Exploring the Horror Genre

| Friday, September 28, 2012
Today's Tune: The Invasion From Within

Horror is apparently on the rise in fiction. Or something? I don't know, people say weird things about trends! But as such, I thought today I could talk about the various types of horror! Because not all horror is created equal, you know. Also Halloween is coming up and stuff.

First, let's talk about what distinguishes a horror novel from a thriller novel, though they may seem similar. Really, it's in the name -- "horror" is intended to illicit feelings of horror (duh) and terror, while "thrillers" illicit thrills and suspense/anticipation. Now, this isn't completely cut and dry, as many horror novels rely heavily on the aspects of a thriller to function. Things like unexpected plot twists, fast-paced action, heightened suspense... all aspects of a thriller. There's just a difference between, say, a spy thriller and a horror thriller.

People enjoy horror for a number of reasons. Sometimes we just like the rush of adrenaline we get. Sometimes we want to explore things we're afraid of in a relatively "safe" way (through a book or a film in the safety of our living room). Sometimes it's a certain fascination with the gross or the macabre. Or sometimes a tale about fear is linked inextricably to deeper elements we want to explore about ourselves and the world around us. It's a very powerful emotion, fear.

So let's talk about a few different styles of horror!

Psychological Horror - This type of horror definitely borrows from the thriller line of thought. It's about creepy ambiance and slowly building terror in the reader without actually letting them see the thing they're so afraid of. It makes them question what's real. These are stories where there may not be much blood or death, but people are terrified out of their wits by something they don't necessarily face head-on. This is the type of fear that's inside your head. A lot of writers use psychological horror as a metaphor for people who are afraid of things much closer to home... or even afraid of themselves.

Paranormal Horror - This is about ghosties and spirits and things that go bump in the night! Ghost stories often fall in line with paranormal horror. These are tales about the things that still haunt us even after they're dead and gone. It usually involves anything that's Not Of This World.

Creature Horror - Kind of a sub-section of paranormal horror, but more specific. The antagonist for these stories is a creature. A monster. The Thing, It, Cujo, Alien, giant toothy worms, you name it. It's an actual physical (non-human) being that's stalking and killing the characters, and it must be defeated. This can range from very superficial (scary, gross critter must be destroyed!) to a complex metaphor about the monsters inside ourselves.

Demonic Horror - Another sub-section of paranormal horror. I separated this one out because stories like these typically involve a person, or people, who have been possessed by some sort of demon. Perhaps even the Devil himself. There's a duality between wanting to save the possessed person and banishing/destroying the being inside them. There's an element of fear that even the people we love may hurt us or change beyond our control. These stories tend to be heavily steeped in religious imagery for obvious reasons. Demon pregnancies are also a popular (and problematic) trope.

Gothic Horror - Ah, good old gothic horror. A classic style. This type of horror relies heavily on ambiance and romantic ideals (though not necessarily romance). These are the literary stories full of gorgeous prose and tortured souls. Heavily steeped in Victorian flavor, you'll often find themes of descending into madness, dark family secrets, and confronting literal and figurative demons. Think Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelly, Dracula.

Slasher Horror - If you imagine the stereotypical horror movie with a teenage girl running from a guy wielding a big knife, you have the basic idea behind a slasher. This is a (usually) human antagonist, typically a serial killer with a fixation on the protagonist. It's a pretty standard plot -- killer is on the loose, characters start dropping like flies, big showdown with protagonist, killer is destroyed or put out of commission, protagonist lives, hooray. This standard model can be played with in an infinite number of ways and lots of the massively cliche (and sexist/racist) tropes can be turned on their heads.

Body Horror - This sort of horror is about a person's body being Enemy Number One. Their own flesh and blood turns on them, transforming them into something else, slowly degrading, or otherwise causing horrible mental anguish. Body horror is also known for being kind of, well, gross. Flesh melting, bones breaking through skin, nails falling off, all that fun stuff. You know when you read something happening to a character and it just makes you want to curl into a ball and cry because you don't want to feel the empathetic horror and pain at what they just physically went through? Body horror. This is stuff like killer diseases, chemical warfare, The Fly. The psychology here is in expressing our fear over our own fragile and ultimately decaying bodies, losing ourselves, or being trapped inside something that will cause us pain and eventually die. Of course, there's also the idea of our body becoming a weapon to protect us from harm, which can be another form of body horror.

