Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Horror! The Horror!

Of all the terms used to categorize fiction, the one I most despise is horror.  I dislike it even more than literary fiction, and literature, which are completely meaningless terms because, since all stories are comprised of words they are all works of literary fiction, and anything that is written is, by definition, literature.  As bad as they are, though, horror is worse.

What's my problem with horror?  It is a loaded term that can't deliver what it promises.  The word horror is defined as a feeling of intense fear and loathing, so unless a horror story actually evokes these feelings, it fails.  By claiming to write horror, we're setting ourselves up for failure if we don't actually scare anyone - and that's something that is frightfully hard to do.

When was the last time you were truly scared by a horror novel or movie?  I'm often frightened by the news, but never by a work of fiction.  I was startled once, in 1979, while watching Ridley Scott's Alien in a darkened movie theatre.  The suspense of the movie made the jack-in-the-box scenes so effective that at one point I crushed my drink cup and spilled coke all over myself.

More recently, I was disturbed and mildly nauseated by a scene early in Brian Keene's outstanding zombie novel, The Rising.  I won't spoil the scene for anyone who hasn't read this, but I will say that it is no easy feat to gross me out.  During my undergraduate years, the fridge in the biology student lounge housed nearly as many dead pig foetuses as lunch bags and we often spent our lunch hours consuming the latter while studying the innards of the former.  Biology isn't a field for the squeamish.

These are the only two instances that I can recall a horror story eliciting an emotional response.  Nonetheless, I still enjoy the genre, so clearly the story doesn't actually succeed or fail based on its ability to horrify.  I don't read horror novels or watch movies to be scared - that's beyond their capacity to deliver.  So maybe horror is a label that needs to be discarded.

I think that horror is speculative fiction that explores the most visceral aspects of human psychology, making it one of the most important branches of literature for understanding who we are and what makes us tick.  We are the sum of our fears.  Horror fiction explores those fears and drags them screaming into the light where we can examine them like foetal pig guts at lunch time.

Horror is also problematic not only as a label, but as a distinct genre, because if you accept my definition of horror as fiction that explores fear then it crosses all genre boundaries.  Instead of asking ourselves, what is horror, we now have to ask, what isn't?  Many works that are generally regarded as 'literary fiction' can just as easily be labeled horror novels: William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, George Orwell's 1984, Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange to name just a very few.

But horror literature extends much farther back than these; farther even than the gothic fiction that founded contemporary horror.  We can see horrific elements in Homer's Odyssey and all the way back to one of the earliest recorded works of fiction, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

You might even say that horror forms the foundation of all literature, and it is far too nebulous to be constrained by the pigeon-hole of a genre label.  We've been telling horror stories for as long as we've had speech, yet they still receive very little respect within the writing world and are judged primarily by the racks of tawdry mass-market paper-backs and hackneyed Hollywood productions.

It's long past time to ditch the label and embrace the ghosts that haunt us.


Trey said...

I guess I'm just a softer touch. I can think of numerous horror works (films in particular, and a few works of literature) that while perhaps not "horror-inducing" were at least unsettling or creepy.

I know what you mean about biology not being for the squeemish. We used to start discussing what were were going to eat for lunch in the midst of our cadaver dissections in med school.

Sean Robson said...

Everyone's reaction is different and we feel fear in different ways. My wife can't even read Stephen King before bed or it will give her nightmares, whereas I find his books fun, but not even remotely scary.

What I'm getting at is that being scared isn't the most important thing that you take away from a horror story - it can't be; I still love them even when they don't scare me, as long as I'm entertained or challenged.

Shane Mangus said...

Good post. I agree, "horror" is a tough sell, no matter the medium. Whether it is fiction, movies or games, it is hard to scare the hell out of the reader/viewer/player. What is considered horrific is very relative to the participant. Most spiritual based horror is not very scary to me (The Exorcist for example), but body horror on the other hand (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the like) is sometimes very creepy to me. My tastes have gravitated toward Weird fiction, which I find is the perfect name for the genre.

Sean Robson said...

Exactly, Shane. It's darned hard to actually frighten people, but you can creep them out. Weird fiction, dark fiction, both are better terms for the genre, in my opinion.