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?

Games as a folklore genre: A response to one person’s Google search

After my review of Rosalind Leigh, which I thought was pretty mediocre, readership has exploded. I nearly tripled my daily readership yesterday. The number of people interested in that film is really surprising, especially in light of all the other, bigger-budget, far more mainstream horror films I’ve reviewed. I guess Rosalind Leigh hit a chord with folks.

Er, I guess optimizing the blog for search engines helped, too.

An offshoot of this crazy, wild success–aside from partying with the Biebs and Kanye and all those other people the kids are into these days–has been an increased awareness, on my part, of the search terms people use to get here. And as you’d expect, nearly all of this recent upsurge has been due to people specifically searching for the film Rosalind Leigh. But today, just a few moments ago, I noticed a lone set of search terms entered by one solitary person that piqued my interest: “games as a folklore genre.”

My first response to this was to assume it was a graduate student like myself, or a faculty member somewhere, interested in challenging received notions of genre, bringing folklore scholarship more fully in line with the emerging fields of the digital humanities, and other jargony things that non-specialists have too many real-life concerns to worry about. (Of course I read “games” as “video games,” because what else could they mean? Board games? Fah.) And I still think that’s probably the case. So for the sake of that one person–who has probably already long since moved on and won’t be back, rendering all of this futile–I offer my thoughts on this interesting string of search terms. I hope you’re happy, whoever you are.


I’ve written before about the concept of genre as folklorists have conventionally used it. In brief, genres are ways of compartmentalizing different forms of folklore (most commonly narratives, but other stuff too). For a long time, though, scholars have been moving away from rigid ideas about genre, in part because they usually don’t match up with common usage (a scholar may call it a legend, say, but normal people call it a myth or a folktale or an “old wives’ tale,” or they don’t even have a name for it), and in part because expressive culture is too flexible and adaptable to stay totally within the boundaries of a single genre anyway.

Nowhere is this more clear than in contemporary popular culture (which is a difficult category itself, of course). Video games offer especially clear examples of the relationship of “folk” and “popular” cultures and how they influence and interact with each other. Also, games are my favorite freakin’ thing ever.

Tons of video games make use of folklore in some way. They may draw directly on established traditions, or they may invent their own, but folklore (specifically the genres of myth and legend) play a major part in games, especially fantasy RPGs and survival horror. One game on PS3 cut directly to the chase:

You can tell they’re serious folklorists because of all the plaid and moody gazing into the middle distance. (Wikipedia)

I don’t own a PS3, so I haven’t played this one, but the cover tells us a lot: folklore (and Folklore) is about monsters and fairies and stuff. Wicked.

So we have, on the one hand, genre as a largely artificial concept, a way of dividing up stuff so we can think and talk about it a little more easily; and on the other hand, we have video games as a medium through which folklore genres are reimagined, conveyed, and experienced in new ways. But what about the idea of games as a genre of folklore?

Other types of games have been a major interest of folklorists (and still are), children’s games in particular. Alice Gomme, a 19th- and early 20th-century folklorist, was a major figure in this area (though I can’t say I’m really familiar with her work myself). So if the question is simply, have games been considered as a genre of folklore?, then the simple answer is yes.

As far as whether or not mass-produced video games can serve as forms of expressive culture, I can only ask, why not? True, video games tend not to arise within small, traditionally-defined communities (though this too is changing, as indie developer become more and more of a presence in the industry); but who cares? Folklorists no longer limit themselves to conservative models of folk group or antiquarian ideas about primitive culture. More importantly, the way audiences use popular forms like video games–the way they play them, engage with their characters and narratives, and generally incorporate the games into their own cultural practices–is of interest to scholars in all the ethnographic disciplines, not only folklore.

By way of illustration, think of the wildly famous Ouija board. The Ouija board was invented in 1892 by an American named Elijah J. Bond, who sold the patent to a guy named William Fuld. Fuld owned the patent until 1966, when he sold it to Parker Bros. The board was created as a game and didn’t gain its Spiritualist associations until significantly later. [1] Today, however, Ouija is thought of as the spirit-talking demon-summoning device par excellence. What began as a mass-produced commodity is unquestionably a significant part of the lives and expressive culture of many people (and this doesn’t even address, of course, the important issue of belief).

As with all things, though, it’s really just a semantic issue. If you define folklore as expressive culture, as the types of communication people engage in in their daily lives (here are my thoughts on all of this), and genre as the specific forms this communication takes, then it’s easy to find a niche for games. Or you could skip the middleman and remove the concept of genre altogether, because it’s becoming less and less useful (except as an emic concept–that is, as a concept that people actually use in their own lives to think about their own lives). The emic perspective, in fact, is a major research interest of mine. How non-specialists use the term “folklore,” and how it is referenced in games like Folklore, are pretty interesting to me as a folklorist, and as an ordinary person who is also a fan of all of this stuff.

[1] Eliason, Eric. “Ouija.” Edited by Jan Harold Brunvand. American Folklore: An Encyclopedia. London; New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

Genre: naming our terms

So I’m in Buenos Aires, and I’m a bit under the weather today, and despite my previous post, we actually have internet at our place.  We also have worms in the shower.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, I’m increasingly aware that, despite this blog’s tagline, there hasn’t been a lot of folklore content, per se. There are a number of reasons why this is so, not least because I’m not sure how interesting dry disciplinary stuff would be to most readers. And folks who use search terms like “folklore” are probably expecting something more along the line of Encyclopedia Mythica: i.e., a vast survey of iconic “folkloric” narratives, characters, etc. That’s certainly the kind of thing you get if you enter “folklore” as a topic search in WordPress, so people who wind up here via that route might be a bit disappointed.

