How Should Horror Feel?

Image by Catharina77 from Pixabay 

What do you expect from any horror story? Scares for sure—shocks and surprises too, I’d bet. How about at least a touch of the disgusting? A scary shocking, maybe disgusting unnatural monster would probably belong in a horror story.

Let’s note these are all feelings­—primal emotions. Horror is all about your body feeling afraid, shocked, and or disgusted. A horror story may have intellectual or cultural aspirations but …

If you don’t feel it, it’s not horror.

Does a horror story need to make the audience feel all three of these emotions?

Some people use “horror” and “scary” interchangeably—especially to characterize movies.

Is every scary story a horror story? No. Fear is used to some degree in most types of story. Indiana Jones was afraid of the snakes beneath that pyramid but Raiders of the Lost Ark was not a horror story.

Is every horror story a scary story? I would wager that most of them are and maybe need to be—can’t think of any notable exceptions . . . Fear seems to be an obvious necessity for horror.

Some level of shock—unexpected and upsetting twists and turns—is an element in most kinds of story. We feel a pleasant tingle of discomfort mingled with pleasure when something upsetting or surprising happens in a story.

Is every horror story shocking? Yes. We expect the upsets and surprises to be intense in a horror story. That’s part of the suspense designed to keep us hooked.  

So, is two out of three enough? Is any scary and shocking story without anything disgusting about it a horror story? No, it’s probably some kind of thriller.

So, when does a thriller become a horror story?

You might be one who says, “I like horror but not the violent disgusting bits.”

I would argue that disgust—in the sense of revulsion or offense—is necessary for the full sense of horror to emerge in a horror audience. It needn’t be physical violence or mayhem. It might be anything that makes us feel revulsion—physical or even moral. The disgusting element may not even actually occur in the story. A prediction, omen, or premonition of what could happen might evoke anticipatory disgust in our imagination without ever actually happening in the story. Some horror fans would call that “subtle.” Others would call it “unsatisfying.” It may be only prefigured and the disgust provoked may be subliminal.

A psychoanalyst or an MRI might suggest that we aren’t always consciously aware of a feeling—especially an unpleasant one like disgust.

In much popular horror, the disgust is as palpably unmistakable as the blood and entrails portrayed in the story. The audience knows that it feels disgusted and may or may not enjoy the sensation. In other horror stories—think HP Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe—it might be mostly sub-textual— designed to provoke very subtle disgust. We may feel it almost subliminally without much notice—but we do feel it.

It seems to me that all three aspects of horror—fear, shock, and disgust—however subliminal—must be present in a horror tale.

Can a story evoke all of these feelings without being a horror story? Sure. Consider The Silence of the Lambs. It’s scary, full of shock and surprise, and truly disgusting in parts—and it’s genre is “crime drama thriller.”

What’s the missing element? I think it’s a sense of the uncanny or fantastic, something that “gives us the creeps.”A horror story must have at least one of the qualities I’ve described in another post that characterize a fantastic tale. The story must be strange—bizarre—something we are unlikely to experience in real life. The story’s setting and or its antagonist—human or monster—must be exotic—not somewhere or something from the here and now. The audience needs to feel that they are out of their natural element—they’ve crossed over into another reality where scary, shocking, and disgusting things are likely—nay assured—to happen.

Remember that “scary shocking, maybe disgusting unnatural monster” I mentioned at the top? It’s the “unnatural monster”—an element of the fantastic—that assures we’re in a horror story and not “just” a thriller.

What do you think? Have I left out some essential ingredient? Leave a comment and tell me.

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One thought on “How Should Horror Feel?

  1. I hosted a book radio show (“Speaking Volumes” ) for a while and had some horror folks on in October one year. The writers were all about their own kind of stuff but i had a librarian to talk about who reads horror and she said that the physical and chemical proximity of the brain space for fear and pleasure was a part of the appeal … and I always knew my brain was wired incorrectly.


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