Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Horror: Ideas Towards a Working Definition

Horror and terror are often confused with one another. An excellent distinction to make is to consider terror as a threat from without, while horror is a threat from within. That means that grizzly bears and serial killers might strike terror in a person, but phobias and non-physical threats (for example, fear of demonic possession or fear of going insane) are the province of horror. defines horror as an emotional response to a perceived threat to our physical or psychological well being.  Horror originates as an internal threat (psychological) that is most likely to affect our emotional or psychological stability. Under extreme conditions, however, horror can indirectly affect our physical well being. For example, whether or not the threat perceived is tangible, if the fear response to that perceived threat is great enough, the victim might suffer a fatal heart attack, a stroke, a psychological break down, or end up in a "fight or flight" reaction that could easily result in tragic consequences. So even though horror is psychological, its effects can be just as negative or destructive as those of a "real" physical threat.

One of our main interests at is understanding the objects, ideas, or events that generate horror. We find that a common source of horror is the material presented in gothic novels, upsetting short stories, or the even the tales that come from an oral tradition (like camp fire fables). From an early age, most of us like the frisson of hearing scary stories, as long as we are safely tucked in bed or sheltered from any real harm. As we mature, many of us (especially young males) like to "push the envelope" and find sources of more intense horror. For example, we graduate from Halloween experiences with all their trappings of masks, costumes, and startling pranks to more sophisticated visual presentations of horror. Cinema begins to play a greater role among the things that attract us to that satisfying thrill of horror. Because the theme of most typical slasher movies (the ones that offer us the most blood, gore, and sex) is based on the wages of sin, those outlets for our fear response are restricted to audiences 17 years and older. It is the sex in traditional American movies that originally caused the age restriction, not the actual violence. American cartoons originating in the 1950s and television dramas are testaments to that.

Beyond the realm of fiction, the attraction of horror sometimes continues. The stories or movies that provide that delicious thrill begin to take a more realistic turn. Our search for that horror experience still requires that we ultimately remain safe from physical harm, but we perhaps begin to acquire a taste for "reality" shows or  accounts of horrors that actually occurred to people we know. One of our staff, who shall remain nameless, was interested in horror as a child. When he was in his early teens he played a prank on his mother that elicited a true horror reaction. He had two pets: an albino hamster and a dog. The dog could not be trusted near the hamster because it had always shown signs of aggression towards it. One day our staff member wrapped a Hostess Twinkie in a white Kleenex tissue and tossed it to the dog. He then started screaming as loud as he could that the dog had the hamster. His mother ran out of the kitchen freaking out over the spectacle before her eyes. She was convinced the dog was eating the hamster. I like this story because it is an account of a true horror reaction, not a terror reaction. There was no imminent physical danger for the mother; her reaction was one of fear produced by something horrifying that she perceived to be real. Our staff member received a scare from the same incident. He suddenly realized that his mother might be on the verge of a heart attack, so he quickly ended the prank.

Objects that elicit horrific emotional responses are of interest to many aficionados of horror. Depending on an individual's own psychological make up and life experiences, any variety of objects might fit this category. But there is a general class of objects that seems to fit this profile for most of us. These objects appear to relate to something innate in our primate brains. Some of these include:

  • severed limbs
  • gaping wounds
  • physical deformities
  • physical contact with snakes and reptiles
  • physical contact with spiders and insects
  • putrefaction
  • disembodied bodily fluids
  • amorphous creatures
  • dizzying heights or depths
  • deep murky swamps or lagoons
  • subterranean caves

The fear of these objects is essentially primal. Some fears might be linked to our collective instincts stemming from our ancestral memories of life on the savannas near the dense forests. Our fear of these types of objects is understandable. But what of our attraction to these same objects because of their association with horror? Perhaps it is that attraction that Rudolf Otto attributes to the numen and labels the fascinosum. There is something attractive and fascinating about things that scare us. And it is this aspect of horror that most interests us at

Here is what other aficionados have to say about horror:

Bonamy Dobrée posits that what is commonly described as horror is actually terror: "Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and wakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them." [Bonamy Dobrée, "Introduction," the Oxford University Press edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe.]

The web site offers the following definition:

"Horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a hideous revelation. Horror has also been defined as a combination of terror and revulsion. We are horror... we are"

Jack Morgan argues convincingly for a new paradigm that opposes horror to comedy, replacing the traditional comedy-tragedy opposition. His insightful work focuses on the "biology" of horror and explains that:

"Horror texts, literary or cinematic, address organic states of siege, whether the organic unit under siege is the cell, the house, the city, or some other expression of the human biological matrix." [Jack Morgan, The Biology of Horror: Gothic Literature and Film (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), p. 18.]

For Philip P. Hallie "Horror (at least in the Gothic Tale) is an experience of cruelty being exerted fascinatingly and violently by a single personal force upon a single personal victim" [Philip P. Hallie, "Horror and the Paradox of Cruelty," Monday Evening Papers: Number 16 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Center for Advanced Studies, 1969), p.5.

If you are interested in "horror" and the "supernatural" as they apply to traditional literature, then you must read what H.P. Lovecraft has to say on the subject in his classic essay Supernatural Horror in Literature. In this historic work Lovecraft creates his theory of horror literature in an expertly structured, historically rich volume that begins with his famous description of "fear" and his declaration that the "genuineness and dignity of...weirdly horrible tales" elevate them to a legitimate literary form. Here is a brief layout of this essay with a short synopsis of each section.


Supernatural Horror in Literature

[A summary of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973).]

  1. Introduction - Lovecraft lays out his definition of fear and distinguishes between "mere physical fear" or the "mundanely gruesome" and what he calls the "true weird tale."

  2. The Dawn of the Horror Tale -  Horror has been part of human consciousness as far back as we can remember. He cites examples of lore and ancient rimes that prefigure the birth of the horror genre. He notes that the "impulse and atmosphere are as old as man, but the typical weird tale of standard literature is a child of the eighteenth century."

  3. The Early Gothic Novel - Shows how horror fiction burgeoned in the 18th century culminating in the more sophisticated works of Anne Radcliffe in England and Charles Brockton Brown in America.

  4. The Apex of the Gothic Romance - Begins with the works of Matthew G. Lewis; especially The Monk. Talks about the appearance of gothic romantic works in England and Germany. And ends with a note about the superior style of Charles Robert Maturin.

  5. The Aftermath of Gothic Fiction - This section deals with the gothic tradition's influence by Eastern literature. Lovecraft distinguishes this influence from the "Walpolean" tradition. He covers the development of Mary Shelley, Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Walter Scott and then goes into what he describes as a "semi-Gothic, quasi-moral tradition." He praises Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights as a terror novel that stands alone in its superior effect.

  6. Spectral Literature on the Continent - Horror fiction excelled in German and French works. Lovecraft credits Jewish and Cabbalist interest in the field for influencing continental works.

  7. Edgar Allan Poe - Poe was Lovecraft's literary hero. He felt fortunate that Poe was responsible for what Lovecraft called a "literary dawn."

  8. The Weird Tradition in America - The American tradition includes a look at the influence of Calvinism and native beliefs that helped develop the genre as peculiarly American.

  9. The Weird Tradition in the British Isles - This section describes the weird tradition in British literature.

  10. The Modern Masters - The final section gives an excellent synopsis of how Lovecraft viewed the works of his contemporaries.