This article was originally published in October 2017 and has been republished for our new audience.
When I was a kid, my neighbors invited me to watch an alien abduction movie with them. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but the plot involved children being kidnapped and turned into disturbing alien chimeras.
I didn’t sleep that night.
To be honest, I didn’t sleep many nights after that, and occasionally neither did my parents. For a few years, I may or may not have made my father check every possible corner of my bedroom before I went to bed, looking for aliens, monsters, spirits, or frogs. He never found them.
During those years, I couldn’t stand horror stories. They all frightened me so much, child-alien chimeras or not. So trust me when I say I empathize with people who can’t stand horror. I also understand people who simply don’t like it or don’t find it entertaining. The genre isn’t everybody’s cup of tea and it doesn’t have to be. Me, however? I love horror.
How did I go from a scared child to a horror fan? I honestly don’t know. Horror did as horror does, seeping in slowly, one story at a time, one fright at a time. Here I am now. And what better day than Halloween to celebrate horror stories?
What’s horror, anyway?
It’s hard to define horror, mostly because concepts or stories that terrify one person may not work for another. I’m pretty sure my neighbors were fine after the child-alien chimera movie. Actually, wouldn’t that be a science fiction movie? Or it could be both? Are movies like Zombieland or Rocky Horror Picture Show considered horror, even if they’re not exactly scary? Can I consider The Last Rung on the Ladder to be horror, since it’s one of the most haunting stories I’ve ever read, even if it doesn’t use classic horror tropes? What defines a horror story?
To complicate matters, horror doesn’t need to permeate the entire story, just a few scenes. Sometimes those scenes will stand out and stay with us for a long time, causing a bigger impact than a classic horror story would. When we think of horror like this, we realize it’s everywhere. So maybe horror is less about a defined set of tropes and genre conventions and more about atmosphere and what that atmosphere evokes in you. Horror is a mood. And, to quote Chuck Wendig,
“That mood goes beyond merely invoking fright. It’s about traipsing into the dark, about shining a flickering flashlight beam on some nastiness, and probing fear and discomfort up and down the spectrum. From big stuff (surveillance state, religion, apocalypse) to little stuff (hey guess what there’s a guy in your closet covered in someone else’s skin and he has a camping hatchet covered in blood and hair).”
Defining what qualifies a story or a scene as horror would take an entire article, or several. So let’s keep the definition vague: horror is whatever you want it or need it to be, whatever works for you as horror.
The potential of horror stories
As we see with genres like fantasy or science fiction, horror is often treated as lesser storytelling. Horror stories are seen as cheaper or sillier or uninteresting, something I obviously disagree with.
Sure, any genre has its share of poorly-executed stories and horror is no exception. There are flaws more commonly found in horror stories, from harmful tropes that reinforce stereotypes and dehumanize people to a cheap use of tools like gore or jump scares. Those stories shouldn’t represent limitations of an entire genre, and I urge you not to judge the potential of horror by them.
Horror can tackle complex topics and social issues by working through metaphors. Metaphors are powerful: we can afford to examine the ugliest parts of our reality when we distance ourselves from them. Look no further than Get Out or It to understand what I mean. In portraying fictional horrors, those stories explore the horrors we find in real life.
Not that every horror story needs a meaningful takeaway. Horror can be purely sensorial experimentation, evoking terror, fear, tension, or disgust through the use of images, sound effects, camera angles, soundtrack, word choice, descriptions, etc. Whatever the medium is, creating an atmosphere of horror requires effort and technique. If you can’t find masterpieces among horror stories, you’re probably not looking hard enough.
Last but definitely not least, horror stories can be great simply because they’re entertaining. That’s it, just the joy of a good story. Some people are also into the adrenaline rush caused by horror stories, and I suppose it’s hard to understand the appeal of that if you’re not into it. It’s kinda like extreme sports, but without leaving your couch.
What horror says about us
The fact that horror stories can be entertainment is fascinating. Think about it: why would we want to feel fear? Anxiety? Disgust? Tension? Don’t we work hard enough to get rid of those feelings in real life? Why would we seek them in fiction?
Ultimately the answer is very personal, and that’s the beauty of horror: it’s very, very personal. Horror deals with primitive, raw emotions, emotions we often don’t understand or control, and what can draw them forth varies a lot for each of us. Different people may love the same story for very different reasons, because they approach it from different perspectives.
What scares you? How much control do you have over that? What do you fear the most? What’s the worst that could happen? What would you do? Horror asks us all those questions and more.
Horror is about control. We can stop the movie or the book or the game at any time we want. We know the story is not real. But the fear, the tension, the disgust? Those are very real, and we’re testing ourselves against them. We’re injecting a small dose of them in our systems (okay, sometimes it’s not that small) and seeing the results. All stories teach us something about ourselves, and horror deals with some of the hardest lessons.
Perhaps now we need horror stories more than ever. The horrors we find in stories pale in comparison to the ones we find in real life, I won’t dispute that. Yet I find horror stories are strangely empowering and comforting. Horror is about facing the monsters under our beds before they swallow us whole. It’s about finding a courage we didn’t expect to have. It’s about facing the worst that could happen with the best we can do. It’s about losing everything, but not losing ourselves in the process.
Horror is often associated with grimdark, but it can have a surprisingly positive outcome. Horror can show us that despite all obstacles, we can make it. We’re stronger than those monsters. We’re bigger than this shadow. We can survive this darkness. In the end, horror is about surviving. Survive out of rage, out of spite, out of luck. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes all you have to do—all you can do—is to survive.
Maybe the characters won’t survive, but at least they tried. Characters in horror stories never go without a fight, even if an internal one. So horror is also about trying, when you would have all the reason to give up, when the enemy is bigger and scarier than you. Horror is about holding on. It’s about resisting and enduring. Maybe it won’t be enough, but, to quote Robert A. Heinlein, to die trying is the proudest human thing.
I never found any monster under my bed. If I did, I’d be more ready now.