Monday, July 15, 2013

What is Horror?

Horror is armed conflict, which leaves more dead bodies than resolutions.  It is rape and murder, which happens every night in far too many cities.  Horror is an explosion in a public place, or a mother holding her dead child's body in her arms.  I think we all know what real horror is, even if we have only experienced it vicariously.   So I guess the pertinent question is what is horror fiction.

The dissection of an idea can be treacherous.  A concept could mean something completely different to different people with differing standards.  For instance, right now I think many people would say a television show like The Walking Dead is horror, but I disagree.  I think horror should move us on a deeper level, not just shock us or make us jump in surprise.  There is a place for those things, but it’s not horror.

In just two sentences at the very beginning of his novel Ghost Story, Peter Straub asks us to examine the worst things we have ever done, as well as the worst that have happened to us.  It is an authorial sleight of hand, but that is what has happened without the reader consciously knowing.  The text that makes up the book that follows is thereby informed by our own dark experiences.

Horror done well will make us squirm and feel genuine unease, at the best of times due to its subconscious messages rather than its explicit ones.  If I were to write a book about Achluophobia, or fear of darkness, in which the characters constantly thought about and analyzed their fear, would it be scary?  What if, instead, I constantly put the characters into situations where darkness was an unnamed coconspirator wordlessly oppressing our protagonists, and thus the audience?  Wouldn’t the latter have the greater impact on a reader’s fear of the dark?  The best writers, in any medium, will build an atmosphere of unease, not simply point out things people commonly fear.

When Dan Simmons writes of his “mind vampires” in his novel Carrion Comfort, it is the idea of losing our will that we fear more than any of the overt acts described by the author.  We imagine our loss of mental control, or how each day we are stalked by those in the real world who would manipulate us, or have done in the past.  The audience should be made to imbue the work with their own fears, and they must be allowed to scare themselves, for we know best what scares us.  I think horror is an art.  It is most effective when using the roller-coaster mentality.  People fear the chance of something happening far more than the result.  We have reality for that second kind of horror.

Some would say if you throw enough blood on it, then it becomes horror.  To some, I suppose it does, but I think true horror fiction has a psychology.  In a movie like Alien, the real fear comes from the feeling of claustrophobia, the characters trapped in a small space with no escape.  The Aliens are simply the catalyst for the real fear, the fear of the subconscious.

I feel the best way to gauge horror is by asking people what they fear.  Try it for yourself.  Ask someone what he or she fears most, and then analyze the answer to reveal the real fear hidden beneath their words.  That’s where horror lives.  For example, if someone professes a fear of flying, does that really mean the dread springs from being up in the sky in a giant tube?  Most times, it does not.  The real fear is death and destruction.   As a writer, you must create that airplane in order to plumb the depths of an audience’s unspoken fears.  If someone is not scared of clowns, Stephen King’s It would fall flat without the darker, seedier psychology beneath the surface.

Horror comes wrapped in all manner of packaging, but it is the underlying causes of our fears, and our own personal experiences with them that are of utmost importance.  Whether through allegory or metaphor, horror challenges us to inspect our fears, societal and personal.  It can be release and catharsis, as well as warning.  Horror, at its best, expresses themes and concepts that make us investigate ourselves in ways we commonly do not, sometimes realizing the truly horrific that resides inside each of us.  That is where true horror lies.

What is horror to you?


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