It’s Friday the 13th, and as such, our minds automatically turn toward horror, even if it’s January, not October.
Horror has made great leaps and bounds as a genre, coming from a relatively obscure, often maligned genre, into being mainstream literature. It’s a wonderful thing. Horror is too much a part of the human experience not to be at least some part of a reader’s world.
As a horror enthusiast, both as a reader and as a writer, I’ve often contemplated what really makes a horror story scary. What is it about a story – and it doesn’t really have to be horror at all – that keeps us up at night and makes us want to leave the light on after dark? Why is it that some stories frighten the hell out of us and other similar ones just don’t? I think it’s several things, but first, let’s take a look at just what horror is, both as a genre, and as an emotion.
There are a lot of sub-genres that belong to horror, even if horror itself is a sub-genre of the broader genre of speculative fiction. I’ll leave the actual categorization to the experts in the field, but obviously enough hack and slash gore is very different from dark suspense or the supernatural or occult. Each type of horror affects us differently, which I’ll get into a little later on.
Horror as a genre is still debated in some circles today, even if it has ties dating to eighteenth century Gothic horror tales written by such authors as Anne Radcliffe. Some say it’s simply an emotion, and that all such fiction could be placed in a different genre. They propose that simply being a scary story isn’t enough to create a separate genre. Debate aside, it’s hard to argue that a story shouldn’t be categorized as “horror” if its entire purpose is to scare the reader and induce feelings of horror. After all, what would Stephen King’s Carrie be without the elements of horror? As I wrote about recently on my blog, without those elements, it’s nothing more than a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl. I can’t see it sitting on the shelf next to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and you probably can’t either.
H.P. Lovecraft once said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The unknown is one of the greatest elements of horror fiction. We fear that which we do not know. It’s ingrained in us; it’s in part what makes us human. And while every story tries to keep the ending a secret, horror stories remind us that we’re scared of the unknown, and then proceed to show us exactly why. A mask, a ghost, a shadow, a nameless or faceless evil – these are all aspects of this fear of the unknown, often used in horror, to provoke a particular response.
We also fear personal harm and loss, both to ourselves, and to those we love. The fear of personal injury, or pain, or even death is real and palpable, and most of us at some point in our lives have experienced at least some of this fear. This is what makes the hack and slash style stories frightful. Empathizing with the pain or trauma the characters endure helps us to feel the emotions of the story more strongly and vividly.
One of the greatest horrors we face is far more subtle than the others, but no less horrifying – the horror of the human soul. What do our loved ones really think of us? What lengths would someone go to get what they want or need? What depraved depths could someone sink to? There is a whole lot of evil out there, evil which is really horrifying if you stop to see what’s really at the heart of something. Cruelty, perversion, avarice, neglect, and a host of other baser human characteristics are a part of reality, and the more they become a part of the equation, the more horror they add to it.
This is the horror that’s the worst, and the one that’s often most overlooked. It’s easy to shock and scare an audience with Jason Voorhees and his knife, hidden behind an old fashioned hockey mask. That’s an example that uses both the first two types of horror quite well. It’s harder to show this third type of horror because this type of horror subtle. It’s the thoughts behind a sometimes seemingly innocuous action. It’s often what a person doesn’t say or do, rather than what they do. French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal once said, “Few friendships would survive if each one knew what his friend says of him behind his back.” Aristotle said, “Misfortune shows those who are not really friends.” Those two statements say a lot about who we are in our baser selves, and are stark reminders that it’s not always better to learn what someone is really thinking.
The next time you watch a horror film or read a horror novel, do yourself a favor and really think about this third type of horror. What base emotions really drive the horror, and what do they really say when you take the time to stop and truly listen to them?
You might be surprised, and horrified beyond your expectations.