This week we’re going to talk about the horror genre. To be completely honest, this is my least favorite genre in both film and literature. I get completely drawn into the story lines and then will not sleep for a week because I’ve been scared silly. So, if I do miss anything at all that you think other readers should know please let me know! That way I can either add it in later and I get to learn more about the genre.
Let’s get started with our definition of horror.
Horror Genre: is a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.
This is what the genre is trying to do – with mixed results for some people. Now the definition is important, but it’s not everything. Horror has a history to it – both in literature and in film. I think it’s a good idea to know where this genre has started and how it has developed over the years.
Horror has most likely been around since we as humans have been able to communicate these stories to others. They’re cautionary tales at this point for the next generation. For example, don’t walk in the woods at night, you’ll be eaten by a pack of wolves. They’re also used to explain the inexplicable. For example, we didn’t sacrifice Sasha to the Gods and now we have a bad season for food because there is no rain to water our crops.
Regardless of where, when, and what time period, these stories are going to be firmly entrenched in the folklore that we read about. Horror is also very tropic. There are a lot of conventions that have come out of each era and stage of its development that can still be seen in traditional stories and films today.
I’m going to split the history of horror up into literature and film. They’re both important to the genre. We’re going to start off with the literature first. It does predate the history of horror films.
History of horror in literature:
** Just to note that this section is going to be pretty long. I will be doing a summary of it at the end, so if you don’t want to read it in full you can just do that instead. **
Horror’s roots can be officially traced back to the first Inquisition in 1235. In 1235, the Vatican was loosing power over their followers and issued an order to reestablish the orthodoxy of the faith. This led to a lot of heresy and allegations of witchcraft, which we all know doesn’t end well for a lot of innocent people being persecuted for being witches.
We also see the influence of religion emerge in the literature with a vengeance. A lot of the focus was on the evils of Satan. We have Dante publish his Divine Comedy, Inferno in 1309, where he gave us an accounting of Satan that was predominately accepted until John Milton published his Paradise Lost in 1667. In the 1500’s, we see religion play out in more gory terms in plays such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1600) and Macbeth (1605). These were plays that included death as a punishment for dabbling with the supernatural.
However, the Inquisition isn’t the official starting point for the genre of horror. Horror starts with the rise of the Gothic. In 1714, we had the rise of the Graveyard Poets with the publishing of Thomas Parnell A Night-Piece on Death. Other members of this group include: Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, James MacPherson, Robert Blair, and Thomas Chatterton and they were preoccupied with death and mortality within their work. They were also the forerunners to the Gothic novel.
Gothic Horror: refers to a style of writing that is characterized by elements of fear, horror, death, and gloom, as well as romantic elements, such as nature, individuality, and very high emotion. These emotions can include fear and suspense.
This sub-genre of horror is what sparked it all. It originated from the art and architecture of the time, which was dark, decaying and dismal. The settings of these types of novels and stories took place in old, dilapidated buildings or in gloomy, lifeless, fear-inspiring landscapes.
In 1765, Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, which is considered to be the first Gothic novel. This sparked the imaginations of other influential Gothic writers, such as, Anne Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and Charles Brickden Brown. it also had a big impact on writers like Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott and countless others.
However, Gothic horror would take another turn yet again in 1816, when Mary Shelley and, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Dr. John Polidori were in Geneva and sharing a villa. They ended up collaborating on a lot of stories which culminated in Mary Shelley publishing Frankenstein in 1818 and in birthing a new genre called science fiction.
Science Fiction: fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, in the newly formed USA, we have Edgar Allen Poe contributing to the Gothic with some of his more disturbing short stories, such as, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Poe is also accredited to being the founder of the detective novel genre during this time.
Detective Novel: is a genre of writing where a detective works to solve a crime. The audience is challenged to solve the crime by the clues provided before the detective reveals the answer at the end of the novel.
