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Horror - The Genre of Fear

In the first essay this month, I discussed the concept of genre, defending it from some common criticisms and exploring why it matters. The rest of the month, I’m looking more deeply at specific genres, and asking certain questions about each one. What it means, what it includes, and what kinds of decisions lead to its summoning.

This week, I’m talking about the horror genre, and the trends and themes I have noticed within it throughout my own horror reading.

Unlike the previous two genres we looked at, horror is not defined by what kind of world it builds or describes. It’s not a part of that speculative coin we talked about last week. It seems to lie outside of it, despite still being one third of the meta-genre of speculative fiction.

Horror isn’t the genre of imagination, like fantasy. Horror isn’t the genre of possibilities, like science fiction. It can be and do both of those things, don’t get me wrong. But it uses them as a means to an end. A very different end to the fantasy and science fiction genres.

What then, is the horror genre? What does it use imagination and possibilities to describe?

Good question.

Horror is often described, wrongly I feel, as the genre that scares. Often it is talked about in terms of scaring for entertainment, whereas others describe it as being scary above all else. People feel like the horror genre needs to scare people to succeed, and if a horror story doesn’t scare you, it’s a failure.

I dislike this definition for a couple of reasons.

One is that, whether or not something successfully scares, and by how much, depends on the individual being (or not being) scared. We all have individual fears, and we all experience those in entirely different ways. Maybe one person is scared of spiders in any context, whereas someone else has to be in the same room as a spider to be scared, and so reading about one is not enough. And that’s just one example of a possible difference between the ways two people experience fear. Crucially though, fear is subjective. And as I explained in the introduction to this series, a genre definition that is subjective is unfit for purpose.

Moreso, if a really damn good horror story doesn’t scare you, it’s bad? That just doesn’t make any sense. You’re telling me that a book with great characters, in a great narrative, written spectacularly well, is bad if you weren’t scared? And on the other hand, may not be deserving of the same genre label as a result?

No, no, no.

There’s a better, more interesting definition for making a good horror story. Its use would place a story within the horror genre in an objective sense, rather than being open to discussion and diluting the more important conversations around the story. Its use would allow the creative process to more effectively incorporate the concept of genre. And its use would therefore be a real genre, rather than an emotional response – which should be an entirely different sphere of thought for a book.

Horror is the genre of fear, yes, but that doesn’t mean ‘it’s horror if it scares you.’

Horror is the genre that explores fear.

Just like with the previous two genre deep dives, there is a number of ways this can manifest, into a number of subgenres. For instance, a ghost horror story might be an exploration of the fear of death, whereas body horror explores the fear of pain, or some kind of identity crisis.

In fact, that last point opens up another avenue for this genre analysis, because not only is horror a deeply varied area of storytelling, fear itself is equally broad.

There’s a common counterargument to horror needing to be scary that posits horror the emotion being defined not only through sheer terror, but also shock, or the act of disturbing or unsettling. This is a fair point but I’d argue all of these things are fear anyway.

Fear, ultimately, is a part of our brain that evolved to keep us safe, to keep us alive and free from harm – whether that’s physical harm, or even psychological or spiritual harm. It’s an emotion that analyses our environment and current state of being, and decides (sometimes rather too zealously) that there is a threat nearby.

Once the brain makes this decision, certain chemicals are released, causing certain thought processes to chain together in the subconscious. There’s a whole branch of science to this that I’m not qualified to talk about, but the important, simple version of this comes down to one thing.

Fear = avoidance.

Why, then, write a book about things people want to avoid? Isn’t that counterintuitive?

Well, I don’t think so. Ultimately a book, and indeed any story, wants to make its characters go through something that affects them in a strong, emotional way. The horror genre specifically is interested in making those characters scared, horrified you might say. Because while a horror story doesn’t need to scare its reader, I do think its characters need to be scared.

But by forcing the characters to engage with something they might want to avoid, it leads the story down a path of exploring fear, or one specific kind of fear, and forces the characters to do the same, potentially learning how to overcome such fears. Or alternatively dying hopelessly to them, but there’s value in that too, because it materialises a potential outcome to the feared thing for the characters to experience. And as a result, we readers can experience it vicariously.

There’s this common teaching that the only way to cure a fear is to face it. There’s a whole other conversation here about whether we should actually want to cure fear, or if it’s even possible. But the pressing issue in regards to today’s topic is that facing your fear is really, really hard. So it’s lucky then, that the horror genre lets us read about somebody else facing those fears for us. It’s simultaneously a way of providing the afeared a means of facing their fears in a hyperbolic, extreme version of it, while also being allowed to do this in a more passive way, a safer way, than actually going out into the world and trying to grab hold of a real threat by the machete.

