Everyone enjoys that feeling of being frightened. OK, so I’ve kicked things off there with quite a bold statement. Many of you may strongly disagree with that but if you do, you’re lying. Nah, just kidding, but I bet somewhere deep down there is feeling of terror you sometimes get that you don’t really want to admit to. And that’s fine, there is something of a mildly embarrassing taboo about opening up about things scaring you.
Now I’m not talking about the fear of upcoming surgery or a terrible illness that afflicts you or a family member, which is realistically scary, I mean made up stuff. And there’s plenty out there! Our rational minds are quick to rubbish such ideas as a horde of flesh-eating zombies, or aliens stealing our brains, or a two-headed demon monster serial-killing child molester hiding in the sock drawer.
You know it’s all pretend, it’s fiction, man!
It’s been said numerous times that scary stories are more scary if you’re there with the characters, that is, you’re invested in them. You will then understand and accept their motivations and actions, hopefully agreeing that yeah, you’d be doing exactly the same thing in their shoes. The fact that their situation makes your heart race and your palms clammy proves that the story is well told. And at the end, when you finally turn off the film or close the book, you’re brought straight back to reality where you can finally sit back and reflect on the fear that it roused inside you. And that’s a great feeling, even if you do have to check that sock drawer nervously before you get into bed.
But what does ‘horror’ actually mean? Well, ‘An overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting,’ says the dictionary, and that’s pretty much bang on. Although, how many dictionary definitions are usually wrong?
Sticking with this definition for now, ‘the overwhelming and painful feeling’ is what every great horror movie or story should bestow upon its audience. And that’s the unnerving sensation you have whilst watching or reading, and the one that you can reflect on afterwards with an appreciation that the film or book has done its job well. See any list of great horror pieces and they all manage to do this. Slashers, psychological and cosmic horrors, monsters, demons, etc. That uneasy or even painful feeling they create is what makes them great.
‘Caused by something frightfully shocking,’ it also says. Well, yeah. That’ll be the antagonist, be it human or something else; the killer, the psychopath, the monster, the demon, etc. The catalyst of the fear, the thing or person responsible for the feeling that is described in the first part of the definition.
“Terrifying’ is another word used, and the terror that is brought upon the audience is linked to the thing that is so shocking. So the gruesome murders, or the psychological manipulation that the antagonist creates upon our hero, or the realisation that there may be no hope for the protagonist, these should terrify us.
Now to the final description which talks about ‘revolting.’ This involves something that is ‘disgusting’ and ‘repulsive.’ Many horror films and books contain elements that disgust and repulse us, but these things are more widespread in other genres far beyond this one, as well as on TV every day in that little roundup show about really bad stuff called The News!
But back to fiction, are we not disgusted by the treatment of the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption, or repulsed by the actions of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho? Well neither of these two movies/novels are classed as ‘horror’ but both display its characteristics and bring up these feelings that are mentioned in the definition of the word.
Horror is, or should be, horrific. And what does Mr Dictionary say about horrific? He says ‘causing horror.’ I suppose I would have thought he would have elaborated a little more here, but hey, the more I think about it, less is definitely more. But how many books, movies, TV shows, plays, etc. are horrific in their own way without being defined as horror?
Lots, that’s how many. I won’t go and list them as 1. there are too many, and 2. I don’t need to as you’re probably already thinking of your own list right now. But I find it interesting how people who would say “I don’t like horror,” still enjoy stories that in their own way are horrific.
Be it a brutal rape scene, a savage bout of bullying, despicable acts of racism; these are all horrific events. Just check out the top 250 movies on IMDB, not many horror flicks are in there, but each film has horrific traits that resonate deep within you well after you finish watching, which result in people giving them such high ratings and praise.
When these events are found in a thriller or a romance story, they are usually there for a reason; to bring the often terrible plight of the protagonist to the shocked (or horrified) audience. Without the shock, when everything turns out all good in the end, won’t we all feel a little bit cheated by the set up?
So it’s not just in the horror genre where scary stuff occurs, it’s everywhere.
Perhaps, as you watch that romance movie or plough through that mushy page-turner, as the couple begin to grow apart, or one of them is diagnosed with cancer, or a sordid affair is brought to everyone’s attention, there is a fear inside you, insidiously creeping into your conscious as you watch the images/read the words. The fear of things not working out, or at least the that the characters’ lives will not be as pleasant and as carefree as you were hoping for. Tension brings on fear and without tension the story is boring.
Maybe you’re watching a fast-paced thriller where the government is hiding a great secret that is putting the lives of innocent people in jeopardy. Are you not fearing for these people’s lives? Well you should be!
Or that action movie, where the evil gang of criminals is planning to rob a bank and shoot their way to freedom. We’ve all been in a bank, so the thought that these baddies are robbing something we are so familiar with is a scary thought.
So what I’m getting at, I suppose, is that aspects of horror are present in nearly all other genres. Of course, the opposite is also true. Some horrors contain elements of romance and action and suspense, but they are only there as a backdrop; it’s the sensation of truly being frightened that is the horror movie’s/novel’s main motivation. The fear, however mild, in other genres helps illuminate their real motivation.
Now let’s talk about things that are shocking. Obviously this is a very subjective term (well this whole piece is subjective I suppose, but whatever). How about books that are shocking? Here’s just a few examples from my bookshelf.
Filth by Irvine Welsh contains a truly shocking and emotionally painful scene at the end. And this shock does bring on an overwhelming and painful feeling to readers, well, to this reader anyway. But it’s not horror.
Kill Your Friends by John Niven left me with my mouth hanging open at the despicable acts the protagonist (a loose term), Steven Stelfox undertakes. A psychopathic money-grabbing arsehole who doesn’t let anything or anyone stand in his way to get to the top of his profession. But again, it’s not a horror novel.
And let’s not fail to mention Guts by Chuck Palahniuk. This short story apparently had people fainting when he read it out loud to audiences. If you’ve read it you may understand why, it’s pretty sick, and pretty shocking, but it’s not a horror story.
To keep a novel or movie engaging there needs to be aspects of horror in it, not just gore and death, but something that strikes a very real fear into the audience. It’s just human nature, we love to be shocked and always have. Be it thousands of people watching public executions many years ago; people these days tuning into murder trials, but only the really juicy ones where there’s been plenty of gruesome murders that are described in great detail; the countless reality TV shows where people watch with morbid fascination, just waiting for the next argument and hoping it involves shocking behaviour and preferably a decent bout of violence.
Humans have a fascination with horror and I think that is the main reason that the genre is very much alive and well, and will continue to be so.