*** Just to note here that horror didn’t only apply to children during this time period. Morality rates were not good and violent deaths were a common day occurrence. Kids got to witness this in real life and in their literature – enter Jakob and Willhelm Grimm in Germany and Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark with their grisly tales. ****
As the Industrial Revolution changed everything as we know it, we also saw it change literature in general. So, it’s not a stretch to see that it would have its influences on the genre of horror. We get rise in literacy and in people in overcrowded cities, which meant that people wanted to escape through literature. Enter the rise of the Penny Dreadfuls. The penny dreadful was cheap to purchase and offered visceral and gory thrills. A famous example would be Thomas Prest’s publication of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber (originally The String of Pearls) in 1847. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897 and George Reynold’s Wagner the Werewolf was published in 1846.
Closer to the turn of the century, Victorian ideals were more ingrained into society and crime and violence were on the rise. This led to a rise into an exploration on individual morality and whether or not you could count on the goodness of others. It was an anxious time and work like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) was poised for instant success. Three years after this, Jack the Ripper was making an appearance in the streets of London and giving more credence to the “no one can be trusted” motif. In France, we’re seeing plays full of violence, murder, rape, suicide, and ghostly apparitions on the French stage and authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Joris Karl Huysmans, and Guy de Maupassant are making a splash with their stories.
At the turn of the century, we’re getting the first horror films being produced! Ambrose Bierce published Can Such Things Be? in 1893. The collection of ghost stories followed his gritty war stories, bringing ghosts into modernity. H.G. Wells would go a step further in 1898; War of the Worlds, took horror into the future by blending horror and science fiction.
The short story has also taken over the horror novel at this point in time and occult horror makes a full appearance with the publishing of the short story “The Willow” in 1907 by Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult society created by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers in 1888. The organization was home to many a prominent writer, from the infamous Aleister Crowley to William Butler Yeats, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Sax Rhomer. Members of the Order were responsible for the majority of weird and horror fiction produced in the UK at the time. Their work also marked the end of an era for horror; soon after, the genre’s popularity would fade, not to reemerge in Britain until James Herbert and Clive Barker began publishing horror in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
In America, however, horror was flourishing. In 1923, Weird Tales was established as a horror genre magazine. It was in print for 32 years, but didn’t turn a profit during that time. They did feature authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ray Bradbury. We also get the rise of the Southern Gothic in the USA with William Faulkner publishing his “A Rose for Emily” in 1930.
Southern Gothic: is a genre of Southern writing. The stories often focus on grotesque themes. While it may include supernatural elements, it mainly focuses on damaged, even delusional, characters.
The Great Depression made the fascination with horror even more popular in the USA, but soon the real horrors of World War II overshadowed the fictional ones. Author’s, like Bradbury, did continue writing during this time, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that horror captured in audiences again and found a new momentum. Richard Matheson’s published I Am Legend in 1954, and was the first modern vampire novel, while Shirley Jackson’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959) remains one of the most critically acclaimed genre novels of the past sixty years.
In 1957, we have the arrest of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin farmer, for the murder of Bernice Worden. Well, the found out that Ed was digging people up and committing acts of cannibalism (you can find out all the details here). This finally put the serial killer archetype into the literature. This helped inspire the Hannibal Lecter Series by Thomas Harris.
The Cold War had ushered in a new age of paranoia and fear of invasion. These fears were realized in works like Ira Levin’s novel Rosemary’s Baby (1967). This was the first prominent work of speculative fiction. It also marked a shift back towards the novel as the preferred form for horror writers. The 1970’s saw a deluge of horror novels, starting with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and perhaps epitomized by Stephen King’s Carrie (1974). Peter Benchley published Jaws in 1975, which was a true coming of age for the modern monster tale. Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976, bringing new life and direction to vampire fiction.
In recent years, the archetypes of vampires, werewolves, and zombies have come to dominate the horror genre. The 1990’s was a time of compromise and self-consciousness for the genre. R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series was the publishing phenomenon of the decade. Stephen King is still scaring the crap out of all of us – I can’t get past the opening chapter of The Shining personally; and the genre is continuing to grow and develop.
