Scares of All Shapes and Sizes: Categorizing Fear

Stephen King classifies scares in three categories: Terror, Horror, and Gross-Out.

“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

Far be it from me to argue with the master of horror. However, I want to subdivide these three categories a little further.

The reason I started thinking about this was because I watched Apartment 1 Br, and even though it’s a good movie, I really didn’t enjoy it. I ended up watching Howl’s Moving Castle to calm down.

But Eve, you like being scared! That’s your whole thing! *insert montage of me riding rollercoasters alone because my friends have reached their limit, watching horror movies in the dark, and generally spooking myself silly*

Thinking about this seemingly contradictory idea: that I can love being scared sometimes and not others, led me to the idea that “fear” is a catch-all term that can be defined even further. So…

Types of Terror

Cosmic Horror

“The universe and the laws thereof are absolutely not what I thought they were.” This is the heart of cosmic horror, and of course I’ve got to nod to Lovecraft for solidifying this genre.

There’s a great line from Stephen King’s IT that explains it pretty well, I think. It’s from Stanley Uris’ POV, and it explains why he’s completely unable to cope with the monster that is It.

“It’s offense you maybe can’t live with because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are evil things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down there in that dark and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses which sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could. Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.”

What’s interesting is that this feeling of tininess in a world you don’t understand manifests much differently in other genres. In sci-fi, it can be a moment of awe and hope, while in religious tradition it can be sacred, proof of forces larger than us.

Paul Tremblay posits (and pushes back against) the idea that horror is a fundamentally conservative genre. New, unknown things that break the rules of the world as we know it are scary and bad. Cosmic horror, anyway, reinforces his theory.

Too Close For Comfort

This one is anything that doesn’t exactly rearrange your concept of reality, but it hits a little too close to home. Babysitters getting mauled while they order pizza and ghosts hover just on the edge of your vision, for example, are scary because “Hey, maybe that could happen, after all, you know that story about my friend’s cousin’s mom who…”

This kind of fear has us checking over our shoulders and doubting the people we see every day.

Types of Horror

Profanity

I almost wanted to categorize this one as “perversion,” but there’s connotations there I don’t mean. This kind of horror is what happens when something usually perceived as innocent is twisted into something frightening: possessed children’s toys, evil carnivals, cannibal clowns.

Spooky Stuff

This one is simple: things that creep us out on a cultural or species level like dead bodies that zombify, ghosts, curses, haunted objects or houses. This kind of fear explores things we find disturbing on the best of days (but also sometimes find fascinating).

Types of Gross-Out

Phobia

Sometimes, whether there’s a reason for it or not, specific things can put a person into a deep state of fear, even if they aren’t in any danger. Phobias range from “Hey, don’t ever ask so-and-so to hold your pet tarantula” to medical diagnoses that can be debilitating.

An ophidiophobe would rather fight a bear than go into the reptile house and a claustrophobe might find a tanning bed intolerable. Some movies play on these fears and allow viewers a form of DIY exposure therapy that rarely works. And they create their own audiences, because some children form phobias just from seeing something scary on screen.

Adrenaline Rushes

Jump scares! VR horror experiences! Sitting next to me in a theater during a jump-scare-heavy movie because I always grab my companion!

I think this one is so much fun. It’s reasonably easy to do: set a tense atmosphere (a POV short where a character creeps down an empty hallway with plenty of places for the big bad to hide, for example, or a scene where the viewers can spot the danger but the character can’t), draw it out for as long as your sadistic little heart thinks is necessary, and then BAM! Hit ‘em with a shock to the senses like sudden movement or loud noise.

Body Horror

This one is very evolutionary in nature—where Lovecraft terrorizes our frontal cortexes, squeamish body horror goes straight for the hindbrain. Messy kills, buckets of blood, snapping bones—either you love this stuff or you hate it. We’ve got the effects team to thank for the images that stick in your mind and the sympathy pain you experience.

Trauma-Triggers

This one is probably the least fun. Watching The Shining if you grew up with an abusive alcoholic or Hush if you’ve lived through a home invasion can, for a lot of people, bring on the mental and physical symptoms of being back in the situation. 0/10, do not recommend.

On my way out, I’ll leave a helpful link: https://www.doesthedogdie.com/. This is a really good resource for vetting movies for really specific stuff. It won’t get inside your brain and tell you what’s really going to bother you, but a quick search will bring up most common phobias. Some of the entries paint with a pretty broad brush, ie considering Grizabella’s ascension to the Heaviside Layer in CATS a “cat death.”

Which yes, is still on topic, because CATS (2019) is a horror movie and no one can tell me different.

Anyway, drop your “absolutely nope” movies in the comments, and I’ll see you all next month!

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