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March 2018



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reject reality

What is Horror?

B recently referred me to a discussion about the definition of the Horror Genre. Someone had proposed a definition that I found ludicrous. I'm not a big fan of horror and had not given the definition much thought. Certainly not as much thought as my definitions of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. But tonight I was watching a TV show that felt like horror to me and I decided to explore what about it made me feel that way and what I would use as a definition of horror.

I started off by looking up the standard definitions. Horror fiction is fiction that is designed to produce fear or dread in the audience. This definition is a bit weak. Most fiction involves conflicts and conflict usually involve some amount of fear or concern on the part of the audience. I think "dread" is the more accurate term for what horror aims to arouse. Dread is apprehension, anxiety, or fear that something bad or unpleasant will happen. Not "might" happen, but "will" happen.

I like mystery and detective stories, and I like action adventure stories. These all involve bad things happening and a certain amount of fear that more bad things might happen. But they usually end with the conflict being resolved, the protagonist overcoming the difficulty, and the bad guy being punished for doing the bad thing.

This evening I tried to watch the first episode of "Those Who Kill". It's a TV show about a homicide detective who is working with a college professor profiler. The first episode involved a serial killer who captures women and locks them in a box so he can torture them for days. The detective finds a stash of bodies of the women he has killed and then he kidnaps another woman and we see him torturing her in the box. That is horror. Bad things are happening to that woman and she will never be the same.

I watch a lot of murder mysteries. You could argue that when someone has been murdered a bad thing has happened to them and they will never be the same as they were before. But Murder mysteries spend most of their story focusing on bring the bad guy to justice. The bad thing has already happened, it is in the past. Bad things in the past elicit sadness not fear. It is the threat of bad things happening in the future that elicits fear. And the belief that the bad thing in the future can't be avoided is what elicites dread and defines horror.

Horror is one of the few genre where the protagonist can die in the end, because horror stories by definition do not have happy endings. Even if the protagonist survives they are scarred by the experience. I can think of a couple of movies where the protagonist dies in the end that aren't horror. But they end with the protagonist achieving a state of grace or redemption.

So, I define horror as those stories where characters we care about experience traumatic and painful events that the audience can see approaching but the characters are unable to avoid. Sometimes the characters can see the danger approaching but sometimes they can not. It is the anticipation of pain that makes a story horror. That and the death of hope. Some horrific stories can be redeemed by hope or grace.

One big problem with having a genre defined by the feeling it arouses in the audience is that different people have different responses to the same situations. This is a boundary problem. Conceptual categories are arbitrary and indeterminate. Everyone draws the boundaries differently and you can't predict where they are going to draw them. But that doesn't mean there aren't central models, ideal cases, typical cases, essential prototypes, salient exemplars, stereotypes, anti-ideal cases, and standard deviations that still fall within the category. Just because people who use the same definition disagree over boundary issues does not meant the category does not exist.


I love horror. I'm a fan.

I find that, just like music used to be rock-n-roll and not, then rock-n-roll split into hard rock and soft rock, then hard rock split into heavy metal and acid rock...yadda yadda yadda...I think that the horror genre has split into several groups as well.

for me, as a fan, I find that the main split tends to be over "graphic horror" in which you see blood or cruel acts on screen or "psychological horror" in which there might be no blood at all, but an emphasis on fear.

Naturally, those different groups have split into subgroups themselves...but both of them fit your definition....I guess the only change I would make to your definition would be the "unable to avoid" part, as sometimes the horror is about things that the protagonist IS able to avoid...and that makes their decisions more horrible.

For example, often a theme in horror is that a female victim will just make bad decisions....drink a little too much at a frat party, choose to be nice to a guy that's a jerk, wear clothes that are a little too revealing, etc., etc. Each of those things would be choices that could be avoided...but as they make each one we, as the audience, can look at that and see what's coming, while she just doesn't. That makes it a little more horrific.

There's also a "specie" of genre that takes place in isolation...the author experiences things while being alone and is slowly driven mad by these experiences.

I've had to ask myself why I like these things. Not because I worry about it, but because people have asked me how I could possibly enjoy them, and I've had to explain myself. I have seen many special-effects documentaries and I think I just don't have full immersion. I always look at a death on screen and wonder how they did the effect; I look at zombies and try to imagine what the actor looks like underneath. I don't find it horrific because I know that the victim and the murderer were probably at the commissary hamming it up for the behind the scenes photos.

But that's me.
Yes. I'm not surprised that there are sub-categories of horror. Just as there are sub-categories of all the other genre. I'm just trying to get the central prototype right.

You make a good point about the character making choices. (I'm a little disturbed by your choice of example though.) I have altered my definition to reflect your contribution. Not so much that the danger is avoidable but who it is avoidable for. When a bunch of kids decide to rent a cabin in the woods for a weekend (or go sailing), they may be making a decision that will lead to horror. But they certainly have no reason to think so, only the audience knows that this is the wrong decision to make, because the audience knows what kind of story this is. The story arouses dread in the audience long before the characters know they are in danger.

There are lot's of boundary cases I would love to discuss. Is "127 Hours" a horror movie? Is "Cast Away"? "Knowing"? "American Beauty?" "What Dreams May Come"? "Jurassic Park"? "Troll Hunter"?

There is also the question of "Oldboy". How does "Oldboy" fit into my definition? Is "Oldboy" a horror story? and Why? or Why not?

There are lots of theories as to why people like scary things. It might be a natural high from the adrenaline produced by fear, enjoyed safely where you know you are not in danger. Or it might be Schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) some people actually feel pleasure when they see that others are more unfortunate then themselves.

Edited at 2014-03-03 02:49 pm (UTC)