What Is Horror?

As a self proclaimed lover of horror, I’ve often wondered what defines horror as a genre? Is it the monsters hiding under the bed? Is it the thought of torture at the hands of a madman? Is it our imaginations when we hear bumps in the night? Is it a haunted house? Or, maybe, it’s all these things and more.

Let’s take a look at the definition of the word “horror” as provided by Dictionary.com.

Horror

1. an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear: to shrink back from a mutilated corpse in horror.

8. centered upon or depicting terrifying or macabre events: a horror movie.

The same word pops up twice in the definition: fear. Is horror only fear? I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. I also don’t think we can come up with a concrete definition of horror as a genre. We can have a generalized definition, one that any person can relate as being “horror.” It is my belief that each person will be scared by different things, thus preventing a more finely tuned definition of what horror is. Likewise, each person will have a different idea of what makes for good horror versus bad horror.

Each person is different. We’ve all lived different lives and experienced different things. No two people walking the planet are exactly the same. Because of this, no two people will react to perceived fears in the same way. Nor will the same thing scare each person in the exact same way. A mother will be more frightened of a missing child than a single, party loving college student. Someone who believes in ghosts will be more open to ghostly scares than a non-believer. And I could on and on. You get the point.

To loosely define horror as genre, we can say: an intense reaction to something which causes fear. I think we can all agree that a catalyst is needed to stir up those feelings of fear. What causes those same fears is debatable. Ask ten people what scares them and you’ll likely get ten different answers. We can also agree that without a catalyst, horror doesn’t work.

This is where individual fears come into play, especially for a person like me who writes horror. I can’t read anyone’s mind. I’ll never know for sure what scares each reader. Nor should I. All I can do is try and write scenes providing situations which may cause fear. If I write the scene well, more readers will have a reaction than won’t. Realistically, I understand that I won’t scare every reader all the time. It’s impossible.

I personally love that each of us is scared by different things. It means there’s room for so many different kinds of horror. As a writer, it keeps things fresh. I can write about different subjects and not feel burned out. Readers can find a vast multitude of different subjects to feast their eyes on. In the mood for a good slasher book where people get chopped into bits? You can find one. Want something a bit more subtle, like a gothic ghost story? Yep, horror has that too. If your mind can cook up the twisted idea, it can be written. Beautiful, right?

This is also why I won’t ever discount any particular subject as not being horror enough. Fairy tales at their core are horror, yet most people probably don’t think of them that way. I also won’t discount something as being too gross for horror. Too often I hear folks complain about too much blood and guts (gore) in horror. If utilized in an intelligent way, gore adds plenty to horror as a genre. I recently wrote a short story where parasites invade people’s brains. The brains that were incompatible with the parasites exploded. Needless to say, I incorporated some gore into the story because, in my opinion, it called for it. It’s kind of hard to have a head explode without some kind of gore. One person’s scare can be another’s gross out. We’re all allowed to make those choices.

Horror, like most everything else, is subjective. What causes those feelings of horror are unique to each individual person. Get a gaggle of horror fans together and watch how they react to scares in movies. Not everyone will be affected by the same things, but most of the time others will play along. That’s when you’ll see the best of the horror community.

I know I love horror as a genre. It’s clear that many of you do too. As long as there are people like us around, horror, in whatever shape or form, will always stay relevant. That, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

What scares you? How would you define horror? Let us know in the comments below.

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5 comments

  1. A subject near and dear to my heart. 🙂 I agree with you on almost all of this! I think the only part I’d argue is that we can’t define horror in a concrete way. I think fear defines it pretty darn well! You’re totally right that different people are scared by different things, of course, but I think 99% of the time we know when something is *trying* to be scary even if it doesn’t work for us. I think of it as comparable to romance as a genre. Just because I don’t buy into the love story doesn’t mean I can’t see it’s intended to be one, you know? So I’d say horror is defined by an attempt at fear, and that personal preference plays a large part in the success of each story. Nice post, Brian!

    1. Yeah, I love talking horror too. There are so many different aspects that we could probably talk for days. Love hearing a multitude of diverse opinions. Your thoughts, as always, are much appreciated.

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