Over the month of October, I’ve been posting daily pictures of masks over on Twitter to celebrate the Halloween season. I have long been obsessed with masks, not only for the aesthetic of a good mask on its own terms, but also the creativity on show within the mask-making medium, the freedom of expression, the symbolism, and the emotions they can evoke – whether a sense of mystery, or an uncanny valley sensibility. You might have guessed then, I’m a pretty big fan of the horror genre, of which masks are a big part.
As it happens though, there’s more to the horror genre than just a mask or two.
In fact, it’s likely the case that horror is the oldest genre of fiction there is. From classical mythology and folklore from all over the world, or telling ghost stories around the campfire all across history, humanity as a species has long been obsessed with storytelling since we learned how to speak, and we started this tradition, this medium, with the most important thing of all… Stories about what scares us.
Creatures in the night. Or perhaps the other kind of abyss – the unknowable depths that follow our own death. Maybe it’s not other kinds of creature but our own fellow people that scares us, and the things they might be capable of. Or maybe it’s a more cosmic, unknowable fear, and the powerful incapability we have that acted as one group’s primary source of fear.
Whatever it might have been from one time or one place to another, horror as a genre of fiction has been rooted in not only storytelling but the human psyche since at least the dawn of history. And it also happens to be my favourite genre of fiction.
Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d write a longer essay than normal and discuss why horror is so great, why it has stuck with us for so long, and other things that simply make me (and probably other horror fans) enjoy it so much.
With all that introduction said, let’s begin…
Part One: The Importance of the Emotional Response
As far as universal truths of good storytelling goes, I believe there is one main pillar that holds up all of the other important aspects of a compelling story. That pillar is of course the emotional response. No matter the genre you’re working in, no matter your focus, no matter your style of writing, the one thing that every storyteller must agree on is that its purpose is to evoke strong feelings within the audience.
When people speak about the stories that matter most to them, the one idea they always come back to is asking which stories most AFFECTED them. Stories are powerful things. They can make us laugh, make us cry, move us to make real changes, inspire all kinds of ideals and motivations within the backs of our minds, and of course… they can terrify us.
In fact, I’d argue that fear is not only our most primal of emotions, it is our strongest as well – very little can influence a person, very little can cement something in your mind, more than the experience of fear.
And it’s this sense of fear that the horror genre is primarily built upon. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think it’s necessary for a horror story to actually evoke fear in the audience. At least, that isn’t necessary for the story to be good. But what is necessary is that the horror story explores a frightening situation or concept, and the way that this affects people. By doing this one thing, the very best horror stories reveal themselves.
Because exploring frightening situations is what makes a good horror story reach into the backs of our minds and genuinely create strong emotional connections, and strong emotional responses. Thus, it more fully invests us in the events taking place within the fiction, and the characters to whom these events take place.
Of course, a good story can affect people in similar ways through plenty of other emotions – for instance tragedy and grief, or a sense of hope and passion. But in my opinion it is fear that most effectively ties a story to its audience, and also ties one audience member to another. Powerful bonds can be created by shared anxieties and shared crises, and perhaps the most important thing is actually how effectively the horror genre can explore such anxieties within a fictional setting. But that’s something I’ll get to a little later on.
Part Two: The Effect of a Darker Tone
Stories can be split up into categories in numerous different ways, but one of the most important is its tone. Of course, it is possible for a horror story to employ a lighter, more carefree and comedic tone, especially if what you’re actually writing is a horror comedy (or comedy horror, depending on who you ask). But I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that most horror writers go headfirst into a darker tone.
In fact, a willingness and desire to explore the macabre is one of the cornerstones of the genre, right back to the time of the Gothic, arguably the most influential time in horror’s history.
Horror fiction is obsessed with death, injury, sickness (both physical and psychological), abuse, oppression, and a whole host of other dark and horrific subject matter. You could even argue that it wouldn’t be a horror story if it didn’t explore at least one of those subjects. It goes a little further than that as well, though. Plenty of genres include death and injury, but aren’t inherently a horror story. Because I think what really identifies a story as horror fiction is just how deeply it dives into this darker subject matter.
