Don’t Look Behind You: The Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality Horror


by Adam Daniel


[Please note this is a text version of a talk given on the day. This is a work in progress towards Adam’s doctorate.]

The integration of virtual reality and cinema, in some form, has been the elusive dream for cinephiles and technophiles since the first wave of virtual reality in the early 1990s. Recently the technology for both production and reception of virtual reality has developed to the point at which this integration is not only achievable, but where many independent content developers have begun to experiment specifically with virtual reality filmmaking. On a larger scale, while they have yet to produce significant content, companies such as Disney and filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg are already staking bold financial investments in the continued development of these tools for filmmakers. As early as 2002 theorist Jeffrey Shaw argued that “the hegemony of Hollywood’s movie-making modalities is increasingly being challenged by the radical new potentialities of the digital media technologies”, challenges that he then located in video games, location-based entertainment, and contemporary new media art. These challenges have now evolved into the fuller explorations into virtual reality filmmaking that several large Hollywood studios are currently undertaking.

From these recent developments towards a synthesis of virtual reality and cinema, many questions arise regarding the status of cinematic VR as an artform, its capabilities and its limitations.

Although published more than fifty years before the emergence of VR, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” offers insight into the potential value of the VR environment as an artform, particularly when framed by the insight of scholar Mark Hansen, who argues that the “aura” that Benjamin attributed to a singular, unique piece of art now “belongs indelibly to [the] singular actualisation of data in embodied experience”: for Hansen the auratic presence comes from the process of the body as sole creator and “en-framer” of the image. This position has specific relevance to the argument I present in this paper, which is that the intersection of cinema and virtual reality requires that we consider each part not as fundamentally different forms that require interweaving, but as a unique and particularly potent form that questions the notion of auratic loss through its activation of a singular embodied experience.

Having a long-held interest in horror film I was drawn to investigate the first wave of virtual reality horror films, particularly for what I see is their capacity to accentuate the respective strengths of both cinema and VR: VR heightens the immersive properties of horror cinema, while the codes and conventions of horror film establish a generic playground for VR. However, there is no question that the spectatorial experience of virtual reality diverges sharply from that of mainstream cinema, which in turn raises questions about the limitations of conventional narrative-driven cinema in this mode. Perhaps the most pivotal question for those thinking about the cross-over between these two fields is: can cinema and virtual reality be fused together in any meaningful way?

I believe this question will be answered in the affirmative by filmmaking that utilises the immersive properties of VR in combination with a dynamic coupling of viewer and filmic-world. A requisite of this filmmaking which requires deeper consideration is the creative engagement with virtual reality’s unique temporal and spatial aspects.

Let us briefly turn to the question of what virtual reality can bring to cinema? For those who haven’t experienced it, the immersive properties of the current wave of technology are second to none. My personal experiences are predominantly with the Oculus Rift headset, although even the limited properties of Google Cardboard, pictured here also, can have dramatic effects for a first time viewer of virtual reality.

As Sabine Himmelsbach wrote in 2002: “Virtual reality seeks to create a synthesis of observer and computer-generated visual environment, converting data into sense experience. The distance between visual space and observer is abolished. The latter is now literally in the picture.” Having surveyed the limited albeit varied field of virtual reality films currently available, the invariant aspect, even in those that poorly utilise the mode, is the remarkable potential presented by a somewhat “frameless” experience of a filmic world, and the enhanced corporeality this experience presents. By “frameless”, I am referring to the perceptual freedom given to the spectator, a concept I will elaborate on shortly. My contention is that virtual reality activates our bodies as spectators in a new and revolutionary way, due to the unique interface of our bodies with this type of digital image. As much as it shares the ethic of astonishment with Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions”, VR is also transforming this astonishment into a recalibration of our bodily experience as a viewer.

