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Saturday, November 18, 2006

What is Horror?

I love horror, but when I tell people I write horror, I can see the wheels turning in their minds. The first thing they see is blood and gore and they think I'm some sort of psycho. It's easy to understand their thoughts, though, as today's modern movies incorporate a lot of unnecessary evils. However, to those of us who live in the horror genre, we know differently. Horror is not about how much blood you can shed. It's about real people eliciting a real emotion from the reader.

When I pick up a horror book, I like to be scared. I like to sit on the edge of my seat, wondering what is going to happen next. Will the monster triumph? Will the main character be able to get out of a sticky situation before they become the next victim? Will I be afraid to go to sleep at night, thinking that something evil might claw its way out from under my bed and take me to a place I'd rather not go?

That is the true face of horror. If I can walk away from a book feeling nervous, scared, or afraid to turn out the lights, then the author has done its job.

I'm a big fan of the less is more concept. The less blood shown spurting from the victim's head as the demon crushes them, the better. Early horror classics never had much blood and gore thrown in. They left that up to the imagination, which is sometimes a lot worse than being shown.

To me, the best horror elements are a sense of evil/dread and evoking fear. Some people can write what they classify as horror by using hospital scenes and people dying. While that may be horror in real life, it doesn't appeal to me. I like to distance myself from real life situations by throwing real life characters into supernatural settings. But remember, the reader must always find a way to get involved with the character or the story will fall flat. If the reader doesn't care about the characters, he/she won't care about the story being told either.

So, how do you define horror?

3 comments:

Stewart Sternberg said...

A horror story is one where the author has aimed his intent to disturb the reader, to somehow penetrate the reader's psyche with fear. Horror is a genre that sustains a sense of dread. It attempts to touch the Jungian shared awareness.

The serial killer, the vampire, the returning god intent on destroying humanity, the killer dolls...are all vehicles of the horror writer.

However, I think we as writers need to stop looking at horror as a label. Instead, we should look at our ability to generate characters who are believable and our ability to put them into situations which imperil them. The more believeable a character, the greater the horror generated by that character's imminent destruction.

Find a good horror writer, and find a good writer. Some people might contradict me and point to Lovecraft. I'll grant he was not always a good writer, but when you look at the handful of material he wrote that rose above his other collected works, it was tremendous. "Shadow Over Innsmouth", "The Outsider", and "Cool Air" are examples of the writer coming first, the horror writer coming second.

So what is horror? I think the more important questions are how do we develop character? How do we tell a compelling story? How do we set a theme that stirs or set a mood that resonates?

When people ask if I'm a horror writer, I shake my head and answer: "No, I'm just a writer."

Chuck Zaglanis said...

For me, horror has to have some aspect of "the other" to be effective. Something from beyond our human ken needs to interact with us. Splatterpunk (and the mass murder/snuff films like the Saw series) just don't cause me to feel that creeping dread I crave. I don't mind the stories, but they just don't get in there and work at my psyche.

I agree with Stewart. The days of putting a person and a critter in a house and letting them duke it out(so to speak) are over. As writers, we need to flesh out our characters and make people care (for good or ill) about them.

Jon said...

Horror stories seem to be those during which the reader says to himself, "Oh, no. Please, not that." That's the Jung of it.

A genuinely horrific scene writen poorly is as much a waste as a joke told badly. You get it but...

It's a discussion we have had before, Stewart, we can't just write for the story or just write for the song of the words. They require each other.