The Subtle, Psychological Horror of The Park

The new video game embraces the minimalistic eeriness of recent films like The Babadook.


It is impossible to play Funcom’s The Park without thinking of recent psychological horror films like The Babadook and Session 9. Though it may be inelegant to bifurcate the horror genre into two categories—the grotesque and grand guignol films of, say, Wes Craven, against smaller, more intimate films—it’s worth doing so to note the way in which these divergent categories reflect two opposite approaches towards fear. In one approach, terrible things happen to the happy-go-lucky teenagers of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Until Dawn, and all the horror is external—at times literally so, in the shocking displays of violence and the presence of gangrenous monsters that haunt the forest and the neighborhood.

But in the latter category, we are the monsters: The horror is internal and it is impossible to delineate where our flaws end and the nightmare begins. The former is predicated on shock and surprise; the latter on the eerie familiarity we find in depression, grief, or loss. Where does the monster in Session 9 ultimately live? “I live in the weak and the wounded, Doc.”

The Park takes the player through a leisurely two-hour (or hurried one-hour) tour of the fictional Atlantic Island Park, a dilapidated place that shut down due to the accidental deaths of employees (of course) and the murder of patrons (de rigueur). From the very first ride onwards, the general theme of the park—and by extension, the video game itself—is one of curdled joy: good times made grotesque, fun made freakish. The protagonist, a single mother by the name of Lorraine Maillard, has taken her son Callum to the local amusement park for the day, only to return in the evening when they realize they’ve forgotten his teddy bear. Out of frustration, Callum runs into the park ahead of the player and then disappears. What follows is an unsettling search through the park: the photo negative of a more conventional day out, where you ride the rides and sample the atmosphere, without lines or crowds or the other mundane inconveniences, all while Lorraine monologues about Callum, her past, and her increasing resentment towards the burden that is her son.

The atmosphere of loneliness and isolation is as essential and tangible an experience as the Ferris wheel or the roller coaster, but is made more central to the video game by the one marginally innovative element offered by The Park: the ability to, at almost any point, call out the name of your missing son. The ubiquity of this gesture is to be noted. Right-clicking at the beginning of the game captures the early sense of harried irritation with the hint of a Bostonian accent: “This isn’t a game, Callum.” As the tension grows and the park becomes more and more unnerving, the voice grows more desperate and accusatory: “Give me back my son!”

But the real cleverness here is how it fills up the empty, atmospheric space of the game. Walking between rides (and you will do a lot of walking) and exploring the weed- and rust-strewn paths of an abandoned amusement part is an empty experience: There’s only so much tension that the half-heard voice or dissonant music can supply. The need to click and call and click and call becomes a way to interact with this empty space—in the same way that players run and jump toward an objective in any other game—that reinforces the terrible gravity of the situation. This woman’s son, after all, is missing in this place. Callum will respond, of course, encouraging his mother to follow him, to come and play, to rescue him—until he stops calling back at all.

In other media, we have a superfluity of morsel-sized horror stories: Lovecraft made his reputation from the ability to churn out short eldritch narrative after short eldritch narrative; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” was monocle-poppingly shocking to the genteel readers of The New Yorker in 1948; yearly anthologies are released by small presses that specialize in horror fiction across the world. The idea expressed in the aphorism “had I more time, I would have written you a shorter letter” is an expression of the difficulty posed by concision and preciseness. Length and breadth are, if not safe, then at least comfortable; a curt and crisp piece cannot afford padding: It must be all edge, and no handle. This is not to argue that The Park is a brilliant example of innovation in an industry of bloat, or a novel piercing chill in a medium that loves horror. It’s that, when you realize that the haunted house looks eerily like a gingerbread house, or that your path is a perpetual, literal spiral, you see how damn careful The Park is about using its limited reach to great effect.

As noted above, this game is impossible to play without thinking specifically of the Australian horror film The Babadook. The comparison is illustrative of the thematic hook the video game tries to bury into your heart: Without revealing too much, The Park and The Babadook share similar analogies, and their respective characters (in both works a mother and her child) undergo similar struggles and share similar afflictions. However, it’s where they differ that The Park shows its distinct and dark strength. As the player spirals toward the haunted house, and continues spiraling downwards ever afterwards, the sheer weight of The Park’s curdled hope and joy denies the optimistic ending of its double from down under: In the end, grief and loss cannot be grappled with. Sometimes they cannot be withstood. The monsters win, the humans lose, and the uneasy fact is that both those creatures are the same person.

This post appears courtesy of Kill Screen.