Facing And Photographing My Fears In Fatal Frame
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Facing And Photographing My Fears In Fatal Frame

The first time I saw a ghost in Fatal Frame, I was paralyzed with fear. As the spirit slowly rambled across the hallway in the distance, the only thing I could do was stop and hope it didn’t see me. When it faded out of view, I approached but the only thing I found was a mirror. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. Continuing deeper into Himuro Mansion, I realized that it wasn’t just in my head. I was being hunted by the ghosts trapped in the dilapidated manor. Returning to the same hallway I’d seen my first ghost, the cursed Rope Shrine Maiden stepped out of the shadows and all I could do was shake in fear as she took my soul.

Tecmo’s Fatal Frame, or Zero as it’s known in Japan, is a Japanese survival horror game released for the Playstation 2 and Xbox in 2001. Set in 1986, the main location of the game is Himuro Mansion, an abandoned estate in the deep woods of the Tokyo forest that has been drawing death and terror into its halls since it was first built. The opening section of the game puts the player in the shoes of Mafuyu Hinasaki as he ventures into the mansion to search for folklorist Junsei Takamine. He brings with him the Camera Obscura, a mystical family heirloom that has the power to “expose things that normal eyes can’t see.” Mafuyu is taken by the ghosts trapped in the mansion within the first few minutes of the game. Fearing the worst, Mafuyu’s sister Miku enters the mansion two weeks later in search of her brother. Hunted by the same ghosts that took her brother, she stumbles upon the family camera and uses it to uncover the dark secrets hiding under Himuro Mansion.

©Koei Tecmo

Fatal Frame was unique among horror games when it first came out because you can’t “fight” the ghosts that menace you throughout the game. Instead, you use the Camera Obscura to photograph the ghosts, which zaps away their spirit energy. When Miku enters Viewfinder Mode, she looks through the camera lens at whatever ghostly entity is haunting her and she’s able to take a photo instantly. But the longer the ghost stays in frame, the more the meter at the bottom of the screen fills up until at the very last second before the ghost’s attack, you can shoot the “fatal frame.” 

The process of shooting the “fatal frame” works as a more extreme and deadly version of exposure therapy. Typically used to treat phobias and anxiety disorders, exposure therapy works by exposing a person to their fear within a controlled environment to help them overcome said fear. While Himuro Mansion is far from a controlled environment, photographing the ghosts serves a similar function. The longer the ghost stays within the frame of your camera lens, the more damaging your photograph will be. A perfectly executed “fatal frame” allows the player to control their fear until the last moment before danger, then reject and defeat it.

The ghosts that haunt you throughout the game are intangible, able to ethereally float through walls and teleport to Miku’s location. Taking a picture of them solidifies their existence in the material world, transforming them from amorphous fears into tangible objects, thereby limiting their ability to hurt you. In essence, by taking snapshots of these ghosts, the player brings the abstract superstitions and myths surrounding the spirits into reality where they can be dealt with and overcome. Miku works as a sort of amateur folklorist, documenting everything about these ghosts and shining a spotlight on them that deprives them of the shield of legend that surrounds them.

©Koei Tecmo

The meat of the game takes place over four nights as Miku delves deeper into the mansion and discovers that under the mansion lies the Hell Gate, a portal to the land of the dead. To protect the world from the Calamity occurring and Malice entering the world, the Himuro family sacrificed a Rope Shrine Maiden every 10 years through a Strangling Ritual. But the ritual failed in the late 1800s, causing the mansion to become haunted.. Most of this backstory is told through diary pages and audiotapes Miku finds scattered throughout the mansion. Similar to photographing the ghosts, learning the history of the haunted mansion helps the player disentangle the mystery surrounding the ghosts to overcome their fears. 

Great horror movies have a critical “less is more” approach to their monsters. Instead of showing the monster outright, they build up suspense until the last minute because whatever the viewer’s mind imagines will always be scarier than whatever is on screen. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws famously showed the shark as little as possible, instead choosing to focus on people’s reaction to the shark attacks, leading to a fantastic sense of dread that reached a zenith when the shark finally did appear on the screen. Photographing the ghosts of Fatal Frame reverses this process. By documenting the ghosts and the history of Himuro Mansion, they lose the power they have over the player. 

By the end of the game, Miku has photographed and overcome every ghost inside Himuro Mansion except for one. The last ghost she faces is the Rope Shrine Maiden whose ritual failed and brought about the Calamity, the tragedy that trapped the ghosts in Himuro Mansion. At the Hell Gate, the power of the exorcised ghosts leaving the gate is more than the Camera Obscura can handle and it breaks but Miku is able to use a piece of the camera lens to finish completing the Holy Mirror. Using the mirror, Miku is able to will the Rope Shrine Maiden to retake her place at the Hell Gate, sealing it once and for all. As Miku watches the formerly trapped spirits ascend into the sky after the Hell Gate is closed, she comments that after leaving Himuro Mansion she “stopped seeing things that other people don’t see.” 

Through photographing the ghosts that were haunting her and bringing them from intangible form to tangible object, Miku was able to overcome them. Fatal Frame exemplifies the process of overcoming one’s fears by facing them head-on, demystifying the unknown by documenting every little bit of it until you’re left with something real that you can defeat. After all, real-life rarely lives up to the folklore and stories we tell each other.

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