My Experience with VR/360 Horror Films

By Rylan Gladson, University of Victoria

When my mobile phone-housing “VR” headset came in the mail, I was fairly excited. I had never tried virtual reality of any sort, and my perception of it was limited to videos of people looking very silly while trying it. As with most innovations of this sort, the hype vastly outweighed the content. For the past year I had read an increasing number of articles and opinion pieces touting VR as being “the future of gaming,” or “the future of film.” Some people were calling it a new medium unto itself. But what I noticed that while a host of VR hype was flooding the internet, rarely (I can’t recall a single instance) was there hype around an actual VR game or film. It seemed that the platform itself was far more interesting than anything designed to be experienced with it, which seemed like a contradiction.

What I found the first day of VR testing, that there was indeed a shortage of content, especially narrative. The genre that got me passionate about film at a young age was horror, simply because it was a genre that inherently relied on visuals, and so the first dozen or so videos I watched were 360 horror movies, and my feelings are mixed. 

The first one I watched was called Lock Your Doors, and to this day it is one of two narrative 360 videos I’ve seen that don’t contain any animation (the CGI to eliminate the camera mount notwithstanding). The conceit was very familiar, and even obvious in the context of a 360 film. There’s a girl home alone, she’s expecting company, she wanders the kitchen and house, while some things happen in the background. At first I found it very engaging. That’s the word that seems the most fitting, and this is especially commendable because the film itself was immediately, recognizably low-rent. The acting on the girl’s part was bordering on laughable, the video quality (as with most VR) was inches from dreadful. But I was engaged nonetheless. The use of 360 sound, and having to look around the room yourself to keep track of the stranger lurking around the shadows was unlike anything I had never experienced. It kept me on edge. However ultimately, the killer shows his face. He walks into the kitchen from behind the girl, and immediately the tension was gone. There was no longer a reason for this to be in VR. Once both subjects were close enough to negate looking around, it became the same as watching a zero-budget “flattie” horror. And the lack of cuts really ruined the climactic death scene. It looked like a high-school production.

Though the overall experience of that video was disappointing, it left me fairly excited, but I’m not sure if it was for the right reasons. I haven’t been really scared by a jump scare since I was about 12, and the jump scare in that video actually got to me. So I pressed on with horror. Short, promotional 360 videos were made for the feature films The Forest, Conjuring 2, and Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension. The Forest t was easily the most effective of the three, while also being the most simple. The camera is placed in the middle of a tent, and spooky ghosts sort of yell and rattle the tent. It ends with a giant jump scare. It was the most simple, and also the most gimmicky, but it worked. The jump scares and sounds gave me real chills, and I actually let out a few pathetic cries a few times. As of now, it’s still (in my opinion) the greatest evidence to suggest that the current state of VR is heavily reliant on gimmick. It took one of the most gimmicky, lazy techniques from traditional filmmaking, and repackaged it for 360—and it worked. If anything, at this point my excitement for VR had dwindled into an excitement for effective jump scares.

The film made for Paranormal Activity was the second narrative film that didn’t contain any animation, and it was least effective horror short I saw. Just three kids conducting a seance. Lights flicker, objects get tossed around, loud noises. Boring. The one made for Conjuring 2 actually featured some nice camera movement, and was presented as a “one take” film, despite being animated. Unfortunately, every jump scare came off feeling very silly. That’s another thing about 360 horror: if you aren’t frightened by what’s being (quite literally) thrown at the camera, you’re left staring at a low-quality spooky ghost that just sort of stares menacingly into the lens. What’s even more silly is when the jump scare happens while you’re looking somewhere else, only to turn around after the loud musical note to see a demon-person just sort of standing there.

After grinding through youtube’s offering of horror shorts, the excitement I still had quickly wore off. It became tedious to look around rooms, waiting for jump scares. I quickly stopped putting the effort in to look behind me, the jump scares stopped working, and I found that I could only watch two or three videos before I started to feel nauseous. 

This isn’t to say that I’ve written off VR itself as a gimmick, just that the vast majority of content at this time is just that—gimmicky. Though I’ve based this piece around horror shorts because of my attraction to them, they also seem to be the most prominent narrative offering. Today’s VR brings back memories of the early days of “3D” film, which offered a large quantity of objects being thrown toward the camera. It takes time for a new medium to come into it’s own. Just like how 3D was mostly written-off in the days of Spy Kids 3D, only to reemerge as a valid way of shooting a film with Avatar. I myself ignored 3D until I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, the first time I felt that the 3D was not only justified, but made for a better viewing experience. I have no doubt that VR will evolve in a similar way. I’ve seen a few documentaries that I thought used it well, I’ve seen some animation that had some neat ideas, but nothing that made me think the same film couldn’t have been done just as well, if not better in a traditional format.

Links to the films discussed:

Lock Your Doors:

Paranormal Activity:

Conjuring 2:

The Forest:

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