Call For Comments: What is the Meaning of Horror?

From Wayne: Recently on Voxpopcast we discussed the intersection of horror and humor. It’s still Halloween season, so we’re going to keep talking about horror. And, we’re Voxpopcast, so we’re going to keep talking about genre.

When is a horror story not really a horror story, but it is really? One of our regular listeners (apparently we have those), brought this idea up to me recently. His example, and I think it is a good one, was the movie Deliverance. Four friends take a white water canoeing trip where they are attacked by a couple of backwoods mountain men. They end up killing one of them, and then spend the rest of the movie being stalked by the surviving one. If the mountain man was a supernatural being we would unambiguously call this a horror film. Does horror need the supernatural as part of its definition? Do we need a werewolf or a vampire for that definition to fit?

Of course not. Some of the most famous examples of horror films are not supernatural. Neither Michael Myers or Jason were supernatural, at least in their first appearances, though that changed over the course of the franchises. Do we need a monster? Is the shark in Jaws a monster? Is Jaws a horror film? If you don’t think so, why not?

Maybe some operational definitions would help. https://literaryterms.net/ says ‟In literature, horror is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience—in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror.” Okay, that seems pretty straightforward. No mention of the supernatural. Jaws can be a horror film. In another entry it states, ‟A thriller is a genre of literature, film, and television whose primary feature is that it induces strong feelings of excitement, anxiety, tension, suspense, fear, and other similar emotions in its readers or viewers—in other words, media that thrills the audience.” There’s a lot of overlap there (and oddly enough, they didn’t have an entry for suspense, which I think is also conflated in this topic).

On Quora someone separated the two by saying ‟Horror is what you see, it’s in your face, what the writer wants you to see. Suspense is what you don’t see, it is what you imagine.” That helps, but it still doesn’t clear things up entirely. A lot of Jaws is about suspense… the music, not knowing where the shark is or where it will strike. But then suddenly, the shark is in your face.

The same is true of Michael Myers, and lots of the other famous icons of horror. A lot of what is scary about them is the lurking sense of imminent danger.

What about Silence of the Lambs, or Midsommer? Alien and Aliens are both scifi films, but one is overtly the horror genre and the other is a straight up action flick.

The boundaries of these are thin, with a lot of overlap. Obviously, there doesn’t need to be a pure example of any specific genre. Life is complicated, and so are our fictions. Alan Moore, of Watchmen fame, among other things, once said, ‟Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”

So we want to talk about this. What are some of your favorite ‟horror” stories that might not be horror? Tell us which stories you think cross these genres. What has most of the hallmarks of horror, but no one really categorizes it that way, and why do you think it qualifies anyway?

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