On Horror, Fear and Being Afraid

I spent last Thursday in an animal hospital. The waiting room of which is surprisingly similar to a human emergency room, with triage meeting those coming in the door and people with lost expressions sitting, waiting. Waiting.

Too much waiting.

I was waiting. Waiting for the doctor to come out with the results of tests and imaging, to hear what she had to say about my puppy. He’s had a fever for two weeks at this point, and his regular vet is out of ideas.

I’d been waiting for a while when she comes out to see me. I’m 3/4 the way through my book, down to 20% on my phone, praying the litany against fear and have been doing my best to be stoic. When she sits, I pray it is something we can treat. Something we can literally throw money at to fix, because at this moment I will empty my bank account, I will throw card after card down if it will make him ok. I will say ‘yes’ to whatever Doc says needs to happen next to make him better.

Because I am afraid.

Really and truly afraid.

Horror is a genre of fear. Doug Winter famously said “Horror is not a genre, it is an emotion.”

H.P. Lovecraft talks about fear of the unknown being the greatest of fears. Stephen King talks about the three kinds of horror: gross out, horror and terror.

But in the end, they are all talking about the boogeyman. The monster under your bed. The noise in the darkness.

They are not talking about this fear I have now. It is too ordinary, too mundane, to be called horror. A story about a man waiting for the doctor to come out to give a prognosis on a dog would be rejected by horror magazines. Instead we would label it “drama” or “literary fiction,” perhaps “tragedy” depending on the outcome.

Because horror doesn’t want this fear, even though it is real. This is not what horror is trying to invoke. It is not fear of losing your job or home. It is not the fear of a car crash. It is not 10 days of insulin and 14 days until you get paid.

It is not the fear of a puppy with a fever and no answers.

Fear in horror assumes that these fears, these real fears, are things we all have, and so it demands something grander, larger. It can’t be a broken pipe in the basement that will force you to chose between repairs and groceries. It is the fear that the sound in the basement was something darker than that, a daemon, a monster, something that would invoke a fear greater than a real fear.

Because horror may be an emotion, but it is not just an emotion. How we arrive at that fear is just as much a part of what it means to be horror as the fear itself. The fear I felt, feel, about my dog is real. It is not the fear I try to invoke in horror. It is not the fear that horror tries to invoke in any of us. It is not the kind of fear that horror readers and viewers want. These fears, these events retold do not turn into horror stories.

This is not to say horror strays from the mundane. Horror is, more than almost any other genre, a contemporary genre, dealing with the here and now. Horror is for the most part about normal people with normal lives doing extraordinary things in the face of their fears.

Could you have a historical horror story with kings and queens? Politics and witches and ghosts? Sure. They are called *Hamlet* and *MacBeth.* But they are the exception.

So we fall into metaphor. Afraid of capitalism? you mean zombies! Fascists? Alien invasions! Economic uncertainties? Ghosts! and it works because of empathy. Horror relies on empathy, of relating to these characters, to their lives and struggles. It is these normal fears that link us to these extraordinary situations. Without it, without empathy, there is nothing to be afraid of.

When I got home with a bottle of pills, follow on appointments and a worn out corgi I sat on the couch with him next to me and watched a horror movie.

Because a giant shark can be seen. It can be fought. And in the end, no matter the resolution of the story, I can turn it off and banish the monster.

And that is what horror really gives us.

What Is Horror?

What is horror? Most answers will say “horror is fear,” leaving it at that. But it is not that simple. Fear is complex, and so must then be the answer. “I know it when I see it,” works here to some degree. A serial killer movie could be a mystery, or horror. And while the line may be thin between them, we can sense it when we cross it.

The Stakes

What is horror? An emotion–Fear. But what’s horror fiction? We experience fear as a motivator in many stories. There is fear when someone cannot pay the mortgage. There is fear when the doctor has news. There is fear before a big speech. There is fear before asking someone out on a first date.

Most would say that horror has nothing to do with those kinds of fear. This fear, the horror fear, is a fear of loss, death, madness, fear of losing a loved one. This fear has a different kind of stakes, a more base level. This is primitive fear, the kind of fear that takes over the mind, that seizes upon something deeper. This fear is the one that is the base emotion of horror.

The fear of losing one’s home, having family, children, evicted into the street–is there horror there? How do we distinguish the horror from the drama? Does the on-coming blizzard? Does the need for medicine?

When we talk horror we are talking something more than normal fear. More than fear of the average. We have to elevate the situation to lower the fear to this primitive level. But the question is: is this due to the nature of fear? or is this a constraint of the genre? Are we basing our understanding of horror on this fear? or are we limiting our work to artificial constraints of genre?

The Monster

Do you need a monster to have a horror story? There are horror stories where the evil is human–but that is dancing around the question. Do you need a monster to have horror?

Why is The Martian, a story about a man trapped, surrounded by death, not horror, but The Thing with a similar setting is?

Mark Watney’s foe is the environment–this is Robinson Crusoe. Mars is a desert: no water, no food, no resources to get anywhere, no air to breathe. We are at the basic fear level here, and yet. And yet.

It is not merely the fear of death that brings horror.

Do we need a monster? In the sense that we need intent, I think so. Horror needs something more to feed it than simple fear. Something more than high stakes. It needs intent.

Evil? Evil is, perhaps, a lazy way, to describe what horror needs. No doubt there may be counter examples, but for now, evil it is.


There is another side to “monster,” linked to both “monster” and “stakes”–power. Our monster cannot simple be monstrous, it must also possess the necessary ability to cause harm.

Two stories, both with a dog with rabies, threatening a child, parent present: Cujo and To Kill A Mockingbird. In Mockingbird, the dog, Old Tim Johnson, gets rabies, and Atticus has to shoot him. There is tension in the scene, but it lacks any horror, especially compared to Cujo.

