The Horror!

(This post was originally posted over at IndieHorror.org, but hey, it’s the last week of Maymester and I am neck-deep in sentence diagrams… so cut me some slack.)

When someone asks me, ‘What is horror?’ The first thing I think of is:

ch-ch-ch ah-ah-ah

That’s the sound of horror, right? That’s what horror is, a mad man coming towards you with a knife, ready to cut out your lung and wear it as a hat as he kills all of your teenaged friends, right?

Should have stopped smoking. Tsk, tsk.

But is that all horror is? At the first mention of horror most of the general public begin to think of Halloween, Saw, Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Stephen King, Edward Levy etc. For most people horror = people (usually teens) being killed in gruesome and bloody ways. The focus falls squarely onto the amount of carnage in the movie. I once had a friend who rated horror movies by a guesstimation of gallons of fake blood used (Man, that one sucks. It’s a 20 gallon-er)

Up until last year I was among those people who saw horror as blood and guts and little more. I enjoyed horror movies, and Stephen King novels. I actually wrote a paper about the female heroines (Final Girl) for a research paper for class, but I have a confession.

I hate gore.

There, I said it. Go on and judge me.

Done judging? Okay, awesome!

I have never considered myself a horror writer, mostly because I hate labels. I am a writer, and I write different things every day.  Most of my work is on the darker side of the scale and I do slip into more macabre places. However, while in college I thought of writing in only terms of literary = good, genre = bad so I was devestated when a professor of mine told me my short story Parasthesia was ‘horror genre crap.’ Ouch.

I scuttled away to lick my wounds, decided to say screw you and went on to get that short story published. Yeah, take that Mr. Fee (fake name alert!) But I kept thinking about his words, about calling my work nothing but horror crap. That wasn’t true of me, my work or of horror at all!

It finally came time for me to graduate I had to present a reading sample of my work, (which already was causing issue since I refused to do JUST poetry or fiction and had a frankenstein mix of poems, essays and short stories) I was happy when my advisor, (the lovely Laura) called me the ‘little melting cauldron of the department of english.’That was a title I could get behind.

I did my reading, avoided passing out, and sat back down to await the truely evil finale. We would be asked to defend out work from questions from professors. The question I dreaded came first:

You write a lot of… dark… stuff. Why would you say your work is literary, not horror?

I wanted to curl up and hide in the letters of my words and disappear. I wish I could say that I leapt up to defend horror, to yell about how great it was, how much I loved it even if I hate gore, but instead I chickened out.

I explained my work focused more on the people of the story, of what people were capable of. My work was not about blood or body count. It felt like such a lie even as I said it. That was the truth about my work, I was never about body count, but neither is a lot of wonderful horror.

But now when I stop and think back on it. I wish I would have said, “Why do you think horror is crap? Horror is great! Horror’s about all of the things that scare you, that keep you up at night, that make you treasure every moment of being alive. Horror lets you scream and cry and die while still being okay when the ride is all over. Horror is about what people are capable of, both horrible, and noble things.’

Horror is more than what you think, more than you can imagine. Horror is everything that’s lurking all around you, waiting for you to blink to pounce, and remind you that horrible things happen. But, if horror isn’t body counts, and guts on the floor, then what IS horror?

Well, the Horror Writer’s Association says, “Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as “a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay.” It stands to reason then that “horror fiction” is fiction that elicits those emotions in the reader.” This is where the challenge in defining horror comes into play because what’s horror for one person might not be seen that way by someone else. For example, could Harry Potter be a horror work? To my baby niece it is. She is terrified of Voldemort and cries and has nightmares when her mother reads it to her. But it’s not horror to me. What it boils down to is the answer to the question everyone hates: ‘What are you afraid of?’ There is no set answer that everyone is afraid of. That’s what makes horror so hard to define.

So this would be horror for both of us.

Horror is something that evokes emotions in the reader. If that is through ghosts, werewolves, serial killers, the weather, space aliens, zombies, the apocalypse or even an overbearing mother it doesn’t matter. What matters is the emotional reaction from the reader.

The best way to describe horror, I think, is a quote  from Douglas Winter who said, “Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” That is why I think horror is such a challenge to define, because it is about more then a time or a place. Horror can have elves, can be in space, can be in the distant past or future, it can be anything and take place anywhere. That makes a definition challenging to pin down.

That’s horror for me. What is it for you?

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3 Comments »

  1. LauratheWise Said:

    Blech…I almost stopped reading when the author equated Stephen King with mindless gore! :((((

    Also, I’ve never found “horror” to be a “definition challenging to pin down.” Horror is anything written with a purpose of scaring you. That’s a general definition that covers a lot of territory, but it’s a pretty definite definition. Whereas “something that evokes emotion in the reader” can be applied to almost any fiction, anywhere. What *isn’t* horror is a Harry Potter novel that was scary to the baby niece but not to the post writer — while scenes in the HP books are written to be scary, the entire series wasn’t written to be a “horror” series, that is, written with the specific goal of scaring people. It’s the purpose of the writer, not the reaction of the reader, that counts.

    Overall, OK post. However (and this is just my opinion), it smacks of trying to appease literary tastes, defend the author’s own taste, or “excuse” horror by writing a prettier definition of it.

  2. Laura W Said:

    Blech…I almost stopped reading when the author equated Stephen King with mindless gore! :((((

    Also, I’ve never found “horror” to be a “definition challenging to pin down.” Horror is anything written with a purpose of scaring you. That’s a general definition that covers a lot of territory, but it’s a pretty definite definition. Whereas “something that evokes emotion in the reader” can be applied to almost any fiction, anywhere. What *isn’t* horror is a Harry Potter novel that was scary to the baby niece but not to the post writer — while scenes in the HP books are written to be scary, the entire series wasn’t written to be a “horror” series, that is, written with the specific goal of scaring people. It’s the purpose of the writer, not the reaction of the reader, that counts.

    Overall, decent post. However (and this is just my opinion), it smacks of trying to appease literary tastes, defend the author’s own taste, or “excuse” horror by writing a prettier definition of it.

  3. Reanna Said:

    Awesome post! Definitely write what you feel, and don’t worry about the negative comments.


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