In other words, someone with a fear of heights who doesn’t know how to cope with this fear, can potentially read about someone else doing exactly that, and either empathise with the character’s struggles with this fear, or come away with some sort of idea of how they might battle their own fear, or some combination of the two.

And if it is one of those darker, more extreme, more pessimistic horror stories us horror readers love so much, even then, the reader can come away thinking, “Damn, I’m glad they did that and not me.”

So, you know, win-win.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in the world, with even more people suffering from it since the start of the pandemic.

That might seem like a tonal shift for this essay, but it isn’t. With so many people struggling with fear and anxiety, often having very little idea of what specifically their fear is targeted towards, a story giving some exploration of fear, and some ‘easier’ manifestation of it to deal with can be exactly what we need.

Because while it’s true that fear is a survival thing that we would be screwed without, sometimes it goes overboard, and we wish it would screw off.

What makes horror powerful as a genre is that it can be a stand-in, a message, or even an important tool for dealing with our own fears, by proxying in a more fantastic fear through the use of fiction.

In this way, a scary horror book can act as a powerful switcheroo tactic. But it’s also worth bearing in mind the power that a non-scary horror story can have as well. Since, by casting a fearful character in a story that doesn’t (necessarily) scare the reader, it can more directly act as a tool, like we explored above.

The other reason I bring up anxiety disorders is to reiterate that fear takes many forms. While we most often think of a scary situation, like being hunted by a serial killer, or some kind of phobia, the kinds of subjects we started with in the beginning of this essay, fear can also manifest in more abstract ways, like anxiety disorders. And it can also manifest in more global, incomprehensible ways, like the kinds of threats facing our planet, or our culture, or our governments. Things that scare us in ways we don’t necessarily understand, because they don’t necessarily equate to physical harm and danger, but nevertheless scare us.

And I bring all this up because, just as fear has broad tendrils of infinite variety, so too does the horror genre as an exploration of fear have many, many different possible forms through which this exploration of fear can take place. In this way, ‘exploration of fear’ can have numerous different meanings.

One is that the author in question takes ‘exploration of fear’ to mean one specific feared object or idea. Another is because the fear in question is individual, perhaps even unique to that author. And the final is the exact way the author ends up exploring it. In the end, there’s so much variance in these three areas that the individual exploration of fear takes a form that only that one author could have put it in.

From monster-oriented horror, including the undead or aliens. Psychological horror casting serial killers hiding in the shadows, or a mental health crisis brewing under the surface of the protagonist’s mind. Or cosmic horror, exploring the vastness of space, or an epic global catastrophe that can scarcely be understood. And that’s not even a percentage of the many, many kinds of horror stories being told over different time periods, and across different groups of people. Crucially though, each of these subject matters represents a specific fear. Possibly one the author struggles with. Or maybe someone they know struggles with it. Or maybe it’s a fear affecting us all.

The important thing is that we’re all terrified, and no one knows what the hell is going on.

No wait, that’s not the message.

The message is that horror is uniquely capable of doing three powerful things in fiction:

  1. It is an exploration of fear, casting our internal struggles as an external threat, allowing us to more easily observe and dissect the horrors of our lives.

  2. It can explore fear on an individual level, allowing us to vicariously face our fears, or learn to cope with anxiety disorders, or give us a piece of cathartic fear-bashing.

  3. It can explore fear on a global scale, allowing us to explore the big threats facing us as a people, and our home planet, in ways we sometimes can't do outside of fiction.

And that is powerful. That is important.

That is another thing about genre that is worth celebrating.

Well, that marks (almost) the end of March, and the end of my essay series on genre. We’ve looked at genre as a whole, defending it from some common criticisms and exploring its value as a concept. We’ve then looked more deeply at the three branches of my sphere of interest in fiction, speculative fiction, and done the same thing on a more focused level. And we’re now done with genre forever and ever! No one will ever again pretend that genre is bad or that authors should stop doing them.

Oh, who am I kidding. They’ll probably still hate on genre no matter how much sense we make.

But we have got a basis here now, by which we can discuss the concept of genre as a whole, or specifically fantasy, sci fi, and horror. And that will be useful to me moving forward with my essays. Hopefully, it has also been useful and interesting to you reading. Next, I’ll get back to some good old analysis of specific books. See you then. Thanks!


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