Pub Rants

Defining Horror

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STATUS: Ah, back in Denver. Now I can actually get back to work…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LOST by Michael Bublé

I have a feeling that attempting to define this term is a whole debate all and into itself, so I’m not even going to offer a definition. I have been thinking about what it is over the last couple of days though and I have a few thoughts to share.

At the very least, horror is, at its most elemental level, the terror created by what goes bump in the night. That is horror boiled down to its simplest form and is often the focus of scary movies.

But it would be a mistake to assume that such a concept alone solely defines horror.

If that’s all your manuscript is, you’re actually missing what true horror is which, in my mind, is the ability to shine a spotlight on the baseness of human nature through a terrifying, grotesque, or horrifying way. Or in such a way that is fearsome for our minds to contemplate (I AM LEGEND comes to mind).

The best horror writers know that what they are really doing is shedding light on the essence of human nature and behavior and exposing the rest of us to the darkness that lies potentially in all souls.

Okay, that might be getting a little deep…

And shedding light into the essence of human nature and behavior is not the sole province of horror. I imagine that all good fiction strives to do the same and using the element of horror is simply one way to reach that place.

15 Responses

  1. karen wester newton said:

    I don’t read much horror that comes identified as such because it tends to make me wake up screaming and I need my sleep. But to my mind, the best kind of horror is that kind that creeps up on you so gradually that you don’t see it coming. Shirley Jackson was a master at that. She could start with sunshine and flowers and end with abject terror and you were never quite sure how you got there.

  2. Adra Steia said:

    I’ve been writing horror for a few years now (reading it/watching it for decades LOL).

    To me horror is helplessness. Knowing something absolutely uncontrollable is happening, be it a serial killer or a long haired Asian ghost creeping down the stairs, and not being able–or knowing HOW to– stop it.

    Helpless at being able to protect yourself, or more importantly, your family. Dean Koontz’s Phantoms made a big impact on me because the supernatural force was so huge and so omnipotent.

    Richard Laymon’s Savage had the same effect on me. Even though the main character knew what he had to do, he was still helpless against Jack the Ripper when it came to protecting the women that he loved.

    In my own books, I’ve fallen into the gore/shock-value trap a couple of times, but my favorite stories are the ones driven by emotion. In “Muse”, the female lead is tormented by a supernatural antagonist. The entity doesn’t scare her nearly as much as the thought of losing the man she has loved her whole life, even when she’s being strangled by shower curtains, pushed down stairs, and tortured by deadly poltergeist activity.

    A lot of modern American horror relies on blood and guts and pure gore. It’s hard to find that truly horrifying. It’s when you toss in human nature and behavior, as you said, that things start getting scary! Nothing is more terrifying than the depths of the human soul.

  3. KWright said:

    I think that adra steia explained it well…the awful, entrenching feeling of helplessness. Good horror makes you feel disturbed, terrified, confused and a little curious. There is a reason that the genre is so successful, and it isn’t just because people like to get scared. People are curious about the dark sides of life, the sides that they would never think to go. I tend not to read horror, for the fact that I have an overactive imagination. One good scare and I won’t sleep for weeks. But, I believe from the books that I have read, the true feeling of horror comes from the fact that the author is writing about something that (disturbingly enough) seems somewhat probable.

  4. kymbrunner said:

    Stephen King is my favorite horror writer! He creates believable characters who confront our deepest unspoken fears and we watch, peering over the MC’s shoulder with one eye closed, holding our breath.

    Duma Key is about a guy who gets hit in the head from a bad work accident and comes out a different person afterwards. Now that’s scary to consider….

  5. Jessica said:

    Wow, great post! I’m not a fan of horror either. I think using it to delve into human nature is great. But the thing I’ve never liked about horror is its celebration of evil. Granted, I don’t read horror, but I have seen horror movies and it seems as though evil always wins. The good guys never do. Evil triumphs. And that’s what I don’t like about it. The hopeless world it creates.
    Thanks for the post. Interesting stuff.

  6. Maya Reynolds said:

    I’m a huge horror fan. I like what the early Stephen King novels did really well–juxtapositioning the ordinary with the dreadful.

