The Elements of Analog Horror

Warning: This article’s content contains horror elements in both visual and written forms, such as death, intrusion, distorted humanoid entities, and psychologically disturbing content. Effort has been made to minimize the impact of such content. Reader discretion is strongly advised.

Horror comes in all shapes and forms, and everybody’s horror tolerance is different as well. Some may find paranormal creatures to be horrifying; others may find gruesome imagery involving injuries or deaths to be fear-evoking.

However, while the discomfort for visible horror elements evokes repulsion, it is often the invisible psychological horror elements that send shivers down our spines. It is when these elements are combined in a piece of audiovisual content that the viewer experiences maximal fear and the adrenaline rush associated with horror movies – certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. (Speaking from personal experience, a few years ago I was convinced into watching The Conjuring 2 with my friends and could not sleep with the lights off for at least a week…) 

In recent years, Analog Horror, a relatively new (since ~2015) genre of horror audiovisual media became increasingly popular among streamers and youtubers. Part of its popularity can probably be attributed to its lack of gruesome visuals, which would have posed the risk of demonetization for certain platforms (with rightful reasons). However, it is also these blood-free visuals that enabled the unique psychological fear of this genre, with its horror elements deeply rooted within the shared lived experiences of the majority of viewers. 

To better understand why Analog Horror is a successful genre of horror media, try to picture the following two scenarios in your mind. 

  • For scenario A, imagine that you live in a town that just got taken over by zombies. (Yes I’m serious, try your best to imagine this.) There are a lot of corpses with gruesome imageries surrounding you, and you probably feel some visceral reactions everytime you look out the window. 
  • Switching gears to scenario B, imagine that you live an ordinary life and live alone in a small apartment peacefully. However, your house feels different to you recently. Everytime you pass by, people in the pictures on the wall seem to be staring at you. And everytime you turn off the lights, you feel uncomfortable in the darkness, as if someone is staring at you. (And if you are like me, that hoodie hanging on the back of the chair will look increasingly suspicious as the room gets darker.)

What do you think about scenario A vs. B? You can probably think of some popular horror films or games with similar plots to either one. But when you as the viewer try to imagine yourself in these scenarios, B is clearly more relatable than A.

While it is practically impossible for us to see a living zombie (hopefully), it is definitely not uncommon for us as human beings to fear darkness, humanoid objects, and something moving behind our back. The same instincts that allowed human beings to survive from predators evoked the tension and physiological responses towards an unseen threat, regardless of whether it actually exists in reality. Along the same line, unlike a zombie apocalypse, the setting of an ordinary life is something that everyone has experienced, which makes it easier to feel immersed in the horror elements as if the protagonist is the viewer themself.

In addition to these unseen psychological elements, there is also our beloved uncanny valley. In brief, it is a curve the describes our increased discomfort as a non-human entity begins to resemble a human being, or if these entities are in motion. This could be a doll, a humanoid robot, or a distorted image with human features. (Personally, I find the latter to be the scariest. While I won’t include any images in this article, if you are a hardcore horror fan and want a quick spine chill to feel awake, do a quick google image search with the terms “uncanny valley” and “analog horror.”) Once again, none of these objects or figures contain gruesome imageries, and it is the viewers’ own mind that alerts them of a threat. It can perhaps be argued that the deliberate ambiguity and invisibility of the threat is the most intense source of tension and panic in Analog Horror pieces. 

A diagram of the uncanny valley. A graph is plotted with the Y axis being familiarity and the X axis being human likeness. From left to right the objects plotted are: industrial robot, humanoid robot, stuffed animal, corpse, zombie, prosthetic hand, and healthy person. The uncanny valley is situated between 60 to 90 percent of human likeness, where the curve greatly dips into negative familiarity.
The Uncanny Valley. Note that the uncanny valley is predicted for objects with a human likeness between ~60% to 90%. Also note that motion exaggerates the intensity of the familiarity.

With those background in mind, let’s take a look at the elements that define an Analog Horror media. From here on, brace yourself for visual examples that may be disturbing to see.

1. TV Broadcast / VHS Tape

As the first word in the name suggests, all Analog Horror contain an element of older and vintage TV display. If you are at least my age, you should still remember the low resolution TV screens and VHS tapes (which apparently stands for Video Home System – I did not know this until today). Nowadays, glitches or frozen screens are the most common signs of bad signals.

But for analog broadcast TV, the constant seizure-inducing snowflakes with the static noises provide unique opportunities to insert a quick flash of horrifying image, either in between noises or in the background as a dimmed image. This, along with the low resolution effects, significantly distinguishes Analog Horror from other genres. 

A blurry black analog display of an alien roaming the forest. The top left of the image reads, 2014/11/21, 05:27:47
Screenshot from Local58 TV: You Are On The Fastest Available Route. Note how the blurry graphics and the blue / red colours which are hallmarks of analog TV displays.
An old analog TV displaying a news reporter speaking during a news program. The graphics is very blurry.
An example of Analog TV; note the blurry graphics.

2. Immersive Experience

As previously described, one of the most successful features of an Analog Horror media is the immersive experience of the viewer. But more specifically, there are several possible vehicles to deliver this, with the three most interesting ones listed below.

