What is horror?

This is another Tim Waggoner-sparked post.

I was on a panel last night where we were trying to define horror.  My definition? Horror is a violation of reality.

I disagreed, because, well, that’s what I do when this kind of thing comes up, and made a brief response, which then got me thinking…

And what good’s a blog if you can’t use it to write up stuff that takes more brain-space than a FB post?

First:  Is Tim’s definition correct?

I have to say no; otherwise, all magical realism is horror, and it isn’t.  Hand someone Christine and tell them it’s magical realism and they’ll look at you funny; likewise, tell someone Like Water for Chocolate is horror and see how far that gets you.  Sure, on the surface, there are some superficial resemblances:  reality is violated.  And yet, in most cases, it’s pretty easy to tell whether something’s horror or magical realism, unless you’re reading some of Neil Gaiman’s darker short stories.

My point being that not everything that violates reality is horror, per se.

However, that word violate.

Does magical realism violate consensual reality, or does it do some other verb?  If you’re going to look at it like that, then…perhaps horror violates reality.

However, what do you call horror that doesn’t violate reality?  Just because there are no unreal elements to a horror story doesn’t make it not a horror story.  Another of the people in the thread suggested that “thriller” was the word for a horror story that didn’t violate reality, but I beg to differ.  Hostel is not a thriller.  Sure, it violates.  But it just doesn’t violate reality.  Neither does Audition or a thousand thousand other horror novels.

So what we have left is that horror violates. 

Personally, I don’t think that’s accurate, either.  Is all horror about violation?  Some of it is, right enough.  But is Dracula about violation?  Or is it about seduction?  Or is it about syphilis?  What about every other story about violation?  Is every rape story a horror story?  Every story about betrayal?

I think the idea that horror violates reality is a description of one of the things that horror does well, but not a definition of horror itself.  With stuff like that you can easily end up with ideas like “romance embraces falling in love” or “historical fiction defines history” or “science fiction explores imagination” or whatever, which gets people to thinking that any story in which people fall in love is a romance, etc.

Second, what’s a more plausible definition of horror?

Right, I realize I can’t be trusted to adequately critique myself.  But I am totally tied up in the idea that when you fit a book in a genre or subgenre, you’re vowing that the reader will have an experience that fits within certain guideline or follows certain traits.  Tim’s idea is a trait, fair enough, but I think it describes what Tim likes about the genre rather than the genre as a whole.

My idea is that when you’re talking horror, what you’re promising primarily is an emotion.  When you promise romance, you promise the feeling of falling in love, or sometimes falling back in love.  With the horror genre, you’re promising the emotion of horror.

Which begs the question:  what is horror, then?  We know it when we feel it, but what is it?

I take the tack that horror is an emotional condition in which we attempt to avoid unavoidable pain.

  • You have to experience acute pain, and you attempt to deny the reason for the pain, or even the pain itself, exists.
  • You have to fight/escape a threat that is much stronger than you are, even though you know that facing it down is your only chance for happiness or survival.
  • You have hurt a loved one and shift the blame onto the loved one or someone else entirely.
  • You have hurt someone who is justified in hurting you back, and try to deny that your behavior caused the pain or that your complicity contributed to the pain, but the other refuses to accept your explanations and irrationally, inevitably, pursues revenge.
  • A third party has caused someone horrible pain as above, and they try to re-enact the story upon you because of superficial resemblances, at which point you go back to the first and second points.
  • You realize that in a world of predators and prey, you are prey, and naturally expected to be hurt or killed by the predators; you refuse to accept it.
  • You realize that in a world of predators and prey, you only thought you were a predator.
  • You find that what most people consider normal, everyday life (or what externally seems like a minor change) is too painful to endure without increasingly desperate methods of denying it.
  • You find that the repercussions of a seemingly innocent act are too painful to face.
  • You find that the repercussions of what other people name an innocent act are too painful to face.
  • You find that the repercussions or ramifications of the difference between what other people say is true and what you observe are too painful to face.
  • You are forced to hurt someone for their own good or for the greater good, and it hurts too much for you to do so.

And so on.  What my idea about horror comes down to are two things:  1) something inescapably bad happens, and 2) it hurts too much to face it directly.  If anything is violated, and I think it is, it is ego.

Horror is a violation of ego.  But that’s just a trait of horror.  One I happen to prefer over violating reality, but still just a trait.

So here’s my shot at a definition:  Horror is a story primarily about avoiding unavoidable pain.  

The “happy” resolution of a horror story is when we confront pain, or at least confront the situation that causes the pain.  To my mind, the most horrifying stories are those in which we remove the element that causes pain without removing the internal trait of avoiding unavoidable pain (the TV version of “The Mist” is a good example here–removing the necessity of defending undefendable loved ones without changing the need to defend them).  You can have your Cthulus and your Kings in Yellow, in which the end of the story is, “And then, because they could not endure, they died, went mad, or were otherwise perverted or destroyed.”  Yawwwn.  To my mind, that’s the beginning of the story, not the end. 

Keep in mind, I’ve been screwing around with Plottoso I may simply have gone plot-mad, but there you have it.  Horror can intersect with other genres (like thriller and magical reality), but to my mind the heart of horror is about pain and trying to run away from it.

(A note: fear is the emotion that there might be unavoidable pain, as in “I’m afraid of spiders” or “I’m afraid of cancer.”  When the spider is actually on you and you know that no amount of flailing or beating about with a newspaper will get it off and you have to touch it, that’s horror.  A horror story about cancer is E.F. Benson’s “Caterpillars.”  He died of throat cancer, by the way.)

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