What is Horror? Baby Don’t Hurt Me

Welcome to my thrilling stop on the banner TESSpecFic blog tour, the tour that dares to ask: “What is Horror”? This all started about a week or so ago when our fearless founder, Marie Loughin, posed quite the question: Just what is horror, i.e., how do you define the genre, especially as it relates to dark fantasy and other related genres? She invited each of us to take our shots and examine the question from our perspectives. In the process, we would also get to see the views of our fellow Emissaries and respond in kind. I think it’s been quite the success thus far; lots of intelligent replies and  See the end of this post for the whole list of worthy posts. It’s been fun, illuminating, and above all, intelligent. I hope I can hang in with the other folks.

Before I look at what some others have said, I felt I should begin by examining my own history with the genre. My love affair with horror began at a very young age, when I saw movies like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Alien. This meant that, from a very young age, I associated horror with blood, guts, and physical distress. It wasn’t until I was older and a little more sophisticated that I discovered the other side of the coin, that psychological terror and dread that can be just as effective as the physical threats of slasher stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I think both are valid as measures of horror, and while the term “psychological horror” gets bandied around, to me, horror is horror – psychological or more overt. So if that’s the case, how can I call my own work dark fantasy rather than horror? I thought about it, and realized that, in my mind, horror is based in reality, if a slightly warped version of reality. Halloween? Implacable serial killer on the loose in a small town. Check. The Shining? What may or may not be a haunted hotel transforms a man into a monster. Oh hell yes, and this fits in well with Jaye Manus’s definition:

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.

I like that definition, but I have to disagree with it as a broader definition of horror. It can certainly be an element, but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. Horror is all about fear – and our fears are not all directed at our own failings or the failings of our fellow man. Fear of snakes, for instance, is a primal fear, and has been used effectively in horror. Anything that is charged with negative, fearful emotion – that is horror. The most skillful authors can tap into their own fears, ones that others may not necessarily share, and convey them in such a manner that they become frightful to others. I don’t share, for instance, Clive Barker’s apparent fear of bees, but Candyman conveys it so well that you dread them when they show up, even if it walks the fine line between DF and horror.

So, all that said: what is dark fantasy? Well, according to Paul Dail and the publishing industry, it’s a sub-genre of horror, which would still make me a horror writer. I’ve tentatively accepted that, but I still feel that there are some significant differences between horror as an overall genre and dark fantasy. For me, dark fantasy is all about creating new fears – things that you might not have considered – in the context of a new world. Dark fantasy allows the author to create more expansive horizons. Ultimately, I think Charles L. Grant, the man who is said to have first created the term, put it best: “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.” (from Wikipedia) That Wikipedia article also says that Grant “often used dark fantasy as an alternative to horror, as horror was increasingly associated with more visceral works”, and that is exactly what I am trying to say here – horror is about the known or knowable threat, dark fantasy is about the unknowable threat.

The unknowable threat has always fascinated me, which is why I love dark fantasy. What other hazards might there be out there in the universe, ones which we don’t currently understand, or may never understand? Those are the questions I seek to answer.

Here are the rest of the posts from my esteemed colleagues, with Penelope’s post still to come:

Marie Loughin – Wednesday, 9th May

Jaye Manus – Thursday, 10th May

Paul D. Dail – Friday, 11th May

Kim Koning – Saturday, 12th May

Aniko Carmean – Sunday, 13th May

Penelope Crowe – Tuesday, 15th May

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  1. That’s an interesting line to draw. It’s true – I am generally more disturbed by horrible stories that could be real than by stories based on fictional monsters. Where to draw the line might depend on your belief system, though.

    By this definition, is Exorcist horror or dark fantasy? How about Alien?

    Your comment about the bees struck a chord. I am awed by writers who can take an ordinary thing and make it terrifying. Stephen King did it with balloons in “It.” The sight of a balloon bouncing along on its own still gives me a pause, years after reading that book.

    • Jonathan D Allen

      I’d agree, and I mentioned my perspective a lot because I think, in the end, a lot of this genre classification business is very subjective.

      Funny you ask about Alien, because it was in the original draft of this post and I felt it ended up confusing the issue. Also, I don’t think it really counts as either – it’s Dark Sci-Fi (I would also put Event Horizon, Scanners, and the video game Dead Space in this genre). Wouldn’t the Exorcist count as paranormal these days? That’s one I’m not 100% sure about and, like you said, could really depend on viewpoint if you believe in possession.

      GREAT example of balloons. Stephen King also made me scared of those wind-up monkeys.

    • Hi!
      Marie–I just finished my post and added almost the same question–where does possession fit–memoir, horror?
      Funny-we all overlapped each other in some areas.

  2. I like the definition of Dark Fantasy involving the creation of a new universe to hold hitherto unimagined fears. I can get behind that approach. Horror and Dark Fantasy share the same goal of tapping into our visceral fear centers, but wrap the catalyst for fear a different world-skin.

    It’s looking like Marie is right so far: give a group of people this question, and you’ll get as many different answers as there are people in the group! 🙂

  3. You have me thinking of the fear factor Jonathan.
    Can you experience horror and not be afraid of what you are watching or reading??
    I remember reading a book called Hostage to the Devil–it scared me so much that I could not finish. The priest who wrote the book said the worst type of horror is the dull, insidious, almost imperceptible feeling that nothing will ever be alright again. That line did not bother me much when I read it–but it is the one that stuck with me the longest. And now it truly does seem terrible.
    Nice work Jonathan 🙂

    • Yikes. I think that definition of horror is pretty stinkin’ scary. And interesting coming from you, Penelope. I’m not familiar with the book, but I’m sure it has some of that base fear rooted in Christianity. So I guess I can see why you would ask the question about experiencing horror but not really being afraid of what you are reading.

      Or perhaps I’m reading a little too deep.

      Great post, Jonathan. I’m trying to decide how your statement about horror being about the known or knowable threat connects with Kim’s post on this topic. But I’m too brain dead these days to decipher out the semantics 🙂

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

      • Jonathan D Allen

        Thanks, Paul. For some reason your comments on my blog have been going to the spam folder. Just checked it and WHOAH. Here I thought you just didn’t like me anymore 😉

        Interesting parallel when you mention Kim’s post. I might save an elaboration on what I see there for a future, full-length post.

  4. p.s.- Just to show you how brain dead I am recently, after seeing this post’s title for a few days, I just figured it out… both the play on the song and the accompanying humor of the double entendre. Well done.

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

    • Jonathan D Allen

      Hey well you’re the first person to comment on it…you might be the only one who got it, who knows!

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