A Matter of Taste

For me, horror is a broad, flexible genre of expressive media which take as their collective aim the conveyance of a sense of dread. Dread, in turn, is different from the more general term “anxiety,” which I think is too broad to be helpful here. Dread is about a lingering feeling of unease, be it from fear of bodily harm or contagion, spiritual harm or corruption, or–perhaps most compellingly–the violent loss of the most important, most sacred things in life. This last category is where horror really shines, where its conventions as  a genre enable it to chip away at our quotidian frames of reference and plug the holes full of holy crap what is that?! That abrupt, jarring realization that something is deeply wrong here is the most satisfying part of a good horror experience. “Atmosphere” is a term that gets thrown around a lot by critics, and while vague, it does capture the point that horror has a certain ambiance,  a tension or creeping fear that distinguishes it from other genres.

The focus of the blog is on supernatural horror, as opposed to more violent sub-genres like slasher films. Violence has its place in these stories, of course, and well-crafted violence that serves the plot is perfectly acceptable. But good horror, while it may include violence, doesn’t delight in violence. Violence is simply a part of the narrative, a device like any other to further the plot and create a particular mood. It can’t be an end in itself.

Click here for a list of some of my favorites, because my opinion is all that matters.

Supernatural Horror

Referring to so oft-cited an author as H.P. Lovecraft may be trite in the context of a blog dedicated in part to the horror genre, but who are you, the blog police? Lovecraft was ahead of his time, and for various reasons his writing pulls together a lot of the themes that I’m interested in exploring (not just the scary end of things, either).

In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (which you can read here, if you are so inclined), Lovecraft noted that horror’s appeal is limited to a select readership. “But the sensitive are always with us,” he wrote,

and sometimes a curious streak of fancy invades an obscure corner of the very hardest head; so that no amount of rationalisation, reform, or Freudian analysis can quite annul the thrill of the chimney-corner whisper or the lonely wood. There is here involved a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our inmost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species.

Without delving too deeply into the psychology of fear (on which topic I am patently unfit to comment), I suggest that Lovecraft is on to something when he likens the experience of fear to “the religious feeling.” For Lovecraft isn’t just talking about any old fear. “This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome,” he insists. He’s writing about the fear of the “spectrally macabre”–that is, the supernatural. And for Lovecraft, the fearful experience of the supernatural approaches its inverse, the “religious” experience with its largely positive imaginings of the otherworldly. He writes, “Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalised by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore.”

In this view, the “spectrally macabre” and the sacred are opposite sides of the same coin: the experience of one at least implies the other, and the term “supernatural” embraces them both. My interest in supernatural horror stems in part from this relationship between the supernatural and other numinous areas of human experience. If, in a given work of fiction, ghosts exist, we can reasonably infer certain other things about the universe in which they appear. Accepting the premise of the spirit means accepting at least the possibility of a lot of other things, too. Following Lovecraft, the feeling which supernatural literature generates in its audiences is related to the experience of the sacred, the spiritual, the divine. The supernatural as a literary device is particularly fascinating because it implicitly links the small, the local, the dirty–a haunted house, an abandoned hospital, a dark alley–to the cosmic. A ghost story set in the rusted-out shell of a car factory, by virtue of the presence of a ghost, implies all kinds of questions about a larger reality, far beyond the confines of its gritty setting. The low and visceral are connected to the universal and the spiritual in every work of supernatural fiction. Heavy, and also terrifying.

This isn’t to say that horror must do this or that. Genres are, to a large extent, arbitrary–though not entirely so. But as a folklorist, I’ve come to resist the notion of genre as a strict formal division. I like to think of it instead as a set of guidelines which encompass both audience expectations and thematic content–the “rules of engagement,” if you will. These are flexible, but not completely avoidable. Precisely what evokes a feeling of fear or dread changes from place to place and person to person; still, I’d argue that fear in some form underlies the most basic assumptions about the horror genre.

Dread is the defining characteristic of horror. In my mind, supernatural horror–literature, films, games, and other media which evoke (or invoke) the “spectrally macabre” as Lovecraft described–is by far the most effective in eliciting this kind of dread, although there are exceptions (The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, does a good job, and with nary a ghost to be seen). This is, naturally, an entirely subjective point. But I’m less interested in exploring the mundane evils of which humanity is capable–of which there’s a great deal of evidence in plain sight–than I am in speculations about things beyond ordinary human experience.

5 thoughts on “Horror

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