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.

Advertisements

The Aesthetics of Genre: Horror

deep-sea-anglerfishWhen it comes to the genre of horror, many Christians have pronounced it ugly, sinful, nasty, and won’t give it the time of day. Others may enjoy the adrenalin rush of a good scare from the safe distance of a book or theater seat, but may not admit it to their church friends. Then there are individuals, like myself, that find the genre of horror useful.

 

I like to read things that make me better, challenge me in someway. Good horror, like good science fiction and fantasy, will do that for me.  That’s not to say that contemporary fiction or YA fiction doesn’t do that either, but good horror has a very special way of challenging a reader on deeper topics. Before you chastise me for not mentioning the Bible, remember that you will find all the known genres, including horror, in that Book of books.

People seldom equate being frightened as useful.Like I pointed out in my last blog entry, being afraid of the right things can be helpful. To me, good horror isn’t about inciting blind fear or terrifying an audience. There is horror like that, and I almost never waste my time on that. Good horror it’s about challenging fear in the right way. This is where aesthetics come in. All genres have aesthetics (linked to definition above), it is what happens when an author’s story collides with a readers expectations, imagination, and world view. These are a few that a great horror story will touch on for me.

  • What is beauty?
  • What makes something beautiful?
  • What is good?
  • What makes something bad?
  • What is evil?
  • What makes something or someone evil?
  • If something looks beautiful, is it automatically good?
  • Can God redeem Evil?
  • Should God redeem Evil?
  • Should those given to Evil be redeemed?
  • If something is ugly to me does that make me the monster?
  • What happens when a human tries to play God (you know mad scientists)?
  • What does it mean to be human?

As frightening as a horror story may appear on first blush, it is my response to it that always interests me. Some of the most frightening stores to me portray Evil as banal or everyday. A good example of this is the bureaucracy of Hell in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

orange-skull-scary-background_G1jrYw5_

There are several things I find useful in good horror, and it isn’t blood and gore or the fact that a story may give me nightmares for months. In fact, the shock and gore horror is something I rarely care for, much like jump scare scenes in movies. Such tactics are nothing more than a trick at your audience’s expense, tricking an audience is inexcusable.

cartoon-angry-monster-face_fkTFzKhd

All fiction has the ability to challenge and inform. What makes horror so different is it’s ability to challenge specifically the things we fear. When done right, even cause us to evaluate those fears and perhaps strengthen our humanity. For your viewing pleasure, here is a good example of something from a sub-genre of horror. Something that actually hits a little closer to home and current events. The type of horror I find useful (It’s in two parts).

 

 

Would you classify these videos as horror? Why or why not?

 

The next post I do is on the topic of sub-genres of Horror. You might be surprised as to what you find in them.

The Genre of Horror: Let’s Talk About It.

Scary Young Girls Face On Halloween Day

 

For many Christians, the idea that horror literature could be legitimate as an expression of faith and love sounds like heresy. After all, how can someone that claims to serve the God of peace and love purposely intend to terrify people? I mean, isn’t intentionally scaring people some kind of sin, or if it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?

Those questions are valid and move this discussion from mere literature into theology.  When you consider The King James Bible has 71 instances where there is a command to “Fear not.” The idea of frightening people seems antithetical to the basic tenants of the gospel.

Any student of Church History understands clergy have been scaring people into the Kingdom of God for centuries, does that make it right? No one’s figured that out yet. One of the most noted and famous sermons preached from our side of the 16th century is Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. That sermon is as much a horror story as any Stephen King novel. More important, the sermon underscores the one aspect of God that people seem to forget. Life apart from God is a life of misery and loss.

11188395_10153230210193397_7236923557098932552_n

Going to Hell is everyone’s right of choice and God doesn’t mind accommodating anyone’s desire to spend eternity out of his presence. For many of us believers the idea of being apart from God, now that we have tasted his love and generosity, is terrifying. Remember Christ’s words on the cross when the full judgement of the world’s sin came upon him, and his true parent turned his back to look away from the only Begotten of God?  Jesus said,  “My  God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s pure abandonment and fertile ground for the horror genre.

Horror is as much apart of the Bible as faith and blessing. Consider the beggar Lazarus wanting to warn his family about the judgement waiting for them and is told “no.”

Many people consider that horror is only about frightening people.  Who wouldn’t think that when looking at pictures of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, or watching a long list of movies made for the sole purpose of shocking and terrifying audiences. What people don’t realize is that horror isn’t strictly about scaring people.

scary-halloween-night-background_z1ohZadO(1)

 

Horror explores important topics like hubris, monsters, the unknown and our responses to things we don’t understand. This genre, when done well, allows us to explore our own darkness from the safety of our favorite chair. Some of my favorite horror stories such as  The Birthmark by Hawthorne, or Frankenstein by Shelly, or The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Marlowe deal with the topics of unforgivable sin and hubris. These dark tales aren’t grossly gory, but they are entertaining and cautionary in nature.

Horror can also deal  with hope, redemption, acceptance and love. Don’t believe me? Read the stories I mentioned and decide for yourself. Of course not all horror is good or even entertaining. Some of it is genuinely awful, but that’s true of all the other genres too.

graveyard-night-scene-in-the-moonlight_Gkx2h-Kd

There are those tender hearts out there that say,  “Fear is always bad.” To that response I’d  say fear as an emotion isn’t intrinsically a bad thing.

