All Round the Table, “What is Horror?”

Horror is the implacable reality of death. I once heard the phrase, “All love stories end in death.” I would simplify the statement, shorten it.

All ends in death.

As a genre, horror embraces that truism. It may do it in a nearly slapstick way, overdosing the audience with gore and gross. It may do it in a calculated, bloodless way, and approach the cold reality by gut-wrenching degrees. Horror pays homage to the innate and powerless truth of our existence: all ends in death.

Marie Loughin is chief of  The Emissaries of Strange (TESSpecFic), a speculative fiction group of which I am a member. Marie posed the question: what is the difference between horror and dark fantasy? The Emissaries are taking a round-table discussion approach to answering Marie’s question, each of us posting a response on our own blog on a predetermined day. Today is my day, and I am the fifth member of TESSpecFic to reply.

Marie’s answer is Aristotelian, giving a categorization of elements that must be present for a work to meet her definition of horror. I challenge anyone to come up with a work of horror that does not contain at least one, if not several of her elements. Marie’s elements are:

1)   Creepy atmosphere.

2)   Suspenseful.

3)   Victims experience psychological trauma (i.e. they are aware and helpless).

4)   Inspires fear and/or dread in reader.

Jaye approaches the question from a more Platonic stance. She locates the definition somewhere beyond the bounds of plot or story elements. The ultimate determination of whether or not something is horror, for Jaye, is to be found in the effect it has upon the reader. A work is horror if the reader is left with the question: “How do you live with that?”

Paul takes a Utilitarian approach to answering the question, stating that the purpose of any genre label is to help guide potential readers to a particular type of book. Definitions of “horror” or of “dark fiction” fall to the side, replaced by the  practical question of how to least mislead potential readers. The difficulty is that the definitions the publishing industry uses may not match the definitions that the general public applies; muddy as they are, these are the linguistic waters upon which our marketing terms float – or sink.

Kim chimes in with  characteristic metaphysical flourish, giving a response as Phenomenological as they come. She says the roots of what can be defined as horror are found in the psychological reaction of a person to reading a particular work. Horror is a core emotion, and as such is subjective. Like Jaye, Kim takes the onus of definition and puts it out there, in the reader. However, Kim agrees with Paul that labeling has a purpose, and feels the angst of trying to find the right term to categorize her work.

I argue that to fully define horror, you need to include the work and the audience. A horror story is the sum of its elements plus the effect it has on the reader. Of course, the same could be said of romance, sci-fi, dark fantasy. The difference between genres, then, would seem to be given by the specific, intended effect a collected set of story elements has on the reader.

I don’t mean to say that only the author’s intentions matter; no, the elements that the author arranged will have varying effects on different readers, although the general reaction might be in the same vein. In that sense, I agree with Paul that the labels matter because they help readers winnow their choices. I have a general impression of what I’ll get when I pick up a supernatural thriller, or a gaslight romance, or a steampunk fantasy. Do I think that a particular label, even these compound varieties in vogue of late, give me the full picture of what I will experience within a given book? Of course not. It is a label. It is a guidepost. It is not the substance of the work, it is not the thing-in-itself. I am happy to find that my gaslight romance has a dash of horror, or that my horror has a sprinkling of steampunk. The wonderful thing about art – and life, for that matter – is that labels can’t contain the essence of the thing. When it comes to books, not even the book itself can contain what it truly is. A story, no matter how labeled, does not come into true existence until it has interacted with a reader’s psyche. Only then is it real, and only then can it horrify.

To answer Marie, I would say that horror has the intent of making the reader feel the inevitable approach of death. Dark Fantasy, to me, would have the intent of giving the reader the option to believe there is something beyond death, something beyond the boundaries of our implacable outcome. By my own definitions, I would have to class Marie’s novel, Valknut: The Binding, as Dark Fantasy.

Please visit the other Emissaries for the full round-table discussion  – and don’t forget to mark your calendars to catch Penelope and Jonathan’s upcoming posts!

Marie Loughin: Just what the heck is “Horror,” anyway, and how is it different from Dark Fantasy?

