Over the past week, the members of TESSpecFic* have posted their various opinions on the question: “What is horror.” And the opinions have been various, indeed! After six thoughtful, intelligent discussions, I’m still no closer to being able to make a definitive statement about what horror is. My apologies, if you were hoping for that.
But I have developed a clearer idea of what defines horror fiction for me, which is possibly more important (in an egocentric sort of way).
I’m still pretty happy with my original list of essential elements in horror, especially since similar ideas showed up in my friends’ discussions. Here it is, again.
1) Creepy atmosphere. I should clarify—even the most cheerful atmosphere can be creepy if it’s written that way. That’s one of the things I love about horror.
2) Suspenseful. Without this element, horror is boring. Horror should not be boring.
3) Victims experience psychological trauma and high levels of fear/dread. If the focus is completely on the physical aspect, with no psychological element, then horror becomes nothing more than a big gross-out session. Again, boring.
4) Inspires fear and/or dread in reader/viewer. What’s the point of horror if your palms don’t sweat a little when you’re reading it?
However, as I noted in my original post, this list is incomplete. With the help of my friends, I would like to expand it a little.
In her post, Aniko Carmean said, “…horror has the intent of making the reader feel the inevitable approach of death.” I like this definition a lot. Fear of unavoidable death is certainly a major element in much of horror fiction and movies. There’s a whole vein of horror that deals with attempts to stave off the inevitable approach of death. However, this definition excludes stories like Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” which I feel is pretty horrific. After some discussion with Aniko, I’ve decided to add her amended definition to my list:
5) A sense of inescapable powerlessness.
My list improves, but is still not complete. Jaye Manus came up with the element that finally defines (in my mind) the difference between fantasy and horror. Using Stephen King’s The Shining as an example, she says, “What happened at the Overlook is going to happen again, and again, and again. It will never be over. My God, how does anyone live with that?”
Wow, that sentiment fits an awful lot of what I consider to be horror. In some stories, the protagonist will never escape. In others, the horror is over for the (surviving) protagonists, but the implications are that the evil still exists and will strike again. The reader walks away with that lingering feeling that it’s not really over. So I will add the following to my list.
6) Leaves the reader with the feeling that the evil is only temporarily vanquished. It will be back.
This completes the list of elements that define horror in Marie’s world. I maintain the right to modify as more data comes in.
Reading the posts from TESSpecFic members and comments from our readers, it’s become clear that defining horror is not the only problem. Accepting the label for your own work is a bigger issue for some. Paul Dail likes the label “supernatural thriller” for his novel, The Imaginings. I’ve read (and enjoyed) his book and would categorize it as horror, but Paul worries that he might lose potential readers because they associate horror with Freddy Krueger and the like.
Kim Koning’s experience pitching a horror novel (as yet unpublished, I believe) to a potential agent supports Paul’s fear. The agent suggested “Paranormal Historical” might be a “more marketable” choice of genre for her book.
Further confirmation of the horror stigma comes from commenter (and reader) RobynC. She says, “I would Personally avoid a book labeled as “Horror” the same way I avoid haunted houses at Halloween…”
Yet I’d bet that I could hand RobynC a horror novel that she would enjoy. I just have to avoid the slasher vein (heh) of the genre. And not tell her it’s a horror novel.
An interesting article at The Horror Writers Association website highlights the problems with modern perception of horror and how it’s been distorted by commercialization. The article suggests that perhaps horror-that-is-not-Stephen-King-or-Freddy-Krueger is best off hidden within other genres.
“As the horror boom of the eighties turned into the drought of the nineties, horror went underground. In order to save itself, it became a chameleon, masquerading as other genres, hiding itself in other styles. And therein lay its salvation.”
This is not an unreasonable solution. Horror is, after all, an emotion. Novels of any genre tend to be full of that kind of thing.
The following links will take you to the posts for me, Jaye Manus, Paul Dail, Kim Koning, Aniko Carmean, Jonathan Allen, and Penelope Crowe of TESSpecFic.
- Genre Confusion: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy? (marieloughin.com)
- What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question (mustlovefiction.wordpress.com)
- Potential Perils of the Horror Label… (pauldail.com)
- Shivers Down My Spine… (kimkoning.wordpress.com)
- All Round the Table, “What is Horror?” (anikocarmean.wordpress.com)
- What is Horror? Baby Don’t Hurt Me (jonathandallen.com)
- Horror–Pick Your Pleasure (www.penelopecrowe.blogspot.ca)