The Nature of Horror

‘The horror tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves.’[1]

Horror fiction dates as far back as the Megalithic period, its ‘roots in folklore and religious traditions such as death, the idea of after life, demons, demonic possessions and witchcraft’[2] being the bog-standard spooky story ingredients. These folktales were traditionally passed down the generations by word of mouth, huddled around a campfire with just the glow of the embers to light up their enthralled faces – the oldest form of story-telling. This is where it all began, however it’s widely regarded that Edgar Allen Poe, much loved and revered poet and story-teller, was responsible for the introduction and following popularity of Gothic Horror as a genre. Poe has been described as ‘the doyen of horror writers’[3], with the likes of HP Lovecraft preaching that ‘to him we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state.’[4] (He really is quite good, I’d suggest reading The Pit and the Pendulum (1842) if you haven’t already.)

It was, however, our King of Horror, Stephen King, who ‘expanded horror to audiences worldwide.’[5] I’m sure you’ve come across his works in cinema if not hardback, the most recent adaption being It (2017), in which a demonic clown terrorises the town of Derry, Maine. The notorious Lovecraft said that ‘The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.’[6] Fear of clowns – in recent years being referred to as coulrophobia – is a perfect example of Lovecraft’s theory on fearing the unknown. The uncanny terror of an unmoving smile, alongside being in the dark (no pun intended) as to what lurks behind the mask, sparks fear in humans worldwide. There is even a professor who specialises in clowning culture: Andrew Stott says that ‘clowns have always been associated with danger and fear, because they push logic up to its breaking point.’[7] But what is fear?

 

‘The horror genre is predominantly concerned with the fear of death.’[8]

The Oxford English Dictionary defines horror as ‘as intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.’[9] Like that time when you watched The Exorcist (1973) at far too young an age, or accidentally walked in on your parents making the beast with two backs of an evening. Shudder. But that ‘intense feeling of fear’ is further defined as ‘an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm’[10], and it all stems back to mankind’s earliest and most prominent fear: death. More precisely – ‘the multiple ways in which it can occur, and the untimely nature of its occurrence.’[11] This concept revolves around the notion that death is, and always has been, at the forefront of all human subconscious; that fear can be chiselled away until just our basic survival instinct of staying alive is left. It then has to be at the forefront of all Horror fiction; a reader can enjoy the adrenaline-pumping thrill of fear, without putting their own life at risk.

 

‘As our fears change, so does horror fiction.’[12]

Horror fiction is also ‘closely associated as a metaphor for the larger fears of society.’[13] For example, societies larger fears in the 19th Century involved developing science and mental illness, hence the birth of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Fears within society constantly change and adapt, meaning that concepts such as domestic violence and terrorism are examples of topics used within the genre nowadays. Both of these themes – along with many others –  are evident in Stephen King’s collection of short stories, Just After Sunset (2008), and prove that no matter how growing and changing societies fears are, they are always revolving around that age-old and innate fear of death.

 

Described as ‘a type of literature that speaks of human condition by reminding their readers how little they know and understand’[14], Horror fiction invites its readers to delve into Lovecraft’s theory of fearing the unknown with the comfort of, for once, knowing that no harm can come of it. Death is not nearby – at least not for the reader. Whether it’s the busty blonde running from the psycho with the knife (take Scream (1996) for example), or the satanic possession of a dog (Stephen King’s Cujo (1981)), the fear that spurs the characters on is that their death is eminent.

(But yours isn’t, so carry on enjoying that horror novel.)

Word count: 541.
Quotes: 187.

 

[1] Lovecraft, H. (1973). Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover Publications.
[2] Wasserstein, F. (2017). The Evolution of Horror in Fiction: a brief guide – The Circular. [online] The Circular. Available at: http://Thecircular.org/evolution-horror-fiction-brief-guide [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018].
[3] Smith, G. (1996). Writing horror fiction. London: A. & C. Black, p.3.
[4] Lovecraft, H. (1973). Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover Publications.
[5] Wasserstein, F. (2017). The Evolution of Horror in Fiction: a brief guide – The Circular. [online] The Circular. Available at: http://Thecircular.org/evolution-horror-fiction-brief-guide [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018].
[6] Lovecraft, H. (1973). Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York: Dover Publications.
[7] Goldhill, O. (2016). Why are we so scared of clowns?. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/why-are-we-so-scared-of-clowns/ [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018].
[8] Wells, P. (2000). The Horror Genre: from Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower Publishing Ltd. P10.
[9] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/horror
[10] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fear
[11] Wells, P. (2000). The Horror Genre: from Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower Publishing Ltd. P10.
[12] Wasserstein, F. (2017). The Evolution of Horror in Fiction: a brief guide – The Circular. [online]. The Circular. Available at: https://thecircular.org/evolution-horror-fiction-brief-guide [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018].
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.

 

Advertisements

One thought on “The Nature of Horror

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s