On horror

Yesterday’s Booking through Thursday asked how many people read horror, and I was very surprised to see most of the respondents narrowly define horror as gross-out horror. I suppose I shouldn’t have been—this has been a long-standing problem for horror authors, and one which I’ve been quite aware of as a horror writer in the past—but it’s been a long time since I wrote horror and so I’d largely forgotten about the issue.

Horror fiction is any fiction designed to evoke a feeling of horror (i.e. dread, terror, shock, revulsion, loathing, fear). That sounds obvious, yes? And yet apparently it isn’t, if people are narrowly defining horror by its current trend of gross-out examples such as ‘Hostel’ and ‘Saw.’

It becomes more obvious that horror should have a wider definition than buckets of blood if you look back in time a bit. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is a very famous horror movie/book, and yet there’s no blood. It’s all psychological horror. Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft are two classic horror writers, and yet they didn’t write gross-out horror. Horror doesn’t require a single drop of literary blood to be shed.

So why the change?

Marketing departments.

No, I’m serious. ‘Horror’ has long been seen as a tiny niche, as a low-brow pursuit of often disturbed minds. In order to give books a potentially wider audience, marketing people have long searched for any means possible to put some word other than horror on the back of a book—‘thriller,’ ‘suspense.’ If it’s a cross-genre work, then it immediately gets filed under its other genre, labeled perhaps ‘dark fantasy’ or just ‘science fiction.’ This is why people have gotten so confused. Any fiction designed to evoke horror is still horror, it’s just that it gets labeled by other names in the hope that it’ll sell better that way. And this works, as evidenced by the number of people I saw yesterday who said, “ew, I hate horror with all its buckets of blood, but I like thrillers, suspense, dark fantasy, etc.” Really what they’re saying here is, “yeah, I like horror, I just don’t like gross-out horror.” They’ve been caught up in an artificial distinction designed to sell more books.

Further confusing things is the fact that any kind of fiction can also be horror fiction, since horror is defined by an evoked emotion rather than by genre tropes or settings. Literary fiction can be horror fiction. Fantasy, romance, SF, mystery… it can all be horror fiction.

The best summation of this is found in Douglas Winter’s immortal words from his 1982 anthology Prime Evil, which I expect to be immediately familiar to nearly every horror author out there:

Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.

Posted in Writing
4 comments on “On horror
  1. That’s a great quote and I do appreciate you taking the time to post about this. It’s easy to get sucked into the marketing labels as I too well know. And I think you put it very well when you said that horror can be found in any book category really. I find that to be true with other types of books to.

    I use labels for my own books as descriptors and for my own personal use in seeing reading patterns and such, but it is very loose. And the definitions sometimes can be very fluid–or at least which books they put in what category, anyway. The definitions themselves don’t really change so much, I suppose. Sometimes I come across a book and just don’t know what to label it. I usually end up going for the marketing label, but not always. I’ve thought about just denoting whether a book is fiction or nonfiction and leaving it at that.

    Based on the definition of horror you have given above, that opens the field quite a bit, not to mention what it means to an individual reader. What constitutes horror to me, might not be the same for you. It makes for an interesting discussion! 🙂

  2. Aaron says:

    In my college Gothic Fiction class, my teacher made a distinction between horror and terror (only because that distinction existed back in the Victorian era). If I remember right, “horror” was when the character runs away screaming, while “terror” was when the character is immobilized/incapacitated by fear.

    Horror is probably associated with blood and guts more because of the film industry’s long history of B-grade slashers and monster movies than because of the recent fascination with masochism. I love good horror flicks, but the crap-to-gold ratio seems worse for the horror genre than almost any other. The motion picture industry (films and TV) has a greater impact on our culture than literature, so how we define literature is determined largely by the other industry.

    Personally, I like both Hitchcock-style suspense and open-action monster tales, but the best horror is usually found in older literature. I have a collection of Victorian and Eduardian ghost stories which has some good, creepy tales. They wrote better horror than modern writers partially because most modern writers (and some modern audiences) don’t believe evil is real in the way people used to. The Exorcist scares the hell out of Catholics because we believe possessions and exorcisms are real. But when a story tries to explain that the murderer was beaten and abandoned as a child, and there is no real hero (because modern writers hate heroes… anti-heroes are the style), then the appeal to fear becomes muddled in a pool of sympathetic affections. Complex, rounded characters can be great; but they’re not great automatically, and somemtimes they’re out-of-place.

  3. gautami says:

    Horror for is more of the mind thing. The evil that is withn man. Not the gross stuff they peddle in most books. I truly get bored by reading those.

  4. heather says:

    Feline: Labels definitely have a use, like you say. They help us find the particular types of books that appeal to us—like thriller vs. gross-out. Unfortunately it’s the fact that the labels really do mean different things to different people, and are driven more by market needs in many cases than by an actual useful set of delineations, that causes confusion for readers, IMO.

    Aaron: I hadn’t heard of that distinction before; fascinating! Sounds like an interesting teacher. You have good points about the movie & TV impact on things, too. I’d love to read an informed take on why TV & movies seem to focus more on gore than on chillers & thrillers. (Although that said, there are definitely some good thrillers & chillers out there.)

    I love a wide variety of horror, but I do like a lot of the old stuff. It tends to be very atmospheric.

    gautami: I do prefer psychological horror to gross-out horror. It just has more impact.

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