Virtual reality is getting ever closer to letting us lucidly live out our dreams—you can fly like a bird, time travel, and live out fantasies as prurient as the day's software allows—and best of all, the rules of Elm Street don't apply: if you die in Oculus Rift, you can try again. But if you get sufficiently frightened while immersed in virtual reality, apparently that can kill you in real life.
During a Q&A session at Unite 2014 in Seattle, creative director for Cloudhead Games, Denny Unger, was reported by Game Industry as saying that death-by-horror-games on Oculus Rift "were inevitable."
"The low hanging fruit of VR, to me, is horror games that purposely do jump scares," Unger said. "We're very close to having the first death in VR—I firmly believe that."
Cloudhead Games has stated that its goal is to provide "the world's first commercial game made for the Oculus virtual reality headset," so it's not like Unger doesn't see the potential for the medium. As point of fact, he just also sees the potential downside.
"When the commercial version comes out, somebody is going to scare somebody to death—somebody with a heart condition or something like that," Unger said. "It is going to happen. Absolutely."
Of course, any game can cause a physiological reaction—I know I'm not the only one who has paused to wipe down his sweaty hands and controller before that final push against the boss. Yet I feel like it's pretty rare that a game has actually straight up scared me. (Maybe only when they used freeze when I was right on the verge of saving.)
But being immersed in the game, without the comforts of being able to see the rest of my room outside of the screen and without the ability to look away, already seems sort of scary (and nauseating).
What's more, being "scared to death" is an actual thing. Martin A. Samuels is a neurologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School who studies sudden death. In a 2006 interview with ABC, he explained that no history of heart problems was required to be scared to death.
For instance, he had been sent cases of children without any history of heart disease dying on amusement park rides. "If the situation is just right, if the stress is bad enough, if it's acute enough, if there's no way out, any of us can die," he said.
In 2009, Samuels explained how one's fight-or-flight response can put him or her heart at risk. "The autonomic nervous system uses the hormone adrenaline, a neurotransmitter, or chemical messenger, to send signals to various parts of the body to activate the fight-or-flight response," he told Scientific American.
Most of the time, when the chemical goes out, your pupils dilate, you muscles tense and your pulse quickens, for a bit, and then it goes away. Your body reabsorbs the chemicals and you're okay. But there's the potential for fatal damage to internal organs, Samuels warns in the SciAm interview:
Adrenaline from the nervous system lands on receptors of cardiac myocytes (heart-muscle cells), and this causes calcium channels in the membranes of those cells to open. Calcium ions rush into the heart cells and this causes the heart muscle to contract. If it's a massive overwhelming storm of adrenaline, calcium keeps pouring into the cells and the muscle just can't relax…If this system is overwhelmed with adrenaline, the heart can go into abnormal rhythms that are not compatible with life. If one of those is triggered, you will drop dead.
While he warns that the risk of being scared to death is higher if you have a predisposition to heart disease, Samuels also told ABC that, "my own view is that any human is potentially at risk. We all carry this little bomb inside us."
And while jump scares in virtual reality seem like one possible trigger, Samuels isn't content just to ruin Resident Evil 27, or whatever. "Any strong positive or negative emotions such as happiness or sadness. There are people who have died in intercourse or in religious passion," he said.
I find it kind of comforting and also terrifying that no matter what you're doing, another person has died doing the same thing. It's a complicated emotional reaction; I sure hope my heart holds out, at least long enough for me to finally play with an Oculus Rift.