Horror is not a genre, it is an emotion. It is a progressive form of fiction, one that evolves to meet the fears and anxieties of its times. ~ Douglas E. Winter
Many have often wondered, “What is the horror genre, anyway?” Well, first, as Douglas E. Winter so beautifully pointed out, it’s not a genre. It’s an emotion.
Horror is the tickle you get when your hair stands up on the back of your neck. It’s the sickening feeling in your stomach when you see a disturbing image or are faced with a catastrophic problem. It’s the one image you can’t get out of your head, the monster you’re positive is under your bed, the one fear that governs your entire personality.
For some, this might sound like a cop-out. It doesn’t really answer the question but re-directs it elsewhere. And that’s exactly why its perfect because the horror genre doesn’t exist. People are getting it wrong and shoving an emotion into a box. The result is a shameful and sad ghetto of trashy horror novels and movies at every bookstore.
When we stop understanding the horror genre for what it is, we look at it as a utility to be molded in the easiest fashion possible. This is why horror movies are rife with cheap tricks like the “jump scare” and horror novels rely on grotesque description rather than getting to the heart of what scares a character. Once horror writers remember horror as an emotion, falling back on gimmicks won’t be so tempting.
The horror genre is very different from other fictional forms because it isn’t a realm or a technology but a feeling. A feeling many people wish to avoid altogether but still purchase in large quantities. People want to be horrified (which is a weird concept but a real one). It just has to be in a safe space.
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This isn’t to say horror writers shouldn’t use tried and true formulas, tropes, and conventions many readers have come to expect in the horror genre. Often times, it’s impossible to get around them. Creating a heartless story full of cliches isn’t going to win over anyone and it wastes the audience’s time. But, if the writer dives in deep about what horrifies their character, they’ll likely run into the things horror stories have touched on before.
The danger of genre writing is the writer becomes boxed in and forgets the soul of the genre. It’s easy for a writer to only look at what worked before rather than looking at core concepts. Horror demands all stories start from one place: Fear. What is the main character afraid of? What is the villain afraid of? What are all the characters afraid of? Once the writer answers those questions, the soul of the story is revealed.
The beauty of this is that the whole genre is governed by an emotion. A very deep, old, and powerful emotion making characters do all sorts of crazy and weird things to survive or benefit them in some way. When you look at it that way, it makes sense why people love to experience horror because it puts them in positions they’ve never been in and forces them to ask one question: How would I get myself out of this?
Horror is an emotion. Never forget that.