(WARNING! This blog post contains spoilers that may affect the reader’s experience with the video game being discussed!)
This year, as Halloween approaches, my attention has been captured by “Phasmophobia”, a somewhat sensational horror-genre video game centered on ghost hunting that is one of the first to allow for interactive, virtual-reality gameplay. Were I a tech writer, I’d sing the praises of what this game accomplishes for VR gamers and the horror genre of games. However, I write about the supernatural, so what I am most excited about is a chance to use a popular video game to help point out some of the things “ghost hunters” in video games often get wrong—and sometimes get right.
I understand Phasmophobia’s lure: joining a team of friends, family members, or even strangers and then exploring creepy old buildings with the promise of at least a good jump-scare or a frightening encounter with a video-game ghost. The game developers obviously did some research into paranormal investigations in order to create that immersive atmosphere, and obviously a lot of the unrealistic stuff is just necessary game mechanics. But as a real-life ghost hunter, I feel I should weigh in on a couple of features in this game that don’t exactly present an honest image of the very serious work that is paranormal investigation. To balance that out, I will add a few realistic factors that I definitely appreciate. Here we go.
Wrong: So obviously, nobody has ever been killed by a ghost. At least, not in front of witnesses who verified that the ghost did it. There may be rare cases where a person died alone in a scary place and some family members suspect that a “ghost” caused the heart attack, but good luck proving that to the science crowd. Most often, the kind of physical damage incurred from a paranormal encounter is cuts, scratches, bruises, and maybe the occasional rare, long-lasting illness that doctors can’t explain but you suspect might have been picked up during that one creepy encounter.
Right: Probably ninety percent of paranormal investigating is the research done into the history of the place being investigated. This is one of my biggest pet peeves when watching all these new ghost-hunting shows on TV and YouTube. Few bother to give a historical background to the hauntings, nor do they explain if there are any recent activities that have prompted their current investigation. In Phasmophobia, however, the voice-over and briefing board at the beginning of each level pays service to those who do the research before an on-site visit by giving clues about the ghost’s past activity.
Wrong: Ghost hunting begins at nightfall. In real life, many professional paranormal investigators set up their equipment before sunset. They often make preliminary on-site tours of the area during the day so they are familiar with the layout, the exits, and possibly what supernatural interactions they can expect. Experience shows that this daylight tour, while often dull and devoid of ghostly encounters, can mean the difference between a successful ghost hunt and…
Right: Ghost hunting can be deadly.
Now hang on! Didn’t I just say that there is no documented death by ghost? I did. But a great many ghost hunters have hurt or even killed themselves by going unprepared into old, abandoned buildings that are in a dangerous state of disrepair. Most professional paranormal investigators suggest doing that preliminary on-site visit during the day because it is easier to spot hazards such as missing stair railings or holes in the floors that, in the dark, could send an unprepared ghost hunter plummeting.
Wrong: Ghosts go after the loudest member of the group because (the programmers assumed) that person must be screaming. Or at least frightened enough to be talking loud. Apparently there were no middle-child programmers on this development team. Or a family of rowdy boys who talk over each other as loud as they can. In real life, ghosts tend to stay away from the loud people—the obnoxious “type A personalities”. They are most often noticed (and encountered) by the quietest member of the group. In my haunted house, it was that quiet, often ignored “middle child” who first noticed that something was going on. And while I was never chased down and killed by my ghost, I do believe that I only really got to know him when I was at my quietest.
Right: (Spoiler Alert!!!) You can “hide” from a ghost. When I wrote Memoirs of a Haunted House I made sure to put the chapter in where I found that little nook where the ghost didn’t bother me. The reason he left me alone in there, I believe, is that it was originally a coal bin for the coal furnace and fireplaces in the original Victorian-style house. The area that became my bedroom wasn’t renovated into livable space until only a few years before my family moved in. While I say this purely from speculation, it does make sense that, if the ghost never had any memories in life of going through that part of the house, it would not think to go hunting its “victims” there after it died.
Wrong: Ghosts can be easily categorized by what kind of phenomenon they produce. Yeah, this is an obvious game mechanic that makes the game fun and challenging—especially when that uncooperative ghost refuses to give you a clue as to its third form of paranormal evidence. Equally unrealistic is the fact that there are that many different classifications of “ghost” who behave in such predictable patterns. Of course, there is an exception to this…
Right: If you go looking for trouble…it will find you.
One of the most common “classifications” of the paranormal is demonic activity. That is because people who go looking for ghosts long enough will eventually encounter a demon. And demons are…let’s just say…hard to get rid of.
In Phasmophobia, several of the maps feature Ouija Boards, a common means by which foolish thrill-seekers open up a can of supernatural worms they are not in any way prepared to deal with. In fact, most of the ghost types listed in this game are actually synonymous with demonic encounters. And don’t be deceived by the Western, English “name” given each ghost on the briefing board before each mission. Demons often take on a familiar name on their first encounter, only to offer their more ancient name to those who show interest in furthering the relationship. A real paranormal investigator should recognize these warning signs and avoid them at all costs.
I could go on, but I feel this is a good stopping point for now. If the game continues in popularity, or if it produces a sequel or spinoff worth commenting on, I hope I can write about that in a later blog. Until then…don’t go looking for trouble!!!