Nothing compares to the scares you experience when you're a kid, a time when anything could potentially be the starting point of a brand-new fear. Everything seemed new and lethal. And I kind of miss it. I'm now in my thirties (damn, I feel old) and still horror-obsessed. I've endured a wide range of scares—everything from A Serbian Film to Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Ju-On to Get Out. Though I still get chills, sometimes (Lake Mungo actually creeped me out a bit), it isn't quite the same as when I was a young teen watching The Blair Witch Project for the first time. I thought it was real. My whole friend group dug into the lore, the urban legends surrounding it, and then local legends about ghosts and the paranormal. We all thought it was real. It was exhilarating to be a part of something that dared to look into the unknown. This balance of kinship and the pursuit of the uncharted makes being scared as a kid so, well, wholesome. You felt alive. There was no doubt about it being real or not.
When Phasmophobia was released on PC via Steam's Early Access program in September 2020, the game quickly caught the attention of professional YouTubers and the gaming community due to its unique spin on horror. It's a cooperative paranormal, ghost-hunting, exploration game where up to four players team up to explore a haunted location. Players have different investigative devices like video cameras, thermometers, spirit boxes, and EVP to raise the ghosts in true paranormal investigative fashion. The game's goal is to identify the haunt, capture proof of it, and survive the night. It's everything my friends and I dreamt of doing all those years ago when we chased local legends to an abandoned office building wedged in the tourist hell of Orlando, Florida.
We all have one —a hometown haunt marked as odd, perhaps outright "forbidden." It's usually a rundown and neglected building, the tales typically involving murders and demons, people condemning the location because of the heinous activity reported to have occurred on-site. Mine was an eight-story office building just off the beaten path from neighborhoods nestled against the theme park behemoth, Disney World. It had chain-link fences locked three times over, "No Trespassing" signs, grass, and vegetation forming a wall of overgrowth. The building's windows shattered, the foundation and structure failing to outlast the damp, swampy heat typical of Florida. My friends and I believed in the so-called demonic possession that led to a murder spree, the legend spreading across the schoolyard like a derivative of the Amityville Horror. We planned our big paranormal investigation, true to what we saw in the movies and on TV. We spent months talking about it, but we never even got close to climbing the fence when the night finally arrived. We never even left home. It was just nice and exhilarating to think about going through with it.
That's precisely what Phasmophobia captures—the choice to go through with it. There's no doubt about it: Kinetic Games and its lone employee, "Dknighter," achieved something special.
A session begins with players entering a room designed to look like a scrappy paranormal investigation team's headquarters, complete with a rusted garage door. The first time I played, I had no friends with access to the game, so I joined three strangers. When I dropped into the room, they were surprisingly welcoming. Many multiplayer experiences have a level of animosity, or at least a thinly veiled hostility. Not so with Phasmophobia. We're all curious and frightened here. I told them I was new to this. "It's cool. We'll help you through," said the room leader shortly before choosing our jobs and the haunted location we'd investigate. Tanglewood Street House is a one-story home, tiny and familiar, and the site of the game's tutorial. We would soon find out that the narrow corridors don't work well when a demon gives chase.
Room Leader ran through the objectives and told us never to mention the ghost's name. The investigation began in the back of a truck decked out to serve as our mobile HQ, complete with a computer, whiteboard, and status screen displaying our sanity levels. The whiteboard is also home to the various objectives, all of them involving interacting with the ghost and gathering evidence. Like an offering, the ghost's name is given right from the start. It felt so much like a trap.
Every investigation starts with a five-minute lead time, during which the ghost cannot harm players. The Room Leader tried to keep everyone together despite frayed nerves beginning to show. One of the other players refused to break free from the group but didn't want to follow us into the basement. In the basement, the ghost whispered in our ears. Everyone fled; my avatar overlapped with another player's as we simultaneously tried to push through the basement door. The game allows you to return to the truck, take a breather, check the cameras, gather new supplies, just like an actual paranormal investigation.
One of the players ditched the investigation altogether and took his perch at the computer. The status screen includes a paranormal activity level indicator. You'd think it would be helpful to know whenever activity spikes, but it only quadruples the fear.
When the lights cut out, Room Leader informed us the ghost was officially hunting. Someone needed to go into the garage to reset the power; the thing is, players have died in that garage. I offered to go, feeling confident. The garage was quiet, I got the power back on, but just then, an alarm went off, the parked car's lights flickering feverishly—a cheap but effective jump scare. I made a beeline to leave, but the door was locked. And then I heard the heartbeats. I used my radio and called out to the others. "Stand still and turn off your flashlight!" the Room Leader instructed, and I did as told. There was a flash out the corner of my eye, and there she was. Laura Wilson. (All the ghosts are given randomized, ultimately unmemorable names.)
Room Leader's theory saved me, flashlight off, standing still, the ghost's heartbeat slowing before its final fade. I rushed back to the truck, where I found the entire team cowering in wait.
Phasmophobia has a diverse range of ghosts—everything from the Mare, who turns out the lights and attacks in the dark, to a Demon, which can be interacted with via an Ouija Board.
To truly survive the night, players need to perform a quality investigation. That means evidence. No two ghosts will provide the same evidence. It's this combination of evidence, photographic proof, and, if you're brave enough, candid encounters with the ghosts that will lead to success and some money at the end of the session. Of course, this is all easier said than done. When a group is scared, they'll flee or hide. Laura grabbed one of our teammates as they were setting up a video camera in the kitchen. Out of thin air, she appeared, and it was already too late.
When a player is killed, they also become a ghost, watching helplessly from a nether-realm as the rest of the team finds the body. I was the next to die, and some of the fun was watching Room Leader trying to keep the lone remaining teammate motivated. In the end, our last teammate wouldn't leave the truck, the Room Leader couldn't do it alone, and we didn't end up achieving any of the goals. Our room leader was killed as the last remaining teammate cowered in the truck.
The game gets the whole ghost hunting thing right. It feels like walking into a haunted and dangerous location, as though I entered that abandoned office building with my friends. The bump in the night skin-crawling effect is uncanny. People get so scared playing Phasmophobia they refuse to turn the corner.
It makes me nostalgic for the experience of watching The Thing or playing Resident Evil for the first time. Phasmophobia channels the secret clubhouse of youth, particularly the brand of scares and horror experienced solely during adolescence. Everyone's got a story about going to an abandoned and "haunted" location in their town with a bunch of friends, scaring and daring each other to traverse the grounds. The game manages to glean that kinship and bond; it's a sandbox built around the basic tools used as kids to spark imagination, inspire collaboration, and send us running away screaming.
An investigation in Phasmophobia feels like submitting your own story for the approval of the Midnight Society. It's a coming-of-age experience, everything that was frightening and intimidating becoming whole and fully realized. That's what makes the game so much a scare down memory lane: We choose to walk into those dark rooms, but just like when we were kids, we know well not to face them alone.
Phasmophobia is available on STEAM. The game just received a recent update, which means new ghosts and more horror to explore. Join the investigation if you dare.