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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Book Review: Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri

cowboy

I saw something on the library shelf today that caught my eye. The book is called Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. Let me just say that it wasn’t the cover that caught my eye, but the title and theme. This is an urban horse story about a boy and a horse. These days the literary (and I use the term literary very loosely) landscape is filled with horse stories are that girly affairs, you know, great big metaphors on four legs with a saddle. This was a  boy\horse story. Such stories of boys on horses were far more common place when I was growing up than they are today. Having been an urban cowboy myself growing up in Portland Oregon with a horse of my own, I couldn’t resist this.

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Ghetto Cowboy is the story about Cole, a young seventh grader that is no stranger to trouble. When he gets caught skipping the last four weeks of school, Cole’s mother has had all she can take. Taking Cole out of Detroit, she deposits him on his father’s door step in Philadelphia. His father, Harper a man whom Cole has never met, runs an urban stable where he buys retired race horses and tries to get inner-city kids interested in riding and caring for horses. The city of Philadelphia has gone out of its way to shut all inner-city stables down, and is working on ousting Harper’s stable. The story does have a happy ending, but it’s not an easy ending.

The book is marvelous in it’s portrayal of a boy and his estranged father struggling to connect to each other. Neri chose to write his characters complete with inner city vernacular and dialect, so I imagine some parents are going fuss over the lack of proper English and may even criticize Neri for “stereotyping” his characters. The language suits the characters and setting without loosing readers unfamiliar to urban life. Unfortunately, some people are going to gripe anyway.

Neri’s based his story on a magazine article about urban African-American riders of North Philadelphia and the Brooklyn-Queens area, and he most certainly paints a relatable inner city portrait, to some who may have never ventured outside of suburbia. He also makes an effort to bring out an often neglected historical fact about black cowboys before the Civil War. The cowboy population of Texas, Oklahoma, and the southwest was predominantly black. They were the first to learn the ways of wrangling from the Mexican vaqueros long before white settlers picked up those skills. I wish Neri could have had more about this in the novel, but the fact that this shows up at all is still marvelous.

Anyone that loves realistic fiction about horses will enjoy this story immensely. Neri does a fine job at making Cole identifiable and likable to any reader willing to give the story their full attention.

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