The following essay contains spoilers for Outlast and its expansion, Whistleblower, as well as a graphic discussion of transphobia and gender confirmation surgery.
For a period of time stretching roughly from 2007 to 2015, horror cinema found itself at the center of a quick-and-dirty form of guerilla storytelling: that of the “found footage” subgenre. Taking liberally from the faux documentary nature of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage films generally follow the formula of chronicling the final moments of a doomed, camera-obsessed protagonist, who never stops filming even under the direst of circumstances. From supernatural forces in Paranormal Activity to giant monsters in Cloverfield to evil moon rocks in Apollo 18, found footage films encompassed the genre’s highs and lows to the point of oversaturation.
It came as little surprise, then, when an independent developer by the name of Red Barrels realized that found footage horror translated perfectly to first person narrative gaming. The resulting product, 2013’s Outlast, ran the found footage gamut in interactive form, putting players in the role of Miles Upshur, a reckless journalist armed only with a night vision camera, whose excursion into a notorious mental hospital uncovers a supernatural Nazi conspiracy. Despite winning no points for originality – even its gameplay is a hodgepodge of Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s noncombat stealth and Slender’s “find x number of objects” – Outlast’s presentation was slick and effective, successfully translating the grit of found footage movies to an expertly paced roller coaster of tension and jump scares.
Determined to leave no horror trope untouched, Outlast also incorporates elements from “torture porn,” found footage’s far more graphic predecessor. The game features moments of extreme violence and sadism – crazed inmates rape and behead other inmates before the gaze of Upshur’s camera, and in one of the game’s most disturbing and effective moments, a barely clothed “doctor” mutilates Upshur’s left hand with a pair of rusty pinking shears. The violation of bodily integrity is a theme that runs deep in Outlast’s veins, made all the more unsettling by the voyeuristic manner in which these moments unfold. Though the player controls Upshur throughout the game’s five hours, his camera provides a layer of distance between player and player character, allowing for an uncomfortable distance that turns the game’s most graphic moments into unsettling spectacle. It is this presentation that sets Outlast apart from other games of its ilk, and is certainly one of the driving factors behind its tremendous success.
Not content to quit at finger splitting, the spectacle of bodily violation plays an even larger part in Red Barrels’ immediate follow-up, 2014’s prequel/midquel expansion Outlast: Whistleblower. Like its predecessor, Whistleblower plays as a found footage story, albeit from the perspective of an employee within the twisted asylum rather than an outsider. Players control Waylon Park, who is institutionalized by his sinister superiors after he forwards incriminating evidence of the asylum’s wrongdoings to Upshur. As Park attempts his escape, he is forced into a series of increasingly graphic encounters with its depraved inmates.
Like its predecessor, Whistleblower features an extended scene of first person voyeuristic horror. Unlike its predecessor, Whistleblower’s focus is on mutilating a more intimate part of the body.
Now would be a good time for the faint of heart to stop reading.
Whistleblower’s most iconic antagonist is the Groom, a tall and smartly dressed brute whose singular goal is to find a wife. Since Whistleblower’s Mount Massive Asylum happens to be male only, our dashing killer finds himself in a bit of a predicament. Fortunately, his wits are as sharp as his looks, and he devises an ingenious plan: if he can’t fulfill his heteronormative wish, he’ll simply make himself a wife.
Using Waylon Park. And painful restraints. And a circular saw.
The scene in question unfolds from the first-person perspective of a bound and stripped Park. Legs spread and genitalia on full display, the Groom slowly slides him toward the saw. All the while, he offers Park the following words of comfort:
“You have amazing bone structure. Such soft skin. You’re going to be beautiful. A woman…has to suffer some things. It’s not pleasant, I know. But just try to…endure. For my sake. For the sake of our children. It won’t take long. A few snips at the flesh here…and here. Cut away everything…vulgar. A soft place to welcome my seed. To grow our family. The incision will hurt. And the conception. And birthing is never easy. I’ll make the cut fast. Just close your eyes and think of our children.”
It’s hard to read that speech as anything but a twisted appropriation of the narrative of transgender women, or to not interpret the Groom’s actions as a perverse and horrifying translation of gender confirmation surgeries. The scene is unambiguous: Park is about to be the recipient of forced gender reassignment at the hands of a deranged madman.
Whistleblower is far from the first piece of horror media to utilize transgender narrative as a source of horror. Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In bases its narrative around a story of captivity, forced gender reassignment, and sex slavery. Angela, the slasher from the Sleepaway Camp films, is a pre and later post-op trans woman, whose pathology is implicitly linked to her trans nature. Most famously, The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill co-opts a transition narrative, killing and skinning women to make a female suit to live in (Hannibal Lecter hypothesizes that he does so as a consequence of being rejected for proper gender confirmation surgery). These cases are all deeply entrenched in transphobic notions of transition as pathological and deviant: two of the above examples involve trans or pseudo-trans characters as killers. The third, The Skin I Live In, portrays its victim as a rapist and suggests that his forced surgical transition is a punishment, upholding the idea of such a surgery as being awful and abhorrent.
