The Spectrum of Screams: Horror Terms 101
Horrors & terrors & and gross-outs, oh my!
Is horror the most philosophical genre? This question might seem strange to those who think of “horror” as the genre of B-movie gore fests and jump scares, but horror—especially horror literature—has a long history of drawing from and contributing to philosophy. In English-language literature, horror is the slimy, eldritch beast that crawled from the eerie mists of the Gothic moors. In the 18th century, Gothic writers debated their novels in philosophical terms, most notably Anne Radcliffe who drew on Edmund Burke’s work to claim the right type of horror could lead readers to experience “the sublime.” Since then, countless thinkers and theorists have examined different horror effects and ideas—Sigmund Freud on “the uncanny,” Julia Kristeva on “abjection,” Mark Fisher on “the weird and the eerie,” etc.—to the point that understanding horror sometimes feels like it requires a glossary.
Well as Halloween approaches, I thought I’d write up a bit of a glossary for this newsletter. In March, I wrote a newsletter on “the grotesque sublime” that included a short summary of some different horror concepts and was surprised to see how many readers thanked me for explaining some terms they hadn’t heard explained before. Since I’ve paywalled that article—as I do with most older articles—I hope you all won’t mind my covering similar terrain again.
As my title indicates, this is “horror terms 101.” I’m not pretending to break new ground here, just explaining some useful terms as I understand them and with—as I always try to do here at Counter Craft—an eye toward craft and how we as writers create these effects.
The Spooky Spectrum
The most fundamental split in Gothic and horror fiction is horror versus terror. In common parlance, those terms might be interchangeable. But in literature, as defined first by Ann Radcliffe, they point toward different types of effects and the different methods in conjuring them. Briefly, terror is defined by obscurity—the noises of some unknown beast sniffing around your door—while horror is defined by clarity—the fanged monster bursting into your room with a bone-chilling roar. Stephen King usefully expanded this binary by adding “the gross-out,” which is even more visceral than horror.
“The three types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
― Stephen King
Gross-out is what the name implies: it grosses you out. Blood, guts, and slime. The effect on the reader/viewer is one of revulsion (if they aren’t laughing). Generally considered the lowest form of fright. From a craft point of view, “the gross-out” should always be explicit. Vivid details including sounds, sights, and smells. The gross-out requires lingering on details that force the reader to see the grossness and recoil.
Horror is differentiated from terror by its overtness. Horror is the clear threat: the face of the bloody monster or the sight of the murderer running at you with a knife. Compared with the gross out it is, well, I guess less gross. Less visceral, yet still clear. Horror deadens the reader, according to Radcliffe: “Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them.” Writing horror is similar to writing gross-out, but, well, less gross. The clear, frightening face of the monster described vividly—but without the vomit and viscera.
By contrast, terror arises from obscurity and ambiguity. It is the sound that an unseen creature makes, or an eerie sight that you can’t fully make out. In real life, it might be the difference between a creepy scratching noise that wakes you and makes you feel heightened and scared as opposed to the numb shock of horror you might experience if you walk across a dead rat on the street. For Radcliffe, terror awakens the reader and leads them to a sense of the sublime. Terror is often associated with the anticipation of a horrible event.
The critic Devendra Varma: “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.”
As a writer, this can mean writing the events up until—but stopping short of—the grisly murder or terrifying appearance of a monster. Or else depicting things in mysterious, eerie ways. Note: while terror is obscure, it shouldn’t be confusing.
While some works of horror might fall largely to one end or an another of this spectrum—The Haunting (1963) is perhaps pure terror while something like Evil Dead 2 is largely gross-out—most works of horror move between these modes. This is why I call it a spectrum. You may feel terror as the character enters the creepy house, horror as the monster jumps out of the closet, and revulsion/gross-out as the monster disembowels the character with wet crunches.
Other Useful Horror Terms (Or The “The”s)
The sublime is a term with many meanings, but here it refers to the mixture of awe and fear we feel when facing that which is vast and powerful beyond our comprehension. Often the sublime is associated with nature: tsunamis, hurricanes, or just the vast and uncaring infinity of the universe. Of course, we must view these things—in person or in literature via characters—from a certain distance to have both the awe and fear. If we are being crushed by nature, we might only feel panic.
The sublime is used in lots of different ways in horror, from the immensity of cosmic beings in “cosmic horror” to smaller, but still large, objects and events.
The uncanny doesn’t fit exactly into gross-out/horror/terror spectrum yet it can overlap with terror. The creeping sound of the killer outside your door is terrifying, but not uncanny. However, King’s example above of coming home and “everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute” is very uncanny. The uncanny is, generally speaking, the eerie. The effect can range from just an odd, haunting feeling to terror.
More specifically, the uncanny—as Sigmund Freud defines it—is that which is both familiar and strange. The familiar turned strange, and the strange turned familiar. A big scary alien is not uncanny (it is only strange and perhaps horrifying), but a pod person imitation of someone you know is uncanny (it is both strange and familiar). Déjà vu, robotic replicas, and eerie repetitions are examples of things that can provoke the feeling of the uncanny. Freud thought it was the one effect that was stronger in literature than in real life, in part because fiction can draw on the unreal and supernatural to create uncanny effects.
The Weird, or weird fiction, is an intentionally amorphous genre that is at the borderlands of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. It is typically a story that has a supernatural or unreal element yet doesn’t fit the tropes, conventions, and formulas of established genres such as ghost stories, vampire stories, fairy tales, etc. Or, if it uses those tropes, it significantly subverts and reinvents them.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, in the introduction to their anthology The Weird, describe it this way: it represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane — a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread” or “malign and particular suspension or defeat of…fixed laws of Nature”[H.P. Lovecraft]— through fiction that comes from the more unsettling, shadowy side of the fantastical tradition.
The weird is typically both dark and, fundamentally, strange. In my view, it overlaps the most with the uncanny. It’s something hard to pin down, but you probably know it when you see it.
And that’s it for today’s horror class. This is obviously just a brief overview and there’s many more horror-related terms—“the fantastic,” “the eerie,” “monumental horror image,” etc.—that are useful to know. By understanding these terms and examining how different effects are conjured on the page, hopefully we can all creep out our unwitting readers just a little bit more.
As always, if you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”
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