Teen-Slasher Horror Clichés from “Psychopath” to “Indian Curse” (Case Study: Until Dawn)

by Eugen Pfister

A year has passed since the sisters Hannah and Beth Washington disappeared. In February 2014, they had planned to spend a few days with their brother Josh and six other friends in a luxurious lodge in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. But things didn’t turn out at all as expected: Humiliated by a childish and hurtful prank, Hannah runs out into a blizzard at night. Her sister Beth runs after her. Both are never seen again. A year later, Josh invites the remaining friends back to the supposedly isolated lodge for the weekend: Mike, the stereotypical “jock” character; Jessica, his attractive and somewhat one-dimensional girlfriend; the affable Matt; the cynical and callous Emily; Chris the token nerd and Ashley, the wallflower. Josh’s invitation, which he sends by video message, seems to the others to be a good idea; for players on the other side of the screen, however, alarm bells are already ringing. They have read all of the popular cultural clues correctly, and already know what is coming next.  

Game name: Until Dawn
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Creators: Will Byles, Nik Bowne
Year of release: 2015
Platform: PS4
Setting: Teen slasher horror
Genre (ludic): Action / Adventure
Gameplay: Interactive drama; decision trees, QTEs

I – Production Analysis:

Until Dawn is a so-called “PlayStation 4 Exclusive”, which means that the game was released exclusively on Sony’s newest console in 2015. However, Sony was to make up for this somewhat limited distribution, heavily promoting the game as a tie-in with its new console (2013). The UK studio Supermassive Games, founded in 2008, itself claims to have started development on the game in 2010. In the same year, the studio developed the augmented reality party game “Start the Party!” for the PlayStation Move expansion of the PlayStation 3. The new narrative-heavy horror game too had originally been planned for release on the Move expansion of the PS3. The game project was led by Will Byles, who had previously worked in theatre and advertising. [1] In a detailed article in the Edge magazine, mirrored on Kotaku, you can read the story of the game’s origins: According to this, Will Byles first pitched the idea of his prototype motion-controlled horror game to the Studio’s CEO and finally to the publisher Sony.

“In this incarnation it was more lightweight in tone than its final form, with the publisher hoping to target the younger audience it had courted with Move. As creative director, Byles wrote an extensive screenplay, including precise technical instructions for its puzzle elements. The story may have been in place, but one very important element was missing. “While we like to think we’re good writers, we were aware that we aren’t American, and everything we [wrote] was going to sound a little bit English, a little bit parochial,” he says. “And there’s a real skill in writing good dialogue; appropriate dialogue.” [2]

In order to resolve this issue, two horror-film scriptwriters Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick were hired to write a total of over 10,000 pages of dialogue for the game. Fessenden had previously written the screenplay for 12 horror films, including Wendigo (US 2001), which he also directed. Reznick had worked primarily as a sound editor, but had also written the screenplay for seven (short) films by that time. The two authors intentionally took their cue from the teen-slasher horror film genre and played on these familiar tropes. In 2012, information on the upcoming game was released: “One night, you and seven other teenagers are on a remote mountain on the anniversary of your friend’s mysterious death. The power’s out, there’s no phone reception and you’re trying to get the hot cheerleader to notice you. What could possibly go wrong?” [3] When a pilot prototype was shown to the public at Gamescom in Cologne, the overwhelmingly positive feedback took even the developers by surprise. Though, according to the developers, many had also criticised the PS3 Move expansion requirement for the game. In the end, the game was released on the PS4, also because of the benefits and opportunities that the new console would bring to the game. This increased computing capacity of the PS4 would allow not only the voices, but also the movements of the actors involved to be transferred to the game using motion capture. Some of these were well-known names, such as Hayden Panettierre from Scream 4 (US 2011) and Rami Malek, who first came to fame in 2015 in the lead role of the series Mr Robot (US 2015-2019).

Intro credits (screenshot by the author)

It is evident that the developers consciously sought to emulate the conventions of film.

The short bonus “Behind the Scenes” films, included on the game DVD, is clearly modelled on the promotional trappings of the feature film. “Making a Scene” (2 minutes 56 seconds) for example, showcases the game’s architecture, character costumes and lighting design. In “Meet the Cast” the actors introduce themselves against an epic musical backdrop. They reflect on their roles, their relationship to these roles and the game in general, all in this same tradition. It is interesting, however, that there is no mention of what working in the medium of digital games might entail for the actors (many slightly different takes per scene, for example). Rather the film focuses on introducing the characters as we know them from their stereotypical horror-film tropes. The short film “The Science of Fear” is particularly fascinating: it shows an experiment conducted by design director Tom Heaton. A galvanic response sensor was used to measure electrodermal activity (similar to a lie detector or polygraph) on British subjects as they played test games in a darkened room to determine which “scares” were the most effective in the game. Of course, we should keep in mind that these are promotional films rather than documentaries. However, they do grant us an initial glimpse into the developers approach and the intended impact they hoped the game would achieve.

