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What Constitutes a Horror Story

This could be an immensely long post since the subject is fraught with philosophical land mines, but for me "horror" is fairly straightforward.  A story is a horror story solely because its theme is that our world is a veneer over things that are terrible, and that those terrible things will get you.  All reprieves in horror stories are temporary.

A horror story is sort of like Norse mythology.  In the end the gods die.  No one escapes.  It's grim stuff, but so is horror.

Many horror stories, it seems to me, are about people discovering this underlying truth.  They do their best to escape their fates, and they often do, but they are forever scarred by the experience.  Once they know the truth, they'll carry it with them until the end.  Some of my favorite horror stories really emphasize the "living with the knowledge" theme, like "Young Goodman Brown," or "The Music of Eric Zahnn."  The end of Lord of the Rings, for Frodo, is a kind of horror story.  He's too intelligent, and he's seen too much, to be able to go back to the Shire like Sam can (although I wonder if Sam has nightmares).

A weird thing has happened to horror tropes, I've noticed, which is that they've been trivialized.  The monster, the vampire, the werewolf have become popular icons.  Buffy slays them, but in many stories they are losing their capacity to carry the horror theme.  Bram Stoker's Dracula was frightening because most readers hadn't considered the possibility of an undead force actively seeking the most innocent.  It was a creepy idea.

Effective horror has to awaken the knowledge in the reader that their world isn't safe.  The threat is present and unrelenting. 

There are no completely happy endings.  The threat may be pushed back, but it's not gone.
 

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( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
stevenagy
Jun. 14th, 2007 05:35 pm (UTC)
This is why my one and only zombie post yesterday was a plea for recipes.
jimvanpelt
Jun. 14th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC)
I saw that post. Cracked me up.
stevenagy
Jun. 14th, 2007 06:57 pm (UTC)
Glad you liked. :-)

Youngest daughter had a state project due before the school year ended and she got Ohio. Her and her mom made buckeyes and with Top Chef on last night and my sudden discovery that we had about 4 dozen left over in the garage fridge, I couldn't resist.
nancylebov
Jun. 14th, 2007 05:36 pm (UTC)
For a while, I've been noticing that a lot of horror elements have been picked up by action/adventure stories. Buffy would be an example. So would Stross' _The Atrocity Archives_.

There also stories of domesticated horror--the enemies of humans get a point of view and social complexities. Humans aren't especially the object of attention. The Anita Blake stories are somewhat in that direction, and I think I can make a case that the Harry Potter novels are a pure example. Wizards are dangerous to muggles, but that's completely glossed over.

Some proper horror still exists, and I recommend "Mr. Brooks", a movie currently in the theaters.
jimvanpelt
Jun. 14th, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC)
The REAL horror is in the true crime section of the bookstore. The most frightening book I've read lately was Joe McGuiness's FATAL VISION, about the Army doctor who slaughtered his family one night. There was nothing about his life to indicate he might do such a thing. It scared me to death to think that an ordinary person might do such a thing. And I don't mean a seemingly normal one, but one just like you or me who might for no reason at all kill someone. That's a creepy story.

Supernatural horror works on a different level than FATAL VISION, I think. Supernatural horror scares us in a metaphysical way. You're not just going to die: you also exist in a universe that desperately hates you (or could care but doesn't that you exist).
djmahon
Jun. 15th, 2007 01:53 am (UTC)
The REAL horror is in the true crime section of the bookstore. The most frightening book I've read lately was Joe McGuiness's FATAL VISION, about the Army doctor who slaughtered his family one night. There was nothing about his life to indicate he might do such a thing. It scared me to death to think that an ordinary person might do such a thing. And I don't mean a seemingly normal one, but one just like you or me who might for no reason at all kill someone. That's a creepy story.

A sudden transformation from the predictable and safe to the chaotic and violently threatening--not unlike how the werewolf was originally presented, no?
jhetley
Jun. 14th, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC)
I've always gone with the theory that in fantasy, the good guys win. In horror, they lose.
saycestsay
Jun. 14th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
horrors
Hi Jim, thanks for the essay, you always elucidate some point that escapes me. I've had a little trouble defining horror even to myself. I hope you don't mind, I linked to you through my lj.
jimvanpelt
Jun. 14th, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
Re: horrors
You're more than welcome to link! Mostly in these little efforts I'm trying to work out problems for myself.

My opinions are subject to modification without notice *g*.
dsgood
Jun. 14th, 2007 07:08 pm (UTC)
Nitpick: In Norse mythology, a couple of gods and a couple of humans will survive Fimbulwinter.

It seems to me that Dracula, and a fair amount of what would now be called either horror or dark fantasy published up till around WW I, had a subtext of illicit sex.

