Arguably the most influential and famous of the horror sub-genres, body horror involves viscerally disturbing violations of the human body. Also known as biological horror, this sub-genre has been present not just in film, but across video game history as well. Some are disturbing but also silly, like the cursor game that’s based on the film Human Centipede. Meanwhile, others like the Dead Space and Resident Evil series take interactive fear-based media to entirely new levels.
Camp: The Roots of Body Horror Games
In the video game world, the insidious roots of body horror can be traced back to the ‘70s. In a report on the history of retro horror gaming, digital magazine Den of Geek lists early titles such as Sega’s Killer Shark and Atari’s Haunted House as the first taste of horror for many gamers. While these games had silly rather than scary graphics and gameplay even by that particular era’s standards, they laid the foundation for the first true body horror game: Wizard Video Games’ Halloween. Based on the John Carpenter film of the same name, Halloween was the first game to actually show pixelated gore rather than just suggest it.
The 80s saw the release of other pivotal titles like Friday the 13th, The Rocky Horror Show, and Mad Doctor, which put players in the shoes of a body part-collecting surgeon creating his own Frankenstein’s Monster. It was also around this time that the Castlevania games started dominating the side-scrolling, vampire-killing genre. For better or worse, body horror started to become deeply entrenched in video games by the late ‘80s. However, it wasn’t until the ‘90s that it truly exploded as a dominant theme.
The Cyclical Evolution of Body Horror
1992 saw the release of Sega’s bizarre mystery adventure, Night Trap. Among other factors, this game became notorious for its gratuitous violence, which actually helped establish the ESRB rating system for video games. After the old campy style of designing horror games had peaked, the ‘90s took a more straightforward approach to frightening players. Many of the games from this era remain some of the most genuinely frightening games of all time, including Resident Evil and Silent Hill – the thematic grandparents of next-gen horror. Yet as body horror approached artistic levels of execution, it somehow stayed true to its campy roots.
Some of the most violent memorable scenes in retro video games for instance are Mortal Kombat’s fatalities. Horrific as these fatalities were, their graphics and execution betrayed a sense of humour and tongue-in-cheek attitude. This remained true in the latter next-gen Mortal Kombat games with superior graphics. Similarly, the brutal death scenes in games like The Last of Us and Shadow of the Tomb Raider had a similar approach to body horror. As gore in gaming appears to have reached its peak, it’s almost like the thematic evolution of body horror in video gaming is coming full circle. This modern return to campiness can even be observed in online casino games. On digital casino platform ExpatBets, titles like Big Bad Wolf and CrypBattle continue the tradition of body horror in web-based gaming through the use of monstrous but colourful imagery. In fact, while both these online and next-gen games incorporate dark, visceral elements, their overall themes and visual styles remain inherently retro, bright, campy, and even whimsical in certain cases.
In addition to the evolution of body horror in gaming, this offers a deeper look into the collective psychology behind consuming horror media. As these games reveal, it’s more than just about the rush of fear. In surviving realistically violent next-gen games, navigating horror-themed online casinos, or looking back to the pixelated history of interactive gore, players experience joy, relief, elation, nostalgia, a sense of control, and a host of other emotions. In short, body or biological horror is a tool for extending the human imagination. And it will continue to be useful for producing more engaging and high quality games in the future.