Horror 101

As this is the first post for this horror-themed column, I thought we’d take some time out to have a look at the main areas of horror – after all, it’s a wide-ranging genre whose content includes both Poltergeist and Saw. Some people will say they don’t like gory films, but they like ghost stories, while others find demonic activity boring when compared with thrillers – but they’re all horror! One really good way to learn to write horror fiction is to read horror novels, but you’ll also learn a lot by watching horror films.

I do think that if you boil horror down to its constituent parts, you can see there are three broad areas – Supernatural, Visceral, and Psychological. Some stories remain solely in one area (Saw is very much visceral and never strays beyond that), while others occupy two positions (where The Shining explores Jack’s psychological breakdown against a background of supernatural occurrences), but few flirt with all three. If you want to write horror, it’s probably best to decide which ‘type’ you want to produce, and consider how your story will work with the elements of that type. Bear in mind that there are other types of horror, such as comedy horror, but they still come under one of these three umbrellas.

Supernatural Horror

Think ghosts, demons, cosmic forces beyond our ken – if it isn’t defined by physical laws, and has a foot in a realm other than that of the living, then it’s Supernatural. Remember horror doesn’t have to have monsters – it has to horrify, and being confronted by your own mortality is exactly that. MR James was a master of the supernatural tale, although perhaps the most famous ghost story of them all is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Humans are fascinated with ideas of what happens to the soul after death, and religious horror also comes under the umbrella of ‘supernatural’ due to its engagement with life after death, miracles, and other unexplained phenomena. There is a subset of ‘cosmic horror’, which includes the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and deals with notions of ancient gods, or beings in other dimensions seeking to punch their way through to ours, but I think this ultimately comes under the heading of Supernatural as these are things ‘not of this earth’.

Haunted houses are a perennial favourite, as is demonic activity or possession. There’s a general assumption, at least in horror films, that whatever the viewer doesn’t see will always be more frightening than what they do, since the imagination is such a powerful thing. Bear this is mind when writing Supernatural horror.

Visceral Horror

Gore, gore, and more gore – this is the stock in trade of Visceral horror. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and Hostel would all be good examples of visceral horror. This particular subset explores the darker side of humanity, although supernatural monsters are equally welcome here – A Nightmare on Elm Street and Suspiria are a good examples of the combining of Visceral and Supernatural.

Body parts are rendered, blood spatters, cannibalistic families live in isolated houses, ready to prey on unsuspecting visitors, and people uncover abbatoirs and killing rooms hidden below seemingly normal houses. I’d also argue that while a lot of monsters are Supernatural by their nature, some monsters, such as vampires, also come under Visceral due to the manner in which they kill.

Visceral horror is not for the squeamish, and while its film variant relies heavily upon special effects makeup and a liberal application of fake blood, its literary equivalent must be extremely descriptive to conjure up these images in the imagination of the reader.

Psychological Horror

A lot of psychological horror stories also masquerade as thrillers, since they often deal with the exploration of a disturbed mind. The Silence of the Lambs is a good example – possibly the only horror film ever to win an Oscar, it’s largely considered to be a thriller so that critics feel they’re allowed to like it. It’s also an example of blending horror types, mixing Psychological with Visceral.

But psychological horror isn’t just about getting into the mind of a killer – it can also be about the mindset of the victim. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion explored the mental breakdown of a young woman living in 1960s London, and the ‘horror’ comes from the things she does as a result. If you want to combine subsets, then Psychological works well with Supernatural. The Haunting by Shirley Jackson is a famous example, exploring the mental unravelling of Eleanor while staying at the haunted Hill House. Is the house really haunted – or is everything just inside Eleanor’s head? The novel is well worth a read, and if you decide to watch the film make sure it’s the 1963 Robert Wise version, and not the 1999 Jan de Bont remake.

Psychological horror depends upon tension, and a level of sympathy with the afflicted victim, or fascination with the afflicted villain.

What do you think? What type of horror do you prefer?