Raison d’être of Horror
Horripilation is the term for the hair on the back of the neck that stands up when we are seized by intense fear. Raising those follicles is the goal of all horror films.
— Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Horror, along with Westerns and the entire speculative fiction category is highly metaphorical.
Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman.
— Carolyn Daniel
In all horror stories, the opponent wants to belong. They want to enter the human community but we won’t let them.
Features of Really Good Horror Stories
Use a unique structural flip. At some point there’s a flip between the human and the inhuman. At some point, the monster becomes the hero. This character who we thought was inhuman turns out to be the most humane of all and the human beings turn out to be inhumane, attacking what they don’t understand, what is different from themselves. This technique goes back to Frankenstein.
How The Horror Genre Is Evolving
Horror fiction aims to evoke some combination of fear, fascination, and revulsion in its readers. This genre, like others, continues to develop, recently moving away from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to ones making use of medical or psychological ideologies.
The origin or horror can come from:
- Whatever lies beyond death (Dracula)
- Demonic forces (The Exorcist)
- Fooling around with Mother Nature (Frankenstein)
Or the horror can be supernatural in a different sense, without religious connections at all but still not what we customarily think of as “natural”. It can, for example, be the super science of The Terminator or the biological horror that seems “unnatural” in Alien. Sometimes, what’s unnatural is merely a warped mind, as in Psycho and Friday the 13th.
— Howard Suber, The Power of Film
What’s This About Metaphor?
The horror genre is about the fear of the inhuman entering the human community. It is about crossing the boundaries of a civilized life—between living and dead, rational and irrational, moral and immoral—with destruction the inevitable result. Because horror asks the most fundamental question—what is human and what is inhuman?—the form has taken on a religious mind-set. In American and European horror stories, that religious mind-set is Christian. As a result, the character web and symbol web in these stories are almost completely determined by Christian cosmology.
See also: Why is the Bible so much like a horror movie? from OUP Blog
Not all horror is from the West, of course. If you’ve ever watched Japanese horror, for example, you’ve probably noticed a distinct difference. Japanese horror does not make use of Christian symbolism because Japan has its own super creepy folklore from which to draw. Naturally, Japanese horror draws from western traditions and, increasingly, vice versa.
Japanese horror is Japanese horror fiction in popular culture, noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre in light of western treatments. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and tension building (suspense), particularly involving ghosts and poltergeists, while many contain themes of folk religion such as: possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.
Chinese horror is similar to Japanese though often includes some comedy elements. Given that certain tricks — such as mechanical behaviour — are used in both horror and in comedy, the link is more natural than at first it seems. A comedic scene can also heighten the terror that follows, and give the audience a break before enduring more.
Bollywood also produces horror films, and they include lots of singing and dancing!
Is Horror Addictive?
Marina Warner argues that the extremes of participatory performances such as rock concerts, orgiastic jubilation such as experienced at raves, and spectator entertainments such as horror films can be viewed as rites of passage, testing endurance. They “define…the living, impervious, sovereign self” as well as providing the ecstatic “high” of surviving. The adrenalin high Warner refers to may account for the addictive quality of these activities and narratives.
— Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives.
— Howard Suber
Different people watch horror movies for different reasons:
1. Gore-watching — low empathy, strong identification with the ‘baddie’
2. Thrill-watching — high empathy, high sensation seeking motivated by the suspense
3. Independent watching — high empathy for the victim and with positive feelings at the end of the story
4. Problem-watching — high empathy for the victim but negative feelings of helplessness at the end of the story.
The Target Audience Of Horror
Netflix is well aware of their target audience when it shows us three distinct categories of Horror:
Gory (Let The Right One In, Teeth, Let Me In, You’re Next) — believe it or not, Ten Little Indians was the play and 1965 film that started the Slasher genre. This film is itself not listed as horror on IMDb — it’s a blend of crime, mystery and thriller.
Supernatural (Splice, Insidious, End of Days, Mirrors)
Teen Screams (Troll Hunter, Hansel and Gretel, Playback, Hellraiser)
I haven’t yet come across the category for Middle-aged Woman Screams. However, as Howard Suber notes, some filmmakers have learnt how to harness the allure of horror and modify it for a different audience:
Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.
— Howard Suber
What Most Horror Stories Have In Common
In most horror stories, the hero is reactive, and the main opponent, who pushes the action, is the devil or some version of the devil’s minion. The devil is the incarnation of evil, the bad father, who will lead humans to eternal damnation if not stopped. The moral argument in these stories is always couched in simple binary terms: the battle between good and evil.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
Common Symbols In The Horror Genre
Light and Dark is important in horror. We all know that light = good, dark = bad. (Compare to the white hat, black hat symbolism of Westerns.)
Since Christian symbols form the basis of horror stories from the West, we often have the cross, which has the power to turn back even Satan himself.
Before Christianity, though, there was horror in myth. In myth, animals were symbolic in a similarly binary way. Good animals:
- snakes (believe it or not)
In myth, if you came across these animals, they had the power to lead you to behave properly and become a better person. But this all changed once Christianity came along. The devil kind of ruined any sort of creature with horns.
In Christianity, Truby explains that the following animals represent ‘the lifting of sanctions, the success of passion and the body, and the path to hell:
‘And these symbols exert their greatest power in darkness.’
Dracula is the ultimate creature of the night. He lives off the blood of humans whom he kills or infects to make them his slaves. He sleeps in a coffin, and he will burn to death if he is exposed to sunlight.
— John Truby
Sure enough, you’ll find the above animals are always scary — and never loveable — in modern horror stories. (Unless you’re watching a spoof, or reading a children’s book which is designed to be reassuring, while at the same time appealing to a dual audience by making use of horror symbolism.)
Other picture books make use of horror symbolism but are designed, ultimately, to comfort. The Dark by Daniel Handler and Jon Klassen is one example.
Some picture books are genuinely horrific even though they are picture books. The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean is one example.
This is commonly used in horror, as it is also used in comedy (refer to The I.T. Crowd: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” and in Meet The Parents, with the airport woman who won’t let Gaylord Focker board the plane early even though there is no one else waiting).
Examples of horrific mechanical behaviour:
- Whenever the sun sets the Wolf Man/vampire appears
- Bates in Psycho ‘can’t help’ himself, and becomes the cog in a horrible psychic machine