Gore-Shock Horror - Hypothetically, body horror could be tied into gore-shock, but gore-shock is not really about focus on the body as the antagonist. Gore-shock is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: gore so vivid and visceral that it shocks you. Horror and gore are not synonymous, but when it comes to gore-shock, it's all about the gore. Gore to the point of it practically being paint on a canvas. Blood, guts, flesh, limbs, eyes... you name it. It's here in full, over-the-top glory. I often think of it as "comic book-style" gore, or the type of gore that's obviously done for artistic flare instead of reality. You typically find this in film rather than fiction, as it's very visual, but that doesn't mean there aren't some mind-boggling attempts out there in the literature world, graphic novels in particular.

Comedic Horror - Horror doesn't necessarily have to scare you or gross you out. It can also make you laugh. There's a small cross-section of writers who use horror as a medium for comedy -- playing with tropes, poking fun at convention, or being plain silly. This can be anything from a horror-esque plot with its teeth taken out to openly lampooning tired horror tales. It's all in the voice and the characters. Character reaction can make or break a story like this. Think of Shawn of the Dead and the way character reactions are very matter-of-fact. Oh, there are dead people out there? They're trying to eat us? Are you quite sure? Let's throw things at them.

There are a variety of other horror options to explore, but these are the ones I'm most familiar with. They don't have to be kept completely separate, either -- they're often blended to great effect. The very best writers can illicit multiple reactions in one book: fear, suspense, laughter, surprise, sorrow.

Are you a horror fan? What's your favorite type? Anything else to add?

 

6 comments:

{ prerna pickett } at: September 28, 2012 at 8:44 AM said...

i love all forms of horror. i read a lot of christopher pike growing up, he's one of my faves.

{ Whirlochre } at: September 28, 2012 at 10:17 AM said...

I'm horrified that there are so many types of horror.

Just when I'd come to terms with the idea of having my eyes gouged out it seems I now have to get my head round umpteen new unspeakables.

WAUUUGH!

WAAAAAUUUUGH!

WAAAAAAUUUGH!

Phew. OK. No emergency. It was only the sound of my mouse gliding on its mat.

{ Suzie F. } at: September 28, 2012 at 1:23 PM said...

Have you read THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST series by Rick Yancey? I'm on the third book, THE ISLE OF BLOOD. The 4th and final book comes out next year. I'm not usually a fan of horror, but it is one of the best YA series I've read so far - and I've read quite a few. The writing is excellent.

I'd say it's a combo of creature/gothic/gore-shock (though not overdone). What stands out in this series is the literary writing and the characterization. I'd highly recommend them.

{ Suzi } at: September 29, 2012 at 7:35 AM said...

Christopher Pike was one of my favorite authors as a teen.

I've always loved horrors, all types. I don't read as much as it now as I used to though. But I would love to get into writing it. The idea has not hit yet, but someday...

{ linda } at: September 30, 2012 at 8:16 PM said...

I cannot do horror at all! I have very vivid dreams and an overactive imagination, so if I get some horrific images in my brain I will have nightmares/be freaked out for several nights. I can't even watch action movies with gore. Crime thrillers can get me, too. Even comedic horror is too much for me -- I couldn't make it through Zombieland because there were zombies, even if most of it was intended to be funny.

Basically, I'm a huge wuss.

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: October 2, 2012 at 9:52 AM said...

We're not big horror readers (though we used to go through TONS of Goosebumps and Stephen King!) but we love this breakdown of the genre. Really helpful to show us what's "safe" to read and what we should avoid, haha. Also interesting to think about all the diversity in a genre that tends to get dismissed, both in books and film.

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