The genre of horror is a fertile field for the study of this recalibration. Horror film’s specific affect is catalysed in the fluid, dynamic relationship between our bodies, the image and our viewing environment. This interchange is prompted not only in the reception of a cinematic story, but in how cinema, in the words of Anne Rutherford, mobilises “the corporeality, the embodied responsiveness of the spectator.” Examining the viewer’s skin in a metaphoric sense, she delineates the boundary between spectator and image as akin to a “permeable membrane.” This renewed focus on the bodily dimension of spectatorship is echoed by scholar Julian Hanich, who contends that the foregrounding of the body in horror counters the “disembodiment and acceleration” that modernity has wrought. For Hanich, the pursuit of a “deep” experience, of both time, and of our lived body in time and space, can be effectively met by the manner in which horror film generates a particular phenomenological spatiality and temporality of the lived body. This is particularly evident in the experience of virtual reality horror.

Hanich’s work on the paradoxical pleasure of horror and its ability to alter our experience of space and time presents a theoretical frame to examine how both horror cinema and VR can best integrate their respective technologies. He posits a phenomenological entanglement that takes place through the dynamic entwinement of film-as-aesthetic-object and viewer-as-experiencing-subject, a concept that is more clearly delineated in the work of theorist Vivian Sobchack: Sobchack contends that our vision and our bodies are inseparable, stating that “although the eyes are the body’s access to a particular form of information, the body’s other modes of access to its world always also inform vision.” The entwinement Hanich writes of vacillates in every unique experience of spectatorship, but it is important to consider that horror films employ a variety of specific modes to manipulate this engagement, and that the fear produced by horror can bring about gradual or sudden transformation of ourselves and our relation to the world around us: this is not a merely a cognitive response, but also a corporeal engagement. Hanich identifies the origins of this breach in a contracted focus of attention that “comes with a phenomenological (not geographical) closeness of the intentional object that seems to press in on us and that we wish to flee. At the same time, the lived-body is experienced differently; we literally feel it foregrounded in a specific way.” This bodily intensity is intimately connected with the way horror film reconfigures our conventional “everyday” experience of time and space to one that expands or contracts these respective elements.

While Hanich posits five different modes of cinematic horror (those being: direct horror, suggested horror, cinematic shock, cinematic dread and cinematic terror), for the purposes of this paper, I want to focus on cinematic dread and contrast two particular constructions of it in the VR environment. Dread in horror cinema is a particular type of fear, with an intensity and temporal shape that are unique. Hanich contends that dread emanates both from our fear for “the endangered character” and our fearful expectations of an outcome that will be “shocking and/or horrifying to us” (i.e. the viewer). He also separates dread from other types of horror by its future-oriented direction. It is in the anticipation that dread fully grasps the viewer: as Dennis Giles says “The viewer senses a terrible presence in the articulation of imagery, but the images themselves display only an absence of the terrible object, or the possibility that it may become visible.”

At a phenomenological level, dread produces deep immersion through its reduction of the intentional distance between viewer and image. Hanich contends it achieves this through a mix of emotional immersion, spatial restriction and temporal “thickening”. In doing so, scenes of dread eschew what he identifies as two vital principles to conventional cinematic storytelling: “maximum visibility and temporal economy.” Scenes of cinematic dread revel in their constriction of spatial information and delay of outcome. What this produces for a viewer is an intensity and increased proximity to the world of the image, in spite of this lack.

The articulation of a particular spatiality and temporality of the lived body is particularly evident in the experience of virtual reality horror. This emphasis on corporeal interaction places the embodied viewer as the locus of the experience, and in this context, produces a new set of kinaesthetic influences. While the body of the VR participant is rarely reproduced as a visual avatar within VR films, the indissoluble connection between movement and perception brings forth explicit attention to their bodily self-affectivity within this space, producing a heightened awareness of their unseen body. That is to say, in the absence of a virtual body, our actual bodies become more present to us.

The spectator in the realm of VR is free to direct her own attention at any time to any point in the entire range of vision. For the genre of horror, this freedom has tremendous significance, as it intensifies the push-pull imperative of the desire to look versus the trepidation to do so. In conventional horror cinema, the composition of the frame can be seen as a delimiting device used to elicit our attention to both what is shown and what threatens to be shown. Through the judicious manipulation of on screen and off screen content, filmmakers can create and amplify various forms of cinematic fear. Virtual reality, on the other hand, replaces the “frame” with an image perception that is essentially a brain-body simulation of the perceptual choices of the viewer, which for a filmmaker produces a filmic world that is in essence “frameless”. Now that I can look anywhere when confronted with a horrifying situation, the question becomes where do I look? Not surprisingly, this new freedom can conflict with the requirements of a rigidly constructed narrative, which is dependent on directing the spectator’s attention. In doing so, it requires VR filmmakers rethink the dominant paradigm of harnessing spectatorial gaze as a primary aspect of cinematic VR.