“The Science of Fear” (screenshot by the author)

II – Product Analysis

The Narrative

In a playable prologue, the players are introduced to the story’s characters. Nine teenagers between the ages of eighteen and nineteen years are planning to spend a few days at a luxurious mountain lodge owned by the Washington family, which includes Josh Washington the older son and his twin sisters Hannah and Beth, who are a year younger than him. The somewhat reserved Hannah is in love with the good-looking and extremely self-assured Mike, though he is already in a relationship with Emily. Mike, Emily, Matt, Jessica and Ashley use Hannah’s interest in Mike to play a trick on her. Mike pretends he is interested in Hannah too and arranges to meet her at night. When she starts to undo her top in front of Mike, it turns out that the others have been secretly filming the scene with their phones. Josh, like Chris, is too drunk to be aware of the prank. Sam tries to stop it, but is too late. Humiliated, Hannah runs out into the night in spite of a blizzard and Beth, who has only just found out about the situation, runs after her. The players now take control of Beth. She finds her sister in the middle of the forest, and the two flee from an unknown threat to the edge of a cliff. Hannah slips, pulling Beth down with her, before an ominous male stranger grabs her.

The game picks up the story exactly one year later. In a cut-scene worthy of cinema release, we see Sam travelling by bus through the Canadian woods, watching a video message from Josh on her phone. In the video, he invites the friends for a reunion at the mountain lodge, in memory of his two twin sisters who vanished the year before. Despite an intensive search, the twins were never found. Each chapter is followed by an interim scene in which we see an anonymous protagonist undergoing therapy with the psychiatrist Dr Alan Hill. The next chapter is preceded by a summary of the previous one (similar to Alan Wake). In the first two chapters, the players get to know the different characters, learn how they relate to one another and how they have been dealing with the tragedy. Despite Josh’s seemingly good mood, we see occasional cracks in this façade that tell us that his mental state is actually quite fragile. Mike still appears unchanged as the cheerful and confident jock and is now involved with the highly-sexualised Jessica. The equally stereotyped Emily, as the ‘bitch’ character, is now together with the somewhat shallow Matt, who is on good terms with everyone, though on the surface this relationship appears to be dysfunctional. Lastly, Chris has clearly fallen for the rather shy Ashley. The different parties have arrived separately, and now meet outside the locked entrance to the lodge. Josh directs Mike and Jessica to the guesthouse, which, isolated in the woods, is a good walk away.

Meeting outside the lodge (screenshot by the author)

While Sam takes a bubble bath to warm up, at the suggestion of Josh, Chris and Ashley go in search of a Ouija board. Through the board they are apparently contacted by the ghost of Hannah, which particularly upsets Ashley who is still feels guilty about Hannah’s disappearance. The board then gives them a sign that they should search the library. As more clues start to surface, evidence starts to point to the existence of a psychopath wreaking havoc in the woods, with two young women already on his conscience. The atmosphere of the game becomes suddenly more sinister. As Jessica is about to sleep with Mike, she is torn away from the cabin by a strange force and taken into the woods. If Mike is not quick enough in his pursuit of her, or if he makes too many errors, she dies a gruesome death. Even if he is fast enough, Mike witnesses her fall down a lift shaft into a mine and believes her to be dead, and runs after a mysterious stranger he thinks he has seen.

Saw (screenshot of the author)

Meanwhile at the lodge, Chris is knocked unconscious and Ashley is kidnapped by a stranger. While searching for her, Chris comes across a shed. Here, through a glass wall he sees Ashley and Josh who have been captured and are tied to a wall, with a rotating saw poised to come towards them on a track. A voice from a loudspeaker asks Chris to make a choice under time pressure: by pulling a lever he has to choose who will die. No matter what the players decide, the circular saw now heads for Josh and (supposedly) cuts him in half, leaving Ashley and Chris traumatised. They now warn Emily and Matt, who go to the cable car-station to get help.

Mike in front of the sanatorium (screenshot by the author)

In the meantime, Mike has followed the stranger to a nearby, abandoned sanatorium. Here, Mike first learns of the fate of some miners who were buried under debris from the collapse of a radium mine in the 1950s. When they reach the cable-car station, Matt and Emily see that the cable car has been sabotaged. Emily decides that they should go instead to a ranger tower (actually a fire observation tower) that is marked on a map to find a radio. In Chapter 5, titled “Dread”, Mike ventures further into the dilapidated sanatorium, and discovers that the starving miners were not so much treated by the doctors there as observed like guinea pigs. The doctors soon noticed that the surviving miners were undergoing painful transformations, but did nothing to help them. Mike finds evidence that the miners changed into dangerous and inhuman beasts after their admission to the clinic, when he comes across an old film recording.

Back at the lodge, Sam has been in the bath wearing headphones and now, wondering where her friends have gone, goes in search of them. In the lodge’s cinema room (Josh’s father is a horror-film director), she sees a disturbing short film with voyeuristic close-ups of her in the bath at the lodge. Still wrapped only in a towel, she flees from the psychopath bearing down on her. Whether she succeeds in escaping or is captured depends on the outcome of a number of timed decisions the player has to make, which can also not be repeated.

Sam in the cinema room (screenshot by the author)

By now Emily and Matt have arrived at the fire watchtower and manage to notify the rangers in the valley, but because of a storm they are unable to fly in with a helicopter until morning. Suddenly, the tower comes under attack, and sinks down into a hole to the mines below, taking Emily and Matt with it. In the mines, the two are separated and Matt is kidnapped by a menacing creature, which remains hidden out of the player’s view. If Matt has the flare gun with him, he can escape, otherwise he will die a horrible death.

