Silicon and Steel #2: Ghost-Hunting Sim Game “Phasmophobia” + Three Harrowing Albums
Silicon and Steel takes a look at pairings of horror-themed video games and the metal music that evokes the same terror, dissecting how they make us feel the way we do and how pixels on a screen can conjure thoughts of long-forgotten riffs -- or vice-versa.
I've been positively embroiling myself in horror this month: partially because Halloween, fuck yeah, but also because the grisly terrors of fiction pale in comparison to the real life stuff.
All-day TV binges (example: Haunting of Bly Manor), series rewatches, and perpetually stalking the "just added" feeds of my six-or-seven-ish streaming services for possible fodder. I got to thinking, during this digital cocoonment, that now would be a good time to bring back this column and talk about one of my favorite tropes of horror: the classic, timeless haunted house.
Classic haunted house movies got me into horror films and games, though it took decades: when I was younger, horror movies would give me nightmares even if I wasn't scared while watching them -- Jeepers Creepers, in particular, was especially traumatizing. As I got older, classic horror authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe showed me a side I hadn't realized existed before, that is, fiction where the horror of things was almost secondary to the fascinating situations that created the horror. And this is not to mention the fantastic prose.
It was possible to get something out of a horror movie besides sheer terror, and, as I'd later recognize, the terror was rewarding in its own way.
Movies like The Haunting and the Stephen King miniseries Rose Red captured my imagination: the way that the house itself becomes part of the evil and how generations of stories can weave into one intriguing outcome. With that foundation, I was able to delve into more and more of the genre, but still, I've always had a soft spot for haunted houses.
Film has conquered horror as its preferred medium over the last century, but television and video games have made strong efforts in recent years -- and of course, heavy metal has been there all along, soaking in the menace and mystery of the notion of something unknown lurking in our own homes.
In the last few weeks, a flash-in-the-pan game has rocketed to the top of every YouTube feed, answering a gnawing need I hadn't known I'd had and providing a strong example of haunted houses making for great gaming experiences: the multiplayer ghost-hunting game Phasmophobia.
Phasmophobia puts you and up to three other friends/randoms in the shoes of a ghost-hunting squad, complete with a mystery van (that the cowards can hide in). In retrospect, it's such an obvious premise for a video game that I'm surprised how little it's been explored up until this point: you buy gear, travel to a haunting, and attempt to figure out what kind of ghost is involved, using your earnings to take on bigger jobs.
Though the game is a little rough currently, the sheer terror it invokes even with some low-budget bits here and there easily justifies the $15 price. The multiplayer aspect adds some laughs, but also a certain social horror -- if everyone else is freaking out, that drives your own fear as well. To ramp up the fear for the truly brave, the game also offers full-fledged VR support.
For me, there's three key elements to the perfect haunted house narrative: the menace, the mythology, and the story. It needs to chill down to the bone, but do so with a fascinating approach to the supernatural and a cohesive narrative. That's a lot to ask, and Phasmophobia delivers an interesting approach to meeting these criteria, but when I think about music, I don't think any single album can really nail all three: delivering a complex narrative is almost counterproductive to creating the type of music that produces anything close to a "scare."
That's not a bad thing, since in heavy metal you can find all the pieces of this formula perfectly crystallized into killer concepts on their own.
Scary music doesn't usually operate in the same way as scary video games. Jump scares don't work with audio alone, which can't as effectively set up suspense to be shattered -- maybe it worked for Haydn's "Surprise Symphony" in the 1700s, but it's par for the course now for heavy music to be jam-packed with rapid stops and starts. On the other hand, unsettling and slow-boiling fear flourishes in a full-album experience, with no bothersome autonomy to distract from the anxiety and tension.
Cultivating that mood, the Finnish doom band Mansion creates an especially strong sense of sinister intent on their 2018 full-length First Death of the Lutheran. They take a conventional genre template -- clean vocals on top of occult-leaning instrumentation -- and turn it into a force of patiently lurking evil. From the minute that the plodding riffs kick in on opener "Wretched Hope," set against a backdrop of reverberating clangs and unearthly atmosphere, to the end of the album, there's a constant sense of an invisible, towering threat.
Maybe it's just the band name playing tricks on me, but I see myself in a resplendent mansion, feeling a force beyond my vision watching my every move -- seeking orbs angrily tracking me behind every window and every mirror. The closing track "Lutheran" is the pinnacle of that force's power. Synthesizers screech behind guitars, vocals ooze with distortion while concealing demented whispers, and the classical accompaniment, such as piano and violins, feels just a tad detuned. First Death of the Lutheran puts an unforgettably baleful spin on the "occult rock" phenomenon.
Though you can choose to bring various ghost-hunting gear and protective equipment onto a haunting site, it's never clear in Phasmophobia who's really in control -- the game itself is a little bit wicked, as it turns out. One of the interesting tricks is that it's always recording your microphone input. To other players, your words come across on a radio or in person, but there's another listener: the game itself, and thus the spirit. Speak the name of the spirit (i.e. "Dorothy Johnson") and it might react -- eventually. Ask a question, and it might respond. But tell your teammate to hide? It heard that too, and it will act accordingly -- it might decide not to let you (or that poor teammate) open that door to get away. You can never take your next action for granted, which ratchets up the terror another notch.
