I like to consider myself a fairly fearless person; que sera, sera, nothing to fear but fear itself, and all that. Maybe it’s desensitization due to a lifetime of gorging myself on horror films, shows, novels, and games or objective analysis of realistic risk factors that has left me mostly numb to the crippling anxiety that afflicts people who watch Discovery ID and the news and then go to bed with their covers pulled over their heads and visions of murderers and rapists dancing in their dreams at night.
Where others are terrified of real life due to over-dramatized and hyped up atrocities being portrayed as everyday life on television, I’m actively seeking things to terrify me through fantastic fiction. In real life, fear is the great mind killer that keeps you from doing what you want to do and therefore from being who you should be. In other words, just a challenge to overcome and then realize that there are very few things in general worth fearing. Save the fear for make believe, I say. But you know what does scare me in real life (yeah, I know you read the title so you already know the answer, but humor me)? Motherfucking spiders.
Other people take rational fears of human evil to irrational extremes. Me? I’m freaked out by something I could effortlessly kill in a thousand ways and could genuinely harm me under almost no circumstances. But it wouldn’t be a phobia if it made sense, yeah? And besides, I’ve got real life stories of personal surprise encounters with black widows that would make anybody believe they really are out to get me. Very few works of fiction have really captured what makes spiders so damn unnerving, but video games have a leg up due to their interactivity and visceral nature.
A lot of people have made lists of this sort claiming that this game or that game is terrifying to arachnophobes because there’s some giant spider monster or something of the sort in it. But that’s not necessarily scary by itself. I mean, blowing up giant spiders by the thousand with rocket launchers or whatever in Earth Defense Force or encountering and slaying your hundredth cave spider in Skyrim is freakin’ exposure therapy if anything (although there is a PC mod for the latter that replaces spiders with weird bears due to some arachnophobes being unable to deal with it, so maybe that’s just me).
I consider a game to have sufficiently triggered my arachnophobia only if it causes me physical pain, meaning my body tenses up to the point that I get cramps or I clinch my jaw so hard it aches. Not a lot of games have successfully done this, but I can think of at least five, and here they are.
The original PlayStation was perhap the first console to make genuinely scary games. Cinematic graphics, voice-acting, and three dimensions opened up a whole new world of icky storytelling possibilities and it didn’t take Capcom long to show me the first video game spiders to ever legitimately terrify me. They just seemed so much more lifelike than anything that came before them, and the way they reared up when they attacked looked so realistic it sent shivers down my spine. And I still hear that scritching sound they make when they move about in my nightmares.
When I played the remake, they got me again in spite of the fact that I was prepared. Heck, I was counting on them. Yet when I walked through a rather innocuous door to find the camera fixated on one of the bastards perched right over my head I seriously shouted “NONONONONONONO!!!!” and ran back through the door.
After a minute or so staving off hyperventilation I was ready to unleash some lead into some virtual bugs, and unleash it I did. But there was this one room where one of them was up in a corner where I couldn’t shoot it scritch. scritch, scritching while I was solving a puzzle and it almost gave me a nervous breakdown expecting it to jump down and eat me. Well played, Capcom. Well played.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Like I said, it’s not necessarily giant spiders that get me. Like the Resident Evil boss spider, for instance. That’s just a bigger, more shootable version of the ones that scared me. What makes spiders scary isn’t how big they are, it’s that they can and will hide anywhere. Give a huge black widow an inch of shadow and it can make itself practically invisible. Case and point: Uncharted 3.
I remember early in the game you come across a disturbingly large specimen of spider resembling a black widow. Not “shoot it with a grenade launcher” big, but “hey, that could happen” big, which is way worse. It made me instantly nervous because of the old Chekhov’s Gun trope. Narrative law states that if you show something cool now, you have to do something with it later, and Naughty Dog is nothing if not a slave to storytelling tradition
Naturally, being Nathan Drake, I found myself in a cave and said cave became lined with spider webs and a small crevice I had to squeeze through to proceed. It was like a nightmare where I knew what was going to happen but was powerless to stop it. Me. Spiders. Tight places. Just no. There’s nothing worse than knowing spiders are totally going to crawl all over me while my inner optimist is holding out hope that maybe they won’t and then they totally do. Somehow that’s even worse then when it’s a complete surprise.
Being Uncharted, and therefore prone to blockbustery spectacle, the next obvious step was being chased by a million billion kajillion spiders, which I’m sure is somebody’s worst nightmare. But for me once you take out the suspense, it becomes just another rollicking good time action sequence and a gameplay challenge to stay in the light that the rampaging arachnids fear (see John 3:20). But I’ll remember that crevice for a loooong time.
