What is Horror?

Horror. When you say that word, most people wrinkle their nose and recoil like they’ve just smelt a decomposing corpse or been told that a limb requires amputation. Horror, in many circles, is seen as the black sheep of the family; the child that is kept locked away in the attic so no one can see them; the unforgivable sin that has been committed.

Tell someone that you write horror and you largely get the same reaction, or at least that is my experience. I have had people say there must be something seriously wrong with me because of the things I write about.  I have had ex-boyfriends beg me not to tell their family and friends what I write because it makes me look weird. Well, I am weird and I’m proud of it.

Horror is largely seen as a narrow, one-dimensional genre (like certain B movies that have been made) confined to the corner of a bookstore, or to the one week only screening at the cinema.

You may be surprised to learn, dear reader, that horror, probably more than any other genre, has a fantastic history and a multitude of sub-genres.

In literature, horror has been around for centuries and has a very specific definition and purpose. According to JA Cuddon, the horror story is ‘a piece of fiction in prose of variable length… which shocks or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing.’

Elizabeth Barrette said that ‘the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds.’

Do you agree with these modern definitions, dear reader? Or, like me, are you more curious to know what the early horror writers had to say about their genre?

Ann Radcliffe (1764 to 1823), author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), a book immortalised by young Cathy in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, distinguished between the two elements of horror fiction – ‘terror’ and ‘horror’. She defined terror as a feeling of dread that takes place before an event happens, whereas horror is a feeling of revulsion or disgust after an event has happened. For me, this is the perfect description.

In essence, horror creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. It is mostly supernatural, but it can also be non-supernatural. It is said that, in many cases, the central menace of horror fiction is a metaphor for the larger fears of a society. Do you agree with this or is horror, for you, just a pleasure of sorts?

The genre itself has its roots in folklore and religious traditions, with stories being told through the generations. It would be interesting to hear the original tales as I suspect Chinese whispers have taken a benign subject and morphed it into the monsters we know and love today. Having said that, I firmly believe that folklore stems from reality. What was it that was seen lurking in the hallways of that abandoned castle? What creature could possibly make that eerie call across the moors, sending a chill down your spine?

The preoccupation with death, the afterlife, evil and the demonic manifested itself into stories of witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts. It is a known fact that in Victorian times, it was common for graves to be dug up and the body mutilated under the belief that the person was a vampire or a werewolf.

Folklore and its brethren have been around long before stories were written down, with horror literature not making itself known until the 18th century.

It was Gothic horror which occupied the hearts and minds of 18th century horror aficionados, with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) being cited as beginning this fascination. The novel was the first story to incorporate elements of the supernatural.  Unsurprisingly, much horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed at a female audience, with a typical scenario being a resourceful female protagonist menaced in a gloomy castle. I say unsurprisingly because I find that more women like horror than men. Mention going to catch a horror movie to a guy and you are likely to get a straight out ‘hell no’; mention it to a woman and you get a more positive response. We’re made of stronger stuff, obviously!

The 19th century saw the emergence of sub-genres in horror (although Gothic horror is now classed as a sub-genre) with classics such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), the works of Edgar Allan Poe & Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and my favourite, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). These novels are what we as modern readers recognise as horror literature.

The 20th century saw a boom in horror publishing, including pulp fiction and specialist magazines dedicated to the genre. Influential authors included HP Lovecraft and MR James, creating further sub-genres of cosmic horror and ghost stories. The 1900s also saw the birth of the horror movie, with early cinema taking inspiration from many aspects of horror literature. Comic books (e.g. Tales from the Crypt) were also born in this century and were the only place where graphic violence and gore appeared until the film industry caught up in the latter part of the century.

Contemporary horror fiction now contains a vast array of authors, from Stephen King, James Herbert and Clive Barker to Laurell K Hamilton, Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris, bringing you a wide range of sub-genres to choose from. Whether you enjoy werewolf fiction & urban fantasy (Carrie Vaughn), erotic Gothic fiction (Anne Rice), historical horror, mashups (e.g. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), historical fantasy and horror comics (e.g. Hellboy), or teen horror/paranormal romance, there is a novel out there for you.

It is interesting to note that some writers of ‘horror’ fiction dislike the term, considering it too lurid. Instead, they choose to classify their work as Dark Fantasy or Gothic Fantasy (supernatural horror), or Psychological Thriller (non-supernatural horror).

Horror is horror as far as I’m concerned and I feel that authors should be proud to write in this genre and should shout it out loud!!

The multitude of sub-genres in horror is, I feel, more clearly shown on film. Some of these sub-genres break down even further, illustrating just how wide this genre really is. All in all, there are about seventeen sub-genres of horror in film and I’ll briefly take you through each one to give you a taste.

Vampire (Dracula, Nosferatu, 30 Days of Night)

The sexy and alluring vampires are mythological creatures that have existed in folklore for aeons, but it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula who spawned the vampires we know and love today. In general, vampires on film are undead creatures who are thirsty for blood and need to be invited in. Their other vulnerabilities – transference, garlic, holy water, staking, crosses, sunlight – can vary, depending on who has created them!

