Let’s Talk About “The Mortuary Assistant,” From A Former Mortician

Scary games are fun, at least for some people. Not for me. Most folks are quick to just accept the fact of that statement, until we start talking a bit about my job history, and the time I spent at a funeral home. Then the inevitable question always pops up: “But if you hate scary games, how the heck did you work at a funeral home!?” 

It’s always weird to have to explain that scary games and working at a mortuary are very much not the same thing. I assumed that was obvious but the longer it goes, the more I realize that that’s just wishful thinking on my part. There’s always a sort of grim silence that emanates when I mention that particular part of my life, soon followed by a flurry of questions. “Was it spooky? Did you see any ghosts? Is it true that dead people poop themselves?”

Not really, yes, unfortunately yes. 

When I was in grad school, I started scouring the job boards on campus to find some part time work and make a few extra bucks, since the other side gig I had wasn’t paying super well. Most of the job postings were for nannies and tutors, since my school was nestled up in the hills of a rather well to do town just east of San Francisco. But there was one particular job seeking help at a nearby mortuary; administrative tasks, funeral coordination, manning the phones during the workday. Nothing too special. I figured it sounded like any other office job, just in a rather macabre setting. I applied, got a phone call that afternoon to come down for an interview the next day, had the interview, and got a call offering me the job before I even made it home. 

Funeral home
Our funeral home only had the corner pieces of a casket on display, but some have larger displays.

It ended up being the most interesting and peculiar couple of years I’d ever had at a job, and certainly makes me entertaining at parties. 

Most of the time, the job was pretty quiet. If it weren’t for the presence of the dearly departed, it was otherwise a pretty standard office job. At least until it was time to meet with families to discuss services for their loved ones, and carry out said services. 

I should clarify: I was not an embalmer and did not actually do any of the work surrounding preservation or preparation of the deceased, beyond occasional makeup touch ups or adjusting a tie or jewelry after the decedent was placed in their casket. But I did spend a fair amount of time around the embalmers, including the apprentice (who is actually a close friend of mine to this day). So I saw a thing or two. And I can speak to a lot of things about the process of preparation of a body for viewing and ultimate burial. 

Towards the end of 2022, Darkhorse Digital came out with a peculiar new horror game called The Mortuary Assistant, and all my friends immediately started asking me when I was going to play it. 

“Never,” was always my immediate response. 

The Mortuary Assistant
Dark, dimly lit hallways? Nope. No thank you.

I do not enjoy being scared. A lot of my friends are really into games like Phasmophobia, Fear Therapy, Demonologist, and Devour. And at this point it’s become a running joke of folks asking “What do we need to do to get Clare to play” this, that, or the other. I’m just one of those people that’s a firm believer in the paranormal, and that the best thing you can possibly do is if you see something creepy, leave it the hell alone. All the worst stuff in horror movies happened to people that just didn’t mind their damn business. I am an expert in the field of minding my damn business.

That being said, I did end up playing the game, through a combination of peer pressure and ultimately being forced to cave after my community completed a fundraiser a few months back, with the reward being that I would play the game. I should know by now that I shouldn’t set goals for things I definitely don’t want to do. So let’s talk a little bit about death from someone who got paid to be around it for a while.

The story of The Mortuary Assistant is pretty basic, standard fare for a horror story. Rebecca is a recovered drug addict who has just completed Mortuary School and is taking up an apprenticeship at River Fields Mortuary under the tutelage of the owner, and her former teacher, Raymond Delver. Rebecca is eager to succeed and is clearly bright and driven to succeed. Her grandmother is hesitant about her working at River Fields due to the rumors that run rampant about its “occult” secrets, but Rebecca dismisses these concerns as a bunch of nonsense. 

The game’s tutorial does a pretty great job of introducing the game’s mechanics in a logical setting (that being Rebecca’s ‘final exam’ of sorts), but all during the process of embalming this body, you experience strange occurrences, whispers in your ear, figures appearing in the corner of your eye. It’s enough to be unsettling without making you jump out of your seat. But that’s just a teaser for the horrors yet to come. 

The core concept of the game is that you, Rebecca, have a limited amount of time to embalm several bodies over the course of one evening and identify which of the bodies is a “husk” for a demon trying to slowly possess you. As the night progresses, you experience more intense hauntings that make it progressively more difficult to carry out your duties. By game’s end you’ve either successfully identified and banished the demon back to Hell, or been consumed and ready to wreak havoc on your peaceful town. 

The Mortuary Assistant: Mr Delver
Mr. Delver, the owner of River Fields Mortuary, has more than a few secrets he’s protecting.

Let’s just start with stating the obvious: this is not a thing at any modern day mortuary. I promise you. You can walk into just about any funeral home and you’re more likely to stub your toe on a casket than be possessed by a blood thirsty demon (speaking from experience on the toe stubbing part). The embalming area of the mortuary is also generally far removed from anywhere accessible by visiting family members or other patrons, unlike in the game where it was literally just down the hallway. Pretty sure River Fields in general violates no less than a thousand local ordinances and other code violations. 

Most content within the horror medium exists for the purpose of instilling fear in what are otherwise everyday or innocuous things. While death and dying is by no means a meaningless experience, it is a “normal” one. It’s part of our lives, but the mystery and unknown that surrounds it makes us uncomfortable. It’s why Americans are so culturally removed from death, unlike other countries. And the easiest way to trigger a fear response is to target the subject that you know the least about; it allows the mind to wander and process the possibilities that they otherwise might not. It’s why the most common things you’ll see around Halloween are skeletons, tombstones, coffins, or zombies. 

In that way, The Mortuary Assistant is an excellent horror game. It doubles down on the innate fear we have of death, and the goings on in a quiet mortuary on a stormy night. So no, there are no demons peeking around the corners of any mortuary I’ve ever been to, and anybody that can embalm 3 bodies in 90 minutes likely has super human speed. But the semantics aren’t the point. As scary as the game is (and trust me, I was terrified), I’m able to process it for what it is; a game meant to creep you out. And I can do that, because I’ve actually lived it. And I promise, it might be creepy, but the only screaming I did was when I stubbed my toe on a casket. Multiple times.

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