A horror writer wouldn’t stop at death – they would really put in the time and effort to think about the dark and despondent depths of death. They wouldn’t stop at injury, they would go into details of those injuries that are impressive and repulsive in equal measure.
I’m not about to argue that a story with a darker tone is inherently better than a story with a lighter tone, but I… Well, actually, I sort of am about to argue that.
Look, lighter toned stories, and even comedic stories, can be great. They can even be deep and meaningful. But in my experience they tend not to be as deep, meaningful and powerful as a story that grabs life by the shoulders and shakes the very literal Hell out of it.
By grasping onto the darker aspects of the real world, the ideas and goings on that people don’t ordinarily want to think about, and placing them into a story that is at its core about scary and upsetting things, you can get at something deeper, and more significant. You can also more effectively evoke those all so important emotional responses.
I really do think that a darker tone allows a writer to bleed something much more powerful out of an already effective story. And in fact, even those deep and meaningful lighter stories I hinted at before tend to be darker and more macabre than most of their peers.
This darker tone goes hand in hand with that focus on exploring fear that I spoke about earlier. And I think both of those form a sort of trinity with horror itself.
Plus, the inherent permission that those of us looking for great horror fiction inevitably must give to a horror writer to go as dark and as macabre and as deep as they want to do, actually allows for greater freedom of expression, and crucially…
Part Three: Unlocking the Importance of Creativity
I’ve made this point in a previous essay and the greatest likelihood is that I will bring it up again and again, but it’s true, alright? Creativity is by far the most important part of a great and memorable piece of fiction. You can screw up in all sorts of ways, but if you have a genuinely original idea and work it into some genuinely unexpected directions, it’s going to have a positive effect.
Is it just me? I mean, it might be. But I think you’ll be able to find a lot of other people who also agree that the most important factor in a valuable work of fiction, in creating something that people respect and enjoy, is producing something imbued with creativity.
(I realise the last two paragraphs seem to contradict an earlier point I made in this essay that emotional responses are the pillar that holds up everything else important in fiction. That point remains true, but if you ask me, one of the main things that can provide that strong emotional response is for the story to be surprising, to do the unexpected. If it helps, imagine that core pillar holding up the important storytelling principles as a twin tree trunk winding around each other – that’s the underlying pillar of good storytelling.)
To go one step further, I would even argue that horror is the most creative genre of fiction. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say, it has a greater scope to allow creativity to flourish out of all of the genres of fiction.
As I alluded to above, this is partly because of the darker tone which itself leads to a greater amount of freedom. There is another factor too. Horror is placed right in the middle of science fiction and fantasy, drawing from the extremes of both other pillars in the grand speculative fiction scheme of things, which in turn allows it to draw from a greater pool of possible influences than either of those two pillars could achieve on their own.
If sci fi and fantasy are a grand spectrum of speculative fiction, it’s sort of like horror is a growth coming out of that spectrum, flourishing like a big plant as it spreads its claws across the spectrum.
Man, that metaphor went all over, didn’t it?
It’s true though.
As much as sci fi and fantasy draw from each other and from horror, it feels to me at least like horror sits outside of the two while drinking readily from both. And that leads to a grander scope of devices and ideas it can include. Furthermore, it can just do its own thing in the realms of the real world if it so desires, foregoing any fantastic or futuristic elements in favour of using very realistic settings and forces to deliver that frightening situation.
Part Four: Real World Relevance in Un-Real Stories
Another really important part of a good story is that it doesn’t just sit in its own bubble, but actually engages with real world issues not just of the present time (which would likely age a story quite badly) but issues that are likely to be relevant well into the future. This is true of all fiction but speculative fiction has the ability to handle these issues in more subtle ways, and thus ways that hold a lot more depth and nuance as a result of their more fictional elements. But either way, using a piece of fiction to ask questions and offer potential answers to real and significant issues is a powerful way of imbuing your story with something much more effective, and much more meaningful.
