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Vivisecting Horror: Exploring What Makes Us Quake

Updated on November 12, 2014

What frightens you? Is it something mundane such as spiders? Birds? What scares us? The horror genre explores terror and exploits our fears for our entertainment. But what makes up horror; or rather, what constitutes a good horror story?

Fear itself . . .

To get to good horror, we are going to need to understand horror itself. Horror utilizes and exploits fear; fear is a reaction typically to something unknown and/or unexpected but can be towards something that discomforts us as well (i.e. phobias). Whether the fear is grounded in reason and logic is irrelevant; the horror genre is rooted to the surprising and mysterious haunting us and that causes us to tremble.

Bennett "The Sage" White Source: www.benthesage.com
Bennett "The Sage" White Source: www.benthesage.com

Heart of darkness

So how does effective horror invoke fear in the audience? The audience needs to feel the horrific moments/atmosphere unexpectedly. For that they need to have a sense of expectations; a sense of normalcy or surety. When the unexpected happens, they react. How they react will depend on the situation and the individual; after all, some people respond to certain terrible moments with laughter instead of quaking fear. The fear response and laughter may be linked together in these vicarious moments. Online reviewer Bennett White (Anime Abandon) provided a definition for laughter as,

“Laughter, and by extension comedy and funniness, is the result of a sudden burst of emotion that the human mind is unable to process as fast as it rises; so we evolved this ability to handle this emotion.”

Providing a definitive link between comedy and horror are the words of writer Dennis Paoli (Re-Animator),

“Horror is very close to humor. If something is too horrible, you react with a laugh; to protect yourself. On the other hand, humor (think of slapstick) can be violent. So we like to walk right on that line.”

The commonality of horror and laughter is that of the viewer being taken by surprise by the content they are viewing. With proper timing and execution, the audience is either gripped by fear or overwhelmed with laughter, depending on intent. However, the fundamental difference lies in expectations. With comedy, there may be a set-up for the humor but not always; in horror, the audience needs to know what is normal before being shocked with the unexpected. In essence, horror breaks our sense of security; frightening us with uncertainty. To put it darkly, effective horror leaves the audience feeling violated in some manner.

Sub-genres

Every sub-genre of horror approaches the concept of violation differently. Each focuses on a certain aspect of the human experience that, when twisted or perverted, can induce a sense of dread in the viewer.

SPOILER ALERT!

In discussing each sub-genre in detail requires some analysis and exploration of specific examples, spoilers may turn up. You have been warned: please read at your caution.

Psycho movie poster
Psycho movie poster | Source

Suspense

All horror makes use of tension to deliver scares. Ineffective horror utilizes more obvious build-ups of tensions that lead to jump scares (often accompanied with orchestral stings) to startle, rather than frighten its audience. Proper build-up through establishing an atmosphere of dread or foreboding keeps the viewer on edge; anticipating when the killer might strike next! The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, brought us his masterpiece Psycho. In it, the audience is thrown for several artful twists, the most famous being the early death of the lead actress Janet Lee. To kill off a central character so early catapults the audience into terror because now they have no one to latch onto as the “hero” of the movie; instead, they are left with Norman Bates as the one for whom the audience empathizes. This character is already established as an accomplice to murder and disposing of the body; yet, as the audience, we fear for his capture. This defiance of traditional sensibilities is frightening upon viewing and even more so with hindsight.

The Sixth Sense movie poster
The Sixth Sense movie poster | Source

Supernatural

As mentioned, horror’s fright springs from the use of the unexpected to shock and disturb. The fear of the unknown is one of the most common fears among people and horror movies can derive much source from this. In particular, since humans are a pattern-seeking species, anything that defies explanation makes it more frightening than being unpredictable; although the two paired together can be a truly nightmarish combination. Supernatural horrors thrive on defying explanation; science-fiction, by contrast, seeks to explore the unknown and provide an explanation. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense descends into the mysterious realms of death and the afterlife as presented through the narrative of a ghost story. Not always considered a horror movie, it is a very suspenseful film that presents the world of ghosts with providing only the minimal amount of background to them and Cole’s miraculous (and nightmarish) gift to see the roaming dead. Some of the rules are established: ghosts do not know they are dead, they can communicate to the slumbering living, whenever they are angry or otherwise in distress the surrounding temperature drops, and they have something that is preventing them from moving on. However, several questions remain: why are there ghosts? Why can Cole (and Vincent) see them, but others can’t? These and other questions remain after the movie is over; the horror is that there are no clear answers and may never be. Some things must remain a mystery for now.

