Horror – the Ultimate Definition (Yeah, right.)

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.


About Marie Loughin

I love reading, writing, and editing speculative fiction of all sorts. My current focus is on writing contemporary fantasy, where I get to play god with characters from myth and legend. My Norse-based urban fantasy, Valknut: The Binding, is available at Kindle Books and other e-book retailers. You can find me at my blog (marieloughin.com) and on Twitter (@mmloughin).
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13 Responses to Horror – the Ultimate Definition (Yeah, right.)

  1. This post and the one that preceded it illuminated a problem I was hoping independent publishing would vanquish – the need for a given work to fit in a specific genre or sub-genre box. Editors have long rejected excellent manuscripts solely because that particular story didn’t fit into a currently-best-selling-genre. “The sales department doesn’t know how to market this book” has been the death knell for some excellent tales.

    It now seems this same problem exists in the need to categorize a novel for Amazon. Regardless of the way the story came to be published, it must fit into a genre/sub-genre box. I have a vivid mental image of an author squishing her story into one of these boxes, using rolls of packaging tape to secure the lid, and trying to ignore the odd limb that has escaped and is waving around.

    Unfortunately, the assumption the reading public only buys certain types of books is probably correct. I plead guilty to this and am eternally grateful to my local library for shelving new fiction without identifying it as anything other than “new.” This has expanded my reading and introduced me to genres I was sure I disliked. Too bad there is no category for “damned good story.”

    But since categorizing is de rigueur, here’s a suggestion, Marie. Since your novel has “The Binding” in the title, maybe you could tweak the categories a bit and cash in on the Fifty Shades wave. Perhpas readers would look for the BDSM elements long enough to discover they actually liked something well-written.

  2. Heh, I did worry about the title a bit in that way, but it fits the story so well that I went with it. Maybe that was a mistake?

    I think the genre problem has loosened up with the advent of Amazon. At least one can include two categories and six tags, instead of having to narrow the label down to a subcategory. If your book is doing well at Amazon, they’ll add categories of their own in order to reach a broader readership.

    With hundreds of thousands of books available, I admit I like to have some way to narrow the field a bit when I’m trying to buy a book.

  3. Jaye says:

    That was a great round table discussion, Marie. Horror is probably the one genre with the hardest of hardcore fans and the greatest number of people who say, “Oh! I never read horror.” I imagine the best “marketing” ploy would be, if the story is pure horror, no doubt about it, sell it as horror. But if it has elements of other genres, call it fantasy and broaden the base. The horror fans will still find it, and those who “never read horror” might find it, too, and enjoy it.

    • Yes, this is a good approach. Though I have “horror” as one of my tags at Amazon, mostly to let potential readers know this is not a paranormal romance type of urban fantasy.

      I do think there are more horror fans out there than the publishing industry realizes. And there are more people who would like the non-slasher variety of horror, if they knew it existed. Maybe the indie movement can broaden the public’s current definition of horror and rejuvenate the genre.

  4. This is wonderful wrap up to the round table discussion. I like that you revisited your original definition and expanded it. The purpose of discussion, after all, is to consider new arguments and be open to a change in opinion.

    I read that same HWA article! There was a bit of time where I was calling my book a supernatural thriller. One day, I just decided that people who are of the “I never read Horror” mindset will never, ever enjoy my book. There is nothing wrong with that; my own Mom can’t read it because of the dark themes. This goes back to Paul’s point that as long as categories are used to sell books, we should try to least mislead readers.I hadn’t considered it exactly that way, but I did end up deciding to call Stolen Climates Horror. I don’t worry about losing readers by calling my book Horror nearly as much as I worried about attracting the wrong kind of readers, ones who would not enjoy my book, by calling it a supernatural thriller.

    I, too, wish we didn’t have to use categories. Someone commented on one of the other @TESSpecFic posts that it would be nice if Amazon had a Experimental section. Then all of us with bad cases of genre bleed could hang out there and readers would know where to find us.

  5. But then you’d get debates and flame wars over what is “experimental” and what is variant on genre. Of course, flame wars can raise your profile….

    Your Stolen Climates is definitely horror, but it also crosses over into urban fantasy (or mythic fiction, which I think is more literary).

  6. RobynC says:

    You hand me a Horror novel and LIE about it, and I will LIE about enjoying it, even if I Did. Then I’d give you a poorly-reviewed bodice-ripper for Christmas. 😛

    just Please don’t do that cuz I’m a horrible liar. really.

    ANYway. if you DID try that, risking the ruinage of your remarkable record of recommendations, all it would really take is overlappage with those genres I feel so comfortable that I can peer over the edge into that genre that I am Not comfortable, feeling my foothold is secure. Then the question becomes if you mix Horror and, say; Fantasy; is it still Horror? Or does it become something else? Is that what “Dark Fantasy” is, or does Horror by whatever evolving definition you wish to provide require a foothold in current or at least believable reality in order to bring the reader into an empathetic bond with the characters?

    Is Horror unique in some way as a genre?

    • Heh. You are asking the questions we’ve been wrestling with for the last week. Actually, that was the real point of that fantasy chart I drew a while back in the discoverability post. It’s sometimes difficult to separate the genres.

      I would say there are some main genres under which we try to create subgenres to label our fiction.The subgenres may (and probably do) reflect relationships with other major genres. So a writer (or publisher) should decide what main genre the story fits under, and then use subcategories to reflect related genres.

      Horror is a main genre. Fantasy is another. Whether dark fantasy falls under horror or fantasy depends on the audience you are trying to reach and how you define horror. By my definition of horror, Valknut: the Binding is an urban fantasy with horror elements (i.e. dark urban fantasy). Aniko Carmean’s book, Stolen Climates, is horror with urban fantasy elements (maybe urban fantasy horror). Paul Dail’s The Imaginings is supernatural horror, or maybe paranormal horror.

      And I would not lie to you, Robyn. I’d merely find some horror novel I think you’d like and suggest you read it. We rarely discuss genre, right? (Until now, anyway.)

  7. RobynC says:

    It’s true, we don’t. Because when someone I trust and who knows me recommends a book, it doesn’t really Matter what the genre is. If You feel strongly that I’d like a story even if it falls under “Horror”; then I’d give it a shot. There’s maybe a half-dozen people that I feel that way about; and it doesn’t matter how many 5-star ‘ratings’ a story gets from strangers if one of my ‘trusted circle’ says it’s not worth my time, it won’t go on my to-read list.

    So genre really comes into the question when a person is browsing, right? I hardly remember the last time I DID that.

    • Exactly. Genre only matters for people who don’t have a particular book or author in mind when they are shopping. I suspect most people base their purchase decisions on word of mouth, reviews, or maybe “People who bought this book also bought…”

  8. Great post, Marie. Some things new now that I have to read!!

  9. Paul D. Dail says:

    Great wrap up. And interesting article from HWA. I’ll have to go and check out the whole thing. This was definitely an enjoyable round table. Remember at the beginning when we were talking about just doing one with the two of us? I think that was back in December. I like what we’ve done here much better. Great group. Great discussion. Great wrap-up (even if we haven’t really decided on any answers :))

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  10. I agree, Paul. It was enlightening and amusing to read all the different perspectives and comments.

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