It is clear, however, that many of the early VR films are still beholden to this paradigm. For example, the short horror film 11:57, created by The Sid Lee Collective, places the viewer in an underground lair, within which they are taunted by various supernatural visitors (see slideshow for short sample).

11:57 is an apposite example of the restricted mobility brought about by the technical limitations of some of the early “live action” VR, as it places the viewer immobilised in a chair in the centre of the experiential world. This is because most of the cameras used to record live action VR at the moment are primarily static installations that record from a single locked position in three hundred sixty degrees, which, to a degree, inhibits the possibility of a tracking camera (there are exceptions, such as live action films which have utilised drone technology to capture three hundred and sixty degree flight, or films which have diegetically motivated the camera movement, such as placing the camera/viewer in a wheelchair).

While experiencing 11:57, viewers are given the capacity to look away from where the action takes place, although auditory cues continually position the various interlopers and their actions to within a roughly 130 degree arc from centre facing forward. Black Mass, on the other hand, is a short horror trailer for what promises to be a longer project by the virtual reality developers at JAUNT (see slideshow for short sample).

Black Mass also positions the viewer in a static position in the centre of what appears to be a garage. The viewer soon discovers they are the unwitting participant in some sort of satanic ritual. Black Mass attempts to manipulate viewer attention in a slightly different manner: Using the three dimensional stereophonics of sound design, it draws the viewer’s attention away from the central position with sounds originating at the periphery of their vision. It also has a character move past the viewer, directing their vision to follow them by curiosity. It should be noted here that both of these films place the viewer as a first-person witness to the scene, in which the multi-lensed camera equates to the viewer’s position in space.

Where Black Mass and 11:57 both fail to capitalise on the VR environment, in my analysis, is in their attempts to replicate the “framing” of conventional filmmaking by manipulating the viewer with visual or auditory cues to shift their gaze to what the filmmaker hopes they will attend to. This has a two-fold problem: firstly, if the viewer somehow misses these cues the experience becomes partial and incomplete, losing the power of its affect, and secondly, once the viewer has learned where to direct their attention, the experience becomes largely the same. Cinematic dread, while present in the first experience, evaporates to a large degree on repeated excursions. This is the crux of the second major problem: by creating a linear time frame with a strictly delineated beginning and end point, VR filmmakers are failing to exploit the full dimensions of VR’s revolutionary possibilities of time and space. Although they fill their filmic world with horror imagery for the viewer to be confronted with, the temporal and spatial economy of the films halts their capacity for deeper intensity and immersion.

If we look instead at how VR gaming makes use of the spatial and temporal dimensions of the VR experience, we can see potential options for VR cinema to explore. The virtual reality experience of the game Alien: Isolation offers one such example. It is particularly valuable to examine the manner in which Alien: Isolation (which I will herein refer to as A:I) convenes a spectator-interactor whose experience surpasses that of the conventional cinematic spectator. The primacy of the spectator-interactor is located in its synthesis of what could be considered a cinematic style of narrative with the greater temporal and spatial capacities of VR.

Based on the Alien film series, the game sees you playing Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, whose search for her mother is interrupted by a rescue mission on a derelict space station. While the game operates through the logic of assigning various missions to your game world avatar, underneath this straightforward narrative is the on-going portentous possibility of a spontaneous confrontation with the titular alien: although any experienced consumer of the game should comprehend that an interaction with the alien is inevitable, each “meeting” is a jarring and genuinely fear-inducing experience.