And what real world issues are more important than the things that scare us?
Since horror is at its core about fear and pain in their purest senses, the horror genre has the unique ability to explore the darkest, cruelest and most detestable aspects of our real world. From cultural and environmental issues like economic crises and extinction, to sociopolitical ones like discrimination and corruption, to more primal concerns like starvation and disease, horror has the ability to explore the things that really get to the deepest recesses of our brains, today, and not hold back when they do so.
Not only that, but by honestly and truly exploring the fears and pains that lie behind our modern society and lives, the genre can really get at the core of such issues, and get us to look at them – directly and openly – rather than dodging the issue as we would do in more normal circumstances. And on top of that, it can get us to look at these issues in brand new ways thanks to the unique ways artists have of depicting issues, and as a result come up with out-of-the-box solutions and developments.
It can go further than that, too. Not only can horror look at the world as it is right now, it can paint terrifying predictions of what the world might look like if it is allowed to progress down one corrupt path here, or if one oppressive decision gets out of control there. In this way it wouldn’t simply explore the things we all know are wrong with the world right this moment, but predict in true pessimistic fashion the sorts of things people have deep-seated anxiety about happening in the future.
Part Five: Characters and Perspectives in the Horror Genre
If emotions and creativity are the most important pillars of a good story, characters are the platform said pillar is holding up. It’s not enough to come up with a situation, or a setting, or even a plotline. The story world has to be populated with characters to whom these plotlines can happen. This means both protagonists and antagonists. Or in other words, someone to root for, and someone to rally against.
Horror, by virtue of putting characters in terrifying, extremely dangerous situations, allows a good writer to dig right into the deepest as well as the most surface level parts of the human mind, to present to us a cast of characters so much deeper, and so much more emotionally tied to us than any other genre.
It also allows writers to produce much more interesting characters because of three things.
Characters are much more invested in their own story and situation.
Characters are capable of going further, being darker.
Characters are significantly less predictable.
(I know, I had to fit in another list of three somewhere in this thing…)
That’s a much less self-explanatory list of three than I usually have, so let’s go into a little more detail with these points.
First one (Characters being much more invested in their own story and situation) comes down to this. Characters in horror are much more invested in their own story and situation because they are in the most extreme danger both physically and emotionally that they can possibly be in. The kind of threats at play in a horror story are much more serious, either because they’re more fatal or, alternatively, because they’re more painful and/or maddening. This affects protagonists because they have a much deeper drive to stay away from the threat, and a much more effective reason to do so. It also means their motivation is higher and so their behaviour and mental state will be in overdrive.
On the antagonist front, they are also more invested because of this same reason. On the one hand, it’s from the other side of the fence – they want to do much worse things and, usually, have much more passion for those things than is rightfully expected of them. Additionally, being found and punished by the authorities is likely to have much greater repercussions than antagonistic actions in other genres because their deeds are so much worse. But it can affect antagonists in much the same way as the protagonist as well because, ultimately, there’s a chance the tables will be turned, and since their actions have been so egregious, their cruelty so vast, well, how would you respond to such an episode? It’s possible the antagonist has no fear of any table-turning, but the possibility of the protagonist enacting revenge in the same manner – possibly even two or three fold – will always be there.
All in all these significantly higher stakes means there is more investment in the story from both the protagonist and the antagonist. This leads to a more fearsome antagonist, a more complex protagonist, and a stronger relationship between the two of them. By extension of course, this also means the story is much stronger, and thanks to the miracle of empathy, the readers’ own investment and potential emotional response is much higher too.
The second item in my list (Characters being capable of going further, being darker) is a little simpler, and follows on from my last explanation. As a result of the darker tone, and the intensified focus on fear and pain, you can create even more cruel and sadistic antagonists, capable of and desiring to do much darker, scarier and more interesting things than the antagonists of other genres.
But of course, this doesn’t have to just include the antagonists.
