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Spooky & Scary Games

Two jack-o'-lanterns in the dark

Halloween is around the corner and there are plenty of video games that are horror themed, but not necessarily Halloween-y. What makes a game spooky but not a horror game? Is there a difference?

By definition, spooky is "sinister or ghostly in a way that causes fear and unease." Meaning games that are spooky typically have themes about the supernatural, such as ghosts, poltergeists, and the afterlife. Though, spooky media is not meant to present fear into the viewer, but poke fun at seemingly scary themes as a form of entertainment.

Spooky games often use themes from Halloween with autumn tones and gameplay that's akin to fun fall activities like carving pumpkins. They also call back to Halloween's pagan roots: communication between the living and the dead, putting on costumes to ward off evil, and bonfires.

Luigi's Mansion 2 key art. Luigi is running towards the viewer with hands on his face screaming in horror. Four ghosts are floating around him.*

In contrast, horror games use themes pertaining to primal fears in humans such as the dark, death, and total emptiness. Horror games are also able to delve deeper into difficult topics such as grief and the darker side of humanity. At the same time, they incorporate gore as part of our fear of being harmed and disgust of such sights.

Horror games are a form of immersion in a similar way that fantasy games are. Some gamers prefer the adrenaline of being chased by unknown horrors instead of heart-pounding combat sequences in action games. Players know they are in a controlled environment where they aren't able to be physically harmed.

Lady Dimitrescu and her three daughters from Resident Evil 8 Village. Lady Dimitrescu towers over the viewer with her hands on her hips smiling menacingly.

A large part of what differentiates spooky games from horror games is the graphics. Spooky games have cartoonish styles that takes away from any visual scares. Horror games have more realistic styles or are stylized in a way that emphasizes the focus of the game. They use realism to make the player feel immersed in the story and events. Part of this is designing creatures to be within the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is where an artificial being appears to be similar to humans but doesn't feel familiar and causes a feeling of unease. Spooky and horror games are usually on opposing sides of the uncanny valley. Spooky games are typically on the left side of the valley where the opposing forces are not human and aren't trying to be perceived as human. Horror games often design enemies to be within the uncanny valley to further the feeling of unease.

Graph of the "Uncanny Valley." On the x-axis is human likeness and the y-axis is familiarity. On the very left is an industrial robot that is at the bottom on familiarity and human likeness. On the right is a healthy person that is at the top of human likeness and familiarity. Corpse, zombie, prosthetic hand, and bunraku puppet is in the dip to the left of the healthy person showing they are extremely unfamiliar but very human-like.


Horror Homeroom (2017, September 15). Horror Island: The Difference Between Scary and Spooky.

Make Use Of (2021, December 13). Why Do People Like Playing Scary Video Games?

The Naked Scientists (2021, January 21). The Uncanny Valley, why some games are scary. (2023, October 18). Samhain.

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