What Is Horror?

Thanks to horror being one of my genres of choice – both as a fan and as an artist – I’m often in the position of having people ask me my thoughts about it, which, of course makes me ridiculously happy because there are few things I enjoy talking about more than horror. Classic books, movie releases, books that get some buzz, the genre as a whole… I love it all. But no matter what prompts the discussion, there’s one idea that invariably comes up: the difference between horror and good horror.

In fact, it happens so frequently that I’ve decided to blog about it. Fancy that.

Which horror works (movies, books, etc.) are “good”? What do I like? What are my favorites, and why? This, of course, leads to a discussion of bad horror. One that comes up incessantly is the 2005 film Hostel. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say, “I don’t like that torture porn stuff. It’s just gross. That’s not horror.”

That’s not horror? I beg to differ.

I think what they mean to say, “That’s not good horror.” And since ‘good,’ as we all know, is highly subjective, what they really mean to say is, “I don’t like that type of horror.”

The most basic definition of horror as a genre is: fiction that aims to frighten, disturb, or unsettle its readers (or viewers).

The key word here is ‘aim.’ Why? Because fear, too, is subjective. What absolutely terrifies me might make you snicker. What keeps you awake at night might not give me a moment’s hesitation. Just think about discussing horror movies with your friends. Chances are you don’t find the same ones scary. (And if you do, you should become viewing buddies because that’s awesome.)

If the most basic intent of horror is to scare readers, and different readers are scared by different things, all horror, necessarily, won’t work for some people while it does for others. Are some fears more universal than others? Sure. But that doesn’t mean non-universal fears “aren’t scary.” They are to someone.

Perhaps violent, graphic depictions of physical torture don’t scare you. Personally, they just gross me out – which I’m utterly unimpressed with. But that doesn’t mean that Hostel isn’t a horror movie. Because you know what? Being captured in a foreign country and tortured is some people’s worst fear. Those people can’t get Hostel out of their damn minds; it haunts them. Which, by definition, makes it good horror – for them.

I found Paranormal Activity to be the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen. I have friends who laughed their asses off because they thought it was so lame, boring, and cheesy. Now part of that has to do with your mindset going in to a movie and who you see it with, etc. (hard to remain frightened when your friends are cracking one-liners throughout, or if you have all the lights on while your spouse bakes cookies in the background), but part of it just has to do with our individual fears. I’ve always been afraid of the dark and the empty space beyond my covers when I go to bed – so Paranormal Activity pushed my buttons. Slither, on the other hand, did nothing for me. What can I say? I’m not afraid of slugs.

So when I get into these wonderful conversations about horror and the books and movies that fuel it, and I hear someone say, “That’s not horror,” I want to stop them right there.

Think about it this way: would you do this in other genres? I’m not a fan of cryptic, highfalutin poetry that feels more intellectual than emotional… but you would never hear me say, “That’s not poetry.” You’d hear me say, “That’s not for me.” Likewise, do you hear fantasy fans claiming that mermaid fiction isn’t fantasy? No. You might, however, hear them say, “Mermaids just aren’t my thing.”

Let’s give the same respect to the genre of horror fiction. Horror is discriminated against enough without those of us who love it trying to exclude others who love it. Subjectivity is a wonderful thing, and everyone has a right to their own tastes. If you hate slow, psychological ghost stories, by all means; hate slow, psychological ghost stories. But don’t claim they aren’t horror. Say it how it really is: “That type of horror isn’t for me.”


Okay, that’s enough for this time. Some time I would love to cover the many different types of horror (a list of subgenres with my some definitions and explanations). And perhaps another time I’ll talk a bit about what good horror means to me personally.

Like this post? Check out all posts in the What is Genre? series!

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  • Julie Sondra Decker

    Agreed. I don’t do horror at all (don’t write it, don’t read it if I can help it, don’t watch it), but the concept you’re talking about here transcends genre. Some people just love to take their own preferences and beliefs and consider them definitive of good taste or even reality. So for horror, these sorts of people believe that what doesn’t scare them is just objectively not scary. For other genres, people believe they have the final word on what’s sexy, what’s moving, what’s thrilling, what’s imaginative, what’s exciting. But we wouldn’t have so many ways to express these things if there weren’t so many different kinds of people to enjoy them!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I seem to have become a wimp in my old age. I remember, in high school (and into college), enjoying the feeling of being scared by horror movies (mostly the Stephen King movies popular then: Cujo, Christine, Children of the Corn, Pet Semetary… And who wrote Chucky? That freaking doll still haunts me!) … now I’m a big more reserved. Or maybe a big scaredy pants?

    Great post about the “types” of horror out there. For the record, the paranormal psychological stuff WOULD freak me out (and I’m terrified of any demonic-possession-type movies or books).

    • I’ve actually heard a lot of people say they become less… what’s the word? capable? willing? whatever… less enthusiastic about horror as they get older. I wonder what that’s all about. (And let’s hope, for the sake of my career, that it doesn’t happen to me!)

  • Lura Slowinski

    I really hate that people can’t allow things they don’t like to exist. To hear some people talk the things they don’t like are somehow an insult to them personally, which I don’t understand at all. Do they really think all forms of entertainment have to cater to them personally? What a boring world that would be.