In Chapter 6, titled “Psychosis”, Ashley and Chris venture through the lodge’s basement, which is connected to a dilapidated hotel. There they come across the psychopath’s den. However, they are overpowered by him and afterwards find themselves in a “game”. Both sit tied to chairs in which a circular saw is positioned to head towards them. We hear the voice of the psychopath give Chris the choice to either shoot himself or Ashley, otherwise they will both be killed by the saw. The player’s decision on behalf of Chris will help determine whether he will survive the night. The cruel game, which directly references the 2004 film Saw, turns out to be a hoax; the psychopath is revealed to be Josh, who had previously faked his own death. After the disappearance of his sisters, it seems that his pre-existing mental illness worsened. Against the advice of his psychiatrist, he stopped taking his medication and decided to create an elaborate set-up for his friends, who he holds responsible for the death of his sisters.

The Stranger (screenshot of the author)

But it turns out that an even greater threat is lurking in the woods. A scarred hermit (the stranger with the flamethrower) who has been built up in the game as the potential psychopath, comes to the lodge to tell the friends that the land they are on was once sacred ground to native Americans and carries a curse. Hidden clues have already appeared in the game that reveal this. The curse means that all those who have eaten human flesh, like the desperate miners who were driven by starvation, turn into immortal monstrous creatures called Wendigos. The hermit hunts these Wendigos down with his flamethrower. The plan to barricade themselves in the basement changes when Chris and the stranger decide instead to go and rescue Josh. They are attacked by a Wendigo, who decapitates the Stranger and kidnaps Josh. Mike makes his way to the mines via the sanatorium to look for Josh, since he has the key to the cable car. The suspense becomes intense. In the sanatorium, Mike has to fight off several miner Wendigos, and the action culminates in a dramatic show-down at the lodge, where the Wendigos attack all of the survivors at once. If Sam reacts correctly, she can distract all the Wendigos, including the youngest and strongest Wendigo, who turns out to be Hannah, until her friends have all made it to safety. Finally, she manages to blow up the lodge with the Wendigos inside by using an exposed power line and a gas leak before getting herself to safety. During the credits, we see the survivors describing the events to the police – based on the choices made by the players.

Credits (screenshot by the author)

The audio-visual Setting

Until Dawn clearly relies on the emulation of film aesthetics in its staging. This is evident in the paratexts, which include bonus material such as interviews and “the making of” short films but also within the game itself. Two aspects deserve particular mention: the lighting design and the camera perspective. Like the first Resident Evil games, static camera angles are used in the game. Byles and production designer Lee Robinson have said that they insisted on the use of fixed perspective for each scene as this serves a narrative function by only allowing the player a limited view of the action. This is particularly true of some of the more oblique angles used, which intensify a sense of menace by keeping the main part of the action off screen. The developers used camera perspectives that are untypical for digital games, such as extreme low and high-angle shots of characters. In addition, Until Dawn makes use of close-up shots for dramatic effect. This is also not commonly used in digital games, which often use long-shots in third-person perspective. One the one hand, as in the tradition of German expressionist films, or later in film noir or the horror-film genre, this all serves to deliberately alienate or unsettle the player. On the other hand, its use can be equally be interpreted as a deliberate index to the envisaged film aesthetic on the part of the developers. This means that Until Dawn consciously wants to be (also) a film. As well as the camera perspectives and angles, this is also reflected in the virtual cinematic tracking shots that are usually only experienced in games during cut-scenes, but here are also used during the gameplay. That the game seeks to simulate a cinematic aesthetic is also evident in the lighting design. Will Byles mentions the term “chiaroscuro” in an interview. This term has been used since the late Renaissance period to describe a kind of design technique that relies on an extreme contrast between light and dark tones to accentuate the sense of space as well as create a sense of drama. Later this technique was used particularly in German expressionist films and later in film noir. In the game, the threatening environment the players find themselves in is dark and claustrophobically cold. There are few well-lit areas that grant the players respite. We see this right from the start of the game, where the electric light at the lodge is not working, for example. Will Byle says on this aspect: “Outside shots used moonlight, of course, but we wanted to create little fragile pools of warmer light around the characters, like Emily and Mike with their flaming torches. Inside we tried the reverse; theatrical lights, effects and candles from Josh contrasting with the more sterile flashlight beams from Ash, Chris and Sam.”[5]

Cropped camera perspective (screenshot by the author).

The sound, especially the background music, also has references to film. The soundtrack was composed by Jason Graves and Jeff Grace. In the “Making Of” short film included with the game, Graves presents himself as a professional film composer. Yet he is best known for his game soundtracks that include Dead Space (Visceral Games 2008), Dead Space: Extraction (Visceral Games 2009)and Dead Space 2 (Visceral Games 2011). Graves had approached the game’s developers with a main theme –“demo pitch”– which was heavy on strings. In the game menu and exposition scenes, the soundtrack has an ominous and melodramatic effect, due to its orchestral instrumentation. In the action-packed scenes the soundtrack is gratingly edgy. At the same time, the music never dominates the gameplay, for example, it is difficult to recall the main musical theme. 

Game Mechanics

As already shown, Until Dawn plays quite deliberately with an understanding of itself as an interactive film. The players take on the role of each of the teenagers in turn from a third-person perspective, with the exception of Josh. The game mechanics limit the players to mainly binary decisions made within a complex decision tree. This game mechanic is introduced to players as the “butterfly effect” and is consciously incorporated into the game. For example, Chris tells Sam about the “butterfly effect” in the cable car, referring vaguely to the origins of the term in chaos theory. The players are made aware of this mechanic through the many decisions they need to make throughout the game, which can also be tracked in the pause menu at any time. Did Chris shoot the squirrel? Does Matt have the flare gun? Did Chris shoot himself or Ashley? Any decision made by the player will change the course of events. Individual decisions can make the difference between life and death for the character. It is possible to complete the game with all characters alive and also possible to complete it with all the characters dead.

