The Horror! The Horror!
So last week I promised a post about the nature of horror; I am here, now, to fulfill that promise (be still, I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath).
Over the years of watching and loving horror, and the two years of occasionally trying to write it, I think I have gleaned a few things that may be of marginal use to writers, and now, with no provocation whatsoever, I will talk about them. Lucky you.
In my mind, there are really two separate genres hidden in what we call “horror”: True Horror, or that which in reality horrifies us, and what I call terror, which just aims to scare the beejesus out of us by eliciting a visceral reaction, frequently a startle reaction. Thus, we may not find the idea of killer sheep to be particularly horrifying, because it is stupid, but when one bursts through the barn door during a quiet moment, we’ll jump and bleet for someone to come save us.
Most run-of-the-mill horror movies fall into the latter category. Most quality written horror falls into the former. The main reason for this, I suspect, is that the first of the three main terror conventions, the Startle (i.e., “BOO!”), simply doesn’t play as well on the page as it does on the screen. Startle is the heart of terror, and it just doesn’t work as well written out.
That’s not to say we can’t choose to write terror stories, because we can. But the thing about terror stories is that they may make you jump, which everyone loves, but they rarely stick with you the way a good horror story, a True Horror story, does. Look at Edgar Allen Poe. The Raven, for example. There is never a second of danger for the main character (or any other one, because there really aren’t any other ones). You never fear for his life. His danger is entirely spiritual, and the horror, the real horror, is that he is locked in an internal prison of despair over his lost love, despair that he can never escape. The horror is that those evil feelings, the turbulent, painful feelings that come when something truly awful happens in life, will never go away. And the thing is, it’s a universal horror. Who hasn’t been in that bad place and thought “there will never be light again?” (I mean come on, most of us were teenagers at some point). That’s horror.
Another quick example, a modern one. Look over at Kurt Dinan’s piece “Longtime Gone” in the latest issue of Chizine (Go ahead, read it now. It’s a good magazine, you should be reading it anyway). I won’t spoil the whole thing, but the horror revolves around the loss of a child and the devastation it wreaks on a man’s psyche. What’s horrific here is that we can all imagine being in this place, even if we don’t have children. The character’s degeneration is realistic, his fate, unspeakable but understandable (on the other side of the point, I found the character’s final placement was not completely in line with his natural progression, that it was actually a bit of a jump, and that kind of dulled the horror for me).
Thus, once more, the Horror is that we are attacked on an emotional, personal level, not purely a physical one. Our view of our very selves is challenged. Another, similar, method is to attack the characters’ worldview (and by that I mean the readers’ worldview). Take Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. What’s left of our vision of how the universe works when the dead walk, en masse? The real horror of Romero’s vision (poorly metamorphosed over time, I’m afraid) is that the zombies are soulless. They give us the world-shattering fact of un-death without the comfortable explanation of some kind of afterlife. They are crawling nihilism. And that challenge to how we see the universe becomes a challenge to how we view ourselves within it.
The point is, horror is “scary” in a psychological and emotional way. Terror is scary in the normal, fear/panic inducing way. The twain often shall (and should) meet: see Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, for example, or Stephen King’s The Raft, in both of which the horror is augmented by the terror, the fear of physical harm. But what really lasts, what makes the stories truly stand out, is the part that touches us deep, that leaves the characters’ very selves in tatters. Aim to disrupt the reader’s worldview, target their emotions, and you’ll make a story truly worthy of the title Horror.