Werewolf (An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Dog Soldiers)

The cute and cuddly werewolf has also occupied myth and folklore for hundreds of years. Werewolves come in two varieties – those that can turn at will or, more likely, those that are slaves to the full moon. Transference is simple and occurs via a bite or a scratch, but it is seen as tragic as those afflicted are said to bear a curse. For me, the key to a good werewolf film is the transformation scene and there is only one film that has nailed this – An American Werewolf in London. CGI has got nothing on that iconic scene.

Zombie (White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later):

The classics zombies, largely created by George A Romero, rise from the grave or are created by being bitten by one. These zombies are usually slow and stupid, travelling in herds, responding to loud noises and light i.e. fire, as well as the sight of a living breathing person. Their more modern counterparts, however, are created by viruses, contamination or brainwashing.

Paranormal (Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist)

This is seen as the classic of all horror, drawing on people’s fears of the dark and the unknown. It is, arguably, the scariest of all the sub-genres and splits into sub-genres of its own:

  • Ghost and spirits
  • Haunted houses
  • Possession
  • Devil, demons and hell
  • Witches and the occult
  • Supernatural powers

Slasher/Killer (Halloween, Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm St)

This is probably the most famous sub-genre in the movies, featuring a killer – natural or supernatural – who is, invariably, a psycho. This sub-genre mixes thriller, crime and psychological horror and features pursuits and gruesome murders, usually of teenagers!

Psychological (The Shining, Psycho)

This is the sub-genre that people feel is most real, as it involves a human being who has become unhinged or is stranded in an exceptional situation. It is often linked with the thriller genre, with the horror coming from the psychological tension. This too has its own sub-genres:

  • Madness & paranoia
  • Phobia & isolation
  • Home invasion & survival (a sub-genre in itself)

Crime and Giallo (The Girl who Knew Too Much, Deep Red)

This sub-genre is one I’d never heard of and is the closest to thriller as horror gets. It differentiates from classic thriller due to the gruesome nature of the murders. Giallo refers to the horror-crime movies made in Italy in the 1980s by filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento.

Redneck (The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, Wolf Creek)

2000 Maniacs (1964) and Deliverance (1972) are said to have spawned this sub-genre, which plays on the myth that the backwoods and remote countryside areas are populated by inbred freaks and maniacs; usually families or clans. This type of movie often features cannibalism.

Home Invasion and Survival (The Strangers, You’re Next, Inside):

This sub-genre has recently broken away from the psychological sub-genre and come into its own. It is gaining popularity, with the assailants often being masked or not being shown at all. This methodology is said to reinforce the claustrophobic fear that these films induce.

Classic and Mythological Monsters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man)

These are monsters inspired by myths and legends, by Big Foot and by the Bogeyman. These are fantastical monsters (dragons) and monsters from the 1930s i.e. the Mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Some of them are currently seeing a resurgence, with Universal Studios launching the Dark Universe, which is bringing back to life four of these classic films – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and, of course, The Mummy, which is the first to be released.

Neo Monsters (Tremors, Pumpkinhead)

These are newer and more diverse creations of the filmmakers’ minds. They are usually aggressive and thirst for human blood

Small Creatures (Gremlins, Ghoulies, Critters)

These come from the fantastical world as well as from myths and legends. They tend to carry some comedy element as the creatures are often quite cute, until they get mean!!

Sci fi Monsters and Aliens (The Thing, Alien, The Fly)

These films usually have a justification for the presence of the monster i.e. scientific experiment, evolved species, or nuclear leak.

Giant Monsters (Godzilla, King Kong, Cloverfield)

This sub-genre was inspired by King Kong and became very popular in Asia, especially Japan. The movies usually involve the destruction of a city. Well, what else can a giant monster destroy?

Nature and Animal (Jaws, Piranha, The Birds, Cujo)

These films are centred around famous predators (sharks, crocodiles), seemingly harmless creatures (Insects and birds), plants (Day of the Triffids) or even vegetables (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes).

Splatter Exploitation and Gore (The Last House on the Left, Saw, Hostel)

This sub-genre is linked to many of the sub-genres mentioned, but emphasises the horrible, the bloody and the gore. It is a sub-genre that I dip in and out of, as many of these films just go too far – which says a lot, coming from me. As with some of the others, this splits into its own sub-genres:

  • Splatter
  • Torture
  • Extreme
  • Cannibal

Horror films also break down into styles, which tend to sit across some of the sub-genres mentioned above. I won’t go through these in detail and I have no doubt that you may think of others, but below is a list of the horror styles that I’ve come across:

  • Comedy Horror – Beetlejuice
  • Post-Apocalyptic and Sci Fi – Event Horizon
  • Teen Horror – I Know What You Did Last Summer
  • Horror Romance – Let the Right One In
  • Creepy Kid Horror – The Children
  • Gothic Horror – The Woman in Black
  • Body Horror – Cabin Fever
  • Lovecraft and King – RE-Animator, The Shining
  • Clown – It
  • Creepy Dolls and Toys – Chucky

Amazed? You should be; I was. The breadth of the horror genre is huge! I’ll bet you’ll never put horror in the corner again!

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

Til next time.