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…

Some Short Fiction

I saw this article on NPR about ‘hint fiction’


Really, Really short stories. Reminded me of Necon books flash fiction (http://www.neconebooks.com/flash.htm) which I have submitted a few things to.

Long fiction has its own set of difficulties. Personally, I have been most successful with a standard short story length to work with, especially in the realm of horror. In horror where mood and atmosphere are so important it is easy for a long work to turn into more action/horror or mystery/horror.

Short, short fiction has a completely different set of issues. How do you convey plot, characterization or even setting in less than 100 words? How do you tell something in less than 140 characters? It is hard, and yet easy too. We already tell these stories to each other as we talk.

I have found it an interesting format to play with, and while none of my stories have been accepted at Necon Books yet, I thought I’d post them anyway. These are 100 words or less, so slightly longer than the ones in the NPR post.


He knelt down in front of me, running the edge of the short curved blade over my cheek. The blade had been coated in rust, but a recent sharpening had created a silver edge.
“This is going to hurt,” he said, looking in my eyes.
“You have no idea,” I replied, the bindings on my left hand finally becoming loose enough to slip off.

Father Knows Best

My son stood in his underwear in the center of the dining room. He held a long kitchen knife in both hands near his face and was slowly running his tongue along it.
Crimson covered the blade, his face and body, and splotches could be seen throughout the room.
“How many times,” I started, in my stern father voice pointing one finger at him, “do I have to tell you? This is not what it means to ‘have a friend over for dinner’?”

Trick or Treat

Her high heals made a clicking sound that echoed off the buildings in the alleyway.
“Happy Halloween,” he said.
She turned.
“Are you following me?” She asked. He did not answer.
“Trick or treat,” he asked.
“Trick,” she said, smiling, pulling out a concealed blade and stabbing it deep into his ribcage.
“I was thinking treat,” he replied, grabbing her shoulders and sinking his fangs into her neck.