But I think now it's become as much a genre as any of them, and that includes a lot of other genres that haven't been around long either. Genres are changing. They have a place, and that is to tell us as readers what kind of story to expect when we read it. They'll only get more diverse, and that's good for literature.
|Scraesdon Fort © Bill Booth, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License|
Good horror often has the fear of the unknown. Much of what scares us is simply something banal which we do not fully understand. Looking at a deep, dark set of steps leading down into nothingness sets our imagination on fire, especially if it's in the context of horror. There's no telling if the stairs lead down to things that go bump in the night, or just a bare room full of cobwebs.
|Spooky in Broad Daylight © Jonathan Billinger, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License|
A graveyard is not nearly as unnerving in the daylight, when we know the histories of those entered. It's a place of history, of silence and solitude. Of loss and reflection. Sadness is not the same as horror. Not by a long shot.
|Logie Kirk © Marc Curran, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License|
But add a touch of the unknown, and the possibility of danger and things unnatural, and it becomes an unnerving place. Make those things a probability, or even an eventuality, and it becomes terrifying. In fact, it becomes so much so, it has been a staple feature in horror film and literature since horror was first written.
Even a touch of fog changes an old graveyard into something straight out of a horror film. Just imagine walking through there at night, with nightingales and hoot owls calling in the surrounding trees, and maybe a dog or two snuffling around in the brush, just out of sight. All harmless creatures, but one certainly wouldn't be assuming they were harmless in such a scenario.
Part of that fear of the unknown includes the supernatural. Our minds make it morph into something dangerous, deadly. Even if we've never actually seen ghosts, devils, demons, ghouls, zombies or any other supernatural creature, and even if we truly don't believe they exist, they'll scare the bejesus out of us with the right setting and plot.
|West Cemetery Chapel © Hugh Mortimer, Licensed for further use under Creative Commons License|
Horror affects us based on what we let our minds get away with. There's nothing in a book or movie, in spite of what we've been told by writers of the genre, that will hurt us. We can sit down and read the words of a horror novel off the page as easily as those from any other genre. Nothing inherent in the movie itself will hurt us watching it in the movies or on our television screens, but we sure jump at the parts the director wants us to.
The topic is certainly worthy of discussion, and is actually one that will be addressed in the new horror exhibit at Seattle's Science Fiction Museum beginning October 2011. They'll take a look at some of the psychological aspects of horror, according to EMP's Senior Curator, Jacob McMurray, and "why we as a culture are drawn to these macabre narratives, and how fear and horror are a vital component to our human identity." I'll be visiting that exhibit sometime before the end of the year, and will report back my experiences there, so stay tuned for that.
I have a buddy who says he doesn't like horror at all. "Not a bit!" he proclaims. "I hate the way it messes with your mind." Actually that last part is a G-rated paraphrase of what he said, but the point is the same. Now he's read several of my horror stories and loved them. Couldn't put them down. In fact, I got an awesomely nasty voice mail message one day telling me he hadn't been able to put my novel down until he finished it at three o'clock in the morning, when he had to get up and go to work at six. Nice.
© Jonathan Dalar
One has to ask, why, besides the fact that he was a very good friend, would he finish a book in a genre he doesn't like? Or more precisely, why couldn't he put the book down and finish it at a more reasonable hour? My first reaction was that it was a damn good book. I'd like to think so anyway. I'd like to think it was all my writing. I'd love to believe it was written so well, so gripping, that it's almost impossible for the majority of readers to put down. And I wish I'd kept that message!
But in spite of my devoted interest to fantasy and things that don't really exist, I'm a realist. I understand the psychological aspects of it, and I think the horror itself was what contributed largely to his sleepless night with the book. I think it's personal, and the reason he couldn't put it down lies in the genre.
Horror is an emotion, and it drags us in a little closer than some of the other genres do. It's more invasive. It gets all familiar and moves into our head. How many times have you woken in a cold sweat from reading romance or mystery, after all? I didn't think so.
From the time we're very small, we're on regular speaking terms with horror. It's the thing that goes bump in the night. It's waiting for us under the bed, after our mommy tucks us in. It lurks just around the corner, waiting for us to drop our guard just a little bit. It's the embodiment of all the bad that could be, and all that might be. It calls on our deepest emotions and provokes that instant and primal fight or flight instinct that lies within us.
And it's also a rush of adrenaline and endorphins - our body's own morphine-like substances which dull our pain and make us feel good. These are the same chemicals we produce during exercise, excitement, love and even orgasm. It's no wonder we're somewhat attracted to horror, even if we profess we don't like it.