Video games are the perfect medium for horror. They offer a unique sense of immersion, of being trapped within an interactive nightmare, and this has proven irresistible to players and developers since the industry began. Some have faded with time – you’re unlikely to shiver with terror at the sight of 1987 Spectrum adventure Jack the Ripper, the first game to receive an 18 certificate thanks to its “gory” visuals. But many classic horror titles still leave us cowering helplessly behind our joypads.
Here then are 13 unforgettably terrifying video game moments. Feel free to add your own chilling favourites in the comments section.
Zombie dogs through the window – Resident Evil
As gamers, we’re conditioned to think that big, scary things only happen in set-piece locations, so when Capcom lobbed its rabid zombie hounds through the corridor windows in the original Resident Evil it was truly the mother of all jump-scares.
The arrival of Pyramid Head – Silent Hill 2
Nobody knows why being suddenly confronted by a man wearing a weird fetish dress and a giant triangle head should be so utterly terrifying – but there it is. Repressed psychosexual longing is a big theme of this survival horror classic, though, so maybe we should all be asking ourselves some difficult questions.
Getting caught by the alien – Alien Isolation
It’s a while before you meet the xenomorph in Creative Assembly’s brilliantly authentic Alien adventure, so the first time you venture out of a locker after cowering in there for 20 minutes only to be eviscerated by the monster’s tail is a moment of true primal horror.
Spotting Slender Man – Slender: The Eight Pages
Horror games don’t come much more minimalist than this 2012 indie release in which players are pursued through a pitch-black forest by a ghostly figure who gradually draws closer and closer. No matter how many times it happens, catching the Slender Man with your flashlight as you scan the trees is guaranteed to make you scream like a giant, torch-wielding baby.
The talking foetus – PT
Released as a playable trailer for a forthcoming Silent Hill sequel, PT became a horror experience in its own right, trapping players in a looping corridor nightmare featuring aggressive ghost women, spooky radios and, yes, a bloody foetus in a sink that berates you for getting fired and turning to drink. Tragically (or perhaps mercifully) the full game was never released.
Scissorman’s shocking appearances – Clock Tower
Only ever released in Japan, the original Clock Tower brought gruelling terror and suspense to the Super Nintendo a year before Resident Evil truly established the survival-horror genre. The game’s antagonist is Scissorman, a psychopathic child wielding a pair of shears, and his habit of leaping out unexpectedly at lead character Jennifer provides some of gaming’s greatest jump-scares – not least when he leaps from the swimming pool seconds after a girl drowns.
Being caught by the witch – Granny’s Garden
This old BBC Micro game is ostensibly an educational puzzle adventure, in which players have to navigate a hidden kingdom to rescue a king and queen from an evil witch. But the failure screen, where the cackling witch catches you and sends you away, remains lodged in the memories – and nightmares – of veteran home computer owners everywhere.
Battling your first ghost – Project Zero
Released amid a mainstream mania for Japanese ghost movies, Project Zero thrust you into a haunted house with nothing but a camera to protect you from the malevolent spirits. The game teases you at first, offering glimpses of spectres as they glide past doorways or lurk in dark, distant corners – but then, finally, one comes right at you and it’s so pant-wettingly scary, many players simply stopped right there, took the disc out and buried it in the garden. Or was that just me?
Every time you see Alma – FEAR
Channelling the Japanese horror-movie series Ju-on: The Grudge and the 1973 classic Don’t Look Now, Monolith’s supernatural shooter has you exploring an abandoned office complex searching for rogue, psychically augmented soldiers. But, every once in a while, you spot the terrifying ghost girl Alma, scuttling past in her red coat and scaring the bejesus out of you.
All the lights go out – Dead Space
Visceral Games wasn’t messing about with this acclaimed sci-fi horror romp. Lead character Isaac Clarke has only just arrived on the stricken starship Ishimura when the lights suddenly go out, someone yells: “What was that? Did you hear that?!” And then the ravenous space monsters turn up. Top marks for getting to the point.
Regina being fed to death – Phantasmagoria
Perhaps the greatest FMV game ever made, Phantasmagoria came on seven discs, employed a 135-voice concert choir and featured a whole bunch of gruesome death scenes. However, the part in which murderous magician Zoltan Carnovasch kills his wife by force-feeding her offal via a funnel really takes (and chokes on) the biscuit.
T rex surprise – Tomb Raider
So far, you’ve battled the odd wolf, perhaps squished a few pesky bats – nothing too scary. But then you arrive in the Lost Valley with its lush forests and picturesque waterfall, and suddenly a gigantic archaeologist-eating dinosaur charges out from the darkness, roaring into your terrified face. Lara needs to be somersaulting around gracefully, firing her twin pistols, but unfortunately, you’re behind the sofa crying.
The lecture building – Bloodborne
You could pick pretty much any moment from Bloodborne, the eldritch horror game by FromSoftware and Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Dark Souls. There’s the first boss you encounter, the Cleric Beast, with its blood-chilling shrieks. There’s the creepy ambience of gothic Old Yharnam, a dark city filled with zombified inhabitants. There are the witches of Hemwick Charnel Lane, a place exactly as pleasant as it sounds. And there’s the gruesome pregnancy-related body horror as the game builds towards its ending. But, for many, the most frightening moment came after entering the lecture building, which seems eerily empty until you see the shapes in some of the seats. And then you see the students’ faces.