Butterfly Effect (screenshot of the author)

A similar game mechanic calculates the relationships of the individual characters to one other, i.e. a psychosocial quantification that increases the players immersion in the characters through strategic involvement.[6] This too can be viewed on the pause menu as a bar graph at any time. How these statistics might actually affect the game events, however, is never clearly revealed to the players. The first time we encounter this feature is when Mike and Jessica arrive at the guesthouse and get closer to each other. Depending on how good an impression the player as Mike makes on Jessica will result in her wearing more or less clothes. The dialogue between Matt and Emily can also be affected by their measure of affection for each other. In addition to the central decision tree, the game also consists of passages of exploration and time-sensitive ‘quick time events’. If you explore the rooms and areas correctly, you can find ‘clues’ that light up when a character approaches them.

Telegram (screenshot of the author)

Unlike the audio diaries of Bioshock (2K Boston 2008), the clues of Until Dawn are more than just collectibles. If the player discovers certain clues, their characters will also learn and be affected by them. This becomes apparent at the end of the game in extended dialogue or in major plot changes. Only by finding all of “The Twins” set of clues, for example, allows Josh to realise that a Wendigo is his sister, and for her to recognise him as her brother. The game function also serves as an incentive to replay the game, as clues that have been found once are still considered to have been “found” on subsequent playthroughs. Because the main appeal of re(playing) this game is to try out the game’s various narrative branches with their associated dramatic highlights (including the very graphic deaths of the characters), players are more likely to intentionally gather any additional information. This means that the clues, like trophies or achievements, do not only appeal to the so-called ‘completionists’, but are also a part of the general gaming experience. It is only in the ‘quick time events’ sequences that Until Dawn shows similarities to other ‘interactive dramas’ such as the games by Quantic Dreams. In the interspersed action sequences which involve chases, escapes and fights, the player has to press a given button within a tight time frame. Some variation is offered here with the game mechanic of keeping still. For example, if you don’t move, then the Wendigo cannot detect you, meaning that the player must keep the controller steady.

III – Reception Analysis

Overall, Until Dawn was well received by critics and won a British Academy Games Award for Best Original Property in 2016 and was nominated in three other categories[7]. There is no definitive information on the sales figures, but it is known that Until Dawn was ranked second in the UK sales charts and seventh in the US charts after its release. According to Pete Samuels, the sales figures at that time exceeded expectations[8]. However, no further information on the game’s success has been forthcoming, and with no sequel in the pipeline, we must assume that the sales figures were not high enough to warrant using them in publicity. The reviews are largely in agreement. Lucy O’Brien sums it up for IPN as follows:

“At its best, Until Dawn is a gleefully cheesy homage to horror movies, set in a world built by a developer that clearly adores the genre. Although its thrills are tempered by a lack of story cohesion, its robust choice-and-consequence system and keen eye on horror’s most ridiculous tropes makes Until Dawn ultimately worth playing.”[9]

One of the most positively received aspects of the game was its intentional references to the horror film. Andrew Webster, in his review for The Verge, went so far as to elevate the game to “best horror movie of the year.”[10] Some critics appreciated the deliberate use of camp, as well as how it played with horror-film stereotypes: “while the characters all start out as bland stereotypes — the dumb jock, the annoying rich girl — Until Dawn does a sly job of turning them into real, believable characters worth caring for.”[11] In particular, the characters and their relationships received positive reviews, even in Philip Kollar’s otherwise critical piece for Polygon:

“When I continuously sided against Emily and pushed back on everything she said, she grew colder toward Matt throughout the game in really tiny ways that rang true, little quirks to the conversation that transcended the stereotypes of their characters. When I chose to be more supportive, that never happened. I was impressed by the subtlety and impact of these branching conversations and relationships.”[12]

The review in GamePro reads similarly: “Because unlike a two-hour popcorn movie, the game takes ten hours to mould the interchangeable cardboard cut-outs into personalities whose lives and deaths really mean something to us.”[13]In the sense that the game was an homage to film, the limited interactivity was also approved of, for example by Rudolf Inderst: “Despite various decision trees, the highly linear dramaturgy takes players firmly by the hand and leads them through the adventure. This firm grip can be felt all the way into the image composition, in which the designer holds a tight rein via fixed angles and perspectives .”[14]

Introduction of Sam (screenshot of the author)

At the same time, the game did receive some criticism. For example, Carsten Görig writing for Der Spiegel says that he found the characters “uninteresting and tiresome”(15). Görig raises another frequently mentioned criticism: the quick time events (QTE), which he describes as “superfluous hand movements”. In both broadly positive and negative reviews, the same points crop up. It would seem that the overall tone of the review depends rather on whether the journalist is keen on the concept of a game being a homage to the teen-slasher film genre or not. Jim Stirling, for example, praised the game on his influential site: “If you’re looking for horror tropes, Until Dawn has what you need. The horny teenagers stranded in an isolated location, the tragic mistake forming a haunting backstory, the masked maniac picking off his victims one by one. Supermassive Games’ spooky action-adventure practically worships at the altar of 90s and early 2000s Hollywood horror.” [16] Virtually the same observations lead Julie Muncy in her review for A.V. Club to take a more negative stance:

