We Fear Our Minds: Asylums as a Horror Cliché

I love October. I love the autumn weather, the colours on the trees, and, most of all, Hallowe’en. To celebrate this most spooky of holidays I’ll be discussing topics related to horror each week of the month in a series of editorials called . . . OCTERROR!


Why is the haunted asylum such a horror cliché? In movies and games there seems to be no better shortcut to terror than using a psychiatric institution — the older and darker the better — as a setting. Plunk your characters down in one of these hospitals, sprinkle in a few padded walls smeared with cryptic writing or Satanic symbols, and a good chunk of the audience is bound to get freaked out.

Outlast, the debut title from Montreal’s Red Barrels, uses this approach to horror to good effect. Players assume the perspective of Miles Upshur, a journalist who has steady enough nerves to investigate a long-disused asylum hidden in the woods far from civilization. Once inside he begins to run into all manner of straight-jacketed, rambling, and often violent folks who chase him through the facility. Outlast is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the spookiest games around, which places it alongside the dreadful castle and industrial hellscape of the highly revered Amnesia series. Red Barrels’ first title is definitely unsettling, but it’s also notable for an almost complete absence of traditionally terrifying creatures like ghosts and demons. Instead, it’s the entirely human patients populating its setting that are responsible for the majority of the scares.


While the inmates of the game’s asylum are often disfigured, having been experimented on by decidedly unethical doctors, they’re also completely recognizable as other people. Why are we so afraid of them, then? One of the eeriest scenarios that Outlast introduces (and repeats fairly often) involves entering a room or turning down a new corridor and seeing one or more patients sitting or standing in Miles’ path. These people may mutter to themselves or incessantly bang their heads against the walls, but they’re not all dangerous. Outlast establishes early on that not everyone confined to the asylum is a threat — in fact some of the patients are even helpful — yet it’s still extremely unnerving to walk past someone who could decide to lash out and give chase at any moment.

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It’s this lack of predictability that makes Outlast so scary. Since it’s impossible to know for sure whether or not to be afraid of the guy staring blankly at a static-y television screen, the player approaches him with fear. Maybe he’s content to stay put. Maybe he’ll lunge forward and scream in Miles’ face. We are given no way to know whether one patient deserves pity or fear — whether we should look at the character with sympathy or just turn away and run as fast as possible.


And isn’t this element of unpredictability responsible for making a fear of asylums so universal? Everyone is terrified of the idea that another person could lose control of their rational thought process — that they could become impossible to relate to in the way we’re accustomed. The fright that comes when logic can’t be counted on is likely responsible for not only the historic treatment of the mentally ill (which is awful), but for the lingering stigma attached to psychiatric disorders of all types in the present day+. All of us fear that one of our loved ones could stop being the same person we care about if diagnosed with a life-altering disorder. All of us are scared, at least in some way, that we could start acting unlike ourselves if we develop Alzheimer’s in advanced age or require medication to treat anxiety or depression. All of this adds up to make the psychiatric institution a place where fear mixes with pity. A place where the very real nightmare of lost rationality is treated.

Outlast uses this universal fear to make its players constantly uneasy. Our skin crawls as we explore the haunted asylum, knowing that, regardless of how ordinary the building may appear, it’s also a place where logic doesn’t always exist.


+ Whether or not it’s appropriate to cast the mentally ill as horror villains is something that should be struggled with. As frightening as Outlast is, its line-up of psychotic “enemies” can feel a bit like the kind of outdated carnival freak shows that we now look at with disgust.