Defining Horror – excerpt from Splatterpunk: Philosophy of a Horror Junkie


By Sitarra “Lulladies” Sefton


Dictionary Definition:

hor·ror /hôrr/


1. An intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.

2. A thing causing such a feeling.

Synonyms for Horror:

abhorrence, abomination, alarm, antipathy, anxious, apprehension, aversion, awe, chiller, consternation, creepy, detestation, disgust, dislike, dismay, despair, distress, disturb, dread, fright, hate, hatred, heinous, hideous, loathing, monstrosity, morbid, nightmare, panic, repugnance, revulsion, scare, terror, traumatize, trepidation, unease, ville.

All horror has one thing in common; the desire to instill fear or disgust within the audience. At the very least you should feel disturbed after being exposed to it. But, what is horror beyond the tidy definition?

In order to answer this question, we must first ask more specific questions, and explore the minds of some of the greatest horror creators of all time to find answers.

Q#1 – Why are people attracted to horror?

The following paragraph is an excerpt from Elizabeth Barrett’s essay, “Elements of Aversion”. Here she explains why the modern world needs horror.

“The old “fight or flight” reaction of our evolutionary heritage once played a major role in the life of every human. Our ancestors lived and died by it. Then someone invented the fascinating game of civilization, and things began to calm down. Development pushed wilderness back from settled lands. War, crime, and other forms of social violence came with civilization and humans started preying on each other, but by and large daily life calmed down. We began to feel restless, to feel something missing: the excitement of living on the edge, the tension between hunter and hunted. So we told each other stories through the long, dark nights…when the fires burned low, we did our best to scare the daylights out of each other. The rush of adrenaline feels good. Our hearts pound, our breath quickens, and we can imagine ourselves on the edge. Yet we also appreciate the insightful aspects of horror. Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand.”

This statement suggests that the need to feel terror or fear is embedded deep in the human psyche. In a very distant part of our history, these emotions were necessary and used as a survival mechanism. Our ancient ancestors recognized this as a negative emotion, and with the birth of civilization also came the desire to make life a little less scary.

Once the comforts of a more modern world settled in, humanity began longing for the distant emotion of pure terror they once felt daily. In their desire to feel the adrenaline rush and fear that was at one point so familiar, horror as entertainment was born.

Elizabeth Barrett wasn’t the only one to make this connection.

“Horror is the natural reaction to the last 5,000 years of history.” – Robert Anton Wilson

“Evil hiding among us is an ancient theme.” – John Carpenter

Q#2 – What makes horror so horrifying?

The first sentence from H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, says that:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

This is of course true. Our first question has already explained that fear was once fundamental to humanity, but this also takes us to a new topic:

The Unknown.

Why do we fear death?

Because we don’t know what’s on the other side.

Why do we fear ghosts?

Because their actual existence is unknown.

Why do we fear monsters?

Because we don’t understand them.

Why do we fear serial killers?

Because where and who they are is unknown.

Why do we fear catastrophe and disaster?

Because when it will strike is unknown.

Q#3 – What are the fundamentals of horror?

It was gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe who first distinguished the two main elements of horror as “Terror” and “Horror”.

In 1826 she published an essay describing both. Radcliffe explained “Terror” as that which “expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life,”. The “Horror” aspect was described as that which “freezes and nearly annihilates them.”

This suggests that terror is the feeling of dread and foreboding that takes place before an event happens, and horror is the feeling of revulsion or disgust after the event has happened.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.”

This comment perfectly mirrors Ann Radcliffe’s essay, but it was Stephen King who explained horror as having a third aspect. His statement is as followed:

“The 3 types of terror:

The Gross-out:

The sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.

The Horror:

The unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.

And the last and worse one: Terror:

When you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

The new aspect is The Gross-out. This element of horror was made popular by the subgenra Slasher Horror, which focuses more on the violence and gore than anything else. These images are effective to instill both shock and disgust within an audience.

Horror also must have a villain, monster, or life threatening disaster. It was Noël Carroll who came to the conclusion that these menacing characters must exhibit one of two traits. The concept was published in Carroll’s book, “Philosophy of Horror”. It reads as followed:

“A menace that is threatening -either physically, psychologically, socially, morally, spiritually, or some combination of the aforementioned.