And more recent horror has a subtext of illicit use of power.
jimvanpelt
Jun. 14th, 2007 07:18 pm (UTC)
All nits are good nits.

Still, I get the feeling that Lif and Lifthrasir won't emerge from Ragnarok with a positive religion. And Baldr has too much baggage to rule in Odin's stead. It's not in their nature *g*.
tchernabyelo
Jun. 15th, 2007 08:43 am (UTC)
Also there's some question as to whether the Lif/Lifthrasir survival, and the mysterious reappearance of some minor Gods and eventually Baldr as well, is a syncretic addition, an early attempt to meld Christian resurrectionism with the pre-existing Norse apocalypticism.

I've got a project that occasionally surfaces, "Cold Gods", dealing with Norse myth from the POVs of Odin and Loki. Probably unsellable, but fun to play with. Rewriting Lokasenna was great fun, and having Odin tell the whole death of Baldr cycle was something I couldn't resist.
joshenglish
Jun. 14th, 2007 08:50 pm (UTC)
I read in an essay once that horror evokes a visceral response, science fiction an intellectual response, and fantasy an emotional response. I kind of like these descriptions, but I feel they place a bit too much on the reader's end to determine which genre classification to use.
I frequently come home from work on Saturday, turn on the Sci Fi channel and laugh at the "science fiction" movies that are little better than comedies to me.
I like your ideas though, and I'll have to quote them some time.
As dsgood points out, there is a bit of a sexual undertone in Stoker's writing (sexy and strong == evil; plain and delicate == good), and Ann Rice came along and took all of the repressed Victorian sexual tension and laid it out bare for all to see, and that made it boring.
I agree with you that true crime is probably the most truly horror-evoking stuff out there. We've turned everything else into a joke or an action/adventure movie. I think part of the problem is the movies mistook suspense for real horror.
The last movie I saw that really terrified me was Outbreak, and the last book that gave me nightmare's was F. Paul Wilson's Night World.
mallory_blog
Jun. 14th, 2007 11:22 pm (UTC)
With mass-murdering Presidents and the CDC chasing a groom around the world who is infecting everyone he meets with a deadly virus, how bad is some hungry undead creature?

Horror has gone global and we are voting on degrees of EVIL
tchernabyelo
Jun. 15th, 2007 08:47 am (UTC)
I'm not entirely sure a lot of horror fans would agree with you. There's certainly a market for horror where the Norm is restored at the end, the evil is gone, and all is well with the world. This is the kind of horror that allows people to experience their fears almost vicariously, knowing that it's safe. However for me, genuinely unsettling horror is as you describe it - possibly the most chilling stuff I've ever read is by Jonathan Carroll, and involves no gore, no fangs and teeth, nothing but the unsettling effect of the strange.

Of course, it has become a trope in horror movies that the horror is ony temporarily defeated, but that's because of the lure of the sequel..
ruvdraba
Jun. 15th, 2007 12:03 pm (UTC)
Jim, at the plot level I think a horror story is one that transforms its main characters through a premise impossible to accept. At the thematic level it reverses or distorts closely-held beliefs to alienate them from us. At the dramatic level, it provides catharsis for the readers through the effects of plot and theme, and helps them re-perceive the world through that. Successful horror occurs when this happens at all three levels.

The dilution typically occurs because repetition of imagery fails to provide a sufficiently distorting theme in the mind of the reader. In consequence, the reader no longer believes that the main character could not possibly accept the premise, so you don't get the catharsis. The first time you see Frankenstein's monster on TV, it's horrific because of what it signifies to you then - false life created from death; the fourth time, it signifies something very different - it's pure parody of life, devoid of metaphysical significance.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century horror went far by converting metaphysical fears into physical fears. The Industrial Age was offering new assurances of physical certainty, and so writers like Shelley, Poe, Lovecraft, Bloch and others sought metaphysical uncertainty and used it as a lever to challenge the emerging assurances.

Nowadays, that doesn't work so well because physical assurances are now too old and well tested. Instead, the new assurances - those we would like to believe but don't fully trust - lie in within ourselves, our beliefs and our relationships. The best horror nowadays is often psychological or sociological - the horror of distorted intimacy (e.g. Misery) and grotesque social adaptation (e.g. Silence of the Lambs). But it still follows the same pattern of a century ago: find the metaphysical uncertainties of the time, and use them to challenge the emerging assurances that we want to trust, but don't quite.

Structurally, I think it's very simple. Thematically, it's fascinating.
kmarkhoover
Jun. 16th, 2007 01:28 am (UTC)
"Effective horror has to awaken the knowledge in the reader that their world isn't safe."

I think that's the best definition of horror I've ever seen.
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