“Unfortunately, the homage to horror films is at times too faithful, as Until Dawn also manages to replicate a lot of the genre’s worst habits. Some of the characters border on too unlikable, especially early on, and they threaten to change the tenor of play from “What should I do with these people?” to “Why do I even care what happens to these punks?” Like so many horror films before it, Until Dawn treats some important topics insensitively. Mental illness, in particular, is associated with violence in a way that is inevitable enough to feel stigmatizing, and it adds to the long list of mental health care facilities played up for unwarranted horrific spectacle. Native Americans serve as shallow window dressing, papering over anything remotely supernatural in the plot with claptrap about ‘indigenous mysticism.’ The script is written in a way that shows no sort of engagement with actual indigenous peoples or their beliefs, and this exploitative laziness stands out in a game that is otherwise so deliberately written.” [17]

IV – Ideological Myths in Until Dawn

I first played the game and scanned it for possible myths in 2016 [18]. As a pastiche on the most common horror-film tropes, Until Dawn communicates a wide-range of narrative and aesthetic set pieces. Several well-known ideological myths are operating simultaneously, including inhumane psychiatry, sexually-driven adolescents and the stereotypical “Indian Curse” (see the mytheme below), albeit they are used in a satirical function.

Mytheme 1: “Because the drugs never work” The dangers of psychiatry / Mad Science

Firstly, we have the myth of Mad Science, or more accurately Bad Science in this game.

In Until Dawn, the players encounter this in two ways. On the one hand, we have the increasingly sinister Dr Hill, who analyses the initially anonymous protagonist (who later turns out to be Josh) after each chapter. Dr Hill’s role in the game is get to the bottom of each character’s fears. Depending on what they mention, clowns, spiders and/or needles appear more frequently. It soon emerges that the increasingly disturbing sessions are a delusion on Josh’s part, but the clue “Psychiatric Report” reveals that Josh was actually treated by a Dr Hill “due to a potential suicide risk”.

(screenshot of the author)

In the report, we read that Dr Hill treated Josh first with the antidepressant amitriptyline and later with phenelzine (also an antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug), and finally discharged him after the latter drug appeared to be working. If the players also find Josh’s mobile phone, they can read several concerned text messages that Dr Hill sent Josh: “Hi Josh, it’s Alan. I hope you don’t mind me texting you, but this is important. I got your email. I don’t think that your plan is going to help. I think you need to stop what you’re doing and come to see me.” Depending on a positive or negative interpretation, this creates the impression that treatment has failed or even that the doctor was negligent in discharging the patient early.

This mytheme is underpinned by the fact that we encounter it even more forcefully in the background story, namely in the “1952 Clueline” of the game in which players piece together events that took place in a sanatorium: Even a clue found early on, a memorandum for the “Sanatorium Staff” sounds ominous, as it states that no members of the press will be allowed to visit the psychiatric ward when the rescued miners are admitted on 5 January 1952. Through discovering reports, case studies and an old film recording scattered about the sanatorium, the players now learn that the attending doctors, fascinated by the miners’ transformation into monsters with superhuman strength, observed this process without helping them, and paid for this with their lives. We find Dr Bragg’s suicide note that reads: “They are dying outside. I hear them screaming and crying./ This hell is my only legacy. / God’s punishment for my mistakes. / No escaping my fate. Death awaits me now / Jefferson Bragg”.

Head in a jar (screenshot by the author)

In keeping with the nature of the genre, the doctors soon fall victim to their own unethical curiosity, as the patients, now mutating into Wendigos, develop superhuman reflexes and strength. The fallout of this narrative is now encountered by the player in the form of monsters who still roam the abandoned sanatorium. In this case, it is not so much the use of unethical experiments that are the reason for the existence of evil here, rather a scientific curiosity coupled with a short-sighted egotism that seemingly prevented the doctors from informing the authorities or the press. The results of this unethical or inept psychiatry are the Wendigos, and they become a very real (game mechanical) threat to the player.

“Maybe they can be cured?” (Screenshot of the author)

We may be dealing with innocent people of unsound mind (the miners turned Wendigo), but they are dehumanised to such an extent that a cure seems to be out of the question, as is the case when we encounter zombies in games. Interaction with the Wendigos always ends in conflict, even in the case of Hannah, because the game will not allow for anything else. The game’s narrative does not prescribe this. In fact, the Stranger succeeded up to a point in holding the Wendigos in captivity. He tried not to kill them, in order to prevent the curse from being passed on. 

Panopticon (screenshot of the author)

We encounter the creatures at the place they first underwent transformation, in the cold, desolate corridors of the sanatorium, amid operating theatres and hard chairs with leather restraints, between heads in jars and relatively plush offices. The level’s architecture and creature design convey the mytheme here perhaps more powerfully than the scattered clues. The sanatorium echoes the architecture of the panopticon familiar to us from the horror genre, the psychiatric ward as a surveillance facility. A place that is supposed to be dedicated to healing the sick is here depicted through the game’s aesthetics and game mechanics as the very source of this suffering. 

“Stop testing us now!” (Screenshot of the author)

Historically, this mytheme has its origins perhaps in the way that many societies viewed autopsies on human corpses as being unethical and impious. This mytheme was further reinforced during the 20th century, when clearly unethical “experiments” were carried out, in particular during the Nazi regime. A more recent example is, for example, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. This was a study was carried out by the United States Public Health Service between 1932-1972, in which 399 African-Americans sharecroppers with syphilis were left untreated without their knowledge or consent in order to observe the progression of the disease.[19] The mytheme thus derives from a historically conditioned sense of “unease” which has formed in the collective memory and functions as a warning. On the one hand, it can bring about more ethical debate and more rigorous scrutiny. But on the other, it can bring about a latent hostility to science, as we are experiencing it at present in the face of rising vaccination scepticism. 

