This article is part of PS2 Week, a full week celebrating the 2000 PlayStation 2 console. To see other articles, go here.
On the US release of Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria, New York film critic John Simon panned it as “a horror of a movie, where no one or nothing makes sense: not one plot element, psychological reaction, minor character, piece of dialogue, or ambience.” I used to agree, but I’ve seen Suspiria a lot since then. It’s true that the film’s rather twisted internal logic requires a degree of good faith on the part of the audience; it’s also true that to call it incomprehensible is received wisdom at best.
The film’s protagonist, Suzy Banyon, is a smart woman who manages to unravel the coiled, foreign schemes of witches and devils to emerge victorious. At no point does she do anything stupid—even when she’s falling into a drugged stupor she’s aware of what’s happening to her and who’s doing it. She’s only missing one key piece of information throughout the film, as is so often the case in Argento’s work: once she has that, she’s home free.
I’m not saying Suspiria is spy-thriller tight; I’m saying that to throw your hands up and say it doesn’t make a lick of sense is a failure on your part, not the film’s. Its psychological landscape is exactly as complicated as it needs to be.
The same could be said about 2005’s forgotten PS2 survival horror game Haunting Ground. Effectively the fifth entry in Capcom’s long-running Clock Tower series, Haunting Ground (or Demento in Japan; a name that cuts right to the chase) is a game where you play a girl, Fiona Belli, trying to escape a castle and several demented pursuers. Your sole companion in this quest is Hewie, a white German Shepherd and very good boy.
As in Clock Tower 3 (2002), a virtual blueprint for Haunting Ground, you’re largely defenseless against your foes. Fiona can kick and shove, but not much else. It’s Hewie who does the pup’s share of the fighting, so it’s essential to treat him well to ensure he listens to your commands in the heat of the moment. He likes jerky and playing fetch.
There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in Haunting Ground. This ranges from its persistent fixation on alchemy (Fiona has the “azoth,” and everyone wants it) to the underground crypt filled with impassable fire that you can immediately quench using a big golem (he sinks into the ground in front of the fire, which I guess puts it out?), who responds to commands that are stamped onto plates from a nearby plate machine. The commands, by the way, are listed on a memo right smack-dab in the center of the room.
This golem situation raises a lot of questions, like “why spend time creating this area, as a programmer, if there’s literally no challenge to passing it?” and “why create this area at all as someone who designs castles?” But if you follow this thread, how far is too far to stretch one’s credulity? There’s an Escher-meets-Hogwarts hallway of exploded staircases and horizontal suits of armor; there’s a puzzle that involves using magic jars to exorcise a reanimated corpse so you can grab a key from around its neck. Here I defer to Kill Screen’s Gareth Damian Martin on Silent Hill 2, a game whose architecture is symbolic rather than literal, a creative choice central to its psychology. The spaces of Haunting Ground—the castle, a forest, and, inevitably, a mansion—twist and inflate like a Mercator projection.
The mansion has a sensible bathroom, yes, but it also has a three-headed dragon statue that, when plates bearing the names of the three base alchemical elements are placed into its trifold mouths, freezes a nearby column of fire solid to allow Fiona to climb to another floor. These are impressions of places, coherent structures bleeding into a jumbled, half-remembered dream you might have after reading one too many Gothics.
Like with Suzy in Suspiria, there’s a believable protagonist wandering through this madness. Fiona is a young woman with a possible panic disorder who isn’t cut out for the Jill Valentine role: if Fiona gets too frightened, the screen explodes into saturated monochrome and the game wrests control from the player. You can only direct Fiona’s direction and scream for help as she sprints blindly around, shrieking. She can even die of a heart attack if you’re not quick to get her to safety; a rather morbid back-of-box bullet point.
You have access to Fiona’s internal thoughts via a pause-screen journal, which is automatically filled out at certain points in the game. The entries reflect her naivete, her love for animals, and her revulsion at having to kill. “Why is it always like this?” she asks herself, mournful after defeating a foe.
There’s another line that’s stuck with me, one bit of flavor text among many. “I can lie to myself all I want, but there’s no denying those are human bones,” Fiona says when you examine a glass display case. Her defenses are weakening. The lies aren’t working any more. This is blunt-force verisimilitude. You could call it telling instead of showing, if the game didn’t do both. At no point do you find a gun, or any weapons other than alchemy powder and metal boots. You can feed Hewie a substance to make him go apeshit, but there’s a chance he’ll attack you too. There is always risk involved with an offensive effort—often it’s best to run and hide.
Certainly, as Leigh Alexander argued long ago, the sheer bold grotesquerie of Haunting Ground allows it to creep under your skin. But by removing player agency at critical moments, Haunting Ground commits to Fiona’s subjectivity. The formal elements of the game—sound, image, control—bend to her psychological state, rather than offering clarity to the player. This expressionism reflects the murkier ideas of violation, transgression, and bodily autonomy running through the narrative.
When confronting one pursuer, the castle’s maid Daniella, for the final time, she gives a growling, feverish monologue: “Blood, flesh, woman. You vile creature. You lure the man into your filthy body again and again …”
Daniella’s special hatred for Fiona seems to come from self-loathing; it’s implied that Daniella may be a homunculus, or at least a lifelong captive and alchemical subject. She’s infertile, seemingly unable to feel physical pain, and explicitly abused by another character in one cutscene. Her fingertips are bitten bloody, her palms covered in raw cuts. She can’t stand the sight of herself in mirrors.
“I am not complete,” she says. The flip side of the deep, lasting grief that comes with dysmorphia is a gnawing envy of other bodies: to see an unattainable self reflected everywhere you look. Daniella covets Fiona, sees in her something she will never be and at her core wants achingly, overwhelmingly more than anything else. Naturally, Haunting Ground ratchets this up to “chasing you with a shard of glass and wants to cut out your womb” levels, but there is truth at the heart of the absurdity.
Not all of the game is so brazen. The most unnerving moments are those in which your captors appear as, if not friends, then neutral parties. If you let one enemy live he begins to think of you as a saintly figure, his desire to twist and snap your limbs subsumed into cartoonish devotion. Daniella is introduced early as a deferential, if odd, servant, but it’s not until later that she snaps and starts hunting you down. Even then, there are rooms where you can walk by her without incident as she cleans. You can solve a puzzle while she kneels by a flaming hearth.
These moments stretch by with unbroken tension. Fiona doesn’t understand the full scope of their plans for her, nor why they suddenly would want to kill her. And so, dear player, neither do you.