The Stuff of Horror

What is horror?

Easy enough question to ask, but how does one answer it? The horror genre is long and storied, to be sure.  I suspect horror predates the written word, creating the stuff of late night caveman campfire entertainment. It immediately found its home in literature, then escaped the print and infected film and television as soon as those technologies were invented. Love it, hate it, fear it… we humans are entranced by horror. The trick is defining it.

If I sit down to write a horror story, what do I write? What makes a story a “horror story?” Must it require monsters? Ghosts? Blood and gore? Old castles and monasteries? Serial killers and cheerleaders? Aliens and sternum-ripping set pieces?

There is no good answer, in my opinion, because horror is chimeric, switching its form and function person to person. For horror to be appealing, it must touch some part of our subconscious… the underevolved length of our noodle charged with keeping the body alive. Perhaps it isn’t enough to say that horror must scare us.  Effective horror stimulates our fight-or-flight response on some level, be it subtle or outright, and gives us a brush with our own mortality.

Memento mori, y'all!

Certain traditional elements of horror brutalize our reptile brains in particular ways. Vampires and zombies trigger our fear of rejoining the food chain, and our disgust at infection. Ghost stories challenge our understanding of the hereafter and the absolution of death. Killers hold our gossamer illusion of safety up to a terrifying light such that we see through the pretense only briefly.

As a writer, I suspect that choosing to address a particular psychology isn’t enough. I feel that horror should be personal to the author, if it has any chance of reaching the reader’s caveman campfire. The real question presented to the writer should be “what puts the hook in me?”

A few days ago as I went to clock out of work, I stepped into the darkened warehouse to find my timecard. As I turned to the timeclock, I caught a glimpse of someone ducking out of sight behind some workbenches. I froze. I knew the warehouse was supposed to be empty, which brought me to the conclusion that I was alone with a stranger (and therefore in danger), or that I was alone only in the corporeal sense. I steeled myself and moved to the back of the warehouse to investigate.

I found no one.

For a brief moment, my otherwise rational brain opened up to an extreme reality. I could picture the figure, if only blurry and dark. It seemed human. And it had vanished. The world tilted for a second. My nervous system flickered with lightning, sending hairs on my arms standing at attention.

The moment ended, however, as I spotted a full-length mirror one of the workers had leaned against his workbench. Naturally, the figure was my own reflection. But that one brief moment captured the thrill of horror in a pure essence. I was exposed to something unnatural, dark, and well outside of my understanding. For a second… I believed.

Perhaps the key to writing effective horror lies not in the suspension of disbelief, but in the construction of belief?

Image credit: luigi diamanti

One response to “The Stuff of Horror

  1. An interesting thing about some of the archetypes you mentioned – zombies, vampires – is that they not only touch on the fear of being reintroduced to the food chain, but also touches on taboos (cannibalism). Horror is a curious thing. Ultimately, I believe that if what the author is writing doesn’t scare him (or her), then it’s not going to scare the audience. There are a number of common themes – isolation, infection, fear of death (of course) – all of which are primal fears. And I think the key is that one word – primal. Primal describes a commonality that is hard to deny. Just my brief two cents

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