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.