Don’t Look Now

VR horror enacts our greatest fears about technology

As I first watched The Shining I had a very strange, specific desire to tilt the camera myself, to look beyond it, to peer around corners before the Steadicam following Danny did. Afterward I had vivid dreams about wandering the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, scraping my knees raw against the carpet, sitting in the cool mint-green bathroom of room 237. My mind filled in the gaps: wherever I walked, the hotel built itself up around me. Much of what gives the film its power is that it speaks to a fundamental lack of control: Jack has always been the caretaker. The hotel is stuck in its loop, a frozen moment in time. I think, subconsciously, I wanted to crawl into the film to master my fear; I thought that by controlling where I looked — even in the limited ways a dream offers — I could control my terror.

This desire to get closer to the Overlook Hotel inspired Claire Hentschker’s project Shining360, a 30-minute audiovisual experiment for VR that allows users to look around the hotel, while the camera follows the path it takes in the film. To create it, Hentschker spent nine months finding and stitching together thousands of video frames from hundreds of scenes in The Shining. The visuals are different than in the film — more jagged and fragmented — but the sense of threat still permeates each frame. The project speaks, I think, to the same anxieties my dreams did — and, as in the dreams, the ability to look does nothing to offset the fear. If anything, it adds a new dimension.

As in the dreams, the ability to look in VR does nothing to offset the fear

This freedom to look where you like, or at least to feel as though you can, is part of what makes VR appealing. VR and horror are a natural fit: the immersion VR offers helps us suspend disbelief, and it can intensify genre tropes that exist in traditional horror: the jump scares are more visceral, the ghosts can seem to pass through our skin. But VR also offers new ways to probe contemporary fears and anxieties. Even more so than film, VR horror animates anxieties around surveillance and loss of autonomy — fears stoked by our immersive relationship with new technologies.

Horror has long dealt with fears stemming from new technology — the extent to which we are changed, against our will, by the media we consume; the question of who controls our tools, and how much our tools control us. David Cronenberg’s horror classic Videodrome (1983) follows Max, the president of a television station, who suffers side effects after witnessing a snuff program on satellite TV. The broadcast seems to transform him and he begins to have vivid hallucinations — including one, famously, in which his torso transforms into a video player. Contemporary horror often turns to social media as the source of its terror: in Unfriended (2014), high school student Laura dies by suicide after a video of her passing out at a party goes viral. The film then follows a group of her classmates who find their Skype conversation haunted by a mysterious user, billie227 — Laura’s ghost, who begins to take over their social media accounts. In Friend Request (2016), a high school student named Marina films her death, which is then posted anonymously to her classmate’s Facebook profile. The classmate finds that the site’s coding has been altered, and she is unable to remove the video.

The anxiety these films continually revisit is that of control, of power. Between us and the tech we use, in which direction does control flow? Who controls the technology we use, and to what end? The films position social media platforms as inherently susceptible to intrusion, and to manipulation by invisible third parties, which is borne out in reality: It’s hard to forget that Cambridge Analytica, a firm hired by the team behind Trump’s election campaign, gained access to the private data of more than 50 million Facebook users in an attempt to manipulate voter behavior; or to use a photo app without considering the ways in which our uploads can be used to train the algorithms in the facial recognition technology offered to law enforcement and private companies (as with concerns raised over Ever and, more recently, FaceApp). These anxieties — about control, about power, about surveillance — reach metaphysical heights in VR, where the technology that could easily feed those anxieties mediates the experience.

Until the 1990s, virtual reality was mainly used for military training purposes and flight simulation. In 1991, the first Sega VR headset was developed for the Mega Drive console. In 2010, the first prototype of the Oculus Rift headset was developed with funding from Kickstarter and boasted an impressive 90-degree field of vision. Since then, starting a few months after Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, it has developed to include 360 panoramic views and high-resolution spaces. This intensifies the visceral nature of horror films: “Your body becomes profoundly integral,” said Scott Stephan, a designer at Wevr studio in Los Angeles. “Your body becomes the interface.” Watching any form of horror has an impact on the body: our hearts pound, our chests tighten, our skin prickles. But as Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, notes, “VR can be stored in the brain’s memory center in ways that are strikingly similar to real-world physical experiences… when VR is done well, the brain believes it is real.”

VR horror also complicates the power dynamics attached to the viewer’s gaze. “The subject positions with which the horror film most frequently encourages the spectator to identify,” Barbara Creed writes in The Monstrous Feminine, “oscillate between those of victim and monster but with greater emphasis on the former.” In virtual reality, however, there is no oscillation: we are placed firmly in the former category. We are subject to the danger in the room, while under the illusion that we have more autonomy than the victims we are situated with on film. VR horror elevates the sense of inescapable terror, while intensifying other contemporary fears, namely the sense that one’s environment and fate are in the hands of unseen parties.

Anxieties about control, power, and surveillance reach metaphysical heights in VR, where the technology that feeds those anxieties mediates the experience

Unlike in film, where we are guided through a narrative (or non-narrative) at a predetermined pace, horror experiences like Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul — one of the most popular VR experiences since its release in 2017, based on one of the highest-grossing horror film franchises of all time — contain no on-screen directions; we are given no guidance as to how to wander through the rooms of the house. The suspense is heightened precisely because we have no script to follow; we are on our own, forced to make our own decisions while external forces control the outcome. The anxieties the Paranormal Activity franchise probes — that of a menacing third party invading our private lives — are enacted live in the VR experience; we know that something is watching us, but we are not sure what.