If we return to the reconfiguration of the experience of space and time as instrumental to VR’s aesthetic capacities, we can use one of these “meetings” with the alien to examine the differences between the short films and A:I. When the alien appears, as it often does, by suddenly descending from the vents above, the spectator experiences the sudden presence of the event as a form of phenomenological proximity of space. This is only heightened by the multiplicity of options in the subsequent retreat and search for sanctuary: as you flee, each new space presents the possibility you will be cornered. Even when you find a place to hide, a tactic the game encourages, the claustrophobic spatial restriction of your vision only serves to build the tension. Here is one brief example, albeit presented in the two dimensional form of a Youtube video:

This spatial restriction is of course but one half of the reconfigured experience – the second half is the altered experience of duration presented by the open-ended gaming environment as opposed to the set duration of the short films. Each confrontation with the alien has an unbounded temporal frame: if retreat is successful, it may still involve minutes of being stalked by the alien. If unsuccessful, there may only be seconds before it strikes. When Hanich argues that we indulge in horror “because it gives time temporarily back in our hands”, he draws our attention to the way horror in particular can make duration palpable. This palpability counters what he labels the “fragmentation of time experience” in modern life. It comes about in two forms, acceleration and deceleration, both of which A:I puts to great use. In conventional horror cinema, scenes of cinematic shock bring the present moment to the fore, while scenes of cinematic dread produce a density in duration, a stillness that extends enigmatically into a potential terrifying future moment. In the VR realm, this concept of dread can evolve and transform to produce an intensity of experience. Regardless of our secondary emotional immersion with character or our engagement with the film on the level of structured narrative progression, we are inextricably present and entwined with the image at a bodily level.

In these interactions with the alien in A:I there is what I consider a mutation in the game experience, away from the goal oriented interaction of a game and towards something more cinematic. In a traditional gaming experience, your focus is normally on achieving the goals of the game world – but with each appearance of the alien in A:I, this focus is shattered, and your flight and attempts to find sanctuary generate a spectatorial emotion and affect that is more similar to that of horror cinema.

Rationalisation of the fear, in that it is produced by a computer-generated image, is denied by the bodily intensification that occurs: an intensification produced through the manner in which VR fuses the inevitable horrific outcome for both the avator of Amanda Ripley and the spectator-interactor who shares her vision. But it is not only this shared vision which is key: it is the combination of the fluid duration of the experience and the continuous spatial reconfiguration which comes with the expanded freedom of movement in the diegetic world. The combinatorial power of these elements allows for Hanich’s cinematic dread to reach its apogee in the VR environment.

Mark Hansen aptly summarises why virtual reality cinema requires that we rethink the construction of a cinema experience that binds the viewer’s gaze, when he writes of the possibilities of new media and the digital image:

“…Even if today’s empirical deployment of the digital-image remains “bounded” by the rectangular framing of the cinema – the fact is that (unlike the photograph or the cinematic frame) it need no longer be so bounded! In sum: digital data is in the most literal sense polymorphous: lacking any inherent form or en-framing, it can be materialized in an almost limitless array of framings; yet so long as it is tied to the image-frame of the cinema, this will remain an entirely untapped potential.”

While his statement applies specifically to more radically challenging forms of new media and virtual reality, it is still vital that, in order to develop the potential he writes of, any synthesis of traditional cinema and virtual reality requires that we consider expanded narratives or modes that incorporate the fuller dimensions of time and space that VR cinema accentuates. While the melding of spectator and interactor I have discussed above occurs within a gameplay environment, and requires the open-world and less-constrained narrative of a game, it highlights the affective potentials of a more dynamic understanding of the spatial and temporal capacities of VR. Practitioners of cinematic virtual reality would do well to embrace this potential, even if it may require rethinking cinema in a “frameless” form: one that takes into account the compellingly visceral experience generated by the expanded spatial and temporal possibilities of virtual reality.


Giles, Dennis. “Conditions of Pleasure in Horror Cinema.” Chap. 3 In Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by B.K. Grant and C. Sharrett: Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (in)Credulous Spectator.” Art and Text 34, Spring (1989).
Hanich, Julian. Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers: The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Hansen, Mark B.N. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.
Himmelsbach, Sabine. “The Interactive Potential of Distributed Networks.” In Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Rutherford, Anne. Cinema and Embodied Affect. March 2003. Accessed 7th November 2016.
Rutherford, Anne. “Precarious Boundaries: Affect, Mise en scène and the Senses in Angelopolous’ Balkans Epic” in Art And The Performance of Memory: Sounds and Gestures Of Recollection, ed. Richard Candida Smith, New York, Routledge, 2002.

Shaw, Jeffrey. Future Cinema. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

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