FromSoftware are amazing at invoking fear, paranoia, and panic. Okay, maybe not geniuses; all you really have to do is create a hellscape world where every single goddamn thing can kill you and then turn the player loose in it. But nobody does it like they do it. What other developer can claim a basic gameplay feature like having enemies come up behind you pretty much whenever you do anything? Their company motto must be “surprise, motherfuckers!”
But rear attack isn’t exactly how they played the spider thing in Dark Souls 2. Like Uncharted 3 they went for a combination of suspense and shock-and-awe, but they did it much more successfully. They used horrible fantasy-sized spiders as cave wall decorations. Maybe give you a few easy kills. Just enough to creep you out while bolstering your confidence. Then you walk into a large room and like two dozen of the things immediately descend on you from hidey-holes the ceiling. Fuck you, FromSoftware.
As a gamer and a human being, I’m eternally grateful that some kind soul left a message in front of that room in Brightstone Cove Tseldora advising me that I’d need a torch going forward, but as a horror fanatic I’m kind of disappointed because if I’d walked into that mess without a torch to ward off these eight-legged atrocities, I…I don’t know what would have happened (aside from my avatar dying horribly), but it may have included unpleasant bodily functions and neighbors calling the police. Could’ve been fun.
But thanks to that helpful message, that wasn’t the even worst part. The worst was remembering that moment and exploring the cave while giant spiders watched me from their perches. Sometimes one or more would come and try their luck, and sometimes they would not. The not knowing made the whole experience extremely intense. As a general rule, you have to watch your back in Dark Souls, but at this point I could barely progress. I was mostly just spinning in place. Every time I had an eye on a complacent spider, I felt like another was going to descend from the ceiling or crawl out of a hole behind me.
There was another moment a little later on where I entered a house and heard something smashing against wood right before a spider burst from a hole hidden behind a bookshelf just to show me that I wasn’t even safe indoors. Fuck you again, FromSoftware. Fuck you and well done!
Sorry, purists, but I’m putting the hands-down best horror game of the last generation on this list despite its lack of actual spiders. But any way you look at it, the facehuggers are specifically designed to tap into our fear of creepy crawly arachnids. They’ve got eight arms to hold you and a tail to strangle you with to boot. And they don’t just bite you and hope you die from venom, they literally rape your face and impregnate you with an alien horror. Facehuggers are arachnophobia’s final form.
Most of Alien: Isolation, you’re being relentlessly stalked by a terrifying and merciless unstoppable killing machine while trying to avoid feral humans and politely murderous androids. You literally make any noise and the xenophobe is upon you. This game will raise you blood pressure permanently on its tamest day. But is that enough? Nope! Bring on the creepy spider-legged instant death machines!
The scariest scene in Aliens was when Ripley and Newt are trapped in a room with a facehugger and you can hear it skittering around, unseen. You know it’s there, but you don’t know where. Yeah, well, Creative Assembly took notes. Towards the end of the game the little bastards start coming at you -often in tight spaces- and if they get to you it’s game over, man. As in you get a first person view of all eight legs wrapping around your face. It’s a hell of a moneyshot to take after crawling around in the dark being able to hear the things coming for you, but not knowing which direction to look.
Okay, so this one is on all of the spiders in gaming lists, but that’s because it’s mandatory. Limbo quite literally tapped into one of my greatest childhood nightmares like no other game at one point. What’s so scary about spiders, again? Horrifying, inhuman appearance? Check. Utterly silent and capable of amazing feats of stealth? Check. Can produce venom that can potentially do severe harm to a fully grown human in spite of the fact that they eat goddamn bugs? Check. How about they trap their prey in sticky silk, wrap them up with it using their freaky legs and leave them to ponder their horrible fate for a while before slowly dissolving and drinking their bodies bit by bit? Yeah, screw that.
Remember the original version of The Fly? The ending where the man’s head on a fly’s body is trapped in a web screaming for help? Still one of of the most terrifying horror moments for me, ancient cheesy special effects and all. Just the idea of existing on that level of the food chain and being caught helpless in a spider’s web is unthinkably horrible. The first time those legs are unfurled from behind a tree in the shadow world of Limbo in an attempt to spear you, there’s something elementally triggered, and the fact that it continues stalking you after the initial encounter is even worse.
But the part that made me grind my teeth until I was afraid I’d need dental work was when you are walking in a cave and step into an innocuous-looking piece of landscape that turns out to be spider’s silk. While you struggle fruitlessly, the huge spider slowly crawls into view from the ceiling behind you and gingerly grasps and cocoons you. I hadn’t thought about this in a really long time, but childhood terrors came flooding back to me in those seconds. HELP MEEEEEE!