Horror films represent, as critic Robin Wood wrote in his essay, "Return of the Repressed": "at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences - the fusion made possible by the shared structures of a common ideology." This comment rings even truer when we approach the question of horror in games. Instead of being mere spectators to a slasher massacre or monster run amok, we are asked to take up the controller in active participation with the nightmare - to not only watch the hero vanquish the manifestation of our repressed anxieties, but to vanquish them ourselves.
When Capcom created RE4, one of the first and most important decisions they made was to move the setting to Europe. This opened a great many doors for them, including the ability to create atmospheres that would be wholly unbelievable if the game were set in the modern day United States.
In the game's opening, the scenery provides a clue as to where and when we are traveling. Knotted, barren trees fill the scene as we look through the front windshield of a police SUV jostling down an unpaved road. This type of rural wooded area is a popular setting in horror films (think The Hills Have Eyes). Rural and sparsely populated land produces the sustenance that drives urban and suburban life. Because of this disparity, horror cinema has been the vehicle through which the subjugated get their revenge by terrorizing the civilized that wander too far into the woods. A version of this theme plays out in the first part of the game.
As the car slows and one of the policemen exits to relieve himself, we are treated to another easily recognizable convention of horror cinema. From a first-person perspective, the camera crawls through the bushes, alerting us to the presence of unseen actors. Because we recognize this effect from virtually every slasher film since Psycho, it serves to further heighten our generic expectations.
Once out of the car, Leon, the main character (now controlled by the player), approaches a rundown house. This set piece again plays to the difference between the urban environment of the previous survival/horror games and the exploited rural landscape. Inside the house, Leon asks a lone man if he has seen Ashley, the President's daughter, who we have been sent to find. The man yells something in Spanish, then picks up an ax and frantically attacks Leon.
Firing at this crazed attacker, we're granted our first instance of genre pleasure. Unlike reality, we can dispatch our problems here with a gun. Approaching the body, we are able to "Check" it. The game tells us, almost humorously, "He's not a zombie." While it may seem like an aside, this information sets the entire plot in motion.
Continued exploration reveals a slew of human skulls rotting underneath the stairs. Leon can only remark to himself that he hopes Ashley is safe. At this point, our escorts are thrown to their death as a group of decidedly un-zombie-like beings besiege Leon. The action takes off and rarely subsides for the remainder of the game.
RE4 is a game cut into three parts: Village, Castle and Island. In each of these settings, generic conventions culled from decades of horror films and written into our culture continuously shape and reshape our gaming experience. In the Village, Leon encounters Los Ganados, "the cattle." We learn that Los Ganados are possessed by Las Plagas, a parasite unleashed by a Sr. Salazar, under orders by a man called Lord Saddler. Critics of zombie horror have long drawn the connection between Marx's proletarian bodies, exploited by the bourgeoisie, and the possessed bodies of the undead, dedicated to a lifetime of consumption.