“The Evil Within 2 is Obsessed with Outsiders,” by Reid McCarter

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The Evil Within 2’s main antagonists are obsessives. One, a deranged artist, mutilates and rearranges bodies into grisly (and actually very dull) sculptures he then photographs; the other, a non-denominational religious motivational speaker, seeks converts to his monstrous flock and total control over the world with literally fiery preaching. As in so much horror, these men are meant to be frightening because they’ve cast off social confines and embraced a single-minded pursuit of their goals. Like the targets of cultural oppression/repression that become horror movie monsters in Robin Wood’s “The American nightmare: Horror in the 70s,” they’ve reached too far, seeking the zenith of artistic achievement and spiritual leadership by means beyond what society can tolerate.

Sebastian Castellanos, the greasy-haired, no-fun policeman protagonist of both The Evil Within games, is driven by obsession, too, in his way. At the beginning of the sequel, Sebastian enters the dream world of STEM—a high-tech Inception-style device whose logistical details are too convoluted to worry about—to find his daughter, presumed dead before the game’s beginning. Willingly returning to a machine that locks his brain and body into a hellscape vision of American suburbia, he battles zombies of all shapes and sizes, over-limbed monsters, and, most importantly, his own sense of guilt over giving up the search for his lost child so many years ago.

Sebastian’s struggle is relatable, even if it is communicated largely through hilariously strained cutscenes. The player understands that a desperate search for a loved one would be all-consuming—that, even if we’ve never had to shoot and stab hundreds of creatures to reconnect with our child, the same pain and longing Sebastian feels are just supernatural versions of more familiar, mundane scenarios. Each time he laments not searching harder for his daughter in the past, the audience understands the kind of guilt he’s talking about. We know that if a loved one was to turn up, once thought dead and now discovered alive and in need of help, we’d do anything it takes to find them again, too. The Evil Within 2 understands that this is a basically human impulse.

As hero and player character, Sebastian’s struggle is contrasted with the game’s major (human) enemies: the artist Stephano Valentini and religious zealot Father Theodore Wallace. Both of these men are, like Sebastian, obsessed with taking advantage of STEM’s lawless dream world to reach the fullest expression of their desires. Stephano, a true B-movie villain in cravat and fancy suit, slavers wide-eyed over the transcendent beauty of the sculptures he photographs in a frantically camp take on the deranged artist. Father Theodore wears a stately cassock and, though able-bodied, supports himself on an expensive-looking, gold-laden cane. Both are meant to be repulsive examples of excess, in sartorial and psychological sense alike+.

The player understands that their murders and self-obsession are bad, but much of their characterization comes simply by their association with archetypes. Stephano is every straightlaced person’s suspicion of the socially marginal artist blown to enormous proportion (he is, of course, a foppish European) while Father Theodore embodies the arrogant megachurch pastor, wealthy and conniving (he is, of course, an apparently nouveau riche Black American).

Opposed to them is the gruff, tortured Sebastian—a manly, white, blue-collared detective driven by a desire to protect his nuclear family (his wife, in off-the-shoulder sweater and pearl earrings is a wonderful caricature of the East Coast WASP). Compared to the deviant obsessions of Stephano and Father Theodore, Sebastian’s single-mindedness is meant to be downright wholesome. He kills the aberrant villains with prejudice, looking only to avert the horrors they cause by restoring the proper order of the traditional family they, by holding his daughter hostage, seek to deny him. Looking at Wood’s essay again, Sebastian is an almost comically exact depiction of traditionalist patriarchal structures and his enemies, before their villainy is made simpler with all that murdering, are almost perfect representatives of the kind of unacceptable Other that must be stamped out.

Wood writes: “The ‘ideal’ inhabitant of our culture is the individual whose  . . . sublimated sexuality (creativity) is sufficiently fulfilled in the totally non-creative and non-fulfilling labor (whether in factory or office) . . .” To put a finer point on it, Sebastian, whose dream version of his police station office (complete with framed photos of his wife and daughter) is his mental retreat throughout the game, is opposed by two men—one Black and one coded as decidedly non-masculine or “insufficiently” straight—whose occupations are entirely creative.

All of this can be defended as the product of pulp horror pastiche, The Evil Within 2 following in the footsteps of so much horror before it. But, just as the subconscious of the game’s antagonists manifest in corporeal monsters, so, too, do our cultural anxieties surface in what kind of characters scare us. The obsessive villains of the sequel follow in the mould of the mad scientists of the first The Evil Within— who themselves can be traced back to Resident Evil’s omnipresent Umbrella Corp., the diabolical researchers behind decades of horror movie monsters, and, finally, the urtext of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. More recently (and specifically), it isn’t just the kind of worries we associate with the mad scientist—rapid technological advancement, existential dread, and corporate greed—that surface in the game’s antagonists. It’s their defiance of traditional, “normal” culture.

Their crimes aside, it’s worth asking why Stephano and Father Theodore work so well as horror villains. The clearest answer, it seems, is that their form of obsession is unacceptable. They have taken pursuits—artistic excellence; religious activism—too far. They are not, like Sebastian, tough guys with a respected job, wife, and kid++. They’re not appropriately masculine or white or, in the end, driven by a desire to restore the status quo. (One of the game’s most telling lines is Sebastian reviewing Stephano’s background and musing on his lack of success in the real world: ““I know of another flamboyant artist who failed,” he says. ”Then he started World War II.”)

The Evil Within 2 never seems aware that this is the implicit message behind its villains, but that lack of deliberate intent is common to horror and hardly matters in the end. Regardless of its entertainment value (the quality of the scares; the satisfying punch of gunshots as they burrow into monsterflesh), the message is still communicated. Horror enemies, from Stephano and Father Theodore through to the asylum inmates in Outlast, physically deformed killers in The Hills Have Eyes, and the uncontained women of Audition, Carrie, or The Exorcist, all function, in the end, as clear threats to “normal” society. We breathe a little easier, it’s supposed, once they’ve been defeated.

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+ It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the support of a pedestrian, middle path illustrates The Evil Within 2’s failings as a game, too. Where its predecessor was rough—a wild, crass celebration of videogame horror that flailed its way toward every idea it could think of—its sequel is bland, safer. It’s does away with excess to its detriment.

++ Father Theodore, a religious man, comes closest to fitting in, but he’s not a priest of discernible denomination and has obviously used his good fortune to enrich himself in a way that, once exposed, is a bridge too far for the kind of real-life pastors he resembles. Western society loves a godly man, but not a man who considers himself godly in turn.

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Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.