An annoying question that intellectuals ignorant about the horror genre often think they’re terribly clever for asking: what is horror, anyway?
An annoying corollary: why would anyone read or write such stuff?
The dismissive, tautological answers, “scary stuff” and “because we like it,” are almost as annoying as the questions. My nerd-hat answer, which I write about at length in Gothic Realities, is that a work is Gothic horror if its primary object of representation is fear or the fearful. In other words, a book, movie, video game, or whatever is horror if it’s about scary stuff. It doesn’t have to be scary, but it has to be about stuff people generally consider to be scary. My nerd-hat answer is still that it’s scary stuff; I just add qualifications. My definition allows for the meaning of horror to change with shifting perceptions of what’s scary (as well as what is “real”).
This answer doesn’t do shit for the question why, though, and that’s because when I’m wearing my nerd hat, I feel pretty powerless to address causality, as inductive reasoning from empirical data—or drawing conclusions based on observations—rules purist (purest?) nerd logic. Inductive reasoning can allow you to see relationships between and among things, but you can’t infer causality from correlation (correlation does not equal causality is a mantra in some circles). Some people still claim lack of scientific “proof” for cigarettes causing cancer and humans causing global warming because proving causality is itself almost impossible, according to strictest nerd logic. I am therefore going to abandon said logic and enter a flawed a priori sketch mode that is scientifically and philosophically unjustifiable.
With apologies to Aristotle.
Claim: Horror in fiction is the banishment of horror from reality.
- According to Jean-Paul Sartre, being precedes essence. However, fictional essence—a fixed text’s reason for being—precedes its being.
- Fiction inverts the real.
- The reason for fiction being precedes its being.
- FIRST PRINCIPLE: Why horror fiction is must precede what horror fiction is.
- Progress is the triumph of life.
- Modernity as Enlightenment can thrive through medicine as an opponent of disease, diplomacy as an opponent of war, technologies as opponents of scarcity, and other strategic deployments of knowledge for progress.
- Despite other deployments of power-knowledge, including some associated with the marginalization and relative invisibility of death, progress would also displace death from mainstream home and street-side spectacles to the hospital room or consensual equivalents.
- SECOND PRINCIPLE: Horror has receded and must recede from reality.
- Horror in reality is unpleasant for non-psychopathic percipients.
- Horror in fiction to some degree is pleasant for many, if not most, percipients and is a feature of many, if not most, “great” works of art and literature, including non-fiction, holy texts, etc.
- To explain the pleasure of horrific violence in art, classical theory of tragedy, which encompassed virtually all the darker arts, postulated that people experience catharsis, or a release of powerful negative emotions, when they experience violent art.
- A preponderance of research has shown that catharsis does not occur, as people exhibit similar or greater degrees of negative emotion after experiencing violent art.
- THIRD PRINCIPLE: Catharsis fails.
- As a horror writer, I write down my nightmares. So did Mary Shelley. So did Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft. And so on.
- Readers identify with horror fiction. They see themselves in it. They don’t experience a release of feelings: if anything, they feel more.
- A reader or a writer transfers her- or him-self into the fiction. Feelings are not released; they are moved through the process into the fiction.
- The process is an individual movement from a mundane real to a horrific fiction.
- The movement is controlled, the fiction fixed: the process is safe, keeping horror receded from reality, advancing life and the individual.
- FOURTH PRINCIPLE: Horror fiction is an individual rite.
- Despite the enormous mainstream success of some horror fictions, cultural authorities often pretend horror’s readers and writers are victims of a pathology.
- Pathologizing the commonplace pleasure in horror fiction reveals the disconnection of the governing authority from the governed, reflecting on the pathology of the authoritarian perspective.
- Horror fiction becomes the place to which horrors are banished and in which larger cultural horrors still deserving banishment see themselves reflected.
- Collectively, cultures use horror for their most revolutionary critiques.
- FIFTH PRINCIPLE: Horror fiction is a cultural ritual.