I love haunted houses.
As a kid, seeing haunted house movies or the haunted house episodes of television series was a treat, and still is. Favorites include the original version of The Haunting and The Dick Van Dyke Show’s “The Ghost of A. Chantz.”
I love the setups: a psychologist gathers a group together to spend the night in a haunted house; someone has placed money on a bet that they could not stay in one; the audio or video tape of someone who had spent the night in a haunted house, and is now dead, has been found; and so on. The suspense in these is delicious.
In real life, I am fascinated by old houses with layers of history embedded within. When I toured Hearst Castle as a child, I thought of being alone in the house, and of all the secret passages and hidden rooms that must be tucked away. My brother told me about an abandoned, haunted seminary at the college we attended. I walked the campus at night, tempted to walk to it and to see if I could find a way in.
Haunted houses spook me and all of us because we don’t know what lurks around the corner. We never see anything – we only hear things and imagine what they might be. It’s akin to fear of the dark. What scares us about an old, empty house is our imagination.
I don’t like haunted houses filled with jump scares, monsters, and blood and gore. These elements have their place, and if done measuredly can be effective, as in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But more often than not the effective haunted house for me is the one where you hardly if ever see anything scary or gross; the one that plays with your mind by suggesting things, never showing them, relying on atmosphere, noise, and sudden movements or changes in objects.
Games provide matchless haunted house experiences. I don’t think movies or television shows come close. Games make you explore creepy places. In film, you may sympathize with the victims trapped in a haunted place for a night, but you only watch – they take the actions. In games, the player must act. A horror game experience may stop indefinitely on the pause screen if the player so wishes. If you're a scaredy-cat, you can't experience the game.
Gamers have their favorites: Resident Evil and Silent Hill are obvious ones, though they may not qualify as straight haunted house experiences, especially the latter. But I want to write about my personal favorites: missions from the Thief series.
The Thief games put the player in the role of Garrett, an independent thief. You crouch in shadows and hide from enemies. You’re a fly on the wall and want to avoid confrontation. The games use immersive environments very well, with excellent audio in both ambient noise and creature and object sound effects. The Thief formula is a very effective foundation for horror.
Fans of the Thief franchise remember the original’s Return to the Cathedral mission, set in a long-abandoned haunted cathedral in a walled-off section of the game’s city setting. The suspense leading up to the level, the sense of dread when starting it, and the frightening undead enemies within, who laugh maniacally if they see you, make it a classic.
Rose Cottage is a fan-made mission by Through the Looking Glass member Saturnine for Thief II. It was uploaded to the Through the Looking Glass “Thief Fan Missions” board in Halloween of 2009, and is a classic haunted house experience.
It’s my kind of haunted house because the emphasis is on atmosphere. There are jump scares, but none are cheap, and each is interwoven into the experience.
You play as a paranormal investigator who must determine the cause of a haunting at the Hollow Lane Mortuary. The atmosphere is heavy as soon as you start. Journal entries, pictures, objects, and sounds do most of the storytelling, though NPCs play a small part halfway through. Clever, sudden movements of objects – such as mannequins that “follow” you, or a reappearing doll – are some of the highlights.
Rose Cottage must be played to be understood. It’s the game experience closest to the classic, suspense and atmosphere driven haunted house experience. Check out the video below to get a taste, but if you ever plan on playing it, you may not want to watch all of it, to leave it unspoiled.
The only Thief mission close to Rose Cottage is Thief: Deadly Shadows’ "Robbing the Cradle." Set in an abandoned health institution that housed an orphanage and an insane asylum during its life, the Cradle is a building filled with tortured memories. Like Rose Cottage, this mission relies on atmosphere and suspense.
Thief series' audio genius Eric Brosius composed a brilliant soundscape for this mission, and the designers gave it a chilling, decayed look. You begin the mission looking up towards the charred edifice – a great fire is what rendered the Cradle inactive – as several noises fill the air: a hollow wind, a subtle growl, the buzz of flies, a crow’s shriek, and an indistinct trumpet playing a pitiful tune.
After entering the building through a cellar door, a new cacophony of disturbing noises fills the air. You hear a mix of children’s laughter, cries for help, pained screams, and ghostly voices. Meanwhile, you’re taking in a desolate interior with consistent décor in the form of angel faces that now don’t seem anything pleasant, if they ever did in the first place. There are additionally specific noises that jump out and, in turn, make you jump: the opening of a door behind you or the pounding on another door as you approach it.
The Cradle continues with several disturbed stories involving the asylum’s inmates and the Cradle staff’s unethical practices. It’s one of the best first-person horror experiences and one of the Thief series' most memorable. You may see some of it below, but, as with the above Rose Cottage video, if you ever plan on playing it, you may want to save it.
The Thief games operate on a design that sets the ideal foundation for horror experiences. Rose Cottage and "Robbing the Cradle" are perfect haunted house experiences that demonstrate this and that video games offer more effective horror experiences than other media. They let you explore and interact with places, a crucial feature of a great haunted house.
The videos used are from my project "Evangelizing Thief", found at thiefdesign.blogspot.com and morethiefdesign.blogspot.com.