Mytheme 2: “Spooky, Scary Teen Sexuality” – Of sex-driven teenagers

Teenagers here are represented as a dysfunctional community, as alien beings controlled by their sex-drives. Though this may be the natural outcome of the game’s attempt to encompass all the set pieces of the teen splatter genre, it is a statement in itself. What unites these characters, at least initially, is that their motivations appear to be driven primarily by their sexual desire or romantic feelings, whether it is “geeky” Ashley, or “queen bitch” Emily, “jock” Mike, or more obviously the flirtatious Jessica. This is also something the characters themselves focus on, accusing each other of inappropriate behaviour. After Jessica steals Mike from Emily, the two women repeatedly come into conflict throughout the game. In chapter 2, for example, Emily accuses Jessica of (alleged) promiscuity: “Oh, did you not hear me? Was your sluttiness too loud?”. At the same time, the game writes the character of Jessica in such a way that she meets the criteria for this (sexist) stereotype. In particular, in the dialogue with Mike, she uses sexual innuendo. This is not just a part of the cutscenes, it is also integrated into the game mechanics. She strips down to her underwear, dependent on how well the player as Mike prepares their ‘love nest’. To be successful, he must correctly follow her orders (quickly light a fire and switch on the light) and, equally importantly, should in previous dialogues have picked the appropriate choice of words, i.e. be flirtatious.

Mike and Jess (screenshot by the author)

Just before the two characters are about to get together, however, Jessica is kidnapped by a Wendigo, who we learn was once Hannah, and apparently is still consumed by jealousy. For the prohibited act, the punishment is immediate, which is a classic (American) horror trope. This was already intimated in the prologue, where we see Hannah paying for her life for her impetuous advances on Mike. But this trope is also clearly evident in the character of the “final girl” Sam:

 “The key to any slasher film is the “final girl,” a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws. But she can’t don that title at the beginning of the movie. She must be born-again before she can be crowned. Plucked from a group of everyday youngsters, the final girl is the one who must rise above the intellect and the morality of her fellow peers – usually consisting of a jock, a nerd, a provocative teen (or two), and a burnout. As the formula typically goes, while her friends make love, get high, and get into whatever kind of trouble they can muster while they’re on the lake, at a party, or babysitting small children, the final girl remains pure, maintaining her virginity, turning down her friends’ offers for drugs and alcohol, and consistently being the voice of reason.” [20]

Though theoretically it is possible that every character can live or die in the game, in her self-assurance and friendly nature, the character of Sam was clearly designed to be the “final girl”. Above all, she doesn’t appear to have any romantic or sexual interests. In the story, this means that certain behaviour is rewarded. Even if we bear in mind that these are quite deliberately one-dimensional caricatures of teenagers, from the outside the underlying message is clear. Teenagers as well as young adults are depicted as superficial, and somewhat spoiled individuals with no (political, professional, cultural) interests beyond sex. In the game, the exception to this is Joshua, whose primary motivation appears to be revenge, and Sam, whose actions appear to be motivated by her intrinsic kind nature. 

Mytheme 3: The “Indian curse” and violated nature

The Wendigos from Until Dawn are based on a real-life legend of the North American Cree tribe. The use of such indigenous myths is well-known from American horror films. For example, lesser-known films such as John Landis’ one-hour episode Deer Woman (from the Masters of Horror series, US 2005), Brett Donowho’s The Sacred (2012) and no less than three films named after the Wendigo, including Wendigo (US 2001), written and directed by Larry Fessenden. Above all, the unspecified ‘Indian curse’ is a well-known set piece in this genre, for example in Pet Sematary, the adaption of Stephen King’s novel of the same name directed in 1989 by Mary Lambert and in 2019 by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. In King’s novel, too, an evil spirit called Wendigo is the source of the horror. In the novel, a sacred burial ground of the Mi’kmaq tribe is improperly used firstly to resurrect a dead cat, then a dead child. In the horror film Amityville Horror (US 1979), the source of evil is traced back to the desecration of a Shinnecock burial ground. It is a similar story with Until Dawn. In the Stranger’s diary, (which the players automatically access) the player learns that the destructive Wendigo came about when a radium mine was built on a sacred Cree site in the late 19th century.  

The dairy of the Stranger (screenshot of the author)

“There was a tribe who lived in these mountains. The Cree. Their shamans tell stories of a tall creature ‘born in ice’. The tribe respected the mountain and all the animals which lived on it. The mountain became sacred to the Cree. Every animal became sacred also. The Cree believed it was bad luck to harm an animal on the mountain and would hunt elsewhere. 1893, the miners arrived. They found tin and later, traces of radium. They mined deep into the sacred mountain. The Cree says that the mountain cried out and the spirit was released.”

However, the curse only applies to those who have eaten human flesh, which is the case for both the miners and Hannah. In order to be turned into a Wendigo, two moral transgressions must take place. What is most interesting here is the first transgression, which is the desecration of a sacred indigenous site. It is revealing that this fact alone appears sufficient an explanation for the ensuing horror, and it is difficult to find a more detailed explanation. Why was the land sacred to the Cree? How did the Cree mythology develop and what was the function of the Wendigo? It seems less about portraying an indigenous culture, and more about addressing a collective guilt, located deep in the American (and also Canadian) psyche. The writers of Until Dawn have openly addressed this collective guilt underlying this trope: In the game, we read a letter from Josh’s mother (another “clue”):

(screenshot of the author)

“It’s good to know that the tribe still feel an attachment to the land here, even if we have a few unfortunate problems (graffiti, people sleeping in the outbuildings). This is their ancestral home, after all. I have made contact with the descendants of the tribe and intend to make a donation to their elder council. Healing the wounds of the past won’t be easy, but I feel it’s a step that is necessary.”