Mythology doesn't always have to be as in-depth as something like the Cthulhu Mythos, with universe-devouring gods, cat-worshipping cities, and sunken tombs for slumbering deities. It can simply be a convincing explanation for why things go the way they do, connecting brutal violence or cheap scares to past affronts or establishing rules for the hapless protagonist to break. I love horror that has history to it and its own rules -- Insidious, for example, which details out specific methods for contacting the other side and their inner workings, or The Shining, where psychic powers attract the restless dead.
Background like this helps make the fear that much more impactful, because it's not just random, terrifying moments -- it's a pattern governed by a (somewhat) rational universe.
This is an area where metal excels -- it's not uncommon for bands to publish short stories based on their music, or to build music off of a literary base. In some cases, you'll even see video or tabletop games that push the concept of the music further. As anyone who enjoys listening to music while reading liner notes knows, having some context for music can enhance the appreciation tenfold. A solid conceptual background allows listeners to better visualize events and connect them to the music.
In some cases, the album itself bakes in so much detail and conceptual density that nothing additional is needed. Sometimes, that even happens by the time the album title is over, such as lo-fi black metal spectre Old Nick's 2020 album The Night Of The Ambush And The Pillage By The Queen Ann Styl'd Furniture, Animated By One Of The Dozen Or So Spells That Thee Eastern Vampyre Has Studied. The hilariously long titles (such as "Plat Map of the 11th Vampire Lord's Domicile") sketch out rich imagery of a castle worthy of M.C. Escher illustration filled with whimsical spirits and, apparently, marauding antiques.
It's a wonderfully confusing backstory for an album full of regal orchestral marches set against violent, crackling blast beats.
Though I somewhat feel like Phasmophobia opted for the "any and everything" approach when it comes to ghost-hunting tools, its own mythology comprises maybe the most accurate depiction of the hugely-popular real life phenomenon of ghost hunting in video games. Tools like the "spirit box," which rotates rapidly through radio channels, can pick up answers from the other side, and Ouija boards can similarly open a gateway. The ability to take equipment like this into a house and plunk them down wherever you want and actually use them is refreshingly novel, capturing the same pseudo-scientific thrills as the innumerous ghost-hunting TVs shows out there. You are, in effect, forging your own ghost-hunting strategy, which means that when you die, it likely wasn't dumb luck -- it was the consequence of your actions.
Regarding the final point on my list, the story, there's only one album out there that I could reasonably propose: King Diamond's 1987 album Abigail. I could recite the plot of this album off the cuff any day -- that's how well it sticks in your mind. It could have been a movie, a play, or really anything, but it manages to work as a narrative for a heavy metal album too. That's a tough feat, since finding the right balance between telling a story and creating compelling music is a challenge.
Abigail is a classic for many, many reasons: the dazzling performance from Mikkey Dee on drums, whose classic grooves make every track stand out (my personal favorite is the ride bell trickery on "Mansion in Darkness"), the unforgettable guitar trade-offs between Andy LaRocque and Michael Denner, and King Diamond's career-defining performance that further elevated his falsettos and saw his dynamic delivery pushed even farther. There's not a weak track to be found -- even the intro track, comprised of funereal orchestration and a monologue, sets out the mood for the first main track "Arrival" without feeling like a waste of time.
Beyond all that, the story behind the album is immaculate -- an ominous prophecy, haunting omens, a mansion coming alive, possession and rebirth -- these classic horror elements take on a demonic thrill through the band's twisted and classic heavy metal. Abigail marked the point where King Diamond's solo career came into its own, taking the formula of Fatal Portrait and absolutely perfecting it. As a singularly exquisite unification of concept, execution, and legacy, it may never be topped.
Phasmophobia is procedurally generated, to some degree, which would seem to damper its ability to have a coherent story. And certainly, when compared against Abigail, it falls short narratively -- however, multiplayer games have the unique property of being able to create their own stories. Much to the chagrin of solo players, most of the appeal of a good co-operative game is the ability to play it with other people and derive enjoyment from that.
Every haunt taken on in Phasmophobia is its own story, one with potentially humorous turns (the game, being "early access" and not quite finished, has plenty of glitches) or traumatizing outcomes. Even if you're not feeling up to playing the game yourself, there's a rapidly expanding trove of recorded content out there to experience. It's up to the player to make their own story worth retelling, but even in its limited, unfinished state, the game offers plenty of twists and turns.
What makes any work of fiction good is its ability to kindle our imaginations, and for me I've found that haunted houses are like blazing torches in this regard. A place of comfort and safety hiding hidden dangers, past residents holding grudges past death, or an inanimate structure itself gaining nefarious sentience -- the angles available are immense, lucrative, and always strike a nerve.
Phasmophobia released on September 18th, 2020 and is available on Steam.