A. Emergency Alert / Preparedness Training

It is likely that at one point in your life, whether at work or at school, you read or saw a training module to prepare yourself to face a potential accident. The point of these training is to ensure you understand and remember what to do in emergency situations, so whether you like it or not, a part of you absorbs this information and perceives the threat as real.

When such vehicle is being used to deliver a fictional story, it creates a psychological conflict between your logical perception of the threat as fictional and your psychological perception of the threat as real, which intensifies your fear towards the content. 

And moving beyond preparedness training, some Analog Horrors use Emergency Alert Systems as a vehicle to present an ongoing emergencies. In those cases, the seemingly normal alert is often disrupted or distorted by a mysterious entity who displays messages that invite the protagonist towards the danger rather than away from it.

A dark maroon screen that displays the following texts: Emergency alert system, go outside now, civil danger alert.
Screenshot from LOCAL58 TV: Weather Service. This clip shows a series of weather related warnings, but after a glitch, the guidance suddenly became going outside instead of staying inside. Note how the horror element is not a visible entity.

B. First-Person Point of View Footage

What could immerse you more than being shown a clip of the world in the protagonist’s lens? The same strategy is used in video games to immerse players in the world presented and effectively remove the identity of “player” to leave behind “you” to experience the media. 

Some Analog Horror media presents a fictional content through first-person perspectives. Combined with the analog element, these first-person perspectives are presented as either photos or tapes, effectively resembling a vlog that brings viewers closer to the world within. 

A low resolution image of a first-person point of view of a driver driving onto someone's property. A white garage is seen directly in front of the protagonist.
Screenshot from Markiplier’s gameplay of Maple County. This was a clip of the protagonist driving onto someone’s property; the white rectangle is the garage.

C. Anomaly

You probably had a moment in time where you thought, “wait… this isn’t right.” I am doing that right now as I read through what I wrote so far to comb through typos and grammatical mistakes. Naturally, the human instinct is to recognize the odd one out, which is summarized by the term “Anomaly.”

But in the context of horror, there are so many different ways that this “anomaly” could be referring to. An alien creature is one example, as well as an intruder or invader of a community. Other than physical entities, there could also be content or messages that an average human would consider to be odd. That could include doing something against our instincts, or doing something that clearly seems wrong in that context. The latter is paired especially well with Emergency Preparedness Videos, where a clearly unsafe or alarming action is stated as something to follow during a mass disaster. 

Three stickman figures in a row. The first has extremely lon limbs. The second has extremely large head. The third is upside down.
Screenshot of Mandela Catalogue. This is a kids-friendly representation of potential anomalies (alternates in this case) with extremely abnormal body features.

3. Distorted Audiovisual Media

Along the same lines of low resolution media, you probably listened to some versions of robotic voices before, either in Google Translate or Robo-Assistants. The features are often monotone and emotionless voices, even pacing of words, and an overall static effect to the audio. 

While we are used to hearing these in real life, it is definitely rare to hear these robotic voices being programmed to say horrifying things. In Analog Horror, however, that is not true. Almost all Analog Horror media that use robotic voices intentionally distort the audio’s quality and tone to add to the content’s uncanniness. Not only that, some parts of the audio may be skipped or paused to exaggerate the tension and unease towards the content of the speech. 

The same distortion can occur over videos, as described by the Broadcast element earlier in this article. However, other than quality distortion, images are often stretched, shifted, or modified in ways that increases the Anomaly traits of the entity. 

Two profile pictures of two females side by side. The female on the left is light skinned and has long black hair and a neutral face expression. The female on the right is light skinned with long black hair as well, but no facial features at all as they are blurred out.
Screenshot from Mandela Catalogue. The female on the right is an example of an “alternate” in the video, and the abnormal feature is a blurred out face. This is the most kid-friendly example I could find…

4. Facial Features

Do you ever see two holes and imagine them to be a pair of eyes? It is natural for human beings to do this, as this is a trait that likely allowed our ancestors to survive from predators peeking through bushes. The faster we can identify the presence of the predator through their facial features, the faster we could escape from the threat.

Well, Analog Horror media producers love to use facial features and exaggerate them to amplify the uncanny valley. While this ties in with the concept of Anomaly, there is a high frequency of facial features to be shown on their own with monochromatic colour schemes to evoke the feeling of being threatened. Specifically, these could include eyes, grin, hands, or other parts of the entity’s body. 

Interestingly, it would not be as scary if all features are visible. One concept of the uncanny valley is that when the entity can be entirely identified as a human being, the level of familiarity and comfort returns to normal. As such, it will be rare to see an Analog Horror film portray an Anomaly with all features being clearly visible. Instead, the entity may only have 2 eyes with the rest of the facial expressions hidden in the dark, which pairs perfectly with the lower quality nature of TV Broadcasts and surveillance cameras.

Now that you understand the basic elements of Analog Horror, it is time to watch a few (if you are interested to do so). In a future article, I will highlight the origin of Analog Horror and delve into more details about these famous works that belong in this unique genre of horror media. Happy viewing!

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One comment

  1. […] This is not the first time we have talked about horror. A month ago, I wrote about Analog Horror, a genre known for its realistic scenarios that contain all sorts of spine-chilling anomalies presented in the form of analog video tapes. If you would like to start off fresh on the topic of horror elements, give it a read here: The Elements of Analog Horror.  […]

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