What is Horror?

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There’s a good question posed here, one that I’ve been thinking about for a few days now: How do you define horror?

I think, as Supreme Court justices do with pornography, we all probably know horror when we see it. Or we do most of the time, at least. But knowing something on site isn’t the same thing as being able to describe something, boil something down to its essence to understand it. Knowing something on site doesn’t help when the thing we see doesn’t look like what we expect or when we can’t see as clearly as we’d like (for instance, is a movie like In My Skin horror? How about Donnie Darko? Lost Highway?).

So it bears examination.

And in thinking about how I’d define horror, I keep coming back to a quote of H.P. Lovecraft’s that I came across most recently in an essay by Steven Grant. The quote, paraphrased, is that horror is when you enter your garden and find your roses singing.

Horror is the unexpected upending of the understood order of things. It is an upsetting of the agreed-upon natural way of the world. Roses don’t sing. People don’t turn into wolves at the full moon. There are no ghosts. The supernatural doesn’t exist.

And this is a pretty good definition. But it doesn’t cover all the territory it needs to.

After all, so much of science fiction would, were this our entire definition, be categorized as horror. Certainly time travel isn’t (practically) possible. Nor is machine consciousness, communion with alien races, or faster-than-light travel.

Fantasy, too, since we agree that there are no elves, no dwarves, no dragons.

So, what is it that distinguishes horror from these genres?

Along with the violation of the natural order (though consensus reality might be a better phrase for this, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is an obvious political argument), horror is defined by a framework of violence, dread, fear, and, perhaps, intent.

A work of horror is distinct from a time travel or alien-race narrative thanks to its intent to frighten or horrify, the emotions it seeks to evoke (fear and disgust vs. awe and wonder), and the way it pursues its aims.

A useful example is the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man.” In the episode, aliens arrive on Earth bearing peaceful tidings and promising to cure human ailments and problems, the solutions to all of which are contained in a single volume, called “To Serve Man.” Given this gesture of love and peace, humans agree to travel to the alien’s home world for further communion.

Only as rockets packed full of people are beginning to depart for space do human translators discover that “To Serve Man” is not a manual for solving humanity’s problems. It is, instead, a cook book.

So, with this revelation, a story that is clearly and firmly rooted in science fiction — alien contact and the promise of an ideal society through advanced technology and understanding — quickly shifts into horror — fear, dread, terror all evoked so simply.

But still, I’m not content with that this definition — horror is an upending of consensus reality accompanied by dread and violence, with fear as its goal — of horror.

That definition won’t completely cover works like Uzumaki or The Blair Witch Project (especially Blair Witch).

So, more later this week as I try to work towards a better definition of horror.

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