    King would take a moment that everyone has experienced and couple it with something truly awful. I’d want to stop reading, but was so enthralled with wanting to know what comes next that I couldn’t put the book down.

  7. green ray said:

    Hey, Kristin, I love it when you get deep. My novel has a few horror elements and you helped me to realize what I’m trying to do. Thanks.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Horrible thought for the day: I recently learned that the high security place where I work has 50,000 bright yellow body bags in storage. 🙁

  9. mary beth said:

    First of all I love your blog. It is consistently the most informative, interesting pub blog out there.
    In her blog, Lori Perkins has a one line definition of why she reps horror. In answer to her mother’s question of why she reps it, she replied, “Because it’s the most religious fiction out there.” (I’m paraphrasing) I don’t read horror, I’m way too easily haunted, but the idea of horror somehow connecting to what is good about religion stuck with me, and I think your definition of horror clarified that idea further. In case I’m phrasing it poorly, she meant it in a positive light for both horror fiction and religion. And I can’t stop thinking about that idea.

    Thanks for your informative, generous blog.
    Mary Beth Bass

  10. Prest0 said:

    I was just on a panel discussion this past weekend in which we talked about different elements used to create this thing we call “horror”. I suspect for a lot of people, horror falls under the category of “I can’t explain it, but I know it when I see it.”

    A good action yarn may get your adrenaline flowing, a romance may leave you longing for your lover’s embrace, but horror exists to elicit emotions of fear or dread. That’s horror in a nutshell. To create those emotions in the reader (or movie viewer, or gamer), the creater may use one or more techniques ranging from shock tactics to slow-building anticipation.

    In the last 100 years we’ve developed a new genre in which traditional elements of horror (namely monsters) take on new roles in storytelling. A story in which a vampire is the hero is most likely no longer “horror”, but “supernatural action/mystery/romance/whatever.” Yet, many people still lump these stories under “horror” because it’s just easier that way.

  11. Maggie said:

    I’m not a fan of gore horror either. I like the kind of fantasy with elements that are just subtly wrong – that kind usually involves some sort of epiphany for the reader when you suddenly or gradually realise the full extent of the awfulness and you just go “Oh god. Oh god.”

    Hack and slash is a little too obvious. It’s like, if I KNOW everyone except the blonde cheerleader will get eaten by the monster, why bother scaring myself with the details? Horror used to be consistently categorised as “horror and suspense” and I think it still should be because they’re inseparable. Horror should surprise you, not just shock you.

    Mind you I’m still a fan of the zombies. But I file zombie apocalypses along with global warming and nuclear winter in my brain. I’m also partial to zombie humour, but neither of those are really like the monster-focused stuff.

  12. George Peabody said:

    Cheerio! Can’t say I’m one for actual gore. I find it much more effective to see the results of the violence rather than the violence itself– sort of like seeing a character in a Mel Gibson movie AFTER the make up has been done. Mel’s penchant for literally tortured heroes aside, I find the results of the violence more disturbing than the violence itself. You can feel pity for the poor soul running through the night with a limb half-detached, chased by murderous hatchet wielding psychos. Watching him being hacked up just engenders pity and most often disgust– the victim’s already been caught, so the suspense is ordinarily already gone.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Don’t like horror. Give me suspense without waking me up at night. Give me romance gone awry without the girl’s panties soaking in blood at the end. I’ll be happy with any of the above.

  14. SueO2 said:

    I’ve heard it said, and I don’t necessarily disagree, horror’s closest relative is erotica or porn.

    Horror is about the visceral. At its best, the head gets involved, but we all know that creepy, scary, horrible often defies reason.

  15. CHOOCH said:

    My first book was, I considered, horror. The first title was “I Choose You,” because I felt that, as adra stated, “Knowing something absolutely uncontrollable is happening” is truly scary. Over the course of a year, I changed the name to “Whitey” and developed his character. Now, as I write my fifth book, which is not horror, it has become apparant that my theme of love is far more horrific that any murderous plots/sickos/slashers.

    And it’s with this human condition called love that I now write about. Love is truly horrific to me. (I’m a 40 year old married man)
    My stomach churns at the horror that is disguised as “love.”