But I’m an academic folklorist. I say this not to sound snobby or disparaging of pop culture; on the contrary, I like popular uses of folklore, and tend to prefer popular interests to academic ones. It’s important, though, to understand that those of us who define ourselves as folklorists use familiar terms in very specific ways, which often differ from popular usage.

In my page about the discipline I talk about how folklorists are very concerned with defining what it is they do. Today (at least in the US), folklorists do a ton of different things. I have colleagues with research interests as diverse as public health, fan culture, textiles, professional storytelling, historical reenactment, internet communities and culture, and fart jokes. Folklorists draw on academic theory from such fields as cultural and linguistic anthropology, cultural geography, sociology, cultural studies, and philosophy (among others).

This is all very different from the field’s origins as an amateur pastime. Once folklorists simply went out into rural communities and collected stories, rituals and other patterned behaviors, and material culture they feared would vanish as a natural result of the transition from “pre-modern” to “modern” society. This approach was strengthened by the influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory on the social sciences, giving rise to the unfortunate intellectual notion of cultural evolution. It was also tied to the emergence of the nation-state as the major political unit in the western world [1].

Okay, enough intellectual history for now. Suffice it to say that we don’t do that crap anymore. Like most of the social sciences and humanities, we’ve long since abandoned evolutionary models (because they’re horrible and oppressive and racist) and incorporated theoretical approaches from liberal scholarship in related fields. Now we do all kinds of fun stuff, but still have a focus on what we typically call expressive culture  [2].

But while we have tended to move toward inclusive, open-ended definitions and understandings of folklore and the cultural forms, practices, ideas and other stuff with which we are concerned, we still do have some shared assumptions about particular areas of culture which enable us to talk about it at all (without at least some common terms, no discussion is possible).

One area in which folklorists have always been interested is narrative. We tend to divide narratives (i.e., stories)–as well as other forms of expressive culture such as songs, dance, and material culture–into genres, identified by certain formal characteristics. These are scholarly creations and may not have much purchase among the groups with whom we work, but they provide us with necessary shorthand ways of referring to common ideas [3].

The major narrative genres vary somewhat depending on the scholar, but the most common for folklorists are myth, legend, folktale, and personal narrative (or personal experience narrative). The last of these is, I think, fairly self-explanatory; but the first three are perhaps not as obvious as they seem, at least from the way the terms are used popularly.

While we’re very flexible with our definitions, and many people eschew any kind of rigid terminology at all, folklorists generally stick (loosely) to the definitions outlined by William Bascom in an article appropriately titled “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narrative” [4]. In brief, Bascom defines the three major genres above as follows (I’m paraphrasing here):

  • myths are sacred stories, told as if true, concerning the creation of the world, and usually including non-human or divine characters.
  • legends are stories set in historical time, also told as if true, and usually containing human characters.
  • folktales are stories set in nonspecific time, are not believed to be true, and can contain pretty much any type of character.

Relatively simplistic, and yes, often problematic, but a useful starting point for discussion.

The primary reason I bring any of this up is because I’m tired of people equating the term folklore (and related concepts) with the concept of fallacy or superstition. We’ve all seen MythBusters, and it’s a great show; but that’s not what a myth is (I’m not reacting to the co-opting of the term itself, but its judgmental, disdainful use to mean, again, wrong). Plenty of folks have written on this issue, and I won’t bore you with any more lit reviews here, but I’m sick to death of the use of folklore–even by some scholars–to mean irrelevant, outdated, backward beliefs. Instead of labeling cultural forms as this or that (and then dismissing them out of hand), we might instead ask ourselves why these issues matter to people in the first place, why they choose to engage with them the way they do. Talking about the assumptions folklorists make, and the way we use these terms, is one way I hope to demonstrate the point that we need to take the stuff people do and think seriously, and not dismiss things as fallacious because they don’t satisfy our own ethnocentric standards.

Another motivation for this post was a quick scan of a couple of WordPress blogs on Skepticism. I’ve talked about belief several times before, but I’ll say it again: everyone, but scholars especially, have to stop judging the beliefs of others in terms of their own–even if your “beliefs” are purely “scientific.” The degree to which self-described Skeptics are comfortable dismissing, even ridiculing, the beliefs of others is seriously shocking to me. The Church of Science is apparently the one infallible institution in the land; all the rest are subject to its whims. This is towering, stultifying ignorance to me, as bad as any on display in the most fundamental of fundamentalist sects, and it’s the real (perhaps the only) enemy of “progress,” which I define as an increase in tolerance, understanding and cooperation among all groups of people.

Sorry, that was more soapboxing than I should probably allow myself. Chalk it up to being stuck in the apartment with only shower worms for company.

[1]For a succinct discussion of these issues, see Abrahams, Roger D. “Phantoms of Romantic Nationalism in Folkloristics.” The Journal of American Folklore 106, no. 419 (January 1, 1993): 3–37. doi:10.2307/541344.
[2]For a survey of the ways folklore has been defined, see “What is Folklore?” in the AFS Folklore Wiki.
[3] Ben-Amos, Dan. “Analytical Categories and Ethnic Genres.” In Folklore Genres, edited by Dan Ben-Amos, 215–242. Austin: University of Texas, 1976.
[4]Bascom, William, “The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives,” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 9.