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When Horror is Horrific: Turn the screws tighter.


This has come up multiple times in recent months for me in random discussions. It's something I wanted to weigh in on simply because I find it a very fascinating discussion. Horror as a genre can do many things to different people. It can be summarized differently by people as well. There's the very bare bones concept of it - Something is spooky. It's horror. A scary skeleton with glowing red eyes is all it takes for some people. That's horror. That's scary. But I think we can all agree that the one main ingredient present in ANY form or slice of horror is this - Fear. Perhaps it's fear of the unknown, like as simple a scenario as getting lost in a new city and having no idea where you are. To some that's just mildly perplexing or might make them slightly anxious. To some that's a a real nightmare scenario. But rest assured that if we take that simple premise and pepper it with a few uncomfortable things it will be a real nightmare scenario for almost ANYONE. Like this.

You're lost in a new city - But it's also 1am, pitch black outside with a thick coating of fog obscuring your eyes. You feel the presence of another somewhere close by, it feels like you're being watch. Hunted even. You can hear the muffled footsteps of someone following you, getting closer by the moment.

Is that considered horror to you? I feel most would see it as such. A poorly written blurb from some dumb slasher novel or something, right? We took a basic uncomfortable idea and spiced it up a bit. Was it horror before? The answer might be different based on who's reading this. But we could easily agree that horror and fear go hand in hand. And fear itself can also have multiple definitions. But at it's very core it often boils down to something that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you're uncomfortable because you're lost in a city you don't know. Maybe you're uncomfortable because you're lost in a city you don't know at night, in the fog and you can hear someone stalking you. And hell, maybe you're just slightly uncomfortable because you're lost in a city you don't know and you saw someone do something that you found repulsive, even if harmful. Like openly picking their nose and eating the boogers for everyone to see.


That's what it all comes down to though, if you ask me. That's horror. You feel uncomfortable for some reason, even if it's miniscule, it's a miniscule example of horror, or something horrible. Being stalked by a blood thirsty psychopath is horror. But that dream you had about standing up in front of your entire highschool class butt naked while expected to deliver a lengthy speech is pretty goddamned horrific too, isn't it? It's a nightmare either way, right?

So there's horror for some, and then there's more extreme forms of horror too. To someone who's watching Night of the Living Dead through their hands as they're trying to shield themselves from the screen something like Halloween or Texas Chainsaw Massacre might be considered "extreme horror". But someone who watches those kinds of movies nightly might not consider something more extreme until you start to get into stuff like Hostel or Terrifier. Some people consider movies like both of those latter two gore for the sake of gore and pure trash cinema. And then again, some might even consider the former two the same. But then you go deeper still and there are nasties out there like I Spit On Your Grave and Last House On the Left. Go further still and you end up in the A Serbian Film or August Underground territory. Where you're transitioned to full on hardcore splatterpunk in film.

Some people like all of the above. Most normal people would consider most all of those last four films pretty horrific, I'd wager. Even jaded veterans, like myself. They're rough watches. And yeah, in some regards they are exploitation films. But they all most certainly share one thing in common. They make you uncomfortable somehow.


Horror makes you uncomfortable. It's supposed to. Your tolerance for it will vary from the next person. But at it's very base core, that's horror. Even some of the nastiest, most vile and repulsive shit out there at it's very fundamental core will have this in common with even the most simplistic and tame idea of horror.

When it comes to FICTION, if you find yourself enjoying horror in any severity or flavor, I wouldn't consider you weird or strange. Though some might if it's too extreme or taboo for them. Everyone has a line. Everyone has something that is a topic they will not breach, and want no part of. And to some people once you've crossed that line, you're looked at differently. Even if it's purely in a fictional sense. There is a HUGE difference from enjoying slasher movies to enjoying snuff clips you've found on the internet. But in some people's eyes it's really all the same if you enjoy any of it. The average person generally understands the difference though between enjoying horror and enjoying the legitimate suffering of real life individuals.

Some people will also be sensitive to certain subject matter, fictional or not, and want nothing to do with it. Understandable too. If it triggers some trauma they don't want to face, even if just for pretend in a movie or book or whatever, fair enough. That's a hard line for them. And some people just don't enjoy horror in really ANY form because they don't enjoy the adrenaline rush of being scared or on edge. Also fair.


But horror, good horror, if you're into it, it SHOULD make you at least slightly uncomfortable. Even just going through that silly haunted house experience on Halloween night with your buddies. The ones with the actors in costumes and the like. You know it's fake, but somewhere in your head it also makes you just a little bit uncomfortable as you first step into that attraction. You're not sure exactly what's going to jump out at you, or when. Or what awaits you around the next corner. Will it look realistic? Will it look cheesy? Will it give you a legitimate jumpscare? Maybe. Maybe not. It's a fear of the unknown that makes you slightly uncomfortable. Even though in your head you know this isn't real. You're in no real danger at all. But you hear the chainsaw revving behind you. You hear the laughter. You know it's a person in a costume. You know they're not going to cleave you in half like lumber. But you hear the footsteps thundering toward you, and now you can see the bloody apron and the grotesque, twisted mask that looks like sewn together flesh. He's coming straight at you! Are you just going to stand there or are you going to run!? He's just a guy in a costume...but he's charging you!

You come out of the other side laughing at your friends for screaming like school girls. And they're laughing at you as you looked mortified as you took off at a full sprint as the chainsaw guy came running up behind you all earlier. You had a good time. You experienced horror, but it was fun. It won't be as scary if at all the second time you think. And it won't be. Because there are gaps in your head that have been filled that were previously blank spaces, the unknown.


As someone who writes some horror fiction, I've made it my personal mission to study this all a bit. To study ways to unnerve my reader. Sometimes it's in your face things and sometimes it's small subtle things that just leave the reader feeling slightly off. Maybe something to make them second-guess what they thought was normal just a page back. In order for horror to be successful, you've gotta make the reader uncomfortable somehow. Sometimes that involves getting down and dirty with some really repulsive scenarios that you just do not want to visualize. But I'll make sure you do anyway...because it makes you uncomfortable. It makes you squirm. It might be something that sounds so horrendously painful and or terrible to experience that it's gut-wrenching to read. It might be something that is so disgusting and wrong that you don't want to imagine it. It also just might be so strange and alien in nature that you're struggling to wrap your brain around it. But it's all a means to the same end. You make you uncomfortable somehow. It's all horror. But how much is too much for you? What's the line you refuse to cross? How much is too much when the screws are being tightened before it just becomes no longer fun and entertaining?

That's up to you.

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About Xeoone of us since 1:36 AM on 02.21.2011