[On Horror Pt. 2] What is “horror”?

(Warm Bodies)
(Warm Bodies)

[Oxford Dictionary of English]

horror n.1 [mass noun] an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust: children screamed in horror
– 
a literary or film genre concerned with arousing feelings of

Vampires, werewolves, serial killers, giant bugs, monsters, zombies, demonic possession, demented children, fallen angels, hell dimensions, ghosts, and more than I’m sure I’m thinking of right now often tie back to: horror.

While at a glance this list doesn’t give me very many points–and again, if something goes against your conscience? it’s not worth risking–even some of these things can lead to good story with powerful themes. I’m not going to deny that a lot of horror is bloody, but there are two factions in terms of blood levels: those that focus on blood and guts and violence, and those that rely on atmosphere. And, some have both.

2006’s Silent Hill is heavily focused atmosphere for a fair chunk of its creepiness. With a town shrouded in ash fall and exceedingly short days the skin wanted to crawl right off my bones. It also has some pretty graphic displays of violence thrown in as well at the end, however that’s when the movie actually stops being eerie and starts feeling…more boring. And while 1979’s Alien is known for the alien-bursting-from-the-guy’s-chest-at-dinner-time scene, that is the only real shocking part of the film. Otherwise, most of its scares are from what you don’t see, but instead through little scratches and noises that, without the context of the film, wouldn’t be nearly as frightening. The Ring (2002) and When a Stranger Calls (2006) are two more recent examples that focus largely on psychological scares.

some-caps-silent-hill-6312026-1024-576
(Silent Hill)

Unfortunately, what horror is mostly known for is its copious amounts of blood. The fact that the Saw franchise is so successful doesn’t help this stereotype. There is a whole sub-genre dedicated to sadomasochism where the focus of the film is self-inflicted or other-inflicted pain and agony. This has been dubbed as “torture porn” where the focus is to give the audience a sexual kick out out of the pain. And, again unfortunately, pain being a sexual stimulant is something that’s coming more and more into the mainstream. But this isn’t exclusively what horror is, nor is horror exclusively responsible.

Like most story genres, horror comes with variations of its base definition into a multitude of sub-genres. While at its core horror focuses on fear, how that fear is executed (and what type of fear it is) in story form is translated many different ways. But what distinguishes horror apart from other genre fiction is its emphasis on atmosphere and perception. Like its sister-in-persecution, romance, horror is defined by something more vague, more ethereal, and immensely more personal than just setting and plot points: emotions. While the parent genres of science fiction and fantasy are less defined by “how do you feel about that?” and more by their setting, horror tends to be more focused on presenting the psychological reactions (generally dread) to unusually intense circumstances.

All stories need conflict. Horror just uses the fears of the characters as one of its layers. And, outside of the saving grace of Christ, there is a lot to be afraid of.

Most of these movies are coming from a secular viewpoint. Most of them are not claiming a Christian worldview, and that reflects in how the characters act. How might someone act in the face of death who has no Biblical background or foundation of salvation? How might they approach the world? If they throw themselves into the “lusts of the flesh,” will they ever find that all is vanity ala Ecclesiastes? This is a topic a faction of vampire movies tackle (1994’s Interview with a Vampire is a good example).

(Interview with a Vampire)
(Interview with a Vampire)

Story in general should make us ask questions. We relate to fictional characters when they remind us of ourselves, or of the people around us. It is a growing experience to expose ourselves to how people see people. Even in secular fiction characters are called on to make choices, and how those choices are framed, whether as good, bad, selfish or selfless reflects how someone views the world, or, if ambiguous, perhaps it’s asking you how you view the world. Story asks: does this make you feel? Feel what? Why does it make you feel that way? Is that a good way to feel? No? Why? Yes? Why? Was this choice right? No? Why? Yes? Why? From what moral standard are you drawing your conclusion? You don’t know? Find out.

Story begs you to ask serious questions often without even asking them. (Though, of course, this depends on the quality and depth of the story you’re watching. I have not yet found deep themes in Tremors, though I most definitely am not looking for them.)

In general, horror has character(s) pressured under incredibly dire circumstances that they are often totally unprepared for, and despite the overwhelming fear they generally need to act or they’ll die. And, in an unsaved world, death is most certainly something to fear.

I love horror mostly because the beginning is horror. No one knows what evil is out there, but there always comes the confrontation, they realize what it is and what to do about it, and from there it becomes action. I love the whole facing fears thing. Which, you’ll have noticed, does pretty much happen in almost all horror movies, though they’re not always done as well. — SilverEagle

Horror, just like any genre, requires discernment. An argument can be made against “acceptable” genres just as easily as an argument can be made for horror and even romance (I’m harping on someone to write on this actually). There is no perfectly “safe” genre, and even for those who dislike fiction entirely, we can just easily drown and be led astray by “what happens” in the real world. The thing with fiction is that it doesn’t normally claim to be real, and in the guise of story it reveals so much truth.

mama_1472
(Guillermo del Toro’s Mama)

The world says “There is no Absolute Standard,” but most people still dislike the whiny character who sacrifices everyone to save his own skin. Why? Even in secular storytelling, even in horror, Romans 1:18-21 shines through.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” — Romans 1:18-21

[Screencaps from Mama, Interview with a Vampire and Warm Bodies snagged from Shadow of Reflection.]

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5 thoughts on “[On Horror Pt. 2] What is “horror”?

  1. Jeanette

    Hey Nikki,
    I appreciated your thoughts on this. While I don’t watch horror and can’t really give any educated thoughts on it, only opinion, I think it’s great that you are writing on this. For me personally, I don’t think horror is edifying, but I especially appreciated your section on ‘story’ and what ‘story’ is supposed to do. I think if horror can make you ask those questions then it could be helpful. But I think, like you’ve been saying, it definitely depends on the person.
    Jeanette

  2. “An argument can be made against “acceptable” genres just as easily as an argument can be made for horror and even romance (I’m harping on someone to write on this actually). ”

    Question: are you talking about Romance as a general theme or Romance the genre as seen in the bookstore or library sections devoted to it? Because if it’s the latter I think I could write on that, just FYI. Romance as a genre is complicated to write about because of the varied, mixed, complex views that Christians as a whole have about it but I would totally proclaim that it can be read and enjoyed by Christians because of themes in it. (Point in fact Song of Solomon still remains one of the sexiest things I’ve ever read. And that is in the Bible.)

    As for horror…. <3 it always makes me ask questions. And I love it for it.

  3. Pingback: #SaveHannibal & Taking Back Scripture | dusty daydream

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