Sunday, August 21, 2011

What is Horror?

"Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion."
- Douglas Winter, PRIME EVIL (1982)

With an immense amount of respect to Mr. Winter, this statement is only partially right. Emotion is, indeed, a factor in horror fiction. Emotion is necessary in any fiction, whether it is action-adventure, mystery, science fiction or space opera. Like all good fiction, when it comes to horror fiction (and horror movies, as well), emotion is merely one single thread in the blanket of dread we authors weave when telling a story.

But what makes horror, in fact, horror?

If an author wants to evoke from a reader true horror, there is only one element that will simply reach into any reader’s psyche and start to unhinge them: the removal of safety. Once you remove any amount of safety from a character or a place, you’ve now begun the process of unsettling the reader. This is only truly successful, however, if the other threads in your blanket of dread are present and working. The reader won’t care if you’ve pulled the proverbial carpet out from a character if you haven’t evoked the proper emotional bond between reader and character first. This is why sympathetic characters work best (but are not always the choice).

Take any horror novel you love and boil it down to its essence, the true nexus of the story, and you will see that the main reason a reader is drawn to that story is whatever safety the character initially had is gone.

The removal of safety can be complete and total, as is the case in such novels as THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy, SWAN SONG by Robert McCammon, or I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson. Even THE RISING, DEAD SEA and CITY OF THE DEAD by Brian Keene (where zombies have taken over the world and only a few humans survive). In all these tales, most of the safety in the world (or at least the characters’ world) is gone. Armageddon of some sort has wiped it all out and changed the way the characters interact with their world. Their daily life is no longer in line with “the norm” a reader knows in their daily life and that tangent is the bread and butter of horror fiction.

The removal of safety can be of a more moderate nature. One of the most effect invocations of horror is the fa├žade of safety in the beginning of the tale and the removal of that safety after the author/creator has established how benign and peaceful a particular situation is at first. Some incredibly well done examples of this are THE FOG (film) by John Carpenter, ‘SALEM’S LOT and NEEDFUL THINGS by Stephen King, and THE BIRDS (film) by Alfred Hitchcock (and yes, to a lesser degree the short story by Daphne Du Maurier). In these tales, it is established early on that the town (Antonio Bay in the case of THE FOG, Jerusalem’s Lot and Castle Rock in the King tales and Bodega Bay in THE BIRDS) is a small, peaceful town where everyone knows everyone else and it would be a great place to raise a family. The introduction of outside elements (the ghosts of fishermen, vampires, the devil himself, and ravens and seagulls) throw the relative safety of the small town into chaos and this unsettlingly creates a tangent from what the reader or viewer knows in their own daily lives. This removal of safety creates the turmoil of emotion for the reader. In essence, it creates the horror of the situation.

The fact that Robert Neville is alone in the world (and yet, hauntingly, almost poignantly not alone) strips the world (in I AM LEGEND) Richard Matheson builds of its safety and throws the reader off-kilter. This is not the same world where we, the reader, get our Starbucks coffee or pick up a newspaper. This is a dead world, inhabited by things that you DON’T want to come across. This removal of safety drenches the story in dread. When the vampire hordes encircle Neville’s house each night, it invokes in the reader a creeping terror. Why? Because the vampires (representing the removal of safety) are infringing on the relative safety of Neville’s boarded up, garlic-strung house. The horror is evoked by the erosion of Neville’s perceived safety.

The most cringe-inducing moment in King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is when grave digger Mike Ryerson is staying in Matt Burke’s house as a guest overnight, Matt Burke hears things amiss in the darkness.

Softly yet clearly in the silent house the words came, spoken in Mike Ryerson’s voice, spoken in the dead accents of sleep:

‘Yes. Come in.’

Matt’s breath stopped, then whistled out in soundless scream. He felt faint with fear. His belly seemed to have turned to lead. His testicles had drawn up. What in God’s name had been invited into his house?”

The horror here is quite clear. The relative safety of the character’s surroundings (his house) has been violated by an outside force. The removal of safety sends any of us—all of us—into a disjointed semi-panic. Our world is not right, unless there’s a modicum of safety involved in it. Strip away that safety and you can induce some serious gooseflesh.

Serial killers terrorizing teenagers, vampires surrounding us in the dark, the flash of atomic weaponry minimizing the human race. It doesn’t matter what the catalyst, if you, the author remove the safety from a situation, you begin to weave terror or horror into your writing. It’s what drives us as humans. The want of safety, the need of safety drives our human instinct to survive. That’s what builds the emotion in a horror story. All of these are key elements for you, the author, to manipulate to make the best story you can.

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