What is horror? What makes it different from other kinds of speculative fiction?
Louise Ross, Just-Us League Writer
Last month, we compared fantasy, science fiction, horror, and paranormal. Today, guest writer Louise Ross will give us a deeper look at Horror.
What is Horror?
In its essence, horror draws on the things we fear, whether that is the masked slasher or the dark hallway. It’s generally defined as speculative fiction, but it does not require a supernatural or fantasy element. Consider Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Tell-Tale Heart which includes nothing extraordinary other than one man’s wild imagination, first about his neighbor’s eye and then about his heart.
It’s a genre, I promise!
Horror can be hard to define sometimes because it is often used as a story element. For instance, last week, I read a romance story. In the story, the male lead character paced in a hospital waiting room, ruminating on the horrible things that could be happening, as the female lead character gave birth during a high-risk pregnancy. The scene played on fear, guilt, and dread. These are part of the same emotions the horror genre pulls on.
The difference between horror as an element and horror as a genre comes from the overall novel. Sometimes a horror novel is defined by facing and overcoming a fear like Harker facing Dracula. Other times, a novel is horror because the main plot device is horror such as Silence of the Lambs which is a mystery told through action and terror.
Horror has been around since the earliest of the plays and can be seen in early adaptations of spoken stories (afterall scarring your friends around a campfire has a long tradition, and fear can be a useful teaching tool). Some of the earliest horror stories are those that involve death, such as ghosts and empty tombs. As an example, consider the storied of death who comes to town spreading plagues or appearing like a skeleton.
Early horror themes also include persecution. In 300-1300 AD, stories which accused individuals of satanism appear, and by 1500-1700 witch stories are so commonly told and believed that there are waves of witch trials and witch burnings.
Our fascination of monsters is not new either. The Greek and Roman myths are full of grotesque beasts which threaten man and the werewolf legends trace back further than Dracula.
A shift in the genre
Around the 18th century, horror shifts. The stories become less about a frightening creature and more about the character’s reactions to the creature. This is the gothic era of horror, which typically featured women trapped in frightening castles.
By the 19th century, the most famous horror authors are creating haunting tales of psychological terror and gruesome monsters that have become icons today. These authors include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kafka, H.G. Lovecraft, Goethe, and the Brothers Grimm.
By the 20th century, horror developed based upon the changing communication technology: mass distribution, radio, and film. This included news based horror such as the sensationalized serial killers like Jack the Ripper, dime store and pulp horror stories, radio broadcasts such as the infamous War of the Worlds, and film from the slashers to The Shining.
Why we read or write Horror
Fear is a basic human instinct. It can be learned, such as stranger danger; experienced personally, such as the pain of touching a hot stove; or imagined, like the monster under the bed.
Fear tends to create a survival instinct, typically fight, flight or freeze. It heightens our awareness and kick starts adrenaline. These are strong reactions and can be exciting. A word of caution though, fear is only exciting because of the release and resolution. While confronted with the serial killer or the slavering werewolf, fear can be useful or hindering, but once the serial killer or werewolf have passed by, that’s when the excitement and overwhelming emotion become energizing to most people. Therefore in writing or reading horror, it is the moment of relief or the resolution that becomes the factor which determines the story’s effect.
Where is Horror going today?
The current trend in horror is toward blending horror with other genres. Horror romance, horror erotica, dark fantasy, and dark humor are all current genres. In my opinion, anytime there is a development toward blending genres, we also see a movement toward the purist genre as well.
Horror is a genre built off our basic emotional instincts and will adapt overtime.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guest blog post from one of our friends at Just-Us League Writers. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or on her website. You can also find her latest short story, a fairy tale retelling of Goldilocks in a Just-Us League anthology, A Bit of Magic: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings.
Writing from the greater Kansas City area, Louise Ross escapes into writing after her full time career. She aspires to be happy and healthy, and when given the chance, she enjoys writing about everyday people living in fantasy worlds.
Readers aren’t likely to find high court fae or princesses in her work. Outside of writing, Louise quilts, plays computer games, and works; her least favorite thing to do is clean the toilet. Some of her short stories can be found in the Just-Us League anthologies and on her blog.
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