The same sense is evoked by much of the 360 horror uploaded to YouTube over the past several years. Each video features a set narrative, but we are free to look around as it progresses, as if being carried by a current in a body of water. In InnerRift’s GetOut, we find ourselves in the living room of a house, on a sofa in front of a TV screen that appears to be recording the room we are sitting in. We are rooted to the spot, but can look around the room all we like. Behind us we find a staircase, and a locked door to the right, leading out of the room. The door creaks open; we feel the presence of somebody standing behind us. On the TV screen, we see a spectral figure move from the sofa towards us. Do we turn to look?

GetOut speaks to this contemporary anxiety of surveillance. We may be watching a video, but we can’t escape the sensation that we are the ones being watched. We undertake a paranoid surveillance of the room just as the hidden camera in the video records us; a strange uncanny loop of watching, an unnerving Droste effect. This is characteristic of much of VR horror — the developers behind one game even introduced biometric testing to enhance players’ experiences, with an optional heart rate monitor feeding data to AI that adjusts the game according to the player’s heartbeat, spiking the terror when their heart rate is low.

The comments underneath GetOut are filled with viewers too traumatized to move the camera on their screens. User ToriTori wrote, “The second I saw someone walking in TV, I was like. ‘Time to stare into couch.’ Another user confessed: “The whole time I was just repeating to myself, ‘Just don’t turn around, just don’t turn around, nothing bad will happen if you don’t turn around, just don’t turn around, just don’t turn around…’There is horror in this paradoxical agency: We are able to make some of the decisions of a protagonist, while knowing that no choice we make could alter our fate. This echoes a fundamental anxiety of living online, where we are offered endless choice, but find that the more we seem to exercise our will, the more of ourselves we cede to the parties surveilling and shaping our online environments.

Virtual reality horror traffics in the uncanny: spaces appear familiar or functional, but something is strange. Just as our attempts to guide the narrative are thwarted, so, often, is our attempt to control the space. The scenes we find ourselves in are subject to intrusion; they change around us at a moment’s notice. We are often situated in one room (as in GetOut), or in one house (as in Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul), scanning the same corners, looking at the same walls, walking the same corridors until we become disoriented simply by the repetition of looking. Have we explored this room before? Why does it feel different now?

VR experiences evoke the fear that we have no control over our own environments — the sites of our most personal experiences — and, ultimately, our own fates

Marketed as a psychological horror experience, Albino Lullaby is designed to be used with an immersive Oculus Rift headset and situates the player in the middle of a strange building after waking from a car accident. Its tagline is “No Blood. No Gore. No Jumpscares,” and the game is committed to this lack of conventional horror beats, relying instead on suspense, unsettlingly soothing music and disorientating rooms. It manipulates our sense of space as we move through it — Justin Pappas, the founder and creative director of the company behind the game, explained that the rooms of the building “can transform, twist, open up and flip around at the press of a button.” He continues, “seeing the nature of the space that surrounds you change in all-encompassing, real-world scale can be awe-inspiring and very disorienting … making the player never feel truly secure.”

The developers behind Affected: The Manor employ similar tactics of spatial manipulation. While researching for the game, the team visited several live-action horror walk-throughs, concluding that “having no control over what was happening only heightened the player’s anxiety and fear of what was to come next.” In an interview, Creative Director Mark Paul explained that the developers “play with the feeling of height, of confinement, we encroach on the player’s personal space.”

Just as VR complicates the dynamics of looking, so too does it complicate our sense of spatial freedom. We are given space to wander the rooms of the building, but are still subject to the rules of the game. Claustrophobia, confinement and disorientation form the DNA of VR horror: the space becomes a shifting Rubik’s cube. These sensations hold a mirror up to our own online environments, which are owned and operated by powerful unseen parties that lay claim to increasing swaths of our social and personal lives. Our engagement can be corralled or restricted without warning; hidden algorithms dictate the content we see; we are vulnerable to harassment and abuse by parties whose behavior goes unmonitored. The more we come to depend on these resources — the more of our lives we pour into privately owned platforms — the more they extract from us. VR experiences viscerally evoke the fear that we have no control over our own environments — the sites of our most personal experiences — and, ultimately, our own fates, which are increasingly determined by the algorithms that surveil our day-to-day actions online.

The fear The Shining probes — that we cannot trust the space we find ourselves in — is amplified in Hentschker’s project. In Shining360, the hotel’s rooms are blurred, jagged; we can turn where we like to find spaces we recognize, but there are gaps, omissions, whole swathes of blank space. The project amplifies the film’s sense of immersion; the sense of an inescapable threat. As the Steadicam follows Danny around the corridors of the Overlook, we are pressed by the sense that something is watching him, that the Overlook is filled with unseen parties. It’s fitting, then, that Hentschker should choose VR as her platform: VR takes what is so often the source of anxiety in horror film — surveillance and loss of autonomy — and requires us to engage with the very technologies that fuel our sense of unease.

Laura Maw is a writer living in London. Her essays on horror film and art have featured in HazlittCatapult and Oh Comely magazine, among others. She is currently working on her first book, a critical memoir about women and horror film.