With such a storied history of horror getting trans narratives horribly wrong, it’s easy to apply the same label of transphobia to Whistleblower. It’s definitely not an ideal representation of trans identity in a medium where the best example of a trans woman still portrays her as predatory and deceitful. The scene also wades into unavoidably murky water by virtue of the fact that, regardless of intent, it utilizes the framework of a misunderstood and demonized surgery in a scene that primarily serves to make the player vomit.
Even with that context in mind, Whistleblower is still markedly different from other appropriations of transgender narratives in horror, and for its many imperfections, contains several nuances that allow the sequence to operate on a level of horror that goes beyond simply demonizing the medical process of gender transition. Notably, the recipient of the “surgery” is not the villain of the story: the game never depicts Park as deviant or evil. Instead, he is a paragon of justice, the one character in a sea of filth that we hope to see make it through to the end. Instead, the villain is unequivocally the Groom, the one performing the “surgery.”
At first glance, that sounds just as terrible and transphobic, but let’s return to the Groom’s speech. His words emphasis Park’s physical attributes: it’s critical that his bone structure is “amazing” and that he will be “beautiful.” His present genitalia are “vulgar,” implying that the notion of a woman with a penis is grotesque and unacceptable. Furthermore, though the Groom acknowledges that Park will “suffer,” he emphasizes that such pain is unimportant; instead, the surgery is necessary for the Groom’s sake, his hypothetical child’s sake, and by extension, society’s sake.
The Groom is a gatekeeper.
His language is prescriptive and coercive; it is the same kind of language that medical providers once used (and, sadly, sometimes still do) to reject lesbian and bisexual, masculine, or non-op trans women, and to force those who conformed to normative societal standards into deep stealth. The Groom’s focus on childbearing as a vital component of womanhood mirrors the external pressures that encouraged Lili Elbe to pursue the dangerous uterus transplant that ultimately killed her. His words carry the destructive weight of many real life medical practitioners, whose desires to enforce gender norms override the needs of their patients, while simultaneously directing part of the horror away from the spectacle of surgery and onto the Groom, whose disregard for bodily autonomy is the driving force behind the scene’s terror.
This context, combined with the use of first-person perspective to connect the player to Park, works to recontextualize the manner in which we should understand the horror. The reason the scene works so viscerally for Whistleblower’s predominantly cisgender player base is because its body horror is about more than sheer gore. It’s about enacting a simulated gender dysphoria in the player: as Park, the player understands their gender identity as immutably male. The Groom, meanwhile, prescribes a different identity, one that does not fit. His talk of children paints the image of a hopeless future where the induced dysphoria of gender misalignment is inescapable. The player squirms not because the scene threatens to be gross, but because it threatens to fundamentally alter our innate sense of identity as Waylon Park. Amidst the grimy spectacle, Whistleblower holds the potential to be a point of empathy by creating a graphic demonstration of how horrifying it is to be faced with the prospect of living a life in a body that does not fit one’s internal sense of self, let alone how completely and utterly devastating it is for that prospect to be a lived reality.
For such empathy to emerge, however, it would require player introspection that goes beyond a base reaction to what unfolds in the scene’s narrative. A game where a Nazi ghost makes people explode is likely not the best vehicle to format that kind of introspection. Thus, I am left with the sad awareness that most players will not interrogate Whistleblower and the character of the Groom beyond an immediate gut reaction that further promotes misconceptions regarding trans women and the medical treatment that many opt to pursue. This is the case with any representation of narrative and identity that is not political, clean, and polished, and while the horror genre is certainly political, its greatest works are leagues removed from clean and polished in any sense of the word.
Outlast: Whistleblower is superficially transphobic, much as High Tension is superficially homophobic or Night of the Living Dead superficially racist. Though its politics are far more nuanced, its explicit presentation runs the risk of rendering any subtleties moot. It is something that I would never ask someone who lacks understanding of gender identity’s complicated nature to play, but nonetheless, I remain hesitant to toss its most memorable scene onto the same pile as The Skin I Live In or The Silence of the Lambs. Whistleblower’s body horror operates on a deeper level that goes beyond shock and awe, but it nonetheless appropriates a real narrative and medical procedure for the purpose of scaring players. In this complicated relationship with real life identity, it becomes a unique example of body horror in a first person perspective, caught between insight and ignorance, shedding light on concepts of self and autonomy, all while its gruesome package threatens to drag players’ understanding of those concepts deeper into the darkness.
 Preservation of history > preservation of self.
 They can’t all be winners.
 All it needs is a big-breasted blonde woman to be its own self-contained game of Crappy Horror Bingo.
 To be fair, the film and especially the novel attempt to draw a line between Bill and “legitimate” trans women, though as Jos Truitt expertly explains, this distinction perpetuates troubling concepts of identity policing on its own.
 Like any good piece of found footage horror, Outlast’s ending is completely awful.