I don't know what's scarier: Playing Phasmophobia or watching it

(Image credit: Kinetic Games)

It's October and I'm trying to survive a scary movie drought. I usually hit up spooky old theaters to catch my annual screening of Halloween 3 and whatever hip arthouse horror is making the circuit, but since I'm stuck at home in my very safe, comfortable apartment, the spooks just aren't coming as easy this year. So over the weekend hopelessly digging for the perfect cult classic I somehow missed, I gave up in frustration and said to hell with it, let's check out that hip new ghost game making waves.

I watched Phasmophobia streams for the next four hours, as scared by them as any decent ghost movie. 

I'd initially written Phasmophobia off as just another flash in the pan, a cheap Twitch phenom that couldn't possibly be scary with so many influencers screaming over it, whatever it was. Turns out I was dismissing one of the best ghost games ever made, an excellent ode to early '00s ghost-hunting movies and reality shows in their heyday.

I've played some Phasmophobia after that initial Twitch binge, and yeah, it's pretty damn scary in the hands too, but I actually prefer watching it. And not because I'm not at risk as a detached viewer, but because with the right streamers Phasmophobia feels like a found-footage movie generator. 

Some moments are even scarier because a round of Phasmophobia isn't paced like a movie. There's no telling stretch of silence before a ghost thumps on the walls and no perfectly poised camera shots forcing me to stare down a specific hallway—that's up to the player in control. No matter how well I can successfully anticipate the next beat in a horror movie, I can't do the same in Phasmophobia. The horror in Phasmophobia doesn't come from seeing the ghost either, which makes the stiff, simple ghost models easy to forgive when they briefly flash into existence. The dread comes from the build-up, and Phasmophobia is all build-up. 

A clip of my friend when we were still new to the game: "It can't hunt us." from r/phasmophobia

When I'm watching Phasmophobia it's just the game systems, most of which aren't made explicit, and the unpredictable Twitch actors bumping into one another in the dark. There's an underlying logic to be mastered and hollowed out like any game, but as a viewer, I don't have to internalize that stuff. 

I'm listening and looking for the same clues, I have my own ideas about where to leave the book or position the cameras, but my attention isn't laser focused like the players. I can skim along the surface without paying too much attention to ghost AI quirks or top strats. I'm just there to see stuff go wrong. 

VIDEO: I'm reminded of the early jump-scare YouTube days of Amnesia because a surprising amount of the Phasmophobia scares feel genuine. 

You'll want to avoid most popular streamers though, unless you like the idea of a horror movie where everyone is the loud jock screaming "Poggers!" at every sound. Scroll down and find smaller, quieter streamers, folks that don't need to exaggerate their experience. The best group can inhabit the horror archetypes, intentionally or not. There's the cocky one (dies last), the skittish one (dies first), the pragmatist (second death), and the stoner (actually stoned, lives to tell the tale). 

Like many dumb teens, I took every ghost-hunting reality show at face value in the '00s. My buds and I were breaking into old buildings to track them ourselves. We couldn't help it, the cultural momentum was out of control. Breakout found footage films from the era like Paranormal Activity built on the same realistic approach to ghost stories, treating them like scientific subjects rather than personified metaphors in a morality tale. 

By using tools straight off the discount rack in a hardware store, ghosts suddenly felt like immediate, real existential threats rather than thematic provocations to think on. A good Phasmophobia stream taps directly into that same fear, grounding the supernatural in something a little more real and far less predictable than any scripted horror.

James Davenport

James is stuck in an endless loop, playing the Dark Souls games on repeat until Elden Ring and Silksong set him free. He's a truffle pig for indie horror and weird FPS games too, seeking out games that actively hurt to play. Otherwise he's wandering Austin, identifying mushrooms and doodling grackles.