Protagonists can also go deeper, can be more cruel. Whether they are like this from the onset or are changed as more and more disasters and tragedies fall upon them is up to the writer, but compared to other genres, protagonists in horror stories are significantly more likely to do terrible, terrible things. To the antagonist, yes. But also to the other protagonists as the group tries to get ahead of each other, or just tries to survive for one more minute. Even characters we’re supposed to like can be cruel and unhinged.
This is the horror genre. It’s okay. We’ll allow it.
The third point (Characters being significantly less predictable) is sort of a result of the previous two. By giving characters the ability to be deeper and darker, by making them so invested in their own situation, by having such heightened stakes and emotions, the brain is acting on a level you wouldn’t see in ordinary situations. This means that characters are extremely unpredictable – but importantly, it happens in a context where this lack of predictability doesn’t sacrifice believability.
By scaring a fictional character, you open their neurons to a significantly greater number of possible avenues for them to fall down, and thus, for your audience to fall down.
All told, this leads to a bunch of characters more likely to take interesting actions, make interesting decisions and say interesting things.
Part Six: Aesthetics of Horror
After that heavy character analysis, let’s calm a little.
See, some elements of why we like what we like are purely subjective. And while I think I’ve already gone into detail about the main reasons I love the horror genre so much, there is also this more minor reason, this more subjective reason.
The aesthetics of horror are kind of just appealing. Which is in some ways an extension of everything I said about creativity before.
Horror likes to draw on the night, and the dark. It walks down much too long hallways in ruined, abandoned buildings, both past and present, and desecrated environs that were once beautiful, now merely retrospective and haunted.
Horror uses fantasy and science fiction in a way that is simply different, giving us totally unique creatures and settings you wouldn’t see anywhere else.
It’s morbid, desperate to go just a little darker every time, just a little bit further than you thought possible. But it’s also intelligent, delving deep into human psychology and drawing from interesting theories and concepts, introducing people to fascinating new areas of study with each new release.
And yet, it can be surface level too, if that’s what you want – simply providing a cruel monster or evil serial killer, and throwing them out into the world to see what happens. Because sometimes that’s interesting too, and can provide a basic yet satisfying emotional purging that helps people contemplate what fear is.
In other words, the aesthetic of horror has both breadth and depth, it’s varied while still keeping to that simple, compelling niche, of exploring the concepts of fear and pain, and what they can entail. Plus, more importantly, what those ideas can mean to people, whoever those people might end up being in that next story.
Part Seven: Remains
I’ve long held that speculative fiction – the meta-genre comprising the genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror – is where most if not all the best works of fiction can be found. Or certainly most of my favourites, at the very least.
The main two reasons (it’s okay, because I’ve done a list of three today already!) for this are 1) the raw creativity that artists in these fields are able to draw from and employ to create stunning and inspiring works of storytelling and craft, and 2) the unique way they draw from real world occurrences to create something very different, yet very familiar.
And, while you’d be hard pressed to call one of these three pillars of speculative fiction objectively better than the others… I am fairly certain that horror is my personal favourite.
It’s dark – whether you deem that to mean mysterious and expressionistic or macabre and morbid. It’s deep and meaningful. It’s driven by a hyperemotional design focus. It has endless branches of potential creativity and ambition…
Even when I read fantasy and science fiction (genres I probably read more than horror, to be fair) I find myself drawn to the darker and more horror-leaning elements. For instance, the supernatural characters in the fantasy genre. Or the predatory alien creatures and mad scientists in the science fiction genre.
I think with this essay, while it is different to anything else I’ve published on this blog so far, I have hit on something about the pervasive appeal of the horror genre, and why people like it so much.
At the very least, I’ve definitely put into words why horror personally appeals to me so much.
And hopefully, it can also convince some other people out there who aren’t as convinced as we are, that horror has something special we wouldn’t do without.
Be sure to leave your favourite horror book recommendations in the comments, tell me what you most appreciate about the genre, and of course…