I’m sitting in my room, alone, trembling, white as Casper.
Before that, silence, comfort, and then: a Doberman zombie dog jumping through a window behind me. I flinched, shouted, threw my controller. Out went my innocence, gone before I even hit puberty.
I addressed the situation by turning off my PlayStation, swearing off Resident Evil forever.
I was only 11 years old when Capcom’s famous survival horror game came out, and in just ten minutes it changed my life forever. To this day it’s my most vivid, terrifying video game memory, discarded into solitary confinement deep in my brain. But as much as I want to forget it—or try to ignore it—the memory is there, a traumatizing reminder.
Weirdly, it’s something I cherish.
So when Resident Evil Remastered was announced—I’ll be honest—I had a minor panic attack. The game that tormented my childhood was coming back to haunt me as an adult. Try as I might, I can’t escape the nightmare, just like I couldn’t escape that rabid hell-dog in that quiet hallway.
Since coming out in 1996, Resident Evil has remained an unconquerable mountain, an impossibly distressing experience that mocks me into adulthood and beyond. Believe me, I’ve made multiple attempts to beat it. Even after that unfortunate jump-scare, I’ve tried. Over the years, I’ve become the master of unlocking more times than I’d like to admit, but that’s about all I can muster.
I’ve played REmake, too, but when I realized the undead turned into insane banshee crimson heads, I swore it off forever. I was like that octopus gif saying, “Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope…” I just can’t do it. It’s like the fear one has of heights, or public speaking, or talking to the opposite sex. It makes me feel disoriented, lightheaded, like I might pass out. I physically and mentally seize up.
The funny thing is I managed to complete Resident Evil 2, 3, 4, 5, and Code Veronica. Code Veronica! Nobody played that game. I did, though—on Dreamcast no less. And Resident Evil 3? Don’t even get me started on the terrifying and relentless Nemesis chases. The mutant S.T.A.R.S-hating beast was a determined pursuer, and one of the more memorable video game characters; he had a rocket launcher for crying out loud.
Those games are certainly frightening, and it’s a miracle I got through them at all. But the first Resident Evil is different, I think, and a large part of the game’s mystique comes down to Spencer Mansion itself. It’s a dark, brooding, dreadful place, an ornate and splendid example of Victorian architecture. It elevates the tension beyond Resident Evil 2’s unkempt police precinct, or Resident Evil 4’s random Spanish castle.
What makes Resident Evil so unbearable is how Capcom manipulates the beauty of Spencer Mansion into something hideous. Even without the ornery dogs and shambling zombies, exploring the spooky dining halls, entry ways and secret rooms is a nerve-racking experience. Heck, even the mansion’s dimly-lit entrance hall, which is probably the least threatening room in the entire game, is unsettling.
And because it’s someone’s home—not a city, or a village, or an island base—Resident Evil’s setting is more intimate. Spencer Mansion is maybe a place you could live or visit if not for the terrible experiments and zombie house guests. It’s a place you dream of, and Capcom uses that, just as a lot of successful horror films do, to strike fear in players. One second you’re in a comforting, quiet room, and the next you’re being chased down the hall.
Before players are even given a chance to explore Spencer Mansion, the game brilliantly forces you to dive head first into the Great Unknown. You can’t escape through the front door, which means the only way to proceed is by taking the beast head on. This creates remarkable tension, magnified even more by the mansion’s mazelike layout and claustrophobic hallways.
After the first zombie encounter, players quickly understand that there are more sinister secrets within Spencer Mansion. It makes the simple loading door screen animations a harbinger of crippling fear, to the point where you don’t want to open doors or explore new rooms at all. You never know what’s on the other side. Often times it’s nothing, but around the next corner could be a slow, bloodthirsty zombie. Or worse.
And because the mansion’s rooms and hallways are so confined, players are given no choice but to confront every enemy they come across—run the other way, and they’ll still be there, waiting, lurking, patient like a meditating Monk. Skilled players have figured out how to dodge and run around the deceptively aware zombies, but for someone like me—and my 11-year-old self—it was always a struggle to avoid and evade.
That also comes down to Resident Evil’s atrocious (but beloved) Tank controls, which turns Jill and Chris into the least agile player-controlled characters in video game history. In addition to simply walking in the intended direction, it was difficult to aim, and the finicky camera also made popping a cap in a zombie down the hall more difficult than it needed to be.
I suppose that’s remedied by Capcom’s terrific use of sound. Not only are the ominous and dreary halls dimly lit, but if you stop for a moment to listen, you’ll soon learn everything there is to know about a room or hallway. The funky camera angles were purposely cinematic to make it difficult for players to see what’s up ahead, which is why using your ears—maybe with the help of a good pair of over-the-ear headphones—is so key. You can hear a zombie shuffling toward you before you even see it. Talk about terrifying.
Why does any of this matter? Because I’m ready. I’m ready to finally give Resident Evil the old College Try—again. I want to finally overcome one of my longest-lasting fears, to move on from that fateful jump-scare. Maybe it’s just my way of finding closure for an event that happened nearly 20 years ago.
I know Resident Evil isn’t perfect, but it has held up in a way that still draws a tremendous audience. People still consider it to be the pinnacle of survival horror. Looking back, I don’t even know how I convinced my parents to buy it for me. It was an M-rated game, after all; I’d seen worse in movies. But clearly I wasn’t ready. I am now, I think, one month beyond my 30th birthday.
Most of all, I’m ready to get lost in Spencer Mansion, anticipating that moment where I decide I can’t go on. I’ve already downloaded the game—I actually did when the Remastered was first made available, but I still haven’t booted it up. Right now, it’s just a foreboding square icon on my PS4’s homescreen, waiting. Hopefully this time I’ll muster the courage to see the adventure all the way through.