What makes horror work?
Welcome to Horror 101. This will be an ongoing series of essays about the horror genre: from analysis about the elements of horror to using monster theory to in-depth looks at individual works of horror. While I have some plans already, please let me know on Twitter (@PintsNCupcakes) if there are specific horror texts/tropes/or monsters you think I should tackle!
For this first essay, I thought it would be helpful to illuminate why I’m doing this (and why I begged the lovely Powers That Be at Nerds to allow me to do it). Horror is deeply subjective, so it’s possible my analysis and thoughts about horror won’t agree with everyone. Thus, this might be helpful in gauging whether you wish to follow me on this journey into darkness.
I was drawn to the scary story at an early age—like think a three or four year old watching Aliens on repeat—but it rarely bothered me. I wasn’t a child who got nightmares—as much as I am a coward, trust me I am not the person opening the basement door where a weird noise has been coming from. So it wasn’t the fear that drew me to them, but rather the feeling of safety that they brought. I loved horror because it was contained. Close the book, turn off the movie, and the world was bright again. Even as a child this struck me as a power we don’t often have in life. I also appreciated that horror showed that people can fight against the darkness in their lives. It said be afraid, but be hopeful as well.
I read the Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series (aka the greatest books of all time) over and over again. Their reliance on folklore and almost fairy tale like logic certainly was an early spawn for my lover (and eventual study) of lore. I joined the Goosebumps book club and then graduated from those to reading very single Fear Street and Christopher Pike book the library owned (as a voracious and fast reader, the time between school ending and me getting picked up from the library was often enough time to read an entire book). By age ten, I moved on to Stephen King (who’d I’d already heard in audiobook form on family car trips) and a new idea about what horror could teach its readers. King often wrote of the underdog overcoming horror. Bad stuff happens over and over in King’s books, but the characters almost always won. One of my fondest childhood memories is reading the entirety of The Stand while home sick from school. It was a novel that tapped into my direct fears (me, with a bad cold, reading about the plague) while also illuminating the idea of people working together to fight evil (my favorite of all story types and one I’ll return to in future essays).
As a child who loved to write, I also found myself returning to horror again and again for my own creative purposes. When I got to college, I’d often come up against the same question again and again in creative writing workshops: why horror? Can you do anything other than monsters? Ugh, ghosts, again. But more interesting to me were the questions people asked that showed no sense of reality: everyone in workshops wanted the horror to be happening because people deserved it. The idea of horror as morality tale is certainly one that we see all over (horrors links to fairy tales is evident for a reason). But it’s a misguided one. To me the power of horror is that it can reflect reality: ie bad shit happens to good people all the time. Maybe it’s not monsters, but it’s the monsters of everyday reality: illness, violence, systems set up to mistreat. Horror can serve as a veil to describe life (something Get Out did recently in a masterful way).
So as a writer and reader I loved what horror could give me. As a teacher and scholar, though, I wanted to look under the hood. I became interested in exploring how horror operates on a level of mechanics as well as how it operates as a means of communicating ideas. What was the rhetorical value of horror? After studying monster theory, a fairly new form of critical study that looks into monsters and horror from the analytical perspective, I began to think even more deeply about the value of monsters and using them both in writing and in teaching. I’m lucky to teach at a university that allows me to shape my composition courses and this allowed me to create a class that teaches multimodal composition and communication through the theme of Monsters. Monsters are a fun way to get students thinking about much deeper issues. By exploring the ideas of monstrosity, we’re able to look at acts of othering and monstering that permeate history: racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and the list goes on. My students began to pick up on these ideas and tropes in various media they consumed. They realized it wasn’t just a “genre” thing as they could point to the language of othering and monstering in the speeches of politicians.
So horror has rhetorical value. It has value to me as a writer and reader. But what makes horror tick? To me, there are several key features to great/successful horror. I’ll be diving deeper into those in essays to come, but they include dread, the use of the uncanny, private versus global horrors, terror, awe, horror as masks, and more. Throughout these essays, I’ll be pointing to specific textual examples of successful deployment of these ideas. My horror taste runs the gamut from ghosts to zombies, supernatural thrillers to horror comedies, but as a head’s up I won’t be diving into torture porn such as Saw and its friends (which to me is not only not good entertainment, it’s also ethically questionable).
Finally, I hope you’ll stick around with me, as we enter Horror 101. You might not be a horror fan, but you may find that it has more to offer than merely goosebumps.
Chloe, speculative fiction fan in all forms, monster theorist, and Nerds of a Feather blogger since 2016. Find her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes