“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature
Now we have the obligatory Lovecraft quote out of the way, we can get on with figuring out what the hell horror really is. At least I didn’t open with a definition.
“Horror is a genre of speculative fiction in film and literature which is intended to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle by inducing feelings of horror and terror.”
Oh, there it is.
The real question to ask is why do we love horror, but that’s for next time. ‘Why’ is such a damned difficult question to answer when it comes to horror that first we must define our terms. Or maybe we don’t. I’m the one at the keyboard, so just go with it.
The term ‘horror fiction’ is one that will conjure varying images in people’s minds. In the context of literature, Stephen King titles will be the first to come to most, while those of a more classical persuasion will see the black raven of Poe, or recall the Romanticist flair of Frankenstein, or even – many will contest – the philosophical musings of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In recent years the genre’s enjoyed the obvious King-influenced boom of the eighties and, although thought to have suffered a somewhat dry spell in the nineties (evolving through other styles to survive and, ultimately, coming out stronger) the demand for horror has only continued to grow.
At the time of writing, the horror genre is basking in a fresh resurgence in popularity, both in literature and film. However, this time it isn’t under the influence of the blinding success of one megastar writer (although he’s been enjoying a resurgence of interest in recent years, too). Horror seems to have reached a level of appreciation where its entire historical pantheon is sought after, with mainstream bookshops displaying M. R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, and Shirley Jackson collections alongside their McCammons, Koontzes, and Hillses. Equally, a new wave of horror filmmakers are dropping some incalculably high quality works rich in the influences of horror cinema gone by; Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, and Trey Edward Shults are just a few of the recent talents to inject a modern-yet-classical brand of spectacular artistry into the genre. But the names and titles are only part of the story. The genre itself is named after an emotion, the driving force of its works. In his 1982 horror anthology Prime Evil, Douglas Winter says:
“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”
What is horror? To answer that we must set aside the trappings of genrefication and labels. We must look to the emotion.
The effect our favourite genre has on us is often broken down into two main components:
Anna Yeatts of Flash Fiction Online adds gore as the third ingredient in the mix. I agree that gore deserves a slot of its own since it provokes a brand of horror unique unto itself: repulsion. Those quick to disregard gore to the same bin as the infamous jump scare in film are missing its tirelessly proven potential. In the same way that the split-second jump scare of Ian Holme’s Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring serves an important purpose – in the blink of an eye deepening our understanding of his character’s ‘addiction’, as well as the true threat of the One Ring – Stephen King’s blood and blowtorch-infused amputation scene in Misery pushes our anxieties surrounding Annie Wilkes’s instability into entirely new territory.
Terror: anticipation. Horror: discovery. Gore: an all too personal, invasive manipulation of our senses of dread and disgust (if done right, as with anything). Gore can also prove an unartistic shortcut around the essential terror and horror components, leaving us nothing more than repulsed. It’s no secret the horror genre is bloated with its fair share of empty nonsense, and not only of the gore variety, so let’s move forward under the assumption we’re talking about the good shit.
An article of this brevity risks reductionism when trying to thoroughly define an essentially psychological medium. We’ve already seen that more states of fear exist outwith the terror-horror duality. We could probably go on splitting the genre’s components of fear forever, but let’s get on with defining the thing so we can move onto more interesting stuff.
No matter how many threads we pull from the fabric of horror, we can all agree that its primary purpose is to induce fear. As Lovecraft put it in our opening quotation, the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown, and yet we know fear itself all too well. We’re intimately acquainted with its slightest hint. Just a glimmer, and fear overrides all. It is primordial, essential, and the reason our species has made it this far.
Fear is the silent guardian that allowed our ancestors to steer these lumps of meat through unimaginably hostile environments: to feel the lick of fire on skin, then learn to forever respect the flame; to suffer the sting of a scorpion, then know to keep clear; to find in the darkness reasons they should cower from the night. Fear kept them from the deadly unknown, and did it well. Fear whispered threatening promises of the world outside a societal future, nudging us together.
The vestiges of this silent guardian remain within us all, albeit keeping watch over often laughably trivial threats. The terror of missing a deadline, the panic of running late, the social anxiety of asking for directions – fear ain’t going anywhere, but rarely does it get a workout over anything to really get our knickers in a twist about.
Likewise, in reality, Annie Wilkes’s antics in Misery aren’t anything to truly stress over, but by god does your sense of fear get to earn its keep when Paul Sheldon’s going through the mill – because you are Paul Sheldon. You’re imprisoned in that house. Your life is on the line. She’s your number one fan.
Yeah, horror is a genre of speculative fiction in film and literature which is intended to frighten, scare, disgust, or blah blah blah, but it’s more than that. It’s the enemy of that ancient, silent guardian who’s been guiding your ancestors for millennia but has recently been enjoying an easy ride, occasionally creeping under your skin as you fumble through the darkness in the dead of night, or (God forbid) rearing its head when the Earth-shattering realisation that you’ve lost your phone hits you. This ‘genre of speculative fiction’ gives your ability to be afraid a shot in the arm. It reminds you what it means to feel truly scared – and alive.
Horror is within us all already, the genre merely coaxes it from us. It’s an itch as old as time in need of scratching. It’s the forbidden truth of the universe’s indifferent hostility which we push away every day in service of conducting a civilised, functioning life. The monsters are out there, they always have been, and a part of us needs reminded.
Horror’s a genre. It’s also a reminder.