Rural Horror in Video Games

Rural horror games aren’t new, but they are experiencing a recent renaissance as they lean into the genre and borrow more from the films that inspire them: games like Outlast 2 and Telltale’s Walking Dead. Japanese games like Deadly Premonition, the Resident Evil series, and Siren: Blood Curse list American rural horror stories as influences. They are influenced by iconic stories that permeate western mythos: Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes come to mind immediately, but Stephen King stories and Lovecraft offer their own inspirations. Arguably the oldest American horror story is a rural one.

Rural horror goes hand in hand with horror games. This is perhaps largely out of convenience. Rendering cities is harder than rendering small towns with few buildings and people. But certainly it’s also because rural horror conveniently integrates a lot of the most terrifying and appealing tropes; isolation, slashers, cults fit elegantly into the setting.

Many of us are protected, ostensibly at least, by the state and by customs. Rural horror does away with the pretense. The protection isn’t there anymore. It may be inaccessible or it may be accomplice in the horror. The communities in these stories transgress taboos. The separation from society isn’t just geographic, it is separation from social mores. The villains are inbred, cannibalistic. Rural horror is typically gory and violent. It reflects the sort of terror that sticks in our cultural craw because it violates our civility.

Rural horror differs from southern gothic, although the two do weave in and out of one another. Unlike the gothic genre, which also often takes place in rural America, rural horror is far less cerebral, and far more base.

Donnermeyer and DeKeseredy’s Rural Criminology (2013) attributes our positive perspective of the rural to 18th century agrarianism like Thomas Jefferson. Followers of this philosophy helped build up a culture of purity and strength around the farmer. The farmer was viewed as self-sufficient, and because nature is moral, the farmer was seen as closer to objective goodness. This perspective is persistent. In a 2003 review of small town crime coverage, Pennsylvania State’s Russel Frank found an emphasis on the discordance of violence and the rural. You’ve certainly heard about towns where people don’t lock their doors and where everyone knows one another. This rhetoric is repeated over and over when tragedy strikes.

Professor of cultural geography, David Bell calls the dichotomy of the way we view rural communities ‘anti-idyll’. Many stories paint the countryside as simple pastoral paradises, rural horror sees the inverse. Rural horror portrays the remoteness as insular, the simplicity as ignorance, the traditional values as dangerous. It’s often the narrow flip side of the fantasy of pastoral paradise.

Rural horror is defined by its almost otherworldly setting. The classic set-up is the protagonists car breaking down in bumblefuck nowhere. This trope is still going strong. Resident Evil 7 opens with the player character driving deep into the Louisiana bayou, the land itself being an impenetrable barrier. Outlast 2 opens with the protagonists’ helicopter crashing in Arizona. Friday the 13th the Game, on the other hand, has the camp counselors struggling to repair a car or boat to escape. There’s many variations on the theme, but at the end of the day you’re at the mercy of monsters who know the land better than you.

There are nearly two hundred recognized militia groups in the United States, their numbers rising after the 2008 election. When they take control of towns, these towns are often isolated. For example, the recent Oregon militia standoff was initiated when Ammon Bundy’s group seized a wildlife refuge, 30 miles away from the city of Burns, with a population of nearly 3,000. Our horror stories aren’t always stories, and American geography can be its own type of terrifying.

Another hallmark of this genre is that the victims are typically outsiders. Our protagonists are thrust into a corrupt world. Their naiveté is part of the horror, as they fall victim to the perversions of the community. In this way, Far Cry 5 seems conscientious of the political ground it treads, perhaps just because of the trappings of the series. A mechanic in the game is the rescuing of hold outs against the doomsday cult antagonists: the community defending against itself.

Although compare these two Far Cry 5 trailers. The first appears to be a horror story. A story about a community being forcefully converted. “We want you, and we will take you. Willingly or not.” A cool, dulcet voice intones. The second trailer which premiered at E3 a straightforward Ubisoft adventure game, maybe in response to criticism of dubious legitimacy. This trailer evokes a sense of fun and sticks to the Ubisoft model of adventure games. The characters have flashy intros, and we take special note of the sleek cars. It plays like a Duck Dynasty trailer with a little more blood.

Trailer 1/Trailer 2