Horror is Knowledge: The Presentation of Fear in ‘Call of Cthulhu’

It’s well known that horror works exploit the unexpected and unknown. The Cthulhu mythos thrives on that very premise. But where most horror stories try to conceal and hide their monster as much as possible to drive tension up. Cthulhu stories thrive on different methods.

Given that, I would like to quote the opening warning you get after booting up Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth: “Cthulhu will occasionally manipulate graphics, sound, and controls in an unusual way. This is perfectly normal, and it is unlikely to be a problem with either your game disc or your sanity.”

Now the warning is a somewhat necessary to explain to the player who might freak out and interrupt their play session to futz with drivers and such, but it’s also a double entendre. On the one hand, the word “Cthulhu” is referring to the game itself, but on the other, it also can be read as the malevolent Elder God the mythos is named for. But in doing so, the game shows its hand. The game goes even further when at the New Game screen the first thing you hear is a ghostly voice whispering, “die, die, die, die, die.” Why would it reveal the very method it intends to use to make you shake in your skin? Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is just that confident. It’s going to tell you straight to your face how it will scare you and succeed just as explained. It didn’t take long either.

To be honest, I thought it was rather badass of the game to present itself like that and even more amazed over my reactions as it went on. Suffice to say I had some really interesting dream imagery that night. Yes, you know how it is going to screw with you, but you can’t always expect it. You don’t know when, where, or what form terror will take when it comes. This approach works because the initial quotation and eerie threats only make you think the game has revealed something important. And the game does this over and over again.

For instance, early in the game, you go to speak to a man at his house. His daughter answers the door, telling you that her mother has been locked in the attack for being “bad.” All the rooms on that floor are locked, and the only place to go is up the stairs. You find a family photo with the mother’s image torn out. You hear thumping and scratching and snarling seemingly coming from all around you. The only place you can go is up another flight of stairs. There is a heavily reinforced door with a slide viewer, the type used in cells built for solitary confinement. You have to open the panel. You know there is a monster in there, and the game is going to “jump scare” you. You, as protagonist Jack Walters, look to the left and then pans to the right. You wait for it. Then you slowly pan left and back to the right. These actions take just long enough for you to doubt your expectations, before “it” jumps you. The ensuing in-game cutscene shows Jack being thrown about and barely allows one to catch two glimpses of the body of whatever it was, before it tears down the stairs and Jack falls unconscious.

At another point in the game, in order to survive, you have to escape into the sewers, a place not even the townsfolk will venture. The young man who tells you this says that it’s not because of the smell but because of the Shoggoth, a monster so terrifying that not even the bug-eyed, cultish psychos on the loose will go near. The very air will make you go crazy it seems. The game tells us what the monster is, and yet it doesn’t explain anything. Even after seeing the slime and the remnants of its victims, we still don’t know what a Shoggoth is.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth also has a curious habit of jump scaring you in the most creative and disturbing ways. During moments when there is no tension and you are exploring a level, you will come across very disturbing sights, including the gruesome murdered body of a woman hanging from a support beam, the remains of two people that have been slashed and partially devoured scattered in an alley, or the body of a man whose flesh was melted off in a sewer tunnel. By turning a corner or opening a door, you will see these things for a split second before control is taken away from you. These gruesome and disturbing sights aren’t near you. They are always some distance away and not moving. Instead the camera rockets towards them in the most haphazard close-ups while the soundtrack screeches as if these corpses’ souls were blaming you for their fate. The frame shudders and blurs. Then, it returns to the normal first person perspective that gameplay takes place in. The corpse is again ten or twenty feet away.

Eventually, the starts incorporating screwing with you into necessary play. In hiding or escaping the townsfolk, Jack will suddenly astrally project himself around a new area, noting where the enemies are and the goal is, much like similar scenes in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. These same lucid moments of questionable psychic origin happen while you are walking down corridors or trying to get some sleep or when the game just feels like mind jumping you back into where you are actually staying at Arkham Asylum. Every so often, this ability is useful, but still leaves you disturbed. You are already helpless in the first few chapters. You have no weapons and can’t fight back. Your agency is lacking in your pitch for survival. Then the game will suddenly (and in ways most unlike your normal play experience) rip away the little agency that you do have.

In revealing information, Dark Corners of the Earth sets you off balance as much as it can. In a way, it begins to teach you to fear a mystery’s answers. The game tries to keep you alienated and ostracized as much as possible from others. From your arrival in Innsmouth, the NPCs don’t just say that they are distrustful of outsiders, they act like it. They give you the cold shoulder at every turn. Any time that you think you’ve found someone who will help your investigation or some relief from the darkness, they are ripped away from you. The game is constantly isolating you and punishing you every time you try figure out the next step.

It’s this dissemination of information that is crucial to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. It’s crucial to the whole Cthulhu mythos really. I mentioned before that we don’t know what a Shoggoth is even after having it explained to us. It’s because it is a being that defies our mortal understanding. H.P. Loveraft’s work is all based on the idea that knowing a terrible truth in enough to terrify you so much to make you go mad. Knowledge of things beyond us are the true horror, the creatures and cults are merely the embodiment of that horror. That is what the game has managed to subtly capture. It’s not the sanity meter, which determines when the audio or the visuals decide to screw with you that matters. It’s not the scripted hallucinations or Jack’s contagious heavy breathing and heart pounding that matters. It’s not the constant unease and devolving sense of what’s real that matters. It is having the more that you learn and that you witness connect to the game’s efforts to terrify you. Horror is knowledge. And the game does well in reminding you of that.