rush of overcoming fear through a combination of determination and skill was an aroma I now craved.
A couple of days later, I was back at school, sharing tales of Raccoon City exploits with a friend during lunchtime. The Licker tussle, escaping the police station, starching Willam Birkin, and even making it to the credits. Somehow, I completed the game in a single weekend. “Bullshit,” snapped one of my tormentors from another table, “how does it end, then?” I sheepishly muttered out something about the protagonists getting on a train right before everything exploded while adverting my eyes. Yeah, it’d be nice for this story to have the lifetime-movie-ending where the game pushed me to face my fears, but that didn’t happen. Immediately, they’d dismissed my victory as something only a fat loser could accomplish cause he had no life. Would be neither the first or the last time I’d silently hang my head in shame, the butt of someone else’s joke.
Back at home that night, I’d be on my own, as always — dwelling over what happened earlier in school. With no family around to confide in, tears would usually be the go-to evening ritual, but this time I opted to hit the streets of Raccoon City again instead. Zombies, Lickers, and the Mr. X’s of the world were scary in their way, but it’s a controlled type of fear, one that requires the player to surrender their inhibition for the scares to even work. In Resident Evil 2, I could exorcise zombies from my life with some lead aspirin. In the real world, though, there was no easy way out of emotional abuse at school or bone-crushing loneliness at home.
Fear brought about by horror fiction is an entirely different emotion from the sort that chips away at your mental health. For me, the former granted a stranglehold on fear, in a tangible, malleable way. It’s escapism in the purest form, and little-Kyle desperately needed and came to rely on survival horror as an emotional crutch throughout adolescence. Amidst all the esoteric puzzles, zombie outbreaks, and eldritch pyramid-crowned bogeymen, I dug deep and found my secure place.