On the one hand, the use of this mytheme keeps alive an important element of US identity, the memory of past crimes against the indigenous population. At the same time, at least in Until Dawn, we are not seeing a faithful depiction of Cree culture – which, by the way, is still a living culture. In Antonia Bird’s film Ravenous (US/UK/CR 1999), the Wendigo mainly serve as the scourge of European invaders who ravage the landscape: “an agent of horrific vengeance upon European /Euro-American interlopers who violate indigenous space” [21]. Until Dawn adopts Antonia Bird’s idea of the Wendigo myth as a revenge narrative, but does not address broader issues of colonial history and its critical reappraisal. This is also apparent in the aesthetic references to Native American culture scattered about the lodge. We see totems and large-format images of Native Americans feather headdress, an image we are familiar with. 

Interior Design (screenshot by the author)

That the broader issues are not addressed in the game can also be seen in the fact that the player cannot interact with the indigenous culture. Tracing the curse’s origins is not part of the game mechanic. It is the appearance of the Stranger, not the actions of the player that brings it to light. In contrast to the clues, the objects that can be discovered are little more than collectable items, and of a stereotypical form – totems.

Mytheme 4: Gender, race and class 

On gender representation in the game, Will Byles, the creative director of Until Dawn told the LA Times: “That old-fashioned misogynistic attitude feels very dated now. This is a balance between four guys and four girls. It’s not like the girls all die and they all die horribly. We’ve avoided the traditional phallic stabbing. It just doesn’t feel contemporary.” This might be gender parity but is there gender equality? Let’s take a closer look at the protagonists: four men (Josh, Mike, Chris and Matt) and four women (Sam, Emily, Ashley and Jessica). Apart from the reticent Ashley, the agency of the female characters is on par with the men. In fact, it could be argued that the athletic and courageous Sam displays more agency than most of the men. The players also play each of the female characters, Sam most often and Ashley the least. Yet, at the same time, when Mike quickly straps a rifle on his back to rescue Jessica who has been kidnapped, we see obvious vestiges of the damsel in distress trope. The classic “male gaze” is also evident in the game, when we see Sam flee from the psychopath wearing just a bath towel and when Jessica is kidnapped in her underwear. None of the male protagonists are objectified in this way.

Sam (screenshot of the author)

It is much the same with the portrayal of different ethnicities in the game. A common American horror movie trope is that black characters always and without exception die first. In Until Dawn, the open-ended structure of the game does not necessarily mean that Matt is the first to die, but nevertheless the topic was raised in a forum. The group of seven friends includes Matt, who is African American, and Emily, who is Asian American. While this may not accurately reflect the ethnic diversity of Canada, it suggests that it was important to the developers to have an ethnically diverse range of characters. For slasher films, which served as a model for the game, this has not necessarily been the case. This leaves the aspect of class. As is typical in horror films, we meet wealthy young people in this game, who need not worry about rent or upkeep, but are able to simply go laden with luggage to a friend’s lodge for the weekend. Here, a privileged lifestyle is normalised. Such a lavish property in such an isolated region would require impossibly high maintenance costs (generators, car, electricity supplies through long stretches of woodland). Until Dawn is not an exception, as this lack of class diversity seems to be the standard of the US entertainment industry whether it be horror, romcom or sitcom. It is seldom that a blue-collar worker is a protagonist, such as Joel, in The Last of Us.

Mytheme 5: “Okay by me in America”

An established truism of the horror-game genre is they can take place anywhere, as long as they are set in (North) America. Whether the developers are Japanese (Silent Hill [Konami 1999], Resident Evil [Capcom 1996], The Evil Within [Tango Gameworks 2014]), Finnish (Alan Wake [Remedy Entertainment 2010]) or even British (Until Dawn), it seems that a familiar American setting is required for horror. One reason, of course, is the ubiquity of the Hollywood machine. In Europe and Japan in particular, US cultural output has dominated popular culture since the Second World War for a variety of reasons; it has become the frame of reference, the default. An American setting also works because it is universally understood. But this is due to the fact that it has been stripped down and gutted to a certain extent. If we tried to transplant the game into another region of the world, it would still work. The mere fact that the lodge is owned by a Hollywood producer loosely connects the setting with Hollywood. Although the Canadian Rocky Mountains are so distant from Hollywood that Lillehammer or Obergurgl in Tyrol would have worked just as well. This rather hollow Americanisation of the genre is ideological because it deliberately avoids any references to national cultures. This is in contrast to games such as the Norwegian Through the Woods (Antagonist AS 2016), the Taiwanese Detention (Red Candle Games 2017) but also the US-American The Last of Us (Naughty Dog 2013). Instead, the former suggests the existence of a globalised world culture, which only works as long as the action takes place in affluent circles. In the end, these are just as interchangeable as the protagonists. As an empty space, it allows for a higher potential for identification.

