Want to hear the truth about the horror genre? It’s going to scare you. Did you really think it wouldn’t? No one in their right mind should ever open a horror story without the intent of being scared. If you go into the text blindly, well then dearie, you are in for one wild ride. Yet, those who are naive about this genre are my favorite kind of readers. I love watching them become afraid because their fear is unexpected. Am I sadistic? Well, maybe a little. It is a compliment to see terror spread across their faces and light their eyes. Please don’t have me committed for saying that. I would never do anything to anyone–except give them nightmares.
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. — H.P. Lovecraft
Fear allows a person to see and understand their most inner thoughts and feelings. One truly learns about themselves when they analyze their deepest terrors. Authors of the horror genre know this well and use it to their advantage. They take the most innate, natural of things and twist them into an alternate reality that riles up terror in a reader. It is an art. To be a horror writer, you must love fear. You must get in touch with your own fears and expose them, become one with them, accept them. Once you have accomplished this, then you will know how to craft your words to bring out the fear in others.
Integrating your own understanding of fear (and acceptance) into your work is a good tactic to produce a well received (and frightening) story. Horror writing has to be strong and your voice unique. There are also several core elements that need to be kept in check while drafting your tale of the macabre. If you want to know more about these elements, check out my article Core Elements of a Horror Story.
Horror is an ultimate fear and terror that inhibits a person’s body, mind, or soul. It is the knowing and foreboding feeling that a situation will not end with a positive outcome. It is the darkness trying to overcome the light, and the epic battle that ensues. Horror can be strictly psychological or it can be wholly physical. It can be blood, guts, and mutilations or a strict torture of the mind.
Horror is the element that turns sweet dreams into heart-ripping nightmares.
What “horror” is not: Happy endings
True horror will never have a happy ending. Even if by the end of a book or movie the evil is vanquished, there will always be a cliffhanger that shows a seed of the evil still exists. The evil is left in hiding to wait for and plan the optimal moment to reveal itself and wreak havoc on a new batch of characters.
Within the realm of literature and film, horror is a simple genre. It is the genre that instills terror within the audience by any means necessary. However, a book or film does not have to be one straightforward fear fest. The work’s genre can be of a hybrid-genre with horror and another means:
Dark Fiction: This usually consists of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, and / or speculative that have a heavy element of horror ingrained.
Gothic: This is a Horror genre classic that has influences of mystery and / or romance.
Comedy-Horror: This hybrid pretty much explains itself as the work contains a mix of horror and comedic elements.
Weird West: A Western themed work that highlights the elements of horror, sci-fi, and / or the speculative.
Horror, as a secluded genre in of itself, can be broken down into the following sub-genres:
Psychological: The focus of this sub-genre takes place more in a character’s head, playing heavily on his or her fears and morals. There may or may not be an element of blood.
Slasher: This is your classic Freddy Krueger / Jason / Michael Myers villain, where the antagonist murders characters through violent and visceral methods. The murder weapon of choice is always a sharp object used to maim or dismember. This sub-genre typically mixes with the splatter sub-genre, but if the actual act of the murder occurs off scene (not visual), then the splatter element is not viable.
Splatter: With this genre, I do not personally consider it to always be hand in hand with the Slasher sub-genre. You can have a Splatter film without having the Slasher element. A good example (and the most disgusting movie in existence) is The Human Centipede… and all of its subsequent segments. Splatter is a horribly gruesome and visceral sub-genre, but the antagonist goal is not to kill the main character(s), but to merely affect the a character’s physical body. This sub-genre relies more heavily on the visual effects of the blood and guts rather than the action of expelling the gore.
Supernatural: This sub-genre highlights the elements that are not of the “natural / human” world. Typically the sub-genre highlights entities from a heaven or hell realm. Such fodder are ghosts, demons, angels, etc.
Monster: This sub-genre focuses on those beings that are from the “natural / human” world, but are either not human or genetically altered humans. Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf-man, Toxie, and Kaijus are all considered monsters. The monster may or may not be bent on the destruction of the human world, but the actions of the monster (whether good or evil) do instill the element of fear within humanity.
Extraterrestrial: Any life form that comes from “outer space” that is not considered a human. The extraterrestrial may take on a humanoid form, but genetically they are not a pure human.
Weird: This is a mashup of any non-human entity / life-form that the human mind cannot comprehend or extends to a forbidden knowledge. This sub-genre typically uses a mix of elements of the supernatural, monsters, and extraterrestrial. It can also sprinkle in some of the splatter and psychological sub-genres. Every story that H.P Lovecraft wrote would fall into this category. The Call of Cthulhu is a prime example that contains a mixture of the horror sub-genres: monster, extraterrestrial, and psychological.
When thinking of these genres / sub-genres, keep in mind the horror industry cycle. The horror genre is currently in flux. On my personal blog, I mention several times my interpretation of the horror industry cycle. With this new year, we have come full circle back to the age of monsters. The slasher movies and stories of the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000’s have been buried. The ride of the Zombie-Vampire-Werewolf craze is on a downhill trend since its rebirth in the early 2000’s. Ghosts and demons are about to hit a mid-life crisis before fading back into the Earth. However, a new egg was laid about 5 years ago and has hatched. Monsters are in full force this year.
Horror can embody a large element in almost every genre within literature and film. Hybrid and sub-genres of horror can be mixed and mashed to create one story of complete and utter terror. And to think, the information in this post is only related to fiction! There is a whole other side to horror within the non-fiction realm through biographies, memoirs, and documentaries. To think of the gruesome memoir that could have been written by the hands of Elizabeth Bathory!
Tap into your own fears and show them to the world. Understand the horror industry’s cycle use it to your advantage to strengthen your work. Pick a horror genre that well suits your goals. Follow the core elements of horror.
Integrate these tips into your writing and one day you will become a Master of Horror.