A menace that is impure – that violates the generally accepted schemes of cultural categorization.”

It is possible to create a horror without a menacing character, but the antagonist must then be replaced by the unknown; most commonly depicted through insanity and uncertainty. An example of the alternative would be a tale about a schizophrenic fighting to distinguish reality from hallucinations; a victim to their own mind.

“The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself.” -Wes Craven

Q#4 – What is the deeper meaning behind horror?

This could be the most debated topic when trying to define horror, and there are many different concepts floating around trying to answer the simple question. Here’s the most popular ones.

“Horror itself is a bit of a bullied genre, the antagonist being literary snobbery and public misconception. And I think good horror tackles our darkest fears, whatever they may be. It takes us into the minds of the victims, explores the threats, disseminates fear, studies how it changes us. It pulls back the curtain on the ugly underbelly of society, tears away the masks the monsters wear out in the world, shows us the potential truth of the human condition. Horror is truth, unflinching and honest. Not everybody wants to see that, but good horror ensures that it’s there to be seen.” – Kealan Patrick Burke

This statement suggests that horror is meant to reflect on an ugly truth behind humanity itself. The dark desires and sinister urges hidden deep within the human condition. Your anger, greed, lust, etc, forcing you to recognize it even if you’d rather pretend it’s not there.

My Wattpad friend @AByronicHero best explained the connection between popular horror characters and the darker side of humanity when he made this comment:

“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein… It was the first novel in which a mortal committed an act believed only to be one achievable by God -creating a being artificially. The idea that a monster can come from our doing seems to be a foregoing idea of horror -though not necessarily the result of physical creation.

Candyman [African decent] man tied to tree, covered in honey, had his hand cut off and was stung to death by bees. He was killed due to the white mans discontent with the fact he impregnated a white woman. Candyman was essentially the creation of human prejudice…

To a lesser extent you also have A Nightmare on Elm Street wherein he was created by the inhabitants of elm street burning him alive due to him being a child killer. It could be said that Freddy Krueger is the embodiment of human brutality but also the biproduct of people trying to enact gods work, (essentially only god should have been allowed to kill what he created – I don’t believe in god I’m just using him because usually all things supernatural are relative to god and the devil).

Also you have Jason Vorhee’s who died as a result of the negligence and selfishness of others -he drowned whilst the counsellors that were supposed to watch over him had sex in the woods and talked.”

Another viewpoint when trying to distinguish the hidden meaning behind horror is that it should remind you of your own helplessness and mortality.

“[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.” – Clive Barker

This simple comment leaves us with the idea that horror should leave you contemplating death, and your own inevitable demise. We don’t know when the Reaper will come for us, and when it does we will be powerless to stop it. Believing you have any control over chaos or death is the greatest lie you can tell yourself. Many, like Barker, feel that good horror forces you to recognize that.

“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.” – Stephen King

Horror used as a distraction from the issues within your own life is yet another debatable meaning behind the terrifying source of entertainment.

Say your short some cash and so a bill can’t be paid. After watching a horror where everyone died suddenly that need to pay bills seems slightly less dramatic. At least you’re not dead, right?

On the other hand, your nation could be at war, your leader an evil massacist, and everything’s going to hell around you. Experiencing a horror could provide the release from such realities by experiencing another breed of terror. Again, using horror as a distraction.

Obviously the effect isn’t permanent, only a momentary escape from the horrors of reality. It doesn’t solve the issues, but fictional terror you can walk away from (even if you don’t) is often preferred over the horrors endured daily.

Whatever you feel the greater meaning of horror might be, it is clear that horror does hold some purpose.

I hope this helped bring understanding and answered any questions you might have regarding the definition of horror.

If I left anything out, don’t hesitate to tell me.

Continue reading Splatterpunk: Philosophy of a Horror Junkie here!


One response to “Defining Horror – excerpt from Splatterpunk: Philosophy of a Horror Junkie

  1. Pingback: Crossing the Line: Boundaries and Limitations – excerpt from Splatterpunk Articles  | LullaDIEs

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