Horror Writing: The Limitation of Perceptions

Horror Writing

A few years ago I gave up on the idea of being a horror writer. Not, of course, the content or story themes but the limitations implied by the “horror writer” label. The problem with horror is the genre’s definition is too subjective and the expectations too expansive to satisfy. Consequently, a horror story will rarely please all types of horror fans.

Case in point, even the most hardcore horror fans debate the “King of Horror,” Stephen King’s position as a horror writer considering so many of his books might be better placed in the thriller category.

Equally problematic is the people who don’t read “that type of stuff” often have very different perceptions of “horror” from the writers who pen such stories.

The category “horror” limits readership because of its inherent connotations and genre fan’s diverse set of expectations.

A Problematic Definition

A quick review of the general definitions of both the word horror and the horror genre highlights the horror writer’s challenges.

The Oxford dictionary defines horror as “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust.” And the  “horror genre” is defined as “a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.”

The modern definitions share the idea that horror must produce unpleasant feelings. The devil is, of course, in the details. The small detail, in this case, is the word “or.” By definition, a story or movie can be classified as horror if it induces, fright or scares or disgust or it startles.

In contrast, consider the definition of the romance genre which states “a book or movie dealing with love in a sentimental or idealized way.” Yes, it also includes an “or”  but “sentimental” is relatively straightforward and “idealized way” is synonymous with “romantic notions.” The terms sentimental and “idealized way” don’t offer the vast possibilities that “scare, disgust, and startle” present.

Horror comes from the Latin term, horrere, which means to “tremble or shudder.”

Most problematic for horror is the definition, by definition, is a circular reference. That is the definition uses a part of the definition to define itself.

Take another look:

HORROR has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle the readers or viewers by inducing FEELINGS OF HORROR and TERROR.”

And what is horror? “An intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust.”

Replacing that second occurrence of “horror” with its definition results in:

“Horror has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle the readers or viewers by inducing” “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust.”

So, horror is something that has the capacity to “frighten you by inducing fear” or “disgusting you by inducing disgust.”

You can see where it becomes a bit problematic.

A Tale of Subjective Definition

Fear, shock, and disgust may sound closely related, but they are very different and separate emotions. Human beings have eight core emotional expressions universally recognized across almost every culture.

In multiple studies, participants were shown various pictures of people making one of the eight core expressions and overwhelmingly and correctly identified each.

Three of the eight core human expressions are Fear, Shock, and Disgust. For the horror creator that means their genre can be defined by three distinctly different emotional responses.

That may seem like a good thing that provides plenty of leeway for the writer. Indeed it does, but the range creates a lot of subjectivity and makes it difficult to explain what exactly “horror” writing is.

For comparison, consider some of the other genres. If an author says they write mystery novels, one would understand that their stories involve the solving of a crime. A romance story would be one in which we are dealing with love and relationships. In a young adult novel, we would expect the protagonist to be a young girl. And a spy thriller would involve the actions and mission of a spy.

A horror novel just implies the story is intended to induce fear, shock, or disgust. It doesn’t reveal any other quality of the stories content. In other words, the expectations are subject to the reader’s belief of what qualifies as “fearful.”

The thought of a root canal may create an intense feeling of “fear” in some people. For others, something disgusting like knee surgery or lots of blood might invoke disgust, and as we see in movies, a quick camera movement coupled with a loud sound often induces shock.

None of these things is precisely horror, and yet they meet the criteria. It’s easy to see why “horror” is often misunderstood.

Since horror can be many “things,” expectations are difficult to meet.

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Horror had very noble beginnings. An offshoot of the gothic romance, these dark tales were rooted in a literary context. Edgar Allan Poe considered his works gothic detective stories, and Mary Shelly intentions were not to write a monster story.

The classic horror tales, written before there was a horror genre, spoke of the inherent darkness of the human soul. They were literary investigations into the human condition.

The Penny Dreadfuls of the 19th century dispensed with the depth and focused on the dread. The Penny Dreadfuls borrowed from the Gothic Thrillers and “boiled” them down to their most sensational parts. By removing the heavy language, the Dreadfuls greatly improved “horror’s” entertainment value, but the emphasis on the sensational forever marked the genre as a not-so-serious literary vehicle.

And although many “horror” stories contain deep examinations of the human condition, few in public or literary circles believe that a story labeled horror can have any literary value.

A Shocking Shortcut

Hollywood took the idea of horror sensationalism to the next level. With a public hungry for greater stimulation and more intense shock and disgust, horror films focused on blood, guts, and shock value.

Completing dispensing with the pretense of any plot, a trove of horror films appear each year using the same recipe over and again. These movies reduce horror to one part blood and guts, one part gratuitous nudity, at least one virgin and a repeated assault of “shock” scenes e.g. Hand reaches out from under the bed/closet/darkness.

Not all of course. There are several Indie films that take a more serious approach to the horror genre. But often the “smarter” the movie, the lower the ratings. Movie-goers have an expectation for these films, and they are disappointed when filmmakers diverge from the recipe.

The same goes for books. If one says they “write horror” there is an assumption that you bury bodies in the back yard rather than contemplate the darkness of the soul.

A Battle of Sub-genres

Even within the genre, there is little agreement as to what constitutes “real” horror. The Horror Writers Association, which one might think should be the ultimate authority on such genre matters, often presents their Bram Stoker Award to books that seem quite removed from the most basic definition of horror.

I loved Stephen King’s The Green Mile. I wouldn’t call it “horror, ” but it won the Bram Stoker Award. And any horror writer who has entered a book contest has probably been a bit miffed when the horror category winner is a comedy or a romance with some horror element. (Admittedly, the thought of reading a romance “invokes feelings of disgust” in me, so maybe they do deserve consideration.)

A Deeper Shade of Darkness

It’s not bitter grapes that prompted my decision to give up the horror writer title. My novels and short stories have won several “horror” awards. For me, however, the genre is too vague, to misunderstood, and has difficulty attracting a larger audience because the story genre is always competing with the expectations created by the movie genre.

As a novelist, I explore the deeper darkness sans the blood, guts, and knife-wielding psychos. I prefer to exam my character’s fortitude and shortcomings under terrible and often otherworldly conditions. Yes, the stories may frighten you or shock you or may even contain scenes that disgust but those feelings are not the core essence of the tale. At the heart of these stories is the question of: “who are we when the darkness comes?”

When asked “what kind of stuff I write,” I respond, “dark fiction.” “Dark” is a visual term, but it doesn’t carry all the connotations of “horror.” And perhaps the best part is that when I say I write Dark Fiction, no one ever responds, “Oh you mean that blood and guts stuff? I never read that.”

Raymond Esposito is an award-winning dark fiction author and Amazon best-seller. His articles and interviews have appeared in a variety of publications including Family Circle and Sanitarium Magazine. He has a degree in Cognitive Psychology and has spent over 25 years as a criminal behaviorist. 

3 thoughts on “Horror Writing: The Limitation of Perceptions”

  1. Hmmm, thank you for the article. Your description of fear, shock and disgust dovetails nicely with Stephen King’s description of terror, horror, and revulsion in his On Writing book. It’s encouraging to see his observations link up with psychology. I’m working on my first horror/thriller novel, and hopefully I can fit into the niche I’m aiming for.


    1. Hey glad you enjoyed the article. My enjoyment of King’s work has shifted over the past decade, but not my appreciation for his insights. I’ve always believed understanding human psychology requires at least, in part, an examination of the innate darkness. Best of luck with the novel!


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