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.

Check out more about Salam Tims and his work

Salam Tims Writer on LinkedIn

Salam Tims Digital Media on LinkedIn

Salam Tims on YouTube

Facebook Page “Eye on Everything”


Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The name of this blog is “Eye on Fantastic Tales. Those are the stories I love most, that I want to write and write about and which I hope you are interested in exploring and celebrating here with me.

What do I mean by fantastic tales? Precise definition is always elusive and these qualifications are personal but . . .

When I say tale, I mean a short story, novel, play, film, or TV series—a fictional story however told.

What do I mean by fantastic? That’s more complicated and needs some unpacking.

The dictionary describes “fantastic” as “the imaginative and fanciful, the extraordinary, bizarre, or exotic.” For me, a fantastic tale must have some of or all these qualities. Let’s explore each, and allow me to put my own spin on their dictionary definitions.

When I say a tale is imaginative, I mean it shows creativity and invention. It tells me a story I’ve not read, seen, or heard before—or it retells a familiar tale in a way that lets me experience it as new. An imaginative tale expands my own imagination. In my schema, fantastic tales must at least be imaginative—I can’t think of one that isn’t. Imaginative is the essential quality of fantastic. However, I’ve known many imaginative tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic. Imaginative is necessary and not enough for me.

When I call a tale “extraordinary” I mean it stands out in my experience and esteem and maybe—but not necessarily in our culture’s esteem. (Some of my favorite tales are not popular.) I wouldn’t call many or even most extraordinary tales “fantastic”—but all my choices for fantastic tale are extraordinary—at least for me. So let’s add extraordinary to imaginative as my essential qualities of a fantastic tale. Are those two sufficient?

Let’s consider the others.

When I say a tale is fanciful, I mean it’s imaginative on steroids—“overly imaginative and unrealistic” or “existing only in the imagination or fancy” says my dictionary . . . A fanciful tale is imaginative and then some—it’s “far out.” There are many fanciful tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are fanciful—but many are.

When I call a tale “bizarre”—“strange or unusual”—I’m saying that the story would be very unlikely to occur in  “real life”. There are many bizarre tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are bizarre—but many are.

When I say a tale is “exotic”—“foreign” “alien”—I’m saying this tale is set somewhere and or some-when other than here and now—or else its about someone or some thing not native to here and now—a stranger in our midst. There are many exotic tales that I wouldn’t call fantastic and not all my designated fantastic tales are exotic —but many are.

So, is this a long way of saying I’ll be writing about SF (speculative fiction) genre tales—Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror? Yes, but . . . Virtually all SF tales are bizarre and many—maybe most—are fanciful and exotic. They are certainly not all imaginative and outstanding—ergo, they’re not all fantastic (at least in my schema).

You will find me writing about fantastic tales from other genres—dramas, or comedies, and certainly many that are action adventures. They will all be imaginative, at least personally outstanding, and have at least one other fantastic quality.

So here are my “rules” for this blog—at least until I break them.

First, a fantastic tale must be imaginative and outstanding.

Second, a fantastic tale must be one or a combination of fanciful, bizarre, or exotic.

That’s my concept of what makes a tale fantastic, which I will try to heed and cite as I write about them.

What’s your concept of fantastic? Leave a comment and join the dialog.