My family owned land and horses in Southeastern Washington State. It’s very arid and dry and home to rattle snakes, scorpions, millipedes, and a few other venomous creatures, Bringing the horses in from pasture could be an adventure as it sometimes brought me face to face with this innocuous little rattle from the tall grass or from beneath a sage brush. That little sound could make my heart stop, not to mention my feet.

I would turn around, and go back the way I came, why? Because I stood a good chance of getting bit by the thing making that sound.Was I afraid? Yes, but in a good way that kept me from harm.

Before we dismiss all instances of fear as ungodly. Let’s not forget that running away from temptation because we fear entanglement is completely encouraged. (1 Cor 6:18, 1 Cor 10:14, 1Timothy 6:11, 2 Timothy 2:22).

There are things that should genuinely should frighten us, like hardening our own hearts to compassion, kindness, and the leading of God’s Spirit. We should always fear injustice, bigotry, and genocide. The violence of Fergeson and Baltimore were far more horrifying than any zombie apocalypse, but very similar to those stories – except no one was eating brains.

Digital Illustration of a Dragon

The genre of horror serves a cautionary purpose, useful for discovering our own personal evils as well as exploring our own redemption, forgiveness, and pathos. I maintain that horror has as much place in Christian fiction as romance, fantasy, mystery, and any other genres you can mention – maybe even more so.

Click on the link below and be prepared for a pleasant surprise. It’s an award winning zombie short film that will surprise you and make you rethink the uses of horror.

Can you define the components of  horror as a genre? Do you think it’s appropriate for people who call themselves Christians to read it, write, or watch it? Why?

Getting bloody with Ben Wolf

P1030475[1]Nickname: Ben Wolf
Genre: Speculative
Personal Philosophy: Live Free or Die Hard
Fave Scripture (& why): Romans 8:28 – Read it. God always fulfills his promises to us.
Fave Quote: “The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book.” ― Mickey Spillane
In high school I was an outspoken Christ-follower, actor, musician, and wannabe writer.
Ben as Dracula in high school

Ben as Dracula in high school

Ben is the author of Blood for Blood, a classic vampire tale that asks the important question: is anyone beyond the redemption of Christ’s blood?

B4B

Hunger drove Raven Worth to the big tent revival that night, but it wasn’t what made him stay. Usually in such a public gathering he’d have lurked just beyond the edge of the crowd to scan the fringes for stragglers. In other settings he’d often harvest the ones who looked the most destitute or lonely. He could relate to them. He knew their pain.

But not that night. The crowd seemed devoid of the transients and homeless nobodies Raven preferred. Everyone beamed with happiness—they enjoyed the service, the evangelist’s booming voice, and even each other in a form of unity Raven hadn’t seen since before he turned. Then again, that was almost a hundred years ago. Sometimes it felt more like a thousand.

A few children wandered along the crowd’s outer ring, not engaged by the service in the least. One of them, a small girl with hair so blonde that it seemed to glow under the moonlight, sat alone on the ground and played with a rag doll. Raven couldn’t help but stare at her.

Who would leave such a beautiful child unattended? Raven clenched his fists. Didn’t her parents know what kinds of horrors roamed the night in search of weak, vulnerable prey exactly like her? Perhaps she was an orphan, with no one to look out for her wellbeing.

A rumble in Raven’s stomach and a brief spell of lightheadedness reminded him of why he’d come tonight. He shook off the weakness and resigned himself to his task.

To feed.

– Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Blood for Blood, by Ben Wolf

Ben, it’s a pleasure to have you on The Scriblerians today! And how cool to hang our with you twice in one week! Tell us, whom did you have in mind when you wrote Blood for Blood?

10% of me wrote Blood for Blood for Christians who wanted to enjoy a solid Christian spec fic novel. 20% of me wrote it for nonChristians who might be willing to read it and enjoy a good story. 70% of me wrote it for Christians who don’t know how to show God’s love to people who are different than us.

That’s a struggle for all of us. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

If you’re a nonChristian reader, know that God loves you.

If you’re already a Christian, be reminded that we need to be careful how we treat people who are different than us because our actions, right or wrong, affect nonChristians’ perceptions of who Jesus is. So endeavor to treat everyone with love, be they vampire or not.

You know vampires aren’t real, right? 😉 Which character is most like you and why?

I’ve been told I’m a lot like Raven (the main character) but at times I think I’m more like Garrett (the villain) because I get it wrong so often, but God’s not done with me yet.

If you could meet one of your characters in real life, which one would it be and what would you do together?

I’d like to meet Luco. I think we would talk a lot about my life and he could give me some wise counsel on how I could better follow God.

Luco is a great character. A testament to what it looks like to love people like God loves them.

Thanks for hanging out with us today, Ben!

You can connect with Ben at his website (sign up for his newsletter in the lower right corner and get a bunch of free stories), and on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon.

profile_pic

Lisa Godfrees

GIVEAWAY! Ben is giving an ebook of Blood for Blood to one lucky reader. If you’re interested in a chance to win a copy, head over to my blog (lisagodfrees.com) before Monday and leave a comment. For an extra chance to win, comment here as well.

TELL ME: What is the most thought-provoking novel you’ve ever read?