- 1235 — Vatican issues an order to reestablish faith in orthodoxy. This gives us the rise of the witch archetype. Religion also plays a heavy part in horror. Dante and John Milton give us a look into what the devil is supposed to be like and how he works.
- 1600’s — Shakespeare, among others, use religion and the supernatural in their plays. The play end in death usually and this is a new addition.
- 1714 — Rise of the Graveyard Poets. Their focus is on death and morality. They give us the official beginnings of the Gothic in literature.
- The Gothic novel was inspired by the architecture and art of the time period (it was dark and dismal). The settings took place in old, dilapidated buildings and in lifeless, gloomy, and fear-inspiring landscapes.
- 1765 — Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, which is considered to be the first Gothic novel.
- 1818 — Mary Shelley published Frankenstein and introduced the genre of science fiction.
- 1833 — “MS Found in a Bottle” was published in the USA by Edgar Allen Poe. It was the first horror piece published in the USA. Edgar Allen Poe is also credited with being the father of the detective novel.
- It’s important to note that the Brother’s Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson were terrorizing kids during this time period. The stories were mostly cautionary tales for children. Death and violence was also common place during this time. Horror wasn’t just for adults.
- The Industrial Revolution —
- Rise in literacy + more people in the cities = penny dreadfuls
- Thomas Prest’s publishes Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber (originally The String of Pearls) in 1847.
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) was published. Explorations into human goodness and individual morality are now being explored.
- In France, we’re seeing plays full of violence, murder, rape, suicide, and ghostly apparitions on the French stage and authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Joris Karl Huysmans, and Guy de Maupassant are making a splash with their stories.
- Turn of the Century —
- Horror films are being produced!
- Short stories take over the novels.
- Ambrose Bierce published Can Such Things Be? in 1893 and makes ghosts popular.
- H.G. Wells in 1898 publishes War of the Worlds and took horror into the future by blending horror and science fiction.
- 1907 Algernon Blackwell publishes “The Willow” and brings occult into the horror genre.
- The Great Depression – Horror is thriving in the USA until World War II starts. We also see the rise of the Southern Gothic into the literary scene in the USA.
- 1950’s — horror starts up again with a vengeance and the serial killer archetype is introduced to the genre.
- Cold War — introduced novels like Jaws and The Exorcist, but also ushered in Stephen King in all his glory.
- Recent years — the Goosebumps series made its debut. Vampires, zombies and werewolves are very present in the literature,
History of horror in film:
I actually found a pretty good, if brief, history of film. You can watch it below:
None of what you just watched would be possible if it hadn’t been for the literature that came before it. I’m sure it would have happened whether the literature was there or not, but it was expedited by what came before.
The Different Types of Horror
There are, like most things, different categories of horror I touched of some of them when I was doing the literary history behind the genre. I am going to look at it with a bit more depth.
Here are the different types of horror:
What the chart above doesn’t give us is the overarching themes that are associated within the nuances. There are three types of horror that these then get slotted under.
The types of horror:
- Gothic Horror: also known as Gothic fiction or Gothic fantasy, is a dark style of fiction that combines horror and Romanticism. Its style combines the artistic pleasures of Romantic literature with the frightening elements of horror, making it terrifying in a seductive and pleasing way. Gothic horrors stories are written both with and without supernatural elements, but are always mysterious in nature. Examples include novels like Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- Supernatural Horror: is work of fiction that relies heavily on supernatural or paranormal elements to drive the story, featuring things like ghosts, monsters, demons, aliens, witchcraft, zombies, and so on. The main source of terror in supernatural horrors is the human reaction to being faced with the unknown, usually in the midst of a serious conflict—i.e. a haunting, a possession, an invasion, a curse or omen, etc.
