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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.