Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
Japanese girls are the best haunted house companions, I think.
The thought occurs to me as I watch a man with a chainsaw chase a group of teenage girls down the street. They shriek and huddle, moving as one, like a school of fish. An explosion blasts from the roof of a nearby building and they cower.
This is Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Japan, bringing American-style theme park mayhem to Osaka. Like any Western trend Japan adopts, they’ve put their own spin on it. Universal boasts local offerings alongside the traditional Hollywood-inspired haunted houses. The 4D movie Kaidan School sprays water on the audience when ghouls slash throats. Stands sell mochi balls with ghost faces. And the park’s main Halloween attraction—Biohazard: The Real 3—is a haunted house based on the Resident Evil video game franchise (which is called “Biohazard” in its home country of Japan).
But it’s not just a haunted house, not really. Haunted houses don’t hand you a gun and tell you to defend yourself from the zombies. Biohazard: The Real 3 does that, and more.
The attraction expertly sells the experience of the Resident Evil games. Stepping into the queue I found myself in the Raccoon City Subway, with beret-wearing operatives from the ethically questionable Umbrella Corporation directing me through the line. The instructions were all in Japanese, but the English-language brochure gave me the scoop: you get thirty bullets to shoot the zombies. If they get close, your health bar goes down. Don’t die. If you die, you leave the house.
It’s like Big Brother with cannibalistic monsters. (So, basically just Big Brother.)
One operative handed me a paintball mask. Slipping it on, I realized it sported a Google Glass-style optical screen. A translucent Umbrella logo floated in the air, then disappeared. Now I was looking through the eyes of a video game character, complete with an aiming reticle and a health wheel in the corner of my vision.
Another Umbrella lackey handed my group pistols and shepherded us into a newsstand outfitted like an armory. The rest of my squad—four college-aged girls, a college guy, and my wife—fumbled with the unfamiliar, heavy weapons.
I smirked. The gun was a mock-up Glock 19. I’d shot one of these. Hell, I’d owned one. Confidence swelled my chest. When a zombie interrupted our briefing, I put him down with a point-blank headshot. The gun bucked, surprisingly loud in the small space. I’ve got this, I thought.
We hit the first room crouched and scanning, doing our best impression of hard-ass operatives. Our Umbrella Corporation guide brought up the rear to corral the stragglers. We were in a Raccoon City alley, complete with trashcans and graffiti. Within a few seconds, we put down a couple of zombies and a dead cop who ambushed us from the shadows. I chuckled. After first contact, our group dropped the SWAT team act and huddled together against a wall. We bristled with firepower. Unlike my squealing companions, I was still cool and tactical. My two-handed Weaver stance was intact, pistol braced and ready.
Then our handler pointed behind me. I turned to see four Lickers creeping along the floor, all red muscle and lapping tongues. Gasping, I fired at their exposed brain pans.
They darted forward, slithering with unnatural speed. They were nearly at my sneakers when I ran screaming, firing behind me like a kid in a NERF war. I wasn’t tactical and I wasn’t cool. I was about ten miles from cool.
The next corridor was tight. A zombie erupted from the wall ahead of me and one of the girls fell into a crouch. Another plugged it twice and ran. I edged past the dead mass with my pistol pointed at it, and noticed in a detached way that my health and bullets were half gone.
Shit, I thought. I better live so I can write this damn article.
Funny thing: I always thought that, as a half-decent shot, I’d survive a zombie outbreak—at least for a while. But when push comes to shove and bloody-mouthed things come at you in the dark, I think I’d bet on the Japanese girls. They couldn’t shoot, but they at least had the good sense to stick together.
We found a briefcase full of smashed T-Virus tubes in the next room. It was what we were looking for, I assumed, because our Umbrella minder spoke about it in urgent Japanese. She pointed to a bloody drag mark on the floor and we followed it to an ambulance with med-spray cans spilling out the back. Sighs of relief twisted into screams when a bloody orderly lunged from the ambulance bed as if to drag a girl inside. We riddled him with bullets, then topped up our health.
I remember the next few rooms as a series of images (when you’re rushing through the dark, pumping shots into undead horrors, it’s hard to fully take in your surroundings). According to my research, there are two paths in Biohazard: The Real 3: one takes you through the police station from Resident Evil 2, while the other routes through the hospital from Resident Evil 3.
I wish I could tell you which path we took, or if there were branching paths at all, but all I remember are gunshots, reaching fingers, and tinny shrieks. In retrospect, I suppose it was a police station, since we stopped in a locker room to refill ammo and boost our health with a green herb.
I’ve never been so glad to see a fake plant. That breather was necessary, because Biohazard was winding up for its strikeout pitch.
In the next room, an Umbrella soldier sprayed an SMG at us. Grey-skinned Tyrants, seven feet tall, lumbered through our bullets without a twitch in their impassive faces. The handler motioned for us to drop our guns, and we bundled into a laboratory full of virus samples. She pointed to a keypad, indicating that we were supposed to hack the system and unlock a sample.
