Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Terror: Ideas Towards a Working Definition

Terror is an emotional response to a force external to ourselves that causes intense fear. For semantic purposes distinguishes between the emotional effects of terror and those of horror. We define terror as a threat from without, while horror is a threat from within. One way to distinguish between terror and horror is to think of terror representing an imminent threat to our physical well being. Horror, in contrast, represents an internal threat (psychological) that is most likely to affect our emotional or psychological stability; however, horror can indirectly affect our physical well being.

In some ways, terror is less interesting than horror. On an intellectual level it seems quite reasonable for human beings to react fearfully or even hysterically to a life threatening event. In contrast the intellectual interest in horror generally provides a refuge from serious bodily harm. But there are those who for whatever reason enjoy the more dangerous aspects of terror; perhaps understanding that the fear response from terror is informed by a true risk of death or injury. Most commonly, those whose tastes have graduated from horror to terror usually prefer to be witnesses to fear rather than participants in the terror. Consequently, individuals with too sweet a tooth for terror often display symptoms sadism. If they participate in terror events, they usually perpetrate the terror on others so that they can experience the effects vicariously; a form of voyeurism. In extreme cases, such an appetite for terror shatters civilized norms and enters the realm of socio- or even psychopathology. At this level the entertainment value is lost; what remains is violence, destruction, sadism, and psychosis. Terror has become a psychological issue.

The taste for terror can also extend to religion and politics. Countless human beings have lost their lives throughout history as a result of terror imposed on them by religious zealots or self-proclaimed believers. The Salem witch trials resulted from an imposition of Puritan morals on victims who failed to comply with Calvinist laws. The Spanish Inquisition was notorious for its violent enforcement of its arbitrary religious laws on non-Catholics. These are examples of political actions performed in the name of religion; actions intended to strike terror in the hearts of those who might refuse to comply (or even be incapable of complying) with religious law. The threat of crucifixion under Roman law or the threat of disembowelment by Germanic tribes for cutting down a tree are examples of terror used to enforce political rule.

There are less grand examples of terror being used as a tool for coercion. For example, vivid stories told to innocent children by their religious school masters about the consequences of not conforming to their faith; the wages of sin are eternal damnation and suffering. Or even ancient lore that has been passed through the centuries and later transformed into innocent tales or myths; for example, the Sandman and La Llorona are stories originally told to children to terrify them into sleeping or fearing the night.

Terror can arise from unintended situations or from impending accidents: the terror of being buried alive in a building collpase, the major malfunction of a airliner during flight, the experience of a parachute failure, or the terror of getting caught in an under tow; all of these are experiences of terror not deliberately perpetrated by human intention. Terror can also arise from natural causes: shark attacks, bear attacks, Africanized bee attacks, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, or any number of natural disasters.

But whatever form terror takes or from whatever cause our sense of terror originates, many of us still have a fascination for understanding the intensity of emotions driven by these experiences. If we are generally of sane mind and maintain a certain curiosity about life, we may find that our interest in terror is comparable to our interest in death. We hope to avoid the overwhelming anxiety and fear of both by experiencing them in small doses vicariously. Hence our fascination with the sensation of terror is in that way comparable to our fascination with the sensation of horror. We imitate Emily Dickinson's fear of death by practicing dying through the stories, movies, and sometimes the pastimes that attract us. We discover the same degree of attraction to terror and death described by Rudolf Otto's fascinosum. And we sense both the mysterium and tremendum in terror and death that Otto attributes to the Numen.

Links to Sites Containing Terrifying Stories and Images