Whether we’re willing to admit it or not we’ve all experienced something that genuinely scared the living crap out of us. You’re probably now trying to place what it was exactly that had you trembling in fear for the very first time; if you were legitimately frightened it shouldn’t be too hard to remember.
For me it was a video game. I was twelve when I first played Resident Evil on Playstation. It was late March, a time of year when the weather is see-sawing between Winter and hints of Spring and the days are still depressingly short.
Most games my older brother and I played together were sports games, excluding a previous legendary tag-teaming of Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo (screw you platform perils). That remains my fondest childhood gaming memory. Together we booted up Resident Evil, sold to our parents solely on the fact that it would be a brotherly bonding experience. That wasn’t a total lie, we bonded.
We played most of the early parts of the game together but other times I’d be playing by myself. Looking back, playing this game by myself at twelve was probably not the best idea. I do not know what I was thinking.
It was dark out when we first started. The clocks didn’t go forward until early April that year so it was only fitting we would start the game in the dark of night. The Playstation was set up in my brother’s room to so—because of the hanging out with your older brother rule—I could stay up later to play.
The opening cinematic was paralyzing. The scariest thing I had really seen up to this point in my life was Are You Afraid of The Dark on Nickelodeon. I was foreign to the concept of zombies. The cinematic explained incidents of people being attacked and eaten, the current objective being the rescue mission of a team gone missing. My twelve-year-old self rightly concluded that team was attacked and eaten.
Neither of us said a word during the cinematic. In fact, I’m sure we were both thinking this would be a pretty good time to turn back. Searching for the lost team in the foggy woods Albert Wesker—franchise antagonist and overall butt-head—conveniently directs the rescue team out of an ambush from a pack of cerberus (zombie dogs) to a murky mansion. Four minutes in and I’ve already accumulated a months worth of nightmares.
The mansion seemed safe temporarily as we ran from the wild dogs seeking shelter, but as soon as we entered we realized this is not a safe place. The controller wires being so short and our television so small pulled us closer and closer to the screen, heightening the suspense of every passing moment. Controller in hand, the cinematic ends and Jill Valentine was suddenly mine to control. I froze up.
Suddenly the rescue team splits (because of course they do). I wasn’t aware of horror tropes at the age of twelve but I was smart enough to realize that splitting up was not a good idea; although it could have just been the fact that I didn’t necessarily want to roam around this mansion alone (my brother wasn’t always playing with me).
I continued to be shaken from head to toe. It was tough to read my brothers reaction at first; initially he was guarded about whether or not he thought it was scary but eventually would divorce himself from the tough older brother persona and agree the game is “kind of creepy.” Thank you for fessing up to that. In his defense, I’m sure my experience with the game would be vastly different had I been four years older.
As the STARZ team split up, the mansion grew larger and more mysterious. The doors were ultimately what did me in. Open a door, an animation starts of the creaking door slowly opening. Some doors are locked in Resident Evil, others are not.
The most unsettling part of the door animation is that you have no way of knowing what’s on the other side of it until the animation ends—-you’ll either walk into an empty room or directly into a group of zombies. More often than not, you walk directly into a group of zombies.
The scarcity of ammo in Resident Evil didn’t help make things any less tense, to the point where I wouldn’t open a newly discovered door without ensuring I had decent health and sufficient ammo; most of the time you don’t have control over those things and all you can do is cross your fingers and hope for the best.
I had nightmares about the doors in Resident Evil, lots of them. Even though the three bedrooms in our house growing up were right next to one another, they might as well have been miles apart. The sequence of opening the door out of my brother’s room night after night and then opening my bedroom door became a feat of extreme courage. I haven’t looked at a door quite the same way since playing this game.
After a week or two it got to the point where my brother was rarely playing and my skin grew thick enough to push on by myself. I could have spent more time talking my brother back into playing but, at the time, I was more concerned with beating the game. I was eager to see what the next thing to scare the crap out of me would be.
The clunky directional controls in Resident Evil were a constant tool of terror. The game wasn’t very forgiving as far as directional controls went. This was just part of what video games were at the time. As much as I played Resident Evil and got used to it my palms still sweated every time I had to run or escape.
Getting space between you and an oncoming zombie or zombie-thing in order to kill them is paramount to not getting eaten alive. Add to that the necessity of having to weave in and out of the inventory screen to use sprays and ammo during encounters the forecast for tension never quite normalizes. Getting used to the game quirks and menu mastery was rather difficult at twelve, and it made every minute of the game more terrifying.
I recently revisited my original trip to the mansion back in August, hoping to revive some memories to bake into this story. Fortunately, it was warm outside and the days were a bit longer. Since playing twenty years ago I’ve seen just about all the horror genre has to offer in all its forms–including all the subsequent Resident Evil games–and nothing comes anywhere close to my time with the first Resident Evil.
Ascending once again from the belly of the Umbrella lab (older and immune to fear) I was greeted by the Tyrant, the final boss with claws for hands that wants you dead. The Tyrant is scary, but he’s no door.