Jaye Manus: What is Horror? The Answer is in the Question

Paul Dail: Potential Perils of the Horror Label… or … The Difficulties of Defining a Genre

Kim Koning: Shivers down my spine…

Jonathan D. Allen: Monday, May 14

Penelope Crowe: Tuesday, May 15

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11 thoughts on “All Round the Table, “What is Horror?”

  1. I loved your take on this question Aniko 🙂 It is so true, the greatest horror is that no matter what we do, how we live or who we are…everything ends in death for us all. Birth and death the two inescapable facts of life. Very succinct take on What is Horror? – Kim 🙂


    • Funny you should mention birth, Kim. I believe in reincarnation and, for me, the most horrifying fact is the knowledge that I’m bound to repeat my mistakes for eons. Western Horror focuses on the terrible and unalterable eventuality of the end of this particular life, but I wonder what cross-cultural comparison would yield?


  2. Yes, really nice piece, Aniko. I certainly agree that most of what I call horror focuses on the threat of (usually horrible) death. I would want to expand on that definition, though. I have read or watched stories that I would call horror where death wasn’t the issue at all, but rather a change of circumstance trapping an individual in a horrible situation. In some ways, being trapped can be more horrifying than threat of death, which implies an eventual end to the suffering. Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” qualifies as horror in my mind. (Of course, Harlan would probably deny any genre affiliation.)


    • You’ve given me pause, Marie, and that is awesome! My succinct definition is rather too narrow; I was aiming for the heart, yet the body as a whole is a larger, more diffuse target. The crux of horror, if you take both your comments and mine, would still come down to the fact that there are situations where we are ultimately powerless. Death is an obvious example of a scenario that we’re all doomed to be trapped by, but you’re right: there’s more to horror than death.

      Perhaps horror is to be defined as inescapable powerlessness?

      Thanks for the great comment!


  3. “A story, no matter how labeled, does not come into true existence until it has interacted with a reader’s psyche.” – Very true, and beautifully put.

    I think that horror very often transcends the genre label. For example, I’ve always thought that Richard Yates’ ‘Revolutionary Road’ is a horror story, though it would never be defined as such. No blood, no murders, not even the whiff of anything supernatural; it simply is really and truly horrifying.

    Well done to the members of TESSpecFic for addressing the question of what constitutes horror. It’s an interesting issue, and well worth giving some thought to.


    • Mari, I wish we could go sit at a cafe and talk! I agree with you on Revolutionary Road, and felt the same about Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The House of Sand and Fog. None of them is marketed as Horror, but the horror is palpable in all of those stories.


  4. Very nice 🙂
    Eloquent, lush, and dark–just how I like it.
    The inevitable approach of death is a wonderful and terrible thing to think about–and most certainly in every tale of horror.
    There was a time was I was very sick when the other side of the coin seemed the worse fate.
    Great post Aniko


    • Thanks for the compliments, and for stopping by. I’m glad you didn’t succumb to your sickness, but it’s that sort of thing that makes me surprised more people don’t bewail birth more than death. Life is hard. It’s where we feel pain and make mistakes. It’s also where we manage, maybe one time out of ten, to get things right. The striving is what makes us human.


      • Very interesting. I don’t know if you remember the woman I mentioned who ran the hostel in Mexico. She said something along those same lines. “Death isn’t scary. It’s life that’s scary.” I think that ties into Mari’s comments. Sometimes the real horror is in living.

        However, I think of those types of stories as more “literary fiction” than genre fiction. And I really like how you defined the difference between horror and fantasy. You replied to Marie that it might be somewhat limited, but I think it’s a great place to start.

        Fun post. Enjoying our discussion.

        Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog


      • “Death isn’t scary. It’s life that’s scary.” To the point, simply phrased, and possibly the world’s tiniest slice of horror. I do remember that post, and that phrase.

        The discussion was a lot of fun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I’m thrilled at how different all of our approaches were to answering the question. Your post got to me, though, because it highlights one of the other horrors in life: just because people are speaking the same language and using the same words does not guarantee understanding or congruence of meaning. The industry sees horror one way, the general reader sees it another. Illustrations of the elasticity and sheer imprecision of communication vex me!

        Thanks for stopping by – you always leave thoughtful comments, and I appreciate the time it takes to do so!



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