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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