“Should we look for clues?” I asked, trying to think of a way to communicate the word “clue.” I settled for miming a magnifying glass. One girl slammed a code into the machine. Apparently it was the wrong code, because alarms wailed and lights flashed red. A gurgling roar cut through the din.
“Goddammit,” I said, and turned to see the Nemesis standing behind us. It was a picture-perfect adaptation, burly chest capped with a bullet-shaped head, skin like a burn victim, a drawn upper lip exposing three inches of gum over horse-sized teeth. Our handler screamed something in Japanese. I assume it was: “Run.”
I sprinted into the next room to find a line of ammo boxes. An M-16 sat on each one, wired to the box with a heavy cable. I needed no further prompting. The rifle practically jumped into my hands. I swung around to cover my companions in case the Nemesis chased them through the door.
But I didn’t see the zombie crouching behind the ammo crate. She reared up in my peripheral vision, so close that I tripped while twisting around, finger depressing the trigger. I poured fire into her midsection even as I landed on my ass. She wasn’t the only one. A dozen dead rushed us, wading through our raking fire.
The Nemesis joined them, his footsteps shaking the floor. The chain gun on his left arm cycled and I made myself small, crouching behind the ammo crate and focusing fire on his head. Air cannon blasts ripped behind me, simulating bullet impacts. I looked left and saw my squad kneeling behind the boxes, sweeping the room with a hard-bitten resolve. Light-projected bullet holes bloomed on the abomination’s chest. It staggered, wounded.
“Go! Go!” yelled our handler. We left the guns behind and piled through the door like a litter of puppies, everyone bumbling into each other as we wormed through the doorway. Once inside, I realized why: the next room was a narrow, barred queue barely ten feet long. It packed us against the wall like firing squad victims. And there was no way out.
That’s when the Nemesis reared into view ten feet from us. He came on with a slow, deliberate tread. We had time to see the cannon cycle and know what he was going to say next—his famous killing line: “S.T.A.R.S.,” he growled, and opened fire.
The room must’ve been all speakers. Noise rippled through my organs. Air cannons in the wall behind us erupted right to left as he strafed us back and forth. “YOU ARE DEAD,” read the screen behind Nemesis.
It was a slam-bang ending. We laughed as staff ushered us out. The girls we were with—perfect strangers—hugged my wife while giggling about how scared they were. We complimented each other and shook hands.
Exiting onto the street, I looked at the attraction’s line and flashed a smiling thumbs up to the next victims. Umbrella operatives in gas masks patrolled the street outside. A souvenir shop next door offered customized Umbrella Corporation photo IDs.
To decompress, we headed across the street to Finnegan’s, where bartenders slung Biohazard-themed cocktails. I had the Green Herb—a whiskey highball served with a green liqueur shot and a sprig of mint. My wife got the Progenitor Virus, a flesh-pink liquid with passion fruit seeds and a flower garnish.
I’d never considered what a mutation virus would taste like, but kiwi juice and Jim Beam wouldn’t have been my first guess. The drinks were shockingly tasty, but I declined the Biohazard-themed “survival meal.” The price was a bit steep, despite the temptation of edible blood splatter.
Recovery cocktail in hand, I reflected on what I’d seen.
I’ve been to a lot of haunted houses, but I’d never experienced anything quite like Biohazard: The Real 3. Going in, I’d expected the gun to undercut the horror, but instead it increased it. Blasting zombies proved distracting enough that I didn’t see the scares coming, and the mask’s tunnel vision enhanced the effect. Firearms also escalated the terror when bigger monsters appeared—when you’re used to dropping zombies with a double-tap, your brain seizes up a little bit when a Tyrant soaks up twenty bullets.
But the most frightening thing about Biohazard was the life bar. Most haunted houses, no matter how scary, don’t worry you overmuch. Individual scares get you, but there’s no punishment afterward, and you’ll always finish the house if you keep moving. The idea monsters could knock you out of the house made me dread the next ambush, particularly when my health went into the red.
I never figured out how the health bar worked—did zombies really deplete it, or was it staged for the sake of drama? The zombies, after all, seemed to play-act being shot. Was that too all theater?
In the end, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether the zombies actually drained my health bar, I believed they did. Haunted houses never stand up to scrutiny when you look back on them. Five seconds out the back door, your rational mind takes the wheel and reminds you that the horrors are just people in costumes. But in the moment, with no time to think, your brain interprets them as real threats.
And we like to be fooled. That fear cuts through our layers of culture and artifice and gives us a raw, genuine reaction. It exposes us, for a moment, for the animals we really are. After jumping out of our skin, we laugh because we exposed our true, unfiltered selves for a moment.
It’s no mystery why Japan’s taken to haunted houses—it’s the same reason the country likes game shows that embarrass and surprise contestants. Japan’s a country steeped in custom and expected behavior, and all that societal pressure needs a release valve. In restrictive cultures, it’s cathartic to glimpse the raw humanity in people momentarily stripped of their pretensions. Japan likes, as we all like, to see people without their everyday masks. You get to know someone in those frightful seconds, that’s why haunted houses are more fun with friends.
Terror drives us closer together—like Japanese schoolgirls fleeing a chainsaw.
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