    • Indeed. I think in this case it might be less about personal insult and more about fear of association by implication. A lot of horror fans don’t want to be associated with certain subgenres, so they speak out against them for fear of being lumped in otherwise.

  • Traci Kenworth

    Very true!!

  • klstevens

    I think the problem people have is they get wrapped up in defining horror as scary instead of as disturbing. Things jumping out, creaky stairs in an old house, or even vicious torture porn a la Saw XXIV are all things that disturb people but they don’t necessarily scare them.

    Another reason I think people push away the horror genre is it is the only genre that currently, and frequently, reminds people of their own mortality. Thrillers are another… but usually at least the main character survives in a thriller.

    Finally, I think it’s stereotyping. Before my husband and I got together, he hated horror. Never read Stephen King but hated him. Never watched a horror movie but hated them. Couldn’t tell me why he did… he just did. I decided to give him a chance anyway because he had such an open mind about everything else… and slowly, over time, I’ve pulled him from his shell. He reads King more than I do. Koontz too. He loves movies like Slither (sorry Anne, I love that movie) and enjoys at least watching others play Amnesia. He still jumps like a small child and makes the most horrible whining noise when he knows something is going to happen… but he’s enjoying those reactions now.

    Sometimes, you just have to try!

    • Those are great thoughts! And good point, too about “scare” being prioritized before “disturb” and “unsettle.” That’s actually especially interesting to me because that’s my personal favorite taste-wise, too. I think (at least in literature) scaring readers is more difficult than disturbing them — so I’m more impressed by that. But that doesn’t mean that unsettling and disturbing fiction isn’t horror as well! And I’m glad you’ve brought your husband over to the dark side. 😉 Wa-ha-ha!

  • Laura Rae Amos

    I wish readers of all genres would respond that way. I see this too a lot in comedy — “That’s not funny!” Well, it probably is funny to someone, but sense of humor is subjective, as is the sense of what’s sexy, romantic, scary, or whatever.

    As for the scariest I’ve ever seen, The Mothman Prophecies! Because it was partially based on a supposedly true story or something, lol! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothman) Anything that is even remotely based on a true story scares the crap out of me!

    And on a side note, I watched a movie the other night with the hubby that I think would fit your definition of horror, because it left me highly disturbed and unsettled! 😮 I’m not sure if that makes it well done, or badly done, or if I’m too “squishy” for horror, lol!

    (Was called Blood River, btw.)

    • How funny; I actually *hated* The Mothman Prophecies! I thought it was so boring! lol. Just goes to show how subjective it really is. (And strangely, the ‘based on a true story’ thing actually does the opposite for me. I roll my eyes. I think I’m just way too cynical to buy it.)

      I just watched a trailer for Blood River and it does look incredibly disturbing!

  • jclementwall

    I’ve actually struggled with the definition of horror. For instance, according to the definition in your post, “Sixth Sense” qualifies. There are some really scary scenes in that movie. But I would hesitate to call it horror because I think the two people in the world who haven’t seen the movie would think it was something it’s not. When I think of horror movies, I think of Halloween, and Saw, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. Then i watch something slower and more suspenseful like, The Orphanage or The Others, and I want another name for it. Like “scary, suspenseful movie” isn’t the same thing as “horror movie.”

    Looking forward to your sub-genre discussion. Then I can be precise.

    • Sixth Sense is absolutely horror! A lot of people think that horror has to mean “the bad guy wins” or “lots of blood,” but I so strongly disagree with that stereotype. Here’s a great video on horror that talks about “dark transcendence,” which is a concept I adore: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LYSqGX_6xJA. I would argue that Sixth Sense fits into that category. And I know what you mean about the slower suspense movies, but that’s part of the problem. They *should* be considered horror. It’s sad that 80’s slasher movies are the only thing that come to mind, because horror is actually a huge, diverse, and very prevalent genre with a lot of good to give. The Bible, The Scarlet Letter, and even 1984 are just a few examples of famous books with many horror elements that we pretend “don’t count.” But taking books like this out of horror does the genre a huge disservice! Obviously, this is something I’m super passionate about. Appreciate your thoughts — look forward to talking more!

  • So true. As with most of the arts (like music and film), their attraction is subjective; different people like different things. And “good horror” definitely means different things to different people. It’s nice though – there’s plenty of horror choices to suit any taste. 🙂

    • True! A veritable smorgasbord. 😉 Thanks for stopping by, Lexa!

  • Jeff Dawson

    Agreed. Horror is very subjective. Some like blood and gore, while others are more cerebral. Does it need to be “in your face” or is more disturbing to let ones mine create the images and outcome? Ex: Halloween: that was in your face, while Vincent Prices’ “The Tingler,” had you checking under the theater seats. The only movie that really shook me and my college classmates up was, ” Friday the 13th, Part II.” We all almost got up halfway through it. Was it the blood, the gore or the absolute horror? We will never know.

    • Absolutely. I’ve never seen The Tingler; I’ll have to add that one to my list! Thanks Jeff.

  • Nina Badzin

    This was helpful! And I think you’re totally right about horror being a misunderstood genre!