Poland: A Rich Legacy of Horror

I’ve been on a Polish kick lately. An ongoing Polish jag, if you will. After trying to verify the tarot reading of a Polish mystic, and trying to figure out what Bloober Team is doing, I guess you could say I have Poland on the mind. I’ve never been to Poland, as I’m landlocked in the states, and have no intention of traveling right now. Regardless of whether I’ve been there or not, I feel a sort of kinship to a place that seems to be cold and rainy most of the time. Maybe the rain and relative isolation are what makes Polish horror so effective?

The most obvious of Polish companies to most of you will be Bloober Team. As much as Twitter loves to hem and haw over what Bloober is, or isn’t doing right, I want to also look at other companies developing or publishing horror out of Poland. The Farm 51 isn’t talked about a lot but has made some real bangers in the horror space. Necrovision comes to mind almost immediately. Necrovision is, to me, nostalgia. I first signed up for a Steam account in 2010. In those early days, I was converted from the church of the Xbox 360. I would hazard to say that I was completely ignorant of what was happening on PC. Imagine being so caught up in a console bubble that you didn’t even know that games were releasing that never came to consoles.

With Steam, it was like putting on the glasses in They Live or entering the real world of The Matrix. It was a whole world of games. Back then, Steam sales were actually still good, and I constantly heard whispers about a game called Necrovision. People were saying it was an amazing first-person shooter, ahead of its time. It didn’t hurt that it routinely went on sale for 99 cents. It was one of my first ten Steam purchases. For a library now sitting at over 1,200 games, Necrovision holds a special spot as one of the first. These days, The Farm 51 is working on continued support for their newest game, Chernobylite. While Chernobylite is maybe a tad less ambitious than what people previously thought, it’s still a solid game from a solid group of devs. All of this leads to my first theory about why Poland is so good at horror.

Chernobyl was right next door

You can’t talk about the nuclear crisis in Chernobyl without talking about Poland. Poland’s very first nuclear power plant was supposed to open at Żarnowiec, but was put on hold due to the Chernobyl crisis. How long was it put on hold, you ask? Well, construction on the site stopped in 1989. In 2011, Żarnowiec was once again selected to be the site of Poland’s first nuclear power plant. This was put on hold once again, and again, and it’s still on hold. The nuclear age in Poland will always be a source of underlying fear and mistrust. This undercurrent of mistrust for nuclear projects fuels, even unconsciously, a thriving base for nuclear horror. Chernobylite is the first of note, but certainly won’t be the last. Even as late as 2016, polls indicate that 50% of Poles don’t want a nuclear power plant on their soil.

They’re Certainly Not Afraid of a Fight

The history of Poland is one shaped by conflict. Poland has had to stand up for itself many times throughout history. More times than any country would want to. A country that stomped out the Red Army certainly has no qualms going toe-to-toe with the things that go bump in the night. Horror is a form of escapism, and without sounding glib; Poland has had a lot of things to escape from. Brutal treatment during World War 2 will not ever be forgotten. When your country has experienced real-life horror after real-life horror, it’s easy to slip into the world of video games, where you can decide what horrors you face, and which battles you fight. This cultural history of the conflict is present in every game made in Poland; from The Witcher to Dying Light.

They know what it’s like to be a victim

Horror, at its core, should be about the loss of control; of helplessness. Poland is a country with a rich history and a series of rough setbacks. You can’t talk about Poland without also talking about adversity. A Polish friend told me that they live just an hour away from Auschwitz. The Polish have had many uprisings, and even if they didn’t succeed, they’ve still become days of celebration. It is so casually ingrained in Polish culture. The atrocities, the triumphs. They know what it is to be victims, but they don’t let it define them. They understand what happens when bad people go unchecked. A base of helplessness is understandably a strong platform to launch from when thinking of horror.

They have folklore, cryptids, and a bald ghost

In a country as young as the United States, most of our folklore and cryptids are imported from immigrants of other countries. I want to make a bold claim and say that Poland has inspired a lot of the folklore found in the U.S. They have strigoi, which are like Eastern European vampires. They have Baba Yaga, which I’m reading here isn’t just a nickname for John Wick, and they have Łysa Dziewczynka Na Rowerku, a…bald girl on a bicycle? Okay, maybe not that last one. I’ve also been informed that Baba Yaga is more of a goofy character in modern mythology, and asked that I instead look into the black Volga. The black Volga, for the unaware, is a myth about an evil car that eats children in some tellings. These myths, legends, folklore, and cryptids can be found most especially in The Witcher series of games (minus the black Volga). This rich history of strange creatures is a healthy well to draw from in terms of creative ventures. You can have a game with a vampire…but why not use a strigoi instead? It sounds cooler.

I really want to go to Poland now. I’ve been reading about culture, customs, folklore, food, climate, people, and the Polish spirit. It seems like a place we should all visit at some point. Did I manage to satiate my curiosity as to why Poland pushes out such solid horror games? Well, yes and no. I have theories, of course. I’ve posted those theories above, but I could be completely off base. I think what it boils down to is this: Horror is universal. Everyone is capable of being scared. I just feel like Poland has more choices in the grocery store of horror inspirations. Am I wrong? Perhaps. Someone will be sure to jump in and say, “well look at the horror games of Japan!” while they clutch their copy of Resident Evil: Director’s Cut in a death grip. To them, I say, “This isn’t about Japan right now. I’m highlighting Poland.” As an American, I know we have a tendency to focus on the horrors of our own country.

I’d like to suggest that we consider horror set in, and from, other countries. If we expand our knowledge of the horrors of other places, we can more effectively build scares that reach across borders. I call this initiative Scares Without Borders.