Is cerebral horror better than jump-scares?


On Couch Podtatoes this week, Izlain, J3w3l and myself got embroiled in a conversation about what is scary in games…poor old jump-scares got a right roasting. We concluded that atmosphere, sound and music play a much larger role in the act of frightening us than the good old fashioned jump-scare.

Pretty straight forward so far. I looked back at my post ‘My favourite moments from terrrifying games’ and out of the five I mentioned two were jump-scares, and one relied on a high number of jump-scares near the end.

My question is; what is better at scaring us? Cerebral horror or the jump-scare? Let’s find out.

Darkness – all horror games take place at night or a perpetual dark. Why? Simple; as humans we are hardwired to be frightened of dark areas, it’s an evolutionary hang-over, the dark used to conceal those predators that would hunt us and kill us…natural selection dictated that we should avoid these dark areas.

dark alley

The only thing we fear more than completely dark areas are areas that have spots of light. Those areas used to be a predator’s dream. Enough light for them to see us, dark enough to completely conceal them.

Now you know why games use darkness to scare us, and specifically why games use the good old-fashioned blinking light to send chills down our spines. DAMN YOU educated developers!

Fright-o-meter – 4/5 This is a pretty big one for me, horror games that take place during the day are generally not scary (i’m looking at you ‘Dead Island’) . The oppressive nature of all encompassing darkness really ramps up the fear level in a game. 

Cerebral or jump-scare? Cerebral (4-0)

Monsters –  It wouldn’t be horror without the obligatory monsters and again there is a very psychological reason behind that; and again it is a evolutionary hangover. Although we all feel bullet proof and safe the fact of the matter is we are still very vulnerable. The reason monsters work so well as a horror trope is when we are confronted by an organism that is more powerful than us it is unsettling. It reminds us of our own frailties.


Movies have used the seemingly invincible monster for years; games have also picked up this trope. In games it is more effective. Gamers are used to being the most powerful thing in the universe, and used to killing everything that stands in their way. When the developer introduces a monster that cannot be killed it is terrifying; ‘Resident Evil 3’ used it with the Nemesis, ‘Silent Hill 2’ used it with Pyramid Head and ‘Alien: Isolation used it with the Xenomorph.

Monsters can be used (and are being used increasingly so) as an effective jump scare often-times they create the iconic moment in these games; think the dogs bursting the window in ‘Resident Evil’. Slender used jump-scares effectively as did ‘SCP: Containment Breach’

Fright-o-meter – 5/5 For me this is massive, my favourite ‘Resident Evil’ is the third and I loved ‘Silent Hill 2’ because it was crazy scary and i’m currently falling in love with ‘Alien: Isolation’. All these games are made by their enemies; specifically their invincible antagonist.

Cerbral or jump-scare? Cerebral and Jump-scare (9-5)

Setting – Think about the setting to your favourite horror game. Let’s list a few of the most common ones;

  1. A house/mansion
  2. A town/city
  3. A hospital
  4. A school


Terrifying eh? Not when you see it laid out in front of you.

Horror games take places that we feel secure in and subvert our expectations of them; turning them into something that is unsettling, cruel and terrifying. Setting plays a huge role in the psychology of fear, as a species we are naturally suspicious of places and people we do not know (hence the ‘getting to know you’ stage of friendship). When a horror title thrusts us into a strange school/hospital/town that is not how we expect it to be we are instantly transported into the realm of the terrifying.

Fright-o-meter – 5/5 I can think of nothing scarier than having to make my way through a strange school full of zombie children wanting to rip my throat out. Setting is one of the most potent tools in scaring us.

Cerebral or jump-scare? Cerebral (14-5)

Being alone – Humans; as a species, are social creatures. We feel most comfortable when we are with someone else. There are several psychological theories that suggest we feel safest when we have others around us.


Unfortunately for us the horror game genre isolates us from this safe haven and forces us to confront the darkness alone. Gone is the security of someone to have our backs and keep an eye out for dangers we may miss by ourselves. There is something very unsettling about having to go into that dark, abandoned building alone – this is not in our DNA and it is not something we feel comfortable with – this is an unnatural act that the player must do in order to proceed and gain the gratification of victory. Cruel.

Fright-o-meter – 4/5  To reiterate i can think of nothing scarier than making my way through a strange school full of zombie children wanting to rip my throat out. Alone.

Cerebral or jump-scare? Cerebral (18-5)

Music & sound – The oft-forgotten ingredient to absolute horror. sound and music direction is one of the most emotionally driven of all art; when used correctly they can (and do) subliminally control how we feel. An incredible example of how effective and evocative music can be is the entire ‘silent hill’ series of games. The music at times is nothing more than a symphony of noise that really gets under your skin and drives your emotions; when the action on screen ramps up the music reflects this, you’re soon conditioned to fear the music.

Sound is also one of the easiest (some would say cheap) ways to invoke a fear reaction. By playing random noises at random times your audience will jump, time and time again. However do this too often and they become desensitised to it.

Fright-o-meter – 5/5 Music and sound is what can drive a player over the edge. At times it’s best used to imply the danger and allow the players mind to fill in the blanks; at other times it is best used as a jump-scare. Either way music and sound is scary.

Cerebral or jump-scare? Both (23-10).

So there we have it guys! Cerebral horror is the best for scaring your audience; keep that in mind the next time you’re picking a game to play…or a movie to watch.

AS always, if your disagree with anything here, leave a comment and flame me there! I always try to reply :-D!

Love you bye!



5 thoughts on “Is cerebral horror better than jump-scares?

  1. I think that’s why I enjoy movies like V/H/S. It successfully marries jump scares with psychological horrors, shock value, and cerebral drama. In the end it leaves you with a feeling of “What the fuck did I just watch?” but I wholly appreciate the direction.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely spot on! Horror is a recipe that has a number of different ingredients that are balanced perfectly!

      I think the reason many indie titles fall flat is because they don’t truly understand how to cause fear and resort to cheap jump scare cycles!


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