Horror: an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust. Or, indeed, all of those in varying degrees.
Scholars and academics, over the centuries, have described our continued attraction to the fear of the unknown through fictional horror or terror as a need to recapture that pre-civilization rush of fight-or-flight adrenalin and its corresponding intensity of emotions. [A brief overview from The Atlantic.]
At its best, horror fiction goes beyond cheap thrills to provide insights into human nature through monsters (human or otherwise) as metaphors. If nothing else, it brings new, otherworldly possibilities into our relatively more mundane realities, allowing us to both appreciate the ordinary while opening ourselves to the extraordinary.
And, we’ve come a long way from the ancient folklorish stories of witches, demons and ghosts that originated mostly from religious traditions across many cultures. These gave rise to the Gothic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries (my favorites). The 20th century gave us the pulp and zombie varieties, with blood, gore, violence, otherworldly creatures capable of large-scale violence, etc.: writers like H P Lovecraft, Stephen King, R L Stine, Anne Rice et al. And, as the 21st century continues to bring us horror fiction that blends seamlessly with many other genres (e.g. mystery, action/psychological thriller, speculative, fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, etc.), it continues to be one of the biggest and bestselling genres – in books, film and online fan fiction.
Before we get any further, let’s get one thing out of the way. For those who look down on horror/terror fiction as not “literary”, the wonderful Margaret Atwood has some sharp words:
It also seems to be a general rule that this year’s despised pop shocker may well furnish the next decade’s serious thesis material. What is Beowulf – what is Inanna’s descent to the Underworld – what is the dismemberment of Osiris, not to mention Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus – but horror/terror shock material of a former age? Yes, some of it was “religious” in intent. It would be, wouldn’t it, as the membrane separating gods and monsters is notoriously thin.
So no harrumphing about my interest in the form, please. Horror/terror and “literature” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, tales of this kind may be among the most “literary” that there are, being both very ancient, and – unlike, say, social realism, in which a real tour of a real meat-packing factory may be involved – derived entirely from other tales. (Hint: there aren’t really any Walking Dead. Sorry. Sad, but true. Therefore all such monsters are metaphors.)
And, to shed some light on horror vs terror vs gruesome, we turn to 3 masters of their genre and craft.