- Non-Supernatural Horror: is a work of fiction that does not include supernatural elements, The terror of non-supernatural horror comes from the idea that what is happening in the story could plausibly occur in real life—usually involving the possibility of death—making it the ideal style for frightening crime or mystery stories. Your antagonist is going to be either a natural disaster, an animal or human even.
All of these are going to overlap and they are not exclusive from one another. Often, authors will blend the genres and types to create new content and situations, but also new ways to scare their unsuspecting readers or movie goers.
This wouldn’t be a typical post for me if I didn’t give you some tips on how to write within this genre. So, that’s what I am going to do!
Here are my suggestions:
- Try to break the archetypes. I’m not suggesting that you decide to write another Twilight, but you should try to put a fresh perspective on what already exists. I personally, really liked the movie Warm Bodies because it wasn’t a typical zombie movie. It was funny and had a romance story to it, but it also had some of those horror elements to it.
- Check out established horror writers. Reading stories from the genre, whether its recent or older, will give you an idea of what works, what the tropes and archetypes are, and give you inspiration. Also go check out their websites, some of them have blogs and give tips on how to write horror for aspiring authors.
- It’s all about knowing what people are afraid of and playing on those fears. You’re especially going to want to know who your audience is for this genre. What scares people can differ between the age groups a bit and you definitely don’t want to traumatize a five year old. You’re also going to want to know what’s going to scare your audience. So, google searching the top fears people in America/the world may have is a good place to start, poll your friends or even write about your own fears. The other thing about this is that not everyone is frightened by the same things. So, if you can incorporate several different things into one being then you make it all the more fearful. An example of this would be in Stephen King’s It. The clown isn’t exactly scary on his own, but he embodies the fears that the protagonist has, and he eventually embodies the fears the other characters are frightened by, and this makes him more frightening.
- Keep an element of surprise. You need to be able to take an ordinary fear someone has and then build upon it in someway. On C.M. Humphries’ website, he has some great advice on how to do this and I don’t want to try to explain it and then confuse you. Seriously, take a look though, it’s pretty brilliant.
- Suspense! You have to keep your readers on the edge of their seats. You need an element of this to any story, but for horror it is an absolute must! Drawing your readers in helps you scare them and makes them invest into the story line. You can do this in a couple ways. You can have suspense and then lots of scares, but don’t overdo this, or you can have longer suspense periods before the scare happens. You want to build on the fears of your characters and you want these scares to be unexpectedly expected.
- Add some mystery to your tale. Your characters should be trying to figure out what is going on to some degree. Your story is going to have elements that are going to take it out of what is considered normal — too a degree. it’s only natural for them to want to figure out why all these weird/bad things are happening to them.
- Foreshadowing is your friend. Again C.M. Humphries has a great explanation of this. I will tackle this one here though. Foreshadowing is great for creating suspense for your characters and it builds your reader up for the scare. Your reader is going to know that it is coming, but just not when.
- Use the core elements of tragedy. Tragedy is born through character flaws, through bad choices, through grave missteps. In the few times I have been forced to watch horror films, I have sat there and yelled at the TV scream because the main character(s) were about to do something really stupid, like check out the creepy noise outside or they’ve gone out into the forest alone.
- As I’ve said many times before, give your characters good reasons to act. This is especially true for the villain/malevolent force in your horror story. You’re not watching a B rated horror film and it’ll frustrate your readers if you don’t flesh their motives out a bit. In Jaws, the shark needed to eat, but preferred food of the human variety.
- All my other posts the last couple months about creating good characters still applies. Just because it’s a horror story doesn’t mean that characterization can go by the way side in order to establish your mood and tone. Your characters are still important.
- Challenge the stereotypes. Take the classic and what has been built into the genre over the years and try new things. Introduce new monsters and put some twists on the classics.
That’s it for me folks. I do want to link you to this Writer’s Digest post – it has some more helpful articles on writing horror. I know this is a pretty watered down look at the horror genre and that it is very multifaceted. I’m probably going to take a deeper look at it at some other point in time. Next week we’ll be looking at ghosts and ghouls.
Until next week!