What, precisely, constitutes horror as a mode of artistic discourse? This is not an idle question. Any genre capacious enough to include Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” alongside works by Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, and Wrath James White must actively resist reductive categorization. Elements of the uncanny proliferate throughout Latin American magic realism and Russian social realism, and grotesque violence eliciting fear or disgust is a common feature of classic war novels by writers like Remarque and Mailer. Many people associate horror with the supernatural, though anti-realism on its own would not seem to define a horror novel or film. (The supernatural is a defining characteristic of most religions; the close association between religion and horror is profound and, some might say, even foundational.)
So what is it, then, that defines horror? One persuasive argument is that horror is somatic: it happens in and to the body. Horror strives to elicit a physical reaction from its recipient, whether that reaction is one of fear, revulsion, or creeping unease. The critic and academic Xavier Aldana Reyes writes, “[H]orror is largely defined by its affective pretences. Horror takes its name, in other words, from the effects that it seeks to elicit in its readers.”
University of California, Berkeley, professor Carol J. Clover goes further, extending her assessment of horror‘s effects to a spectrum of respectability: “On the civilized side of the continuum lie the legitimate genres; at the other end, hard on the unconscious, lie the sensation or ‘body’ genres, horror and pornography.” The connection is not unique to Clover; many detractors have referred to horror – especially its graphic violence and the close association between sex and violence within the genre – as pornographic or obscene. But Clover is drawing a different distinction here. “[H]orror and pornography are the only two genres specifically devoted to the arousal of bodily sensation,” she writes. “They exist solely to horrify and stimulate, not always respectively, and their ability to do so is the sole measure of their success.”
On one level, all horror is body horror.
In his 1981 study of the genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King draws a distinction between the effects a practitioner can hope to achieve in the genre. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion … and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.” The sliding scale King presents – with Shirley Jackson’s sublimely creepy novel The Haunting of Hill House at one pole and Ed Lee’s vomitous hardcore volume Header at the other – is useful, though it is also good to keep in mind the contemporary master’s willingness to “go for the gross-out.” (“I’m not proud,” he confesses.) Terror is a fine emotion, and arguably one for which more skill is needed to derive. But one of the delights of horror – for this reader, at least – is its disreputability, and much of this arises from its willingness to transgress norms and traffic in taboos. It is precisely this enthusiasm that many smugly cultivated readers shy away from or decry at the top of their moralistic lungs.
The recent spate of self-consciously “arty” horror films – the movies of Ari Aster, for example, or Prano Bailey-Bond’s The Censor – have merits, to be sure, but their earnest attempt to be taken seriously as cinema leaves this viewer nostalgic for the blatantly B-movie qualities of 1980s-vintage fare such as Basket Case, Maniac Cop, or The Stuff. It’s true that much of the work from this era – including many of King’s novels from the decade – evince retrograde attitudes toward sex and gender, race, and social justice. But their down-market nature and visceral approach remain, and form much of the enduring appeal in these books and films.
Moral qualms notwithstanding, the aversion many people have to the genre arises from an absolutely legitimate dislike of being scared, even within the relatively safe confines of an artistic experience. And here it is necessary to separate, once again, the reactions of fear and disgust, both being aspects of the horror genre in different forms and different creative hands. It is also true is that, to achieve these effects, horror will almost of necessity dig down deep into the bowels of human nature and action, while preying almost mercilessly on its recipient’s subconscious. Some will do this by whispering delicately in our ears; others, like the late British novelist James Herbert in King’s estimation, will “[seize] us by the lapels and [begin] to scream in our faces.”
A focus on transgression and taboo locates horror outside the mainstream; it also uncomfortably situates threat and fear in places that many feel should be safest – the home, the family, the church. It brings the outside in and forces a confrontation with real, authentic monsters, however deeply concealed by the veil of metaphor they may be. Fear and loathing, those two conditions Hunter S. Thompson defined as typifying the American experience in the latter half of the 20th century (and here, again, I borrow from Clover), are the bedrock of horror film and literature, with all the provocation and confrontation that implies. However refined horror becomes (and readers of Henry James will be aware of just how refined the genre can be in certain hands), it never entirely escapes the realm of the underground. Horror thrives in the dirt, with the worms.
October is a perfect month – as the leaves start to turn, the days get shorter, and darkness descends on the land – to celebrate horror in all its manifestations and possibilities. This month, we will once again turn our attention to a genre that is as resilient as it is derided, a mode of storytelling as old as stories themselves and as contemporary as yesterday’s nightmare. Essays, interviews, reviews, and the occasional guest post will feature over the next four weeks as we investigate the commingled terror and pleasure the field of horror has to offer for readers and viewers alike.