What Is Horror? The Answer is in the Question

My friend, Marie Loughin, writer and fellow member of TESSpecFic* asked on her blog, “What is horror?” More specifically, what’s the difference between horror and dark fantasy?:

This possibility led to the question, “Just what is horror, anyway?”

In answer, I came up with this checklist of elements that I’ve found in my favorite horror and assessed whether I at least attempted to include them in my book. (The degree of my success is left to the reader to decide.)

1)   Creepy atmosphere. (Check)
2)   Suspenseful. (Check)
3)   Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless). (Check)
4)   Inspires fear and/or dread in reader. (Check, check)

(Notice that violence and gore are not essential elements for me, though they are sometimes present in my favorite works of horror and are included in a couple of scenes of my book.)

(Just so you know, I read Marie’s Valknut: The Binding, and consider it fantasy.)

It’s a good question. I think the answer lies in what happens after the reader finishes the story. If the reader is left with the question, “My God, how can anyone live with that?” The story is horror. Horror fiction peels away protective coverings and releases dark things. Once released, they can’t be put back. They can’t be forgotten. They cannot be ignored. They cannot be vanquished. Even killing the monster does no good because the reader is left with the realization that the monster is inside us and never going away.

Take for example, the Master of Modern Horror, Stephen King. He writes horror and dark fantasy and thrillers and science fiction and works that are uniquely King, impossible to define or emulate.

Two novels, The Stand and The Shining, are the perfect examples of dark fantasy and horror.

The Stand, for those who’ve never read it, is an end of the world fantasy. A superflu is released killing almost everybody and the survivors have to rebuild civilization. Forces of good and evil gather to face the ultimate showdown. Despite truly horrific scenes, supernatural elements, and large doses of B-movie schlock, the novel is dark fantasy. The question for readers going in is, “Will good triumph over evil?” The story answers, “Of course.” That particular evil has been vanquished (In the original version anyway. In the author’s uncut version, Randall Flagg washes up on an island, presumably to wait for another opportunity to get his ass spectacularly kicked.). The survivors can now resume rebuilding their lives.

The Shining, on the other hand, is pure horror. Jack, Wendy and Danny are the winter caretakers for a haunted hotel. In order to reach Danny, a child, the ghosts manipulate Jack, the father, driving him insane. In the end, the hotel is destroyed, Jack dies, and Wendy and Danny escape. Sounds a lot like good triumphing over evil, doesn’t it? Nuh uh. Because at the end, the reader knows the real monster is inside Danny. The “shining” is both gift and curse. It’s power. Where there is power, there are those who crave it, who will not stop until they get it. The Overlook Hotel might have been destroyed, but young Danny is going to encounter many ghosts, many entities, many seekers of power. It will not end until he dies. Not only do Danny and Wendy have to deal with their guilt and sorrow, they also have to deal with knowing this isn’t over. What happened at the Overlook is going to happen again, and again, and again. It will never be over. My God, how does anyone live with that?

That’s my answer. To see what others think, check out Marie’s post and watch the blogosphere as other TESSpecFic members chime in.

Paul Dail – Friday, May 11
Kim Koning – Saturday, May 12
Aniko Carmean – Sunday, May 13
Jonathan Allen – Monday, May 14
Penelope Crowe –Tuesday, May 15

* The Emissaries of Strange: A Speculative Fiction Writer’s Collective is a group of writers whose fiction fits under the speculative fiction umbrella.


24 responses

  1. Fascinating topic. Horror evokes a physical response in me, visceral. I want to run, hide, cover my eyes– above all else, survive or maybe not. Dark fantasy, on the other hand, causes me to consider how I would react, what I would do under similar circumstances.

  2. Hi, Julia. Most dark fantasy, I find, is, if not hopeful, at least redemptive. It leaves me feeling that monsters can be vanquished. Horror, on the other hand, leaves me thinking, “Okay, one down, how many more monsters left to go?”

    1. Yes. Exactly. Both kick my survival instincts into overdrive, but horror makes me want to either hide or flee while dark fantasy makes me want to overcome all obstacles.

  3. Oh, I like this answer, Jaye! I’ve always thought The Stand was dark fantasy, but people are quick to categorize all of Stephen King as “horror”.

    Yes, by your definition, I believe my book is dark fantasy. Also, by your definition, paranormal fiction (including romance) may or may not be horror. Horror is very novel dependent.

    So how would you categorize “Misery”? (Just curious.)

    1. Hi, Marie. I would categorize MISERY as suspense with strong elements of psychological horror and some really gruesome gross stuff. (every time I see somebody with a power mower, I think about MISERY. Heh)

    2. So fascinating how differently each of us view books and genres. That’s actually kind of the point of my post tomorrow. Personally, I would’ve called The Stand a horror novel, but having heard the reasoning here, I can understand both of your arguments for fantasy.


      Hope you enjoy my post tomorrow, “Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulty of Defining a Genre.”

      Paul D. Dail
      http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

      1. Sorry, Paul, these irresistible urges to muddy already churned waters JUST come over me…

  4. Just read Julia’s comment. So Monster Hunter is horror, because there is a never-ending supply of monsters…

    1. Nope, I wouldn’t consider the Monster Hunter series horror. It would appeal to many horror readers, though. Which is why trying to narrow genre labels too much is hurtful for both writers and readers. Like the YA label, which I have a particular beef with–think of how many good reads readers miss because they don’t like kids’ books? Or think they don’t. In a purist sense, I tag stories with the horror label not by what elements they contain, but by how they leave me feeling after I read them. True horror scares me and leaves me uneasy and wondering what is under the bed, ready to come out when the lights go out.

  5. what an interesting question? i admit to not being much of a reader, but narrative storytelling can be an intrinsic part of creating artwork too.. yet i’ve never tried to categorise where my genre definitions lie.

    i shall put some thought into this, and if i have any revelations that i can articulate i will be sure to speak up!

    i’m looking forward to reading the other perspectives as they are published.

    1. Hey, Chris. Don’t be too awfully quick to categorize your work. That can come back to bite you. Even artists can be tucked into pigeonholes by their fans and patrons, then find out the hard way how unhappy those people are when the art takes a new direction. I love how your work always surprises me.

      1. i dabble in so many different areas that i always fumble over words when trying to explain to people the type of work i do. i always come out with a negative, “i hardly ever draw zombies!” rather than telling them what i do do.

        the pieces i am most proud of consistently get described as ‘disturbing’ or ‘unsettling’. so i suspect they cross the threshold of fantastical into horror..

        thanks, by the way, for the compliment! i mean, who wants to be predictable? 🙂

  6. I agree that horror isn’t necessarily violent or gory, but as you said, leaves a bad taste in your mouth that never goes away.

    I never knew what horror truly was until I read White and Other Tales of Ruin by Tim Libbon. I couldn’t finish the anthology. After putting his book down, I decided I didn’t want to read horror ever again.

    1. You know, I’d say, “Oh, no! You have to try something else,” but I know exactly what you mean. I love gory, violent, insane stuff, but I like it funny and over the top, because the really scary stuff gives me nightmares.

      1. Exactly. If you want nightmares, read Libbon. (shudder)

      2. that’s quite a recommendation – title and author have been noted for future reading! ta

  7. […] What is Horror? The answer is in the question […]

  8. Great take on the question Jaye. I especially love: “Horror fiction peels away protective coverings and releases dark things. Once released, they can’t be put back. They can’t be forgotten. They cannot be ignored. They cannot be vanquished. Even killing the monster does no good because the reader is left with the realization that the monster is inside us and never going away.” Bbbr….sends shivers down my spine 🙂 – Kim

  9. […] Jaye Manus: What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question […]

  10. Oh Jaye — well put.
    Horror does release dark things.
    That line gave me a bit of a chill.
    Made me smile that creepy, thrilled way because something dark and true has been touched.
    And thanks for writing about The Stand. Have not thought of it for so long, and almost forgot the name Randall Flagg.
    Was that the story where they boy has to walk through a covered bridge in the dark?
    Terrifying stuff…

    1. Hi, Deas. There is some truly creepy stuff in The Stand. The guy has to go through a tunnel to get out of Manhattan. Gave me chills thinking about it.

      I have to be in the mood to read true horror (without humor or absurdity). It fires my imagination like no other genre. A really chilling story can haunt me for months.

  11. […] What is Horror? The answer is in the question […]

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