Friday Night at Freddys

It was 2 a.m. at Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria and my cousin, Juliana, didn't know how to work the security cameras. She was supposed to be keeping an eye on them to monitor the movements of a pack of killer, animatronic, musical robots that were out for her blood, and I was worried one would pop out at us at any second.

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"You need to move the mouse to the bottom of the screen," I said, gulping for air at the end of the sentence. I had run out of breath because I was terrified.

But I felt ridiculous for being that scared. Because I was actually sitting in my cousin's basement playing the video game Five Nights at Freddy's with the lights off. She was playing the game while wearing a heart monitor that was connected to my phone by Bluetooth. My phone told me Juliana was cool as a cucumber, with a stable heart rate of around 70 beats per minute, but my heart was hammering in my chest fast enough that I could hear it.

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"You seem to have this under control," I said, excusing myself from the room and dashing upstairs to a safe lighted environment, where I poured myself a drink with a lot of whiskey.

I was conducting a test to determine which out of a group of four popular scary video games had the greatest potential to frighten. I definitely found a hands-down winner, but I also found out something about myself along the way: I'm easily frightened.

I play a lot of video games, but in the last 5 years or so, a new type of game has become popular that I haven't experienced much. Most frequently grouped into the "survival horror" genre, these games are designed to make their audience uncomfortable, uneasy and outright frightened.

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Margee Kerr, a Pittsburgh-based sociologist who studies the effects of fear, doesn't play many video games, but she's familiar with survival horror's rise simply because she gets more and more calls these days from video game developers seeking to make their games more scary. She sees it as part of a growing wave of people seeking out scary experiences on purpose.

"I think it's because many Americans have lives that are emotionally narrow," she said. "Everything is safe, controlled, neutral. Our species wants to feel more. We want to stretch our emotional boundaries."

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The tests

Going on advice from my friends, I assembled a crop of games considered to be scary, none of which I had ever played before:

  • Five Nights at Freddy's: The original installment of the killer Chuck-E-Cheese animatronics genre. A luckless security guard must survive the night in a pizza franchise stalked by killer robots.
  • Resident Evil HD Remaster: A modern remake of the classic Playstation 1 zombie game that spawned a still-running series. The main characters are police officers trapped in a mansion full of zombies who must survive the night.
  • Amnesia: The Dark Descent: This PC game is frequently credited with starting the scary games renaissance. The game follows an amnesiac Englishman who is being stalked by an undefeatable, indescribable creature (just looking at it for too long can kill you).
  • P.T.: A short exploration game for the PlayStation 4 co-created by renowned horror director Guillermo del Toro that was originally supposed to be a teaser for a since-cancelled game. It's a fairly simple experience, you walk through a typical suburban hallway over and over and over as … things happen.

I assembled two of my cousins, Juliana Vetter, 26, and James Nyreen, 23, and we each played through the four games in 30-minute increments while wearing a chest-mounted heart sensor that would record our heartbeats. I played all four games, while James and Juliana took two each.

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Five Nights at Freddy's

My results:

My cousin's results:

As you can see from my graph here, Five Nights at Freddy's scared the shit out of me. I knew about the general concept of the game going in, which I thought might make it easier, but it did not. From start to finish, a feeling of dread hung over me, and it's reflected in my consistently high heart rate.

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Juliana on the other hand, kept her cool for the most part, with the exception of spikes from the "jump scares" that result if one of the robotic animals catches you and you lose the game.

Resident Evil HD Remaster

My results:

My cousin's results:

This was one of the few games where I stayed calmer than my cousins. James was a bit startled by some of the zombies in the early scenes, but they were just too much of a cliche to cause me much fear. They actually walk at you with their arms outstretched, like someone at their very first zombie crawl.

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Amnesia: The Dark Descent

My results:

My cousin's results:

This game had a great atmosphere, but other than a few heart rate spikes, it didn't really cause much distress. I think Juliana and I were both too engaged in the Lovecraft'esque narrative to spend much thought on fearing for our lives. We wanted to know what would happen next. Maybe that would've been different had we played for longer.

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P.T.

My results:

My cousin's results:

P.T. is another case where I did not do well, compared with James. You can feel horror director del Toro's influence. The game does a really good job of lulling you into a false sense of security, and then, when you least expect it, throwing a terrifying zombie woman at you. It's a shame we'll never see the game it was supposed to eventually be (also, if you've never played P.T., sorry, it is already too late).

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The overall verdict from our tests is clear. If you want to feel physically afraid: play Five Nights at Freddys.

These tests helped me realize something about myself I did not know before: I hate being scared. If the charts above don't paint the picture well enough, let me spell it out, I was miserable during most of these tests, especially with Freddy's. When the timer finally rang for 30 minutes done on that game, I felt like I was going to throw up.

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I told Kerr about how little I enjoyed playing these games, and she said I likely had a naturally heightened fear response. My body probably created more cortisol and adrenaline than others in response to scary situations, which made me more likely to feel awful from the experience.

That can work the other way too, as Kerr spends much of her time studying people who seek out these sorts of experiences and enjoy being scared.

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"They can have a very efficient endorphin and dopamine system at work that makes that feel especially good," she said. "There's a lot of variance in the levels and intensity of the response. The response itself is universal unless you have a condition."

The only condition I have is I'm a wuss.

This story is part of Real Future's Fear Week.