What are you afraid of? I don't mean "oh, well, spiders creep me out." No, I'm talking about the kind of fear that, when applied under the right conditions, can psychologically cripple you. It's the kind of fear one acutely remembers having as a child, back when everything, it seemed, was absolutely real. Especially if an adult said so. I'm a 25-year-old semi-adult who can't walk into the woods in the dark because, years later, I can't seem to get over my experience with the movie The Blair Witch Project.
Alan Wake isn't helping.
Fear is a funny emotion. Who, honestly, would purposely and repeatedly seek out something that terrifies them? And yet I'm compelled, on a regular basis, to seek entertainment that elicits such a response. I've since concluded that there's nothing quite like being scared in a controlled environment, like a movie or a video game. In the moment, the horror is pure adrenaline, visceral and unrelenting, but buried in the back of your head, you know that it's not real; it makes you feel alive.
Fear works best when it's working with existing emotional material. It's an emotional multiplier. To someone who doesn't mind spiders, Arachnaphobia is just another thriller, perhaps creepier than your average flick. To someone with a deep-seated fear of eight-leggers, however, it's a completely different story, a realized nightmare. In that scenario, it would take someone with a certain penchant for perpetuating masochism to seek out and watch that movie. I don't have a problem with spiders, but I do have a problem with the woods, especially ones set in the dead of night, full of alleged supernatural spooks.
Sounds a bit like Alan Wake, doesn't it? Alan Wake, as I soon discovered after popping the disc in, preys on my darkest fears.
Maybe I should explain the reason The Blair Witch Project had, and continues to have, such a profound impact on me, the best that I understand it. The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999. I was in eighth grade. The movie's credited with laying the groundwork for the now-regular marketing tactic of viral marketing. The Blair Witch Project was marketed as something real, a collection of tapes found by three kids who went into the woods and never came back. There were supporting "documentaries" made to back up these claims. To an ordinary person, they may eventually come to the conclusion even Hollywood wasn't in the business of selling tickets to a documented murder by an alleged witch.
Well, I was in eighth grade. It doesn't matter if it was real, it was scary as hell, set in an environment not exactly foreign to me in the Midwest and that's all the "real" that was needed to invade my mind.
The Blair Witch Project cost me almost an entire summer of late night sleep. I'd find ways to stay awake until the sun would finally poke out its head, finally putting the night to rest. What freaked me out about The Blair Witch Project wasn't what appeared on the screen but off -- specifically, it was the ingenius use of off-camera audio engineering to create skin-crawling, unknowable dread. My bedroom window faced the backyard and because my parents refused to pay to keep the A/C on all night, the window needed to stay open to help keep the house cool. That cracked window was also an open door for outside noises to worm their way into my head and refuse to leave. Just as sleep would be approaching, a squirrel would cross our backyard, snap a twig and turn my body morbidly stiff.
I say this while acknowledging The Blair Witch Project remains one of my favorites, a film that introduced me to the power of movies and, I'm guessing, laid the groundwork for loving horror.
Which brings me back to Alan Wake, a video game which I doubt had very little influence from The Blair Witch Project, but it shares two very distinct things in common with the indie horror flick: a supernatural forest where most things are hidden in darkness and terrifying audio work. Those elements are keyed into my lingering emotions from The Blair Witch Project, so it's not hard to imagine how Alan Wake might affect me at night, alone, a little buzzed, the in-game forest swirling with invisible rage and noises. Remedy Entertainment clearly spent an extraordinary amount of time ensuring the presentation in Alan Wake was top-notch and when they want to ratchet up the tension, it hits me ten-fold.
Alan Wake won't have the same impact on everyone. My fears are unique, but it speaks to the profound ability for fear to multiply, spread like a disease. When something in Alan Wake reminds of The Blair Witch Project, my mind quickly flashes back to that summer, the moments in the movie that struck hardest -- hearing one of the kids scream in the woods, supposedly being tortured by the witch -- and I tense up everywhere. The controller drips intently with sweat, my eyes dart around the room and I try to invent a reason to pause the game and load Facebook for a moment of visual distraction.
Playing Alan Wake means re-opening a barely-scabbed wound in my emotional fabric, one I'm consciously aware remains relentlessly irrational in the face of semi-adult logic, but I do it.
And I love it.