The industry of horror is a very lucrative one. Horror movies, games, as well as music and books focusing on dreadful themes, are highly appealing to international audiences. Games certainly attract a lot of attention, thanks to a variety of survival horror video games evolving into beloved franchises – Slender Man included.

But why are horror games so appealing?

The secret ingredient for such a success of horror games lies in adrenaline, a hormone produced during stressful situations that trigger the fight-or-flight response. However, it isn’t exactly fair to reduce the appeal to simple hormone rushes. Let’s see why we are so fascinated by dreadful horror games and what happens with our brains when we play survival horror games.

When Survival Instincts Kick In

The main element in the survival horror subgenre is fear. Fear is a common goal for action-seeking players, as the entire genre of horror relies on fear responses. However, there is more to fear than meets the eye.

Survival horror franchises, such as Slender Man games, Resident Evil, Outlast, and the like all have one thing in common: they focus on survival. Or, more specifically, the difficulty of doing so, meaning not only is the plot terrifying, but it’s also lethal (virtually, of course).

The survival instinct has been our main defense mechanism during millennia of evolution. The instinct helps us stay alive, as it alerts us to any impending jeopardy, we might find ourselves in. When it comes to survival horror works (movies, books, games), the content forces us to use our instincts as a way of responding to potential threats. In other words, survival instinct kicks in times of peril – even when it is merely fictional.

We’ve relied on fear for centuries, from hunter-gatherer cultures to modern-day Gen-Z generations. We use fear as an indicator of our surroundings – survival instinct – so we are quite used to being on alert. And even though we’ve stopped being hunter-gatherers a very, very long time ago, the need to remain vigilant seems to stay rooted within ourselves to this day.

That’s why horror games require little to no details to scare us. Even silence bears an ominous tone for the viewers – and it’s scarier than any eerie soundtrack ever to be invented. This directly relates to our hypervigilance instincts. Although hypervigilance in real-life isn’t something to look forward to, it is something that we automatically switch on when we play survival horror games.

In short, fear is something we know very well. And we barely need stimuli to feel it.

Hooked on a Feeling

The path to understanding the psychology of fear-inspiring games does not stop at explaining why we understand fear. As we’ve established, fear is something we, as a physically weaker but highly intelligent species, have been experiencing since the dawn of our time. However, there is one other side to the story: the addictive nature of adrenaline.

Adrenaline, for all intents and purposes, is a hormone that is behind the fight-or-flight response. It’s more than handy in dangerous situations as it can shield us from danger. We’ve heard about humans getting superhuman strength that allowed them to lift cars (something we cannot usually do) in times of extreme danger. But there is also the thrill that comes with experiencing such a spike of adrenaline.

Cue in extreme sports – sports that aren’t for the faint-hearted. Horror games produce a similar effect on our brains as doing something physically dangerous: they make us feel alive and incredibly strong. And no actual car lifting involved!

The powerful feelings associated with adrenaline rushes are explored in a variety of game genres: such as video games, mobile games, or even casino games. In fact, online casino games are another category that combines the thrill of gambling with the bone-chilling thrills of playing a horror game, which made them extremely popular in the modern gambling industry.

Therefore, fear is not something we simply know because we’ve relied on it as a species – it’s also something we love as it makes us feel invincible. By putting ourselves in (fictional) situations in which we are weaker than a monster chasing us, we actually feel incredibly present and human – and we can easily get hooked on that feeling. Fear addiction is a novel concept explaining how we easily get addicted to the feeling of fear.

Immersion Is Key

Another strong point that explains the reason why we are addicted to horror games is immersion. Because movies and films let us enjoy the story from a safe distance, games give us a chance to dip our toes in the story without getting wet – or more precisely, we get to experience the story without really experiencing it.

This applies both to visually stimulating stories full of blood, screaming, and mutilation, as well as suspenseful works targeting the psychological and emotional wellbeing of the audience (and characters). The tension hinting at impending doom can trigger a response just as powerful as a horrid action scene. That’s why psychological thrillers are scarier than plain old horror stories – they are more personal, as they focus on the character’s inner conflict (to which we can relate easier than to an external conflict).

Immersion plays on the story of escapism. How so? Well, regardless of the theme we are going for (or the genre), the feeling of immersion is a key ingredient of escapism. We love to get lost in a world removed from our reality, as it gives us insights into our nature that we wouldn’t otherwise experience. And again, that also ties in with our nature: as a species, we’ve been using our intelligence – led by imagination – to expand our world and it’s what made it as evolved as it is today. Without imagination, we wouldn’t be able to create a world that we did, and so effective and full immersion is a prerequisite for our evolution.


Not everyone is a fan of horror games, and most of us – even those who enjoy the genre – are scared of them.

So, to sum it all up: survival horror games are appealing because they incite fear – and fear is not only something we’re quite familiar with but also something we can easily get hooked on. Another reason why we love horror games is the level of immersion we get with them – and we experience things without really experiencing them. And immersion is the catalyst for escapism, which is the main reason why we’re playing the games in the first place.

About the author

Did I scare you?