Both dogs are deadly to humans: any bite will pass on rabies which is deadly, even if the bite itself is not. But Cujo has something Old Tim Johnson doesn’t: power. Cujo is bigger, stronger, and now with the madness of rabies is dangerous.

In this example, most of this is in the narrative for sure. Both dogs are deadly in real life, but it is a good example to work with.

The Monster

Zombie movies offer a large variety of stories, but usually we have a group of survivors and a much large group of zombies. How is a zombie horde different from an orc army? How is a zombie infested world different from Mars? The outcome is the same, death in the environment, lack of supplies, food, etc.

Zombie in a single word, describes the dangers outside. They represent “monster”, unlike the orc army, which, despite monstrous properties, is described as “enemy.” In horror, while there are enemies and friends, the evil is a monster. In fantasy, while there can be monsters, the evil is an enemy.

The Evil

So how do we separate horror from fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings? Sauron is the image of evil, raising an army of monsters to destroy the world. He has the intent. We have fear. Our stakes are high, and I will reject the notion that the setting itself is a defining feature. So what differentiates The Lord of the Rings from horror?

Is it number? Can we have an army in a horror story? Is it the kind of people in the story? They are important, leaders, kings, they are special. Horror tends to be about normal people–but that is not a requirement.

The Nazgul hunting Frodo has every trapping of a horror story: a person hiding from impossibly strong creatures of evil. They are hunting him, not lashing out at random, like an orc army might. All of the things are there. This is a horror story trapped in the larger narrative of a fantasy epic.


There is something else as well. As evil as Sauron is, his presence in Middle Earth is normal. Horror brings something abnormal into the world of the story. That abnormality is part of what makes is horror–the “not right” is crucial component to this primitive fear. The fear of not just stakes, but of ‘wrong.’

And yes, I rejected the setting earlier–but that was in the sense that Middle Earth is a fantasy world. The fantasy setting in of itself is not enough to dismiss horror.

These components all come together to make horror. Fear is the basis, but not just any fear, fear of the wrong. We need to have high stakes, but–and this is important–this does not mean death. Stakes can be lower and horror still exist. We need a monster: with power and intent.

And there is one final piece to the puzzle–hope.


In many ways hope is a part of fear. They work together in the story. Hope is an amplification of fear. But they are not opposites, nor do they cancel each other out. Instead they each play a role balancing each other out.

An example against this is Hostel. In an attempt to ramp up the tension, we see several people killed, horrifically, but in a situation where there is no change to escape. There is no hope.

Torture and death without hope is tragic. It is grotesque. It is revolting. It is not horror.

There is no fear in an inevitable situation–the outcome is known. It is not until later when there is a real possibility for escape, that we have fear. The chase, being one of the dances between hope and fear, best conveys how this works.

This hope of escape, paired with the fear of being caught provides the tension. We are gripped in the horror, held firm in fear by our hope.

Hope’s dance can be a burst, like the chase. It can also be a slow release. Hope, held high at the start of our story, dwindling over time. Slowly we have replaced one with the other. This descent into hopelessness brings with it. We are holding onto hope, not realizing there was a leak in the container, not until we need it. Only then we discover how little was left. What do we do in these moments?

The Story

We are going to take all of these components to make horror: fear, stakes, a wrong monster with evil and intent, and enough hope to hold it together to create our story. Here is the foundation we will build from to find the horror.

Defoe, a literary Detective Tale

While I don’t don a smoking jacket and puff a pipe while I tell you this, I do have a certain feeling of gratification on my findings in this literary mystery.

In the third issue of LampLight, JF Gonzalez talked in his “Shadows in the Attic” article called about a story by Daniel Defoe “The Ghost in All The Rooms.” As someone who usually takes JFG’s recommendations to heart, I went looking for this story.

And looking, and looking.

After much searching I found several collections that purported to be a ‘complete’ collection of Defoe’s work, and yet… nothing.

The Googles were not helping either, as they returned nothing on the matter.I collected as many editions of Defoe’s works I could find, reading through the table of contents of dozens of PDF files from Gutenberg, Google Books, even a site that had the complete collection online.

Finally, I found out that it was in two anthologies, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories and The Anthology of Ghost Stories both edited by Richard Dalby. Naturally, both are out of print, but The Anthology of Ghost Stories was on Amazon, so I grabbed a used copy and awaited for the final clue to show up.

I had two opinions at this point: either Dalby renamed one of Defoe’s work to “The Ghost In All The Rooms,” or it was an excerpt from a larger work (which didn’t have the phrase “the ghost in all the rooms” in it).

I suppose there was a third option, that this piece was not by Defoe at all, and perhaps had been mistakenly attributed somewhere in the centuries since his death, but that seemed a bit too out there. I didn’t think this detective story would be that dramatic.

A few days later, the book arrived, the packaging ripped off, I made a brief stop at the TOC before heading to page 191 to see the story, “The Ghost in All the Rooms.” After reading, I went back to the Googles to see what I could find out.

The answer was option 2. “The Ghost In All The Room” is an excerpt from his multi-year investigation on ghosts entitled The History and Reality of Apparitions. Indeed, it is pulled straight from the text- the text not offering any break or pause to segregate it. I am not sure if Dalby himself made the split and title, or if this was a traditional excerpt from the longer work. Should I find out, I’ll update.

For those of you familiar, Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. He also wrote a sequel to it, and a history of pirates. It is worthy of note that in this case, while “The Ghost in All the Rooms” is a ghost story, for Defoe it was non-fiction. This is an account of the supernatural, or at the very least, presented as such.

The more you know…