Fear Is Not Enough

What Is Horror?

Mommy's little monsters: 'The Brood'In David Cronenberg’s The Brood, the monsters have the size and shape (and snowsuits) of little children, but everything else about them is off. You could point to their foreheads, or their noses, or their skin tone, or the color of their hair, or the way they move, but that misses the bigger picture. There’s no single element that makes these creatures grotesque. It’s the collection of features and details that approach being normally human without ever getting there.

The discomfiting effect is related to the uncanny valley, which suggests that people are repulsed by things (robots, computer animation) that too closely approximate reality.

“Repulsed” is the key word. These little children might scare you, but your reaction as a viewer isn’t based on fear for the safety of the movie’s characters. (These little buggers are nasty, but they’re also pretty ridiculous as assassins.) Rather, these near-children make you queasy, disgusted.

You’ve been horrified.

I’ve long made a distinction between movies I put in the “horror” category and those I label “terror.” It might seem an unimportant distinction. Why does it matter if Friday the 13th is a horror movie or a terror movie (or just a moronic piece of shit)?

It matters because our definitions of terms are the assumptions of our arguments, and build the boxes into which we put our experiences and tastes. A lot of right-thinking people dismissively say they don’t like horror movies. But what does that mean? Do they mean that they have no interest in watching Leprechaun in the Hood, or that they see no value in The Silence of the Lambs or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?

With Shoot the Projectionist’s 31 Flicks That Give You the Willies survey (my nomination ballot is here), several people have publicly grappled with a definition of horror. At Lazy Eye Theatre, Piper says that

“horror is any film that gives me the willies. Willies is a very technical term.”
At the Bleeding Tree, Neil Sarver offers that horror is
“a story primarily intended to generate fear by use of, or suggestion of, supernatural, or otherwise otherworldly, forces working against humans or humanity as a whole.”

Piper’s choice is a tongue-in-cheek cop-out, but he’s less interested in the technical specs of horror than their application:

“Anything that gives you the willies sounds simple enough, but in looking at the list it really isn’t simple at all. So in an effort to make the simple much more complicated, I have tried to define what kind of films give me the willies.”

Sarver’s definition is problematic to say the least; there’s something on-its-face wrong with a world view in which The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Dawn of the Dead are not considered horror movies. It defies common sense, like saying This Is Spinal Tap isn’t a comedy.

I appreciate his attempt to address the way that labels are attached to movies (or any other work of art) to manipulate judgment:

“I’m not comfortable with nebulous genre definitions. It allows a lot of room for people to sneak things in, and more importantly, out of genres for commercial or critical reasons and merely confuse the marketplace, both commercially and critically. Under these nebulous definitions, things are judged more or less harshly based on things that seem clearly not to be the intention of the work.”

But Sarver’s stricture of the supernatural is absurd. Let’s be stupid and go to some dictionary definitions of “horror.”

From the crappy dictionary on my desk at work:

“(1) a feeling of loathing and fear.”

And from an online dictionary:

“(1a) painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay. (b) intense aversion or repugnance.”

No mention of the supernatural.

What Sarver seems to be after is a definition sufficiently narrow that it omits, for example, The Silence of the Lambs, which is first and foremost a serial-killer police procedural but is often called a horror movie. (I think it is horror, by the way, but just barely.)

Put through Sarver’s two-part test, Jonathan Demme’s movie obviously fails. Does it generate fear? For many people, yes. Is there use or suggestion of the supernatural? No.

Let’s accept that The Silence of the Lambs can reasonably be excluded from a list of horror movies. But the supernatural criterion can be intuitively rejected when it also shuts out The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There’s no evidence to support a claim that Leatherface and his kin are supernatural, but there is obviously genuine horror — loathing, dread, aversion, revulsion — generated by the movie’s aberrations, its unnatural deviations from social norms.

I think this gets to the core of what horror, as a reaction and a film genre, is.

Fear isn’t sufficient. Fear alone makes something a terror movie. Compare the above definitions of horror to this one of “terror”:

“(1) a state of intense fear”

Terror and horror, of course, share a lot of area on a Venn diagram, but there is also plenty of space where they don’t intersect. A terror movie creates fear mostly through peril. A horror movie also generates fear, but peril is not the primary cause.

What distinguishes horror is its oddity rather than its suspense, represented by those evocative, vivid, visceral word associations — loathing, dread, aversion, revulsion. You feel them in your gut rather than your pulse.

You’re right that my definition is a tongue-n-cheek cop-out. However, the willies is what horror is all about. And the willies is specific to each viewer. No doubt that jumping out of your seat in a Friday The 13th movie is about as broad a scare as you can get. It’s like a bad comedy that tries to appeal to everyone. A good horror movie is very specific. Some might be frightened by some things, while some may not. Assault On Precinct 13 makes my list because the idea of it scares the hell out of me. Some might dismiss it as an idiotic film filled with bad lines and bad performances. But not me.

I agree that Neil’s definition is limiting. It doesn’t allow for the unusual or the specific scares. But it is a good example of how horror can be very personal. There is no good general definition because it differs for each person.


Of course the willies are specific to each viewer, which is why the definitions I’m talking about are based on reactions and feelings that are not universal. What inspires “loathing” in me might not do the same in you.

(And I wasn’t faulting you, by the way, for being a cheat.)

Also, one thing I forgot to mention in my original piece was that using some of the definitions I cite, fear isn’t actually required for horror. Note the use of “or”:

“(1a) painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay. (b) intense aversion or repugnance.”

This is a further distinction between horror and terror (which does require fear, in my formulation).

Great post!

In fact, good enough that I wrote a rather extensive comment in reply... then got the letters wrong below and ZAP!

Much of what I had written however is at Fear it, self!.

Interesting post! I enjoyed reading what you had to say. As I mentioned over at Neil’s blog, I find it really hard to agree with anyone on what is truly “scary” since our individual response to things is based on so many factors. A lot of our reactions seem to tap into childhood experiences, but I believe there’s still more to it than that.

I like comparing fear to humor since human beings respond to both in similar, but totally different ways. We don’t laugh at the same things and we’re all not disturbed by the same things. Now I’m suddenly curious to see if anyone has ever polled a large group of people to see of they had similar fear/humor responses...

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