Conclusions

Until Dawn serves as an exciting object of study for naturalised and thus unquestioned ideological statements, precisely because it was designed to be superficial, which is also why it works well as a game. It satirises and references other media, and so reproduces widespread dominant statements that come under scrutiny only in exceptional cases. Who questions the all-too familiar “Native American curse”? Who questions its origins and motives? Who questions the fact that the management of the presumably most remote sanatorium failed to inform the press and the authorities on time? There are no clear motives here. What might the psychiatrists have been hoping to achieve? From a historical perspective, the origins of these myths are completely understandable: the destructive treatment of indigenous cultures over centuries for one, as well as the potential for unethical scientific experiments, even in functioning democracies. These myths exist in our popular culture because, to put it crudely, they are supposed to inoculate us against these dangers. However, too careless a use of these myths can perhaps also lead to an undesirable side-effect.


Recommended Quotation:Eugen Pfister,  Teen-Slasher Horror Clichés from “Psychopath” to “Indian Curse” (Case Study 55: Until Dawn)“ in:  Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1756> 21.06.2022


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  • Kalyn Corrigan, How Horror Movies Conjure Nightmares out of Human Sexuality, in collider, 24.10.2017, retrieved from URL: https://collider.com/sexuality-in-horror-movies/
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[1] O.A., The Making of Until Dawn, in Kotaku.com, 22.06.2016, URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20190501101704/https://www.kotaku.co.uk/2016/07/22/the-making-of-until-dawn
[2] Ebenda.
[3] Ishaan Sahdev, Sony To Publish Until Dawn, A Teen Horror Game For PlayStation Move, in: Siliconera.com, 14.08.2012, URL: https://www.siliconera.com/sony-to-publish-until-dawn-a-teen-horror-game-for-playstation-move/
[4] The Making of Until Dawn.
[5] O.A. Creating the atmosphere of Until Dawn, mcvuk.com, 23.11.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.mcvuk.com/development-news/creating-the-atmosphere-of-until-dawn/
[6] Dank an Arno Görgen für den Hinweis.
[7] British Academy Games Awards Winners in 2016, retrieved from: https://www.bafta.org/games/awards/games-awards-winners-in-2016
[8] Jason Dunning, Supermassive Games: Until Dawn Sales “Surpassed Expectations”, Already Talking Internally About A Sequel, 09.10.2015 in Playstation Lifestyle, retrieved from URL: https://www.playstationlifestyle.net/2015/10/09/supermassive-games-until-dawn-2-being-discussed-sales-surpassed-expectations/#/slide/1
[9] Lucy O’Brien, Until Dawn review. Evil in Excess, in IGN, 24.08.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.ign.com/articles/2015/08/24/until-dawn-review
[10] Andrew Webster, Until Dawn combines the best of horror films and games on PS4, in The Verge, 24.08.2015, retrieved from URL:  https://www.theverge.com/2015/8/24/9187447/until-dawn-review-playstation-4
[11] Ebenda.
[12] Philip Kollar, Until Dawn Review: A Cabin in the Woods, in Polygon, 24.08.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.polygon.com/2015/8/24/9166487/until-dawn-review-ps4-playstation-4-supermassive-games-horror.
[13] Ann-Kathrin Kohls, Until Dawn im Test – Wenn schon sterben, dann in HD in gamepro, 24.08.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.gamepro.de/artikel/until-dawn-im-test-wenn-schon-sterben-dann-in-hd,3235446.html.
[14] Rudolf Inderst, Morgengrau(s)en – eine Nacht mit Until Dawn. Fescher … war noch kein Slasher, in nahauhnahmen.ch, 22.09.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.nahaufnahmen.ch/2015/09/22/eine-nacht-mit-until-dawn/.
[15] Carsten Görig, Zu Tode genervt, in Spiegel 26.08.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/games/until-dawn-im-test-fuer-ps4-das-taugt-das-teenie-horrorspiel-a-1049932.html.
[16] Jim Sterling, Until Dawn. Cabin in the Goods. In. thejimquisition com, 24.08.2015, retrieved from URL: https://www.thejimquisition.com/2015/08/until-dawn-review.
[17] Julie Muncy, Until Dawn leaves the fate of its unlikable slasher film cast up to you, in: games.avclub.com, 03.009.2015, retrieved from URL: https://games.avclub.com/until-dawn-leaves-the-fate-of-its-unlikable-slasher-fil-1798185033.
[18] Eugen Pfister, „Well, it’s definitely creepy down here“ Das Politische im Teenie-Slasher-Genre  in:  Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, 29.01.2016, retrieved from URL: http://spielkult.hypotheses.org/618.
[19] Johanna Lutteroth, Todesstudie von Tuskegee, in Spiegel.de, 07.06.2012, retrieved from URL: https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/medizin-skandal-todesstudie-von-tuskegee-a-947601.html und Thomas G. Benedek: The „Tuskegee study“ of syphilis. Analysis of moral versus methodological aspect. In: Journal of Chronical Diseases. Band 31, 1978, S. 35–50, retrieved from URL:  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23493643_The_Legacy_of_the_Tuskegee_Syphilis_Study_Assessing_Its_Impact_on_Willingness_to_Participate_in_Biomedical_Studies.
[20] Kalyn Corrigan, How Horror Movies Conjure Nightmares out of Human Sexuality, in collider, 24.10.2017, retrieved from URL: https://collider.com/sexuality-in-horror-movies/
[21] Robert Saunders, “Hungry Lands. Conquest, Cannibalism , and the Wendigo Spirit” in Cynthia J. Miller und A. Bowdoin van Riper (Hg.), „Undead in the West. Vampires, Zombies, Mummies and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier“ 183 


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