How Do You Define the Horror Genre?

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.


I’ve been “bear baiting” a bit in my last posts on horror. Yes, I have tried to be evocative, but I want to alter the tone for this blog. There are people that actually enjoy horror and probably don’t know it. Recognizing and defining horror fiction has become difficult in the new millennium, and not because it’s really hard. The true reality of horror as a genre has been eclipsed by the successful marketing of  the modern horror slasher and spatter films. Talk about horror as a genre and no one brings up Universal Studios “B” monster movies anymore. What everyone thinks of are films that are wall-to-wall blood and gore. Movies and movie franchises like the Saw films, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, and others have done a lot to obscure modern horror stories of the 18th and 19th, and 20th centuries. Maybe that’s because we have a hard time defining what “horror” as a literary or film genre is.

How should we define the horror genre? One of my favorite working definitions of horror comes from Dr. Donna Casella, instructor\scholar of film theory, film studies, and early American Literature at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Casella states that horror is an, “An atmospheric genre — populated by creatures of dread – that plays on human and cultural fears.” Give a story a creepy atmosphere (whatever that is) to give it legs, while making sure the themes play against cultural fears and throw in creatures of dread (monsters, but monsters that can be human, or natural creatures, as well as supernatural).frankenstein-cartoon-character_zJJoosvu

The first recognized modern horror genre is known as Victorian Gothic horror. Reading those books says a lot about what got under the skin of the people of that time, especially women. During the Victorian era, significant amount of horror was written by women for women. That’s pretty progressive, considering society of that time didn’t allow women to vote, hold property, or even have checking accounts. I fell in love with Gothic horror when taking a graduate course on women authors. As tough as the stories from that era could be to read, many that were preserved had rich payoffs and were completely worth the effort.

If you accept Dr. Casella’s definition as a primary definition, and I do until someone comes up with a better one, horror as a genre can be about every day things, as well as the paranormal. Remember Stephen King’s Cujo? An adorable St. Bernard becomes one of the scariest monsters in twentieth century literature.

Horror can also contain the fantastic or mundane, but to be sure, horror isn’t always about ghosts, vampires, zombies, blood and gore, or flesh-eating monsters. Creatures of dread can be rats (Willard 1971), sharks (Jaws 1975), bears (Night of the Grizzly 1966), rabbits (Night of the Lepus 1972), relatives (Uncle Silas by Le Fanu), and even ordinary people turned murderous for one night every year (The Purge 2013).

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

One of my favorite all-time horror movies is Jack the Bear with Danny Devito. Devito’s character is a host for late night horror movies on television. There was no blood or gore, but when a neo-fascist shows up to indoctrinate a vulnerable neighborhood kid in Hitler style Aryanism, the atmosphere amps up and propels the creature of dread theme forward.  And yes, I consider neo-facists creatures of dread. Remember, horror has to play against personal or cultural fears. That doesn’t mean horror is always intended to incite fear, sometimes it’s an incredible tool for evaluating fears.

Lest you think horror can’t be humorous, you should check out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahme-Smith. I laughed a lot in spite of the “bone crunching” scenes. The novel can very tongue-in-cheek in parts, at least I thought so. See what I did there? I didn’t say whose tongue in whose cheek as this is a zombie novel, right? Let’s move on.

A very hilarious and clever book is a grammar textbook called The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. I have used this to successfully tutor college students in English grammar. Yes, infinitives, prepositional phrases, gerunds, passive voice, and everything else English can be truly terrifying, but Gordon successfully mimics the Gothic horror style and uses it to teach English. Pretty useful for a genre blacklisted in the minds of many .

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:


Douglas Winter, horror author and critic once stated,“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” But if you think the only strong emotion allowed in horror is horror, terror, or dread, you’ve not read very much. Pathos is just as much a part of horror as the emotion of horror itself. Consider a truly iconic horror/monster movie of the twentieth century, King Kong (2005). Personally, I find a lot to dread in this scene as to what it says about humans.

One of the founders of the Horror Writers Association, Robert McCammon, once said, “Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It’s not safe….Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader’s own will. And since horror can be many things and go in many, many, directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.” (Twilight Zone Magazine, Oct 1986).

Once horror is allowed to grow beyond zombies, vampires, werewolves, and Amish vampires in space (author Kerry Nietz is my hero) in the minds of the audience. The genre of horror becomes a potent agent of confrontation and change. So let’s remember there’s more to horror as a genre than just wall-to-wall gore.

5 thoughts on “How Do You Define the Horror Genre?

  1. What about dystopians, Tim?

    In general, I don’t like to read or watch things that try to scare me. But I do like movies like Jurassic Park and I’m looking forward to Jurassic World. If you define the them as overreaching science, then those become horror by your definition. Correct?


  2. Excellent question, and great observation. My opinion of course, but I think dystopian literature deserves its own genre. A lot of dystopic stuff falls in scifi, but only because technology is what makes big brother the BIG BROTHER, like THX 1138 (short story and film), 1988, Logan’s Run, and Divergent series. There are dystopias that fall under fantasy like Animal Farm. Then there are realistic or contemporary dystopias like Lord of the Flies and The Butterfly Revolution.

    When BIG BROTHER overtly becomes the creature of dread using a protagonist’s (and audience’s) fear of the unknown, then you get a horror story like Maze Runner and Scorch Trials. There is such a thing as scifi horror. Remember Alien? Fantasy Horror like Perritti’s The Visitation and Blatty’s The Exorcist.

    I loved The Maze runner series, and would call that horror even though it is a dystopia. Garth Nix had a dystopia novel, Slade’s Children, which was very much a horror story, it also struck me as his take on the Tribulation. Left Behind series was a horror story, Stephen King thought sou.

    I don’t mind some scary movies, but it depends on why my personal or cultural fears are being leveraged against me, and what fears are specifically trying to be leveraged. I really enjoyed Zombie Land and I found World War Z fascinating but only because of the real world politics that was used in the novel. LIsa, I think you would also enjoy World War Z (the novel).

    For the record, I hate slasher and spatter films. Think of movies like Hostel, Saw, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street


  3. Interesting post. My thoughts on horror are that the ‘slash and spatter’ movies really don’t affect me as much as the producers might hope for. The ones where the protagonist is wandering in the dark (don’t understand why no one thinks to turn on the lights or go during the day) and gets sliced or eaten or whatever. It’s the more subtle ones, the movies like The Exorcist, or The Blair Witch project, and the understated that leaves more to the imagination that get me. Okay, The Alien movies had me going as well. But I need to really like the protagonist and be routing for them before I care what happens to them. And so often that gets missed. IMHO.


  4. Speaking of Cujo, I’m addicted to Stephen King. He frequently takes every day things and puts a twist on it, like the Clown in “It” and the seemingly normal nurse in “Misery,”
    BTW, I did read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It had me laughing from time to time, but it definitely was not written as a parody. I liked Alien for two reasons; first, because the producer established a sympathetic relationship between Sigourney Weaver and the audience (which is very important), and second, because in outer space, anything is possible – I bought into the possibility that it could really happen and settled in for a great ride.
    Tim, thanks for posting the videos. Your series is thought-provoking.


  5. Thank you Vanessa. I have a strange sense of humor I guess, but it wasn’t always funny. It was horror after all. You bring a great point about the nurse in Misery. The creature of dread, the monster, can be human too. I think serial killer stories towards horror in many cases. I think of Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs was absolutely horror.

    The last post in this series will be about The Monster. There is so much people don’t realize about the monster in horror. No matter how scary, I love a good monster.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s