Monday, 17 January 2011

What is horror?

How would I define a work of horror?

I've taken part in a few, and read or heard many more, discussions on this subject. None of them have precisely expressed what I think makes a horror story. So here is my opinion, for what it's worth. 

For starters, there is no one definition of horror.

Oh, that's really helpful, isn't it?

Yes, but there's more.

Many people have said that if an author intends to scare the reader, that makes the work Horror. More have said if the material scares the reader, the work is Horror.

If that were the case, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer would be a masterpiece of surreal horror, set in a society like ours.

Oh, no, wait, that actually happened, didn't it?

No, horror, as I define it, is a work of fiction. And horrific fiction quite happily divides into three types.

Type One

Works set in our world, as we know it, with few, if any, changes. Examples might be The Silence of the Lambs or The Girl Next Door. Now, to me, while horrific, these are not works of Horror. You might call them thrillers, or suspense, or anything else you like, but not Horror. I class these as books about things that do happen. There are cannibals, serial killers and neighbourly torture clubs.

Type Two

If Type One is things that do happen, then Type Two is things that could happen, given a few changes.  Aliens conquer the world. Crazed military scientist unleashes a Doomsday virus (or it escapes). Neural networks become self-aware. Consider The Puppetmasters or Prey. Again, to me, not Horror. Call it action sci-fi, or speculative fiction.

So what does that leave?

Type Three

Things that could never happen. I'm really, really sorry, folks. There are no vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demons, dragons, djinns or zombies. It's a great shame, 'cos I love them too. But they aren't real. Never could be, never will be.

That doesn't stop us writing about them. This, to me, is Horror. Supernatural, playing with death and beyond.

There is a caveat here - the action must take place in a world that is recognisably ours, but with nasties added. For example Bag of Bones, Rosemary's Baby and Dracula. If it takes place on another world, it's probably fantasy. If there is a large element of magic used routinely, it's fantasy.

So there you have it - a story about something that could never exist, added into our world, and scaring the crap out of us, because we've suspended belief and accepted that there are vampires and evil deities resurrected from the dawn of time.

Now that's proper Horror.


  1. Hmm...I agree with you. Sort of. I also think that stories that utilize our fears of things that 'could' happen are horror as well. Not thriller or suspense. It depends on how the author uses these things. Mutated creatures could happen. Highly unlikely, but they could. I read a story about a giant worm species...scared the crap out of me. Arachnaphobia scared me so much I was terrified to go into the shower without plugging the drain. Spiders are real, and they could become an infestation, and I'm scared to death of them. Instant horror. Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" is terrifying. It might be far-fetched, but come one, birds are a creepy lot. Who knows?

    I think anything that can inspire genuine fear, that makes you close the closet door, make sure your feet are covered, or keeps you checking over your shoulder is horror. Real or imagined.

  2. To quote Arnie - "If it bleeds, we can kill it..." - so load up and go checking for mutants, worms and spiders.

    Only when the enemy is so out of the ordinary that it can't be harmed by normal means, does it become horror for me. Although Arachnophobia and The Birds were scary films. Tremors was a scream.

  3. But you're right even with those when you think about it. The enemy in each was out of the ordinary. I mean, the spiders, come on. What are the odds? It could happen, but man, a lot of things would have to combine to make it so. And the birds, well I'd like to think they aren't so organized. Although we did have a blue jay here that attacked the dogs quite frequently. He didn't like them peeing near his tree. Bear found him terrifying.

    I LOVE Tremors. We watched it almost daily when I was a kid.