Horror? You Don’t Say?

What makes a horror story?

Yeah, I’m just coming out and asking. Just get right into the thick of it, as some editors say.

What constitutes a horror story? Why are certain stories considered horror as opposed to thriller or drama or any other genre/sub genre?

Are monsters needed, such as Frankenstein, Dracula, zombies, werewolves, the blob and so many others?

Does there need to be an abundance of gore and dismemberment, as seen in movies like Saw, Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street?

Does everyone need to die, as in all the movies I just listed? Not that everyone dies in those movies, but a lot do. Is it necessary?

Or could it involve the everyday events of life? A kid beating another kid to death with a baseball bat? A man beating his wife and children to show them who’s the boss (and worse yet, killing them if he so felt inclined)? An act of terrorism, such as what happened on 9/11?

Or maybe, could it be the subtleness of death alone? Someone dying of Cancer or the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)? Or what about dementia or any other mental disease?

What is horror to you, the readers as well as you, the writers?

I think horror doesn’t necessarily have to be scary, but it can have horrific elements to it. Those elements often bring about that tremendous emotion of dread, something we horror writers shoot for.

Take Stephen King, the most well known horror writer of the last forty years. Sure, he has stories like It, Needful Things, Carrie, Salem’s Lot, Cell, The Dome, and many, many others. But isn’t he the same guy who wrote stories like Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Rose Madder, Apt Pupil, Cujo, and Big Driver among others? None of the stories in this last list are supernatural or have monsters in them (that is, monsters per say. As to what monsters are, there are very real monsters in all of those stories).

In my collection, Along the Splintered Path, there are three stories, only one of which is truly horror for what horror is. The other two could be considered not necessarily horror. Both stories have horrific elements to them, but I’m not totally positive I would say they were ‘horror.’ Yes, I used that word or a variation of it several times in this last paragraph.

If you ask me (and I know you aren’t, but…) the elements of horror are in every day life. Even literary writers are getting in on it, though they would never admit it. Boy meets girl, falls in love, but girl doesn’t love boy so boy kills girl, stuffs her in a footlocker and tosses her in the lake. That, my friends, is horror at its core.

If you turn on the television or read the newspaper, there’s something horrific happening every day.

Tornadoes ripped through Alabama last year, killing 239. We’ve seen the images and from what we’ve heard and read, we can piece together the last moments of many lives. There may not have been any monsters or murderers involved, but the horror was there.

How about the massacre in Norway on July 22nd of 2011 where 77 people were killed? Again, we’ve seen the videos of teenagers running for their lives, some of them bloodied. We’ve seen the images of bodies on the ground and the portraits of those who died. What if that had been a book instead of real life? Would it be considered a horror story or just another literary work?

What about the Tri State Crematory incident from 2002 where, instead of cremating the bodies of the deceased, they dumped over three hundred corpses in woods or stacked in sheds and the families were given nothing more than concrete dust instead of the remains of loved ones? Surely, finding the bodies would have been unnerving for anyone.

I could go on and on all day, citing examples of things that I would consider horrific, even in its subtleness. Amelia Earhart’s disappearance as an example. Wouldn’t her story–the actual disappearance–and what happened to her be both fascinating and chilling? Not to beat a dead horse, but what about the sinking of the Titanic? Or the San Francisco earthquake and fires of April 18th, 1906? Over 3000 people died that morning.

I’m a writer. And as I’ve perused over my stories through recent years, I’ve noticed more and more that I’ve pulled away from the monsters and more toward the realistic horrors of this world. Of the last 100 stories I’ve written, including two novels and several novellas, 39 or them had zero monsters, ghosts or supernatural elements to them. Those stories all are rooted in the real world we live in, yet even they, for the most part, have horrific elements to them. I call those RLHs, or Real Life Horrors.

So… what do you think? What constitutes horror for you? I hope for some reader participation here and I look forward to seeing what everyone thinks on this.

As always, thank you for reading.

Until we meet again, my friends…

2 thoughts on “Horror? You Don’t Say?

  1. I have always perceived horror as the more traditional ‘monster’ based texts. Those that are probably most related to the earlier Gothic literature or ones which focus on a supernatural being or thing that creates horrific scenarios.

    It’s is interesting to think about where or what we call horror and what exactly is the cut off point? Some examples you gave i would be inclined to call tragedies. But i think overall ‘Horror’ should be written with the intention of creating a horrific experience or emotion in the reader. So it could be written about anythig presumably.

    Certainly has made me think about different ways of writing.


    1. Thank you for your response, writingbeard. I believe anything has the potential to have horrific elements to it–it just depends on the person. A kid having to stand up in class and give his report on what he did for summer vacation could be as terrifying to a shy nine year old as staring down Freddie or Jason or Leatherface. The trick is whether or not the writer telling the story can pull it off, can evoke that terror for the reader.


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