Yes, virtual reality will now let you experience being tortured to death by a lovesick robot. Or at least, that's what I'm getting from Road to VR's Paul James, who recently tried out Abe VR on the Oculus Rift. Abe VR is a first-person adaptation of a 2013 horror short, about a robot whose programming drives him to kidnap beautiful women who don't reciprocate his affection. As a film, Abe is well-produced but thin — it's a 7-minute villain's monologue from a sociopathic C-3PO. But as a VR experience, it reveals a curious new twist in the way we've been thinking about cameras, fear, and gender for decades.
Maybe more than any other genre, horror films are about a camera's gaze: the watcher in the darkness, the unsuspecting target, the helpless viewer who sees it all unfold. Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws, published in 1992, is a book-length analysis of how that gaze falls on different genders. The book responded to a common reading of horror (and particularly slasher) films of the '70s and '80s: that they were misogynistic invitations for men to torment women by proxy. Instead, Clover suggested that slasher films make largely male audiences identify with the surviving "final girl," both narratively and cinematically. Seminal slasher film Halloween opens from the killer Michael Myers' point of view, but by the end, we're hiding with Jamie Lee Curtis in the closet.
As many artists have discovered, virtual reality can make the question of perspective incredibly literal. Abe's final girl suffers a fairly grim fate, but there's no ambiguity in who Abe VR wants you to identify with: you're given a first-person view through her eyes, complete with what James describes as a "reasonably convincing female torso." The result, as he describes it, was a very real change in how he perceived the robot's motivation.
Previously, despite Abe's obviously terrifying intent, listening to him recount his unfortunate story brought about fleeting feelings of empathy, perhaps even sympathy. In VR however, when you are the virtual target of Abe's ‘affections', things are quite different. In my case, any empathy I felt previously was converted wholesale into a single, visceral desire: to get the fuck out of there!
Not all VR horror relies on physically embodying a protagonist. But here, it upsets the pathos-laden narrative of Abe's tragic robo-serial killer, a masculine figure literally hardwired with uncontrollable desire. And it forces viewers to consider the female character as an extension of themselves instead of a decorative victim. I'm skeptical of the idea that we can meaningfully measure something as elusive as "empathy," but the first-person view offers an interesting kind of forced perspective that standard film angles don't deliver. What does it mean to be stuck in a body totally different from your own, at a moment when it's at its most vulnerable?
But as Clover noted back in 1992, perspective-switching isn't inherently empowering. In film, the final girl is a way for men to vicariously experience helplessness, but only because we consider helplessness the domain of women. Or, as Clover writes: "abject terror, in short, is gendered feminine, and the more concerned a given film is with that condition ... the more likely the femaleness of the victim." Conceptually, Abe twists itself in circles to establish female victimhood. In both real life and fiction, affectionate robots are almost invariably feminine and often designed to serve men, but horror cinema calls for a masculine creature that preys on sexualized young women.
VR gives us an unprecedented ability to play with perspective
If there's a medium that has truly turned these kind of horror stereotypes on their head, it's probably video games. The incredibly popular survival horror genre is defined by protagonists who are, whether male or female, all outmatched and afraid. Swedish horror studio Frictional Games writes men with fear built into their core mechanics: one character has panic attacks when he looks at enemies; another starts to hallucinate when left in the dark. Both give players agency, but it's filtered through a digital body that is both specifically male and viscerally terrified.
What virtual reality offers so far is an unprecedented opportunity to mix film and games, with the help of a technology that many people still find frighteningly immersive. One of the most cathartically creepy virtual reality experiences yet is The Kitchen, a PlayStation VR demo from Japanese game studio Capcom. While it was rumored to be a test for a new Resident Evil VR game, it's much more like a short horror film, and one that inverts Abe's gender roles. Given a male body stuck in a blood-spattered kitchen chair, players are terrorized by a demonic girl who violently cuts off their only chance of escape, attacking them with a knife that Clover would undoubtedly interrogate for phallic symbolism. If you happen to be female in real life, it's a chance to experience first-person horror without the tacit assumption that your gender makes you somehow uniquely vulnerable — you were just in the wrong haunted house at the wrong time.
It's not revolutionary to make people "really understand" women getting hurt; as Clover points out, horror movies have been doing that for decades. You can't even argue that Abe VR invokes the "female gaze," something that's often treated as a great equalizer. That's cut down by one of the other authors quoted in Clover's book, with the grim pronouncement that "woman's exercise of an active investigating gaze can only be simultaneous with her own victimization."
But just as the interactivity of video games has offered us new ways to identify with and relate to characters, the way that virtual reality can make us conflate our physical and digital bodies offers opportunities we're just starting to explore. It's time to make the most of them.