What is the horror genre for?

dracula horror poster

We like to be scared. Rather, fear sends a rush of adrenaline, and we like that. Scratch that. Maybe it’s the relief we feel once the rush of adrenaline is over.

For the same reason, social media can be addictive. That rush when we hear a reply coming back from a tweet? That rush is partly borne of fear.

Some people have wondered if horror stories are 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

Howard Suber also writes about horror and its special appeal with young adults:

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

Is ‘fear’ the best word for the emotion horror evokes in its audience? An alternative is ‘horripilation’, which describes the feeling of hair rising on the back of your neck.

Disgust may also be necessary for the fun horror recipe. In children’s literature (designed for an audience too young for horror) there is a vast selection of ‘gross out’ stories, which are basically proto-horror stories.

Raison d’être of Horror

Can horror films add value to our ways of thinking? Can they challenge us to see the world in a slightly different way? Horror, along with Westerns and the entire speculative fiction category is highly metaphorical. Metaphor can be utilised to excellent effect. The best horror adds value.

Starting with Aristotle, the Greek philosopher introduced the concept of ‘catharsis’. The idea is that a scary story can release repressed scary feelings in its audience. (Debatable as to whether that actually works. It may not be the fear itself which is cathartic, but the increaseds sense of in-group intimacy which comes from watching a scary movie with other people.)

Let’s go next to Freud, who believed that horror taps into our collective subconscious. Horror stories can tell us what we’re afraid of. There are commonalities to what we all find reprehensible. Hansel and Gretel taps into the collective fear of an unnurturing mother. Almost all of us have a mother figure in our lives, making this a universally shared experience. We all fear food insecurity; we all fear getting lost. Freud used the word ‘uncanny’, and published a famous paper about that in 1919.

More recently, Noel Carroll (film scholar) has talked about the negative emotions of distress, displeasure and disquiet manipulated by horror films into something that feels like pleasure.

What are the big questions horror tends to deal with? All narratives are about our desire to know something we didn’t know before, but what is the knowledge that horror adds?

Why do monsters exist? What is a monster?

Horror is different from other types of story because horror monsters, by their supernatural, unassailable natures, are inherently unknowable to us.

Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman.

Carolyn Daniel

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

In all horror stories, the opponent wants to belong. They want to enter the human community but we won’t let them.

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.

“Cindy, this bitch is messing up my floor!” The Ring is spoofed as horror comedy in Scary Movie.

Bollywood also produces horror films, and they include lots of singing and dancing!

How The Horror Genre Is Evolving

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

Different people watch horror movies for different reasons

Here’s one taxonomy of reasons for watching horror. Marvin Zuckerman was all over this at the end of the 1970s.

Later, in the mid 1990s, Dr Deidre Johnston came up with four reasons adolescents watch graphic horror:

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.

In the mid 1980s we had Gender Socialization theory by Zillman, Weaver, Mundorf and Aust. They compared a group of 36 men with 36 women (using a now-outdated gender binary, of course) and concluded that the men found the horror films fun while the women were distressed. (Did the young men enjoy the movie more because the women were distressed? Is it possible to tell from someone’s outer reaction how scared they feel on the inside?) There’s a whole lot going on there.

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


Horror requires tension. That’s such a broad spectrum word. How does a storyteller create tension?

  • Mystery (the identity/nature of the opponent is often kept from the audience)
  • Suspense
  • Gore (in some subgenres of horror)
  • Shock (e.g. with jump scares)
  • Reveals and reversals
  • Horror-like mise en scene in film (costume, incongruous SFX, high and low camera angles, tracking shots, variation in closeness of camera to subject).
  • Lighting: uplighting, silhouette, spotlighting, underexposure, chiascuro, emphasis of shadows
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:

  • horses
  • stags
  • bulls
  • rams
  • 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.

a scene from Winnie The Witch, a picture book for young readers in which Christian symbols are inverted
a scene from Winnie The Witch, a picture book for young readers in which Christian horror symbols are inverted. Note also that Winnie is drawn in bright colours. Winnie = light = good.

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.

Mechanical Behaviour

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


Audiences don’t scare as easily as they once did. Not only have they seen just about every conceivable brand of horror moviefrom torture porn to alt-history vampiresthey’ve seen real-life terrors that Alfred Hitchcock never had to compete against. Considering this desensitization through saturation, it’s a marvel that one of the biggest horror phenomena of the last decade comes in the historically tame format of a weekly anthology series.

Do you know which series they’re talking about?

I haven’t seen it myself. More here, on how to tell scary stories, from a creator who is doing just that.

With Hallowe’en just passed, here are some collections of the scariest stuff, curated by others.