There are plenty of horror games and plenty of monsters in said horror games, but what truly makes them scary? Just because something classifies as “horror” doesn’t mean it is “scary.” What makes a creature so terrifying that you dread having to face it, the anxiety building up in your stomach and the hairs standing up on the back of your neck? While putting together this list, I came across a running theme: in a game with horror elements, the most terrifying things are the things you can’t kill, that you don’t have control over, the things that are endless. They’re the things that you feel vulnerable against, the creatures that you can become if you fall, the monsters that are almost human.
If you ever ventured into an arcade in the 1980s you know that videogames will never be more frightening than Sinistar. When that evil living robo-planet first awakes, stifling my Defendery, Asteroidal shoot-out, I’m reminded of the inevitability of death, the sad joke that is our own existence. You can have your survival horrors and zombie apocalypses: nothing in games will ever freeze me faster than Sinister bellowing, “Beware! I live!”—Garrett Martin
He’s not too terrible in the comics or the cartoons, but that’s because you get to watch Batman defeat him again and again. What happens when you have to face him yourself? Killer Croc hides in the sewers of Arkham Asylum, lurking underneath the water ready to grab you as you try and find pieces of an antidote for the Titan serum. Killer Croc is the only villain in the game you can’t take in a fight and that’s because he’s gigantic, stealthy and murderous. Even if you are one of the world’s greatest superheroes, you still might get this overwhelming feeling of dread if he reaches up from the water and grabs the Titan serum at the end of the game.
This is low on the list just based on how new P.T. is, but the Silent Hills demo has already proven itself to be something of a phenomenon. Based on a single hallway that warps slowly and the appearance of randomness, P.T. puts the player into a state of anxiety. It’s effective horror on its own even without the fear of running into Lisa. Before you even run into her the first time, you get the feeling like you’re being watched by the people in the portraits scattered about the house. She’s grotesque, filled with anger and best of all, seems to appear at any time, from the window to the balcony to—oh god she’s behind you right now!
You thought I was going to pick Pyramid Head, didn’t you? Pyramid Head is beloved for a reason, but he’s more intimidating than scary, and sadistic to an almost exaggerated manner. James Sunderland has to defeat Pyramid Head in order to quell his ingrained aggressiveness and violent masculinity but the real inner demon he has to face is Mary, the true final boss. Mary was his wife, one that he ultimately betrayed. Silent Hill 2 is about coming face to face with what Sunderland has been avoiding the whole game and in the end, you have to face what ends up being an amalgamation of every creature you’ve defeated.
SCP-173 is scary in the same way that the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who are scary. They go against basic human reflexes and use that to their benefit. You can’t blink, you can’t look away, and most importantly, they are fast. SCP-173, the highlight of the freeware game SCP Containment Breach, might be the most terrifying creepypasta because everything about it is just a tad bit off. It looks like a giant gingerbread man covered in vomit, so it’s inherently disturbing in that regard, but when you realize what it can do, how you can’t face it without instant death, it becomes the stuff of nightmares. You don’t have weapons to fight it. All you can do is make sure you don’t blink.
One of the places where Left 4 Dead 2 excels is in its music. Each of the special infected has its own score to let you know when they’re near. If you listen closely enough you can shoot in that general direction and successfully avoid getting your insides torn out. It’s different with the Witch, though. She doesn’t die as easily as the others, her tune is a combination of wailing moans and haunting, operatic screams, and, worst of all, she forces you to stop shooting. You can’t make any noise around her or she’ll go on the attack. She’ll jump on you, chase you without falling to any obstacles, and continue to claw at you until her (or your) final breath. Hers is a song that you can’t get out of your head, one that might cause you to freeze up if you heard it out of game.
You know what’s scary? Getting trapped on a spaceship where you’re under the control of an evil A.I. You know what’s even scarier? Being constantly on guard and feeling conflicted about it. The hybrids were once crew members of the ship and you can find their thoughts and final words scattered throughout the levels. As these monstrous, vicious creatures lunge at you, they attempt to communicate. They have to try and kill you, but they want you to kill them first. You don’t notice the cries for help at first, but the moment you pause, put your gun down and listen to them, you realize that this could be you.
Going back to SCP-173, which is all the more terrifying because you can’t fight back, you can see why the gatherers in the first Amnesia game are freaky. The atmosphere already creates a sense of dread for the player, the amount of light you are exposed to impacting your mental state, and this is all before you even encounter the first gatherer. Already on edge, encased in darkness, and confused, you pick up an item and then are on the run. You have to hide, keep running, and hope you don’t accidentally run into one because you are at their mercy. Amnesia: The Dark Descent is true horror because of how helpless and lost it makes you feel, and the gatherers are the icing on top of a rotting cake.
You don’t know quite what you’re getting into with Outlast. You just know it’s not going to end well. You enter an obviously creepy asylum with nothing but a camera and almost immediately run into figures that are trying to impede your investigation. You are already on edge, running into mutilated and unhinged inmates, but then you run into Chris Walker, a monstrous titan of what was once a man. For something as large and strong as he is, Chris Walker is incredibly fast and quiet. As you try and get out of the asylum, you are constantly faced with this threat, not even hearing him approach. You can hide under beds or in lockers, but all you are left with is his heavy breathing and the hope he won’t find you. The worst of it? Sometimes he does, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The Resident Evil series isn’t scary as much as it is tense. There are points where you are constantly surrounded by zombies (or plagas, depending on which iteration you are playing) and have to conserve your weapons. However, Resident Evil 4 takes a turn when you first encounter the Regenerator, a seemingly invulnerable creature that you can’t shoot. They pop up when you least expect it, and for the first time in the game, you feel helpless. Over time you learn how to defeat them, but that first glimpse manages to change the mood completely.
Sure, they aren’t as big or gross or flashy as some of the others on this list, but what they offer is evolution. Starting all the way back in the original Half-Life, this was the first creature you encountered following the fateful experiment. They’re relatively easy to kill so you move on. Then you see what looks like a man, lumbering and disoriented. On closer inspection, what was once human has become your enemy, so you take it down with more of a challenge. In Half-Life 2 you wander into the town of Ravenholm, where you become surrounded by the moans and cries of the zombies, a neverending stream of them. At one point, you are tossed a new gun and without warning, are faced with another kind of zombie that jumps and screams. The headcrab can become anything in the Half-Life series. It is the building block to world destruction. As you take out your crowbar and whack the hopping, screeching crab, you realize they are more than just a common enemy. They are every enemy.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.