[this review contains ***spoilers***]
Content Warning: Violence, Body Horror, Death
The suburban home represents one of the most vital and anxiety-provoking locations in the horror genre. In Wes Craven’s 1994 New Nightmare, that film which came closest to depicting the antagonist Freddy Krueger as the director had intended, it is again the house and the bedroom which become the site of its vulnerability and violence. The victims of Krueger’s dream-state malice die in the supposed comfort of their beds, not in dark streets or alleyways, but in the locus of domestic comfort. Similarly, to read John Muir’s critical study of Craven’s films, The Art of Horror, is to encounter an endless stream of references to the domestic as a site of terror, just as in Scream (1996), the “mystery caller” who daunts and murders the first home’s occupants plays upon the perceived security of the domestic, as when the then murdered parents of Casey enter their home, “realis[ing] something has happened”, before stumbling across their daughter’s dead body.
To date, Horrorshow has created a number of locations that are beguiling in their imagination, set in a host of abandoned worlds of twisted, uncanny architectures, emanating stones, eerie pools of light and shadow, and metallic shrieks. The encounter with and negotiation of these architectures has always been a fascination that is locked into the fantastical rather than the recognisable — they have always been “unreal” places. With ANATOMY, Horrorshow has stepped back from the (apparently) imagined and entered the domestic, and so the bringing of horror “home”. ANATOMY takes place in an unlit, largely empty house at night, its rooms sparsely decorated and filled with the barest and plainest furniture. There are few windows, and those we do find are a grainy bitmap looking onto a black nothing. Our task, as we slowly walk through these eerie rooms and corridors, is to collect cassette tapes and to play them in one of several cassette players, located in the kitchen and bedrooms. These recordings contain fragments of a lecture, explaining the functions of domestic architecture through a (self-admittedly) incomplete analogy to the human body; the bathroom as the bowels, the dining room as the heart, and so on.
As usual, Horrorshow uses a first-person perspective combined with a video-camera style tape decay effect (see above), which has echoes with the home-video horror of the Blair Witch Project or, more distantly, of the death-tape of Japanese (and subsequently US-remade) Ringu (The Ring). But in many ways, this is not a single game — it is several, interpolated experiences, or angles of looking at and negotiation with, an identical space. With each play-through our experience gradually shifts. The first works through a kind of mild, tense ambiguity (the only fear is our anticipation), and is even capable of offering up a soft joke at our expense, when the taped voice informs us of the danger and subconscious darkness of the basement, before instructing us that the next tape is to be found in the basement! When we retrieve that tape, nothing outwardly happens. Only when we play it does the voice gently chide us, that such ideas of the basement are perhaps a little over the top, and our anxiety was pointless (we think, well, it is only space). But with our second and further play-throughs, the house, and the tenor and tone of the game, become more directly anxious and fear-inducing. A staccato electronic music plays in the background, extracting from the silence. The visual erosions become increasingly marked, while the tapes themselves have been glitched and their speaker’s voice distorted, often lapsing into incomprehensibility. Many of the tapes are no longer found on flat surfaces, but caught glitching in the air. In one room, a snare of thin, black lines snake at the periphery of our vision; enough to trick us into both seeing and unseeing them in the same moment. And this isn’t even all of it.
I was most interested in the pacing and the video effect, and of how these intersected with our sense of the created space around us. The video erosion conveys a sense of watching a tape after some time has passed, yet we are in control of the camera in real time. This establishes a kind of dissonance between the moment of play (the continuum of it) and the act of seeing that play unfold before us. It creates a tiny gap between what we are doing in space (by pressing W,A,S,D, Space, etc) and how we are seeing those actions unfold in the context of the game itself. It’s a very simple technique, but also highly effective.
Moreover, when we first negotiate the rooms and explore their structural relationships, we are following an only partially realised set of information about how houses are, in the West, built. About what we think we know about domestic architecture, and about the spaces around us. When each tape has played, written instructions appear that inform us of the next tape’s location with reference to spaces such as the “Basement” or “Master Bedroom”. Instinctively, we understand what these things mean, and how they might be related. A Master Bedroom must necessarily be upstairs, whereas the living room is toward the front of the house, and the dining room adjacent to the kitchen. In fact, Horrorshow, while aware of these reactions, also gently subverts them; the size of the rooms seem somehow, gently impossible. They are not “too large”, but also do not meet expectations about their own size. As we trace the walls of the garage with our slight glimmer of light, we find ourselves asking if the room can indeed be this size — isn’t it too big? Haven’t we been tracing the same grey wall for too long? Other rooms offer false doors, or their blacknesses reveal — or seem to reveal — a room within a room. Our sense of mild panic — I could tell by my heart rate — increases and falls as we align and mis-align with the “expected” architectural contours of the house. When we re-find the corridor, we are relieved; not because we’re “safe” (after all, the horror is unstated), but because we can latch onto a recognisable coordinate. We re-enter a frame of reference from which we were partially suspended. The horror comes from exploring a place which has only slightly shifted our experiences of our own expectations about a specific structure. It reminds me of times when I’ve had to walk along a familiar corridor while the lights are off; you know where the place is, and where it leads, but you find yourself moving slowly, your fingers extending to locate walls, objects, that might give you a sense of fixation. Quickly, an otherwise ordinary and familiar location can become un-ordinary and frightening.
In many ways, the best horror — whether in games or film — plays upon our expectations about our own fear, our anticipation of being “scared” and how we come to be scared. As the game unfolds, the recorded voice probes and explores the ways in which horror and this anticipation of horror are created and reproduced; in one recording, the voice describes a man entering “a” house and walking along a corridor. We listen to this with our backs turned to the possible location of person who would have entered the house, if it were indeed this house at all. We can’t hear footsteps, but the tape implies their possibility, conjuring them out of nothing but the simple act of suggestion and the way in which that suggestion has aligned with our perception of the organisation of space around us. I felt my heart-rate quicken, sensing the possibility that a figure must necessarily now be standing behind me. In this way, ANATOMY offers a sequence of adroitly molded experiences which exactly produce that horror while simultaneously commenting on the mechanisms of its own production. It becomes a genre of playing which is capable of examining its own existence, meaning that, even while the game is ostensibly “domestic”, it also becomes the most complete and unreal horror that Horrorshow has so far released.