It’s a question every author, filmmaker, artisan, etc. has asked themselves while working in the genre: what exactly is horror? What makes people scared and what causes these attempts to fail? Perhaps there’s more than one explanation, and maybe that last question is a little unkind to those properties that fail to freak us out.
Some more academic devotees might suggest that horror is defined by ever-evolving social constructs, and thus the question itself must be adapted to its time and place. For example, while the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his fellow weird fiction authors might have been emotionally draining in their time, their tropes simply don’t comply with modern horror unless heavily modified. You could make the argument that we will always fear the unknown (which is true), but Lovecraft specifically focused on cosmic horror. This grand scale is far more debilitating to a more exclusive and religious mindset, one that can’t contend with the idea of an uncaring universe. Nowadays, that uncaring universe is practically the mainstream.
Now, before you jump down my throat, I appreciate Lovecraft’s stories and unintentional cult following, hence the name of this company. His descriptions of otherworldly landscapes and the mutant inhabitants of small New England towns is marvelous, and filled with inspiration for the modern horror writer. I won’t get into all of the nooks and crannies of his work, as that’s another dozen articles right there, but the point is that while his stories inspire generations and can certainly be adapted into a more modern framework, they are not scaring readers any time soon. I’d go so far as to cast extreme doubt on anyone who says reading Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson, or any of their contemporaries is “scary” or “frightening”. It doesn’t make them bad authors (although you could make an argument that Lovecraft had his, er, quirks), but simply writers of their time. At that time, they were scary, but the culture has changed, as has our taste in horror.
Then there’s the other side, the non-academic, the fanboys and horror nerds who make up the box office for each new Friday the 13th. These are the heart and soul of horror, and frankly they often don’t care if something in the genre is particularly scary. Does it have cool special effects? Does the blood flow like Vegas liquor? Are the characters fun to watch? How about that villain, is he imposing or designed well? These questions don’t rely on or necessarily effect the scariness of a film. Thus, the horror genre does not rely on the scare factor that more academic critics might slam genre fare for not having.
What about other genres? The dramas, romances, and action stories? I may be biased, but it seems like these are genres more constrained by their labeling than horror could ever be. There are those social constructs that bind them to their time, sure, but the absence of their titular elements are far more damning. A romance without romance? Well, it doesn’t really fit, does it? The same goes for action without action, drama without drama, sci-fi without sci-fi, etc. Horror, on the other hand, practically screams for its central tenants to be ripped out and replaced with whatever themes and motifs the artist wishes to explore. This makes horror far more adaptable than other genres, tied possibly with fantasy, with which it so often transcends into.
Stephen King, a great example of a writer who blends horror and fantasy almost seamlessly in books like The Stand and The Dark Tower series, wrote an essay entitled “Why We Crave Horror Movies”, in which he said:
It is true that the mythic “fairy-tale” horror film intends to take away the shades of grey . . . . It urges us to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing things in pure blacks and whites. It may be that horror movies provide psychic relief on this level because this invitation to lapse into simplicity, irrationality and even outright madness is extended so rarely. We are told we may allow our emotions a free rein . . . or no rein at all.
He goes on to say that these films “deliberately [appeal] to all that is worst in us.” He’s not wrong. Horror, unlike any other genre, makes us yearn and grow fond toward paradoxical intentions and emotions. We want to be scared, we want to see pain and violence, we want to see the sluts brutally killed and the scientists driven to madness by what they can’t explain. None of this makes any sense to a sane mind, and yet here we are obsessing over vengeful spirits, mad men with mommy issues, and the fishiest of Deep Ones. Horror provides an outlet for primal emotions.
Back to that original question: what is horror? I hate to be that guy, especially since I posed the question in the first place, but it’s an unfair question. Much like Yog-Sothoth, horror is almost indescribable, and impossible to succinctly define. It adapts to each of our own twisted psyches, giving us as fans exactly what we want. If you just want to get some frustration out by seeing heads beaten in by masked maniacs, then horror can give you that. If you want to deepen your understanding of the modern political climate, there’s plenty of more metaphorical horror to keep you interested.
Heck, who says it has to be modern? Just go watch Dawn of the Dead (1978) to get a taste of 1970s society’s obsession with consumerism, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) for a peak into the horrors of McCarthyism. A college professor could teach an entire course on sociology using just horror movies — actually, knowing modern teaching institutions, it’s probably been done. These films aren’t all that scary anymore, but at the time they were scream-inducing and pants-filling. Now, they are great cinema, having aged out of their status as titans of terror. This doesn’t decrease the quality, just the base emotions they create.
Horror is more than scares. It’s an art form through which we contend with our basest emotions and explore our most complex ideas. It entertains us, educates us, and sometimes even hurts us. It can break you or make you stronger, and it can just as soon inspire you as it can tear down your sense of self. Throughout history, horror has more-or-less kept to this broad spectrum, while snaking in and out of society’s latest fads and climates. Like a Xenomorph working its way through a starship’s crew, it adapts and strengthens itself.
This is why, as time goes on, we shed our previous fears and obsess over new ones. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) falls short (scares-wise) to modern audiences due to its upper crust British tone and epistolary structure. Nosferatu (1922) has some creepy imagery and an enthralling performance by Max Schreck, but as a silent film it only continues to age out of its ability to terrify moviegoers. The same basic issues can be found with the 1931 and 1959 adaptations of Dracula, wherein the time period’s filmmaking style, while entertaining, only hinders the scares.
Fast forward to modern day, where vampire stories like Let the Right One In (2008) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) continue to adapt the vampire mythos while redirecting it into a more modern and therefore palatable structure. No doubt film purists will take umbrage with the idea that these films better their predecessors, but that’s to be expected in any genre.
The same works with literature, music, and other artwork. As time goes on, our sensibilities adapt and we demand new iterations of horror tropes and stories. With romances and dramas, it’s a little easier to accept the genres’ antiquities, as they are far simpler in context. Human drama, while influenced by society and politics, is easy to relate to in pretty much any medium from any generation, with some cultural differences adding exceptions. It’s horror that seems to find endless narrative cracks to fill, always evolving and bettering itself, shedding and cannibalizing its old skin to form anew.
Gosh, look at me, just waxing poetic about the genre I love. It’s sickening. I might as well be making sweet love to Charles Lucia’s face in Society (1989) while asking passers-by if they read Sutter Kane. Could that be what horror really is? A childish fascination that, due to its adult themes, stays with us through our later years? I’m no psychologist, but that seems to be a perfectly good explanation.
Well, at least one of them.