What makes it “horror”?

I’ve been thinking about genre lately. In different fields and different media, genre means different things. There are literary genres, cinematic genres (and of course a lot of overlap between these), folkloric genres… And whatever else it means, “genre” means, ultimately, expectations. Rightly or wrongly, if something is labeled, sorted, slotted into a certain genre, that can tell you certain things about that thing. Things aren’t just things: they are certain kinds of things. Things!

As both a folklorist and a horror fan, genre has certain valences for me that it may not for others. I’ve written about folkloric genres before. In film and literature and other media, I think of the horror genre as pointing to a pleasant type of dread. (It’s only pleasant, I suppose, if you share my particular interests.) It probably wouldn’t be pleasant, of course, if the kind of thing I associate with it actually happened to me. But it’s somehow pleasant to imagine it.

By way of illustration, imagine a scene: you’re home alone. It can be day or night, sunny or stormy. All that matters is that you’re in a familiar space, and that there are shadows. In my palatial one-bedroom apartment, for instance, there’s a doorway of sorts (with no door) that separates the living room from the bedroom and bathroom. Even with lights on elsewhere in the apartment, and even in the daytime, the little patch of floor on the other side of this door-shaped hole, which houses my vertical washer/dryer and abuts the doors to the bathroom and bedroom, is in shadow. (Unless I turn on the ceiling light. Which I usually don’t.)

So there’s a “natural” dark spot, so to speak. And of course, the bedroom and bathroom are dark when I’m not in them. If I happen to leave either door open, the darkness of the little laundry space and the rooms beyond are of a piece. It’s not an inky darkness. Just a slow fading of the light, as it were. My living room is lit only by a couple of floor lamps and a purple molded Frankenstein’s monster that a friend made. The light from these lamps makes it possible to see into the darkened bathroom or, to a lesser extent, the bedroom, if I leave the door open, but those spaces are still pretty dark.

Why in the world does any of this matter?

Aside from this being the greatest thing you have ever seens.

Well okay. Imagine that you’re looking into one of those darkened doorways. Into the bedroom, say. (In your own house, not mine, you weirdo.) It’s just dark. Not pitch black, just normally dark.

But then imagine that it somehow gets darker. Light is suddenly avoiding the room. The darkness somehow grows, which doesn’t even make much sense, because darkness is not a thing, but an absence of a thing. But it happens anyway. So now you’re sitting in your well-lit living room, or wherever, staring into a now utterly black space And then, over on the left, the darkness slowly extends past the doorjamb. That’s all. The dark somehow moves out of the room that contains it, extending past the doorframe just a bit, just in that one spot. But it’s still moving, creeping along, with fuzzy edges that eat the light.

So it moves along. The light from your lamps should expel it. And of course, darkness can’t move like this; again, it’s just the absence of light. But it moves anyway. It spills out into the room where you are, very, very slowly. And dimly, somehow, in the darkness you make out a greater darkness, a shape, a deeper dark, and it makes you out, it sees you, and it reaches toward you, and the darkness moves again.

This feeling, this bizarre feeling of wrongness, of supernatural dread, of malicious intent from something that should not be capable of intent, is what I really want when I engage with the horror genre. It may be frightening; it may even make you jump. But it isn’t about “jump scares.” It’s not about nuns in heavy makeup with shark teeth, or gimmicks like not being able to talk or having to wear a blindfold. It’s certainly not about extreme violence and gore.

Consider this still from The Woman in Black again. It’s a quiet scene, as horror goes, and it’s pretty mundane. Aside from the ruins, it’s not even an especially memorable landscape. A bit dreary, maybe, but hardly remarkable. But there’s this woman, and she’s all wrong. She’s all in black, her clothing is from a different time, and her body language wrong, and her face

But I’m very likely the odd man out here. It could be that you don’t find that weird woman in her antiquated funeral garb frightening at all. More generally, I know others think of giallo, or slashers, or torture porn, or exploitation, or any number of other things when they hear the word “horror.” Genre is always problematic. There’s no accounting for taste, and I know my own is shaped not only by my cultural context but also my acadmic interests and my own weird personal history.

But that’s what I want in horror: creeping dread. The unsettling feeling of malice from a source that shouldn’t be malicious. The supernatural, and specifically, the malevolent supernatural. I’ve often heard people say that ghosts and monsters aren’t scary, because humans are scary enough. And there’s some truth in this. People certainly are scary. But fear of other people isn’t particularly fun.

But enough about me. What does horror mean to you? Do you think of the reaching dark? Or of something else? Does it make sense to include supernatural thrillers in the same genre as slashers? And seriously, have you watched Sweet Home yet?

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5 thoughts on “What makes it “horror”?

  1. Creeping dread from where it should not come – totally sweet and spot on when it comes to the ghastly and horrifying encounters of life that we force ourselves to overlook or forget. Your post brought to mind how easily we suppress and repress, and how critical horror is helping to retune/fine-tune our human sensibilities. Thank you for this insightful read. I’ll be keeping up with your blog.

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