Horror and Terror

Originally posted on February 19, 2011 at 7:10 PM

*Disclaimer: this is the horror-genre connoisseur’s post. If you don’t like that genre, you probably shouldn’t read this. It might make you angry. It might make anyone angry, for that matter. Fair warning.

“Horror” and “terror” have always been interesting words to me. They’re often used together, so obviously they have some connection, but the fact that they are used as a duo (as opposed to interchangeably) also signifies that they have distinct meanings. Otherwise, why list both?

I’m certainly not the first person to think on this. In fact, it’s been an ongoing discussion in the literary community since gothic writer Ann Radcliffe (author of the fabulous The Mysteries of Udolpho) first brought it up almost 200 years ago. Here’s what Ms. Radcliffe had to say:

“Terror and Horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them …. And where lies the difference between horror and terror, but in the uncertainty and obscurity that accompany the first, respecting the dreading evil?”

Essentially, what I interpret Radcliffe to be saying here (and in other readings I’ve done), is that terror inspires fear while horror inspires distaste. And furthermore, that the first is sublime while the second is despicable. I’ll wait. Go ahead. Re-read that.


*other people wondering why there were gasps*

*someone goes back to re-read it*

*more gasps*

*confused looks*

Okay. I’ll explain. You know that slow-moving ghost story that keeps you awake at night for fear of a bodiless man standing over your bed? That’s okay. Desirable, even. That takes you to new heights of living. But you know that movie that you’d be uncomfortable watching with your mom? The one that involves eviscerating people with a pocket knife? That’s not okay. That makes you a scum bag.

Horror-genre lovers, you may gasp now.

As much as I love Radcliffe, I believe her to be a victim of her time. Thankfully, horror creators today don’t share her qualms, although at least the most notable among them seem to agree with her distinctions:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” –Stephen King (emphasis mine)

Why, Mr. King. Perhaps you’ve tapped into something.

I agree that terror, as a horror writer, should be the priority. I.e., causing fear in the reader. But I don’t agree with why. I don’t think it’s the “finest emotion” of the two or that it “expands the soul.” I think, quite simply, that it is harder to accomplish. Any Jo Blow off the street can gross you out or sicken your morals, but only the most talented can make you look over your shoulder, make goose bumps stand out on your arms, make your neck crawl. And thus the hierarchy is based on skill, not on some philosophical idea of one emotion being finer than the other.

I’m not arguing that gross-outs are noble. I’m arguing that terror isn’t.

And while I’m at it, I might as well piss everyone off: neither is romance, love, empathy, pity, bravery, loss, or humor. Sorry guys, but I’m just not buying it. We are humans. Emotions are biological responses. One is not greater than another, just different.

So by all means, horror writers should strive for terror first, horror second, and ickies third. But not because of some mislead notion that one will get them (or their readers) to Heaven faster. Just because it’s a way of narrowing the field. The best writers can accomplish the first, the worst only the last. Go ahead, scare the crap out of me. Prove yourself.

Disagree? I love to debate. Feel free to comment.

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