Phantom of the Opera movie poster
Phantom of the Opera movie poster | Source

Visceral

Founded upon the more base sensations of revulsion and disgust, visceral horror focuses on shocking the audience through potent visuals of the physical. Early American horror cinema showcased tales of physical disfigurement and monstrosities such as The Phantom of the Opera. Lon Chaney’s portrayal of the titular Phantom is extraordinary from a technical standpoint as the actor essentially (and painfully) contorted his face into the visage of a skull. His dramatic unmasking horrified audiences just as it had terrified Mary Philbin’s Christine Daae. The revulsion comes from the mockery of the norm we think of when we imagine a human face.

Alien movie poster
Alien movie poster | Source

Slasher

Horror stories often fixate on a monster of some form as the opposition to the protagonists. The most prolific horror monster (conceptually) is the boogeyman. The boogeyman is conceptually a stalker and killer, relentlessly pursuing its victims. A slasher-movie (named because of the typical use of a knife of other slashing instrument as the main killing tool) is a horror movie with a killer who follows and kills his targets; a movie with a body count. While there are numerous examples of this genre, Ridley Scott’s Alien is perhaps the most relevant to this discussion overall. The killer, the eponymous alien (or Xenomorph as it was called later in the sequels), stealthily hunts down the crew of the Nostromo until there are only two survivors: Ellen Ripley and Jonesy, a cat. What makes this film so pertinent is because the overall theme and motif throughout the movie is of violation; metaphorical sexual violation. In the film, the Xenomorph is extremely phallic in design in particular with its extendable secondary jaw inside its mouth. The creature is born from an egg forcibly implanted into a crew member by another alien (the face-hugger), which is similarly sexually suggestive in design. Alien, while often classified as a science-fiction movie, is truly a horror movie because it fully embodies what it means to horrify.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie poster
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie poster | Source

Gore

An extension of visceral horror is the use of gore and violence in horror. Here the shocking moments come in the sheer brutality and bloody images splayed before the audience. The exploitation films (cheaply produced movies catering to sex and violence) of 70’s were often violent and gory. Iconographic of the exploitation niche, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is remembered for its brutal violence; yet ironically it is considerably tamer in comparison to many other gore-fest movies. The violence displayed, however, while not particularly showy is still extremely effective and is vicariously painful and terrifying to audience members.

Hostel movie poster
Hostel movie poster | Source

Torture ****

The unfortunately titled genre of “torture ****” is the gore aspect of horror taken to an extreme level. Here, the violence and pain is highly accentuated ostensibly for shock value; while the visuals are to induce fear in the viewer, the images tend more towards disgust than fright. Hostel is perhaps the very poster child of the torture porn sub-genre: the various torture sequences end up visibly scarring characters; and just as they are traumatized by the events in the movie, so is the audience by watching the events of the movie. Similarly, when Paxton exacts his vengeance at the conclusion of the movie, the audience does not experience shock at his tortuous actions but elation. The true horror is not the action, but our enjoyment at watching someone suffer and then die painfully.

NOTE: due to content guidelines, I have had to censor a word for this genre. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

The Fly movie poster
The Fly movie poster | Source

Body horror

At our core, humans are not at peace with our bodies; body horror is the sub-genre of horror that taps into this common fear. The emphasis is on what can go wrong with the human body, such as disease, cancer, and other physical maladies. David Cronenberg is widely considered the pioneer and master of the body horror genre and his remake of the sci-fi classic The Fly aptly explores the frailty of the flesh and our discomfort with our human shells. Instead of the mystery of what is wrong with the scientist or how bad is the damage (as in the original), Seth Brundle’s gradual transformation is what provides the shocks. Rather than providing release after the build-up of tension, the audience is never given a moment to relax until the very end with Brundle’s final reveal. While the actual scenario is improbable (and currently impossible), the horror springs from knowing that our bodies will not suddenly fail us but incrementally as with Seth; we empathize with his pain, but still must face our own fear.

Oculus movie poster
Oculus movie poster | Source

Psychological

Moving from the physical to the cerebral, psychological horror preys upon the fragility of our minds. Humans can be deceived and confused with surprising ease; just look at how audiences are frightened by the events of a horror movie even though it is not happening to them and is clearly fictional. A psychological thriller plays on deceiving the viewer and typically reveals the truth through means of story twists. The very recent Oculus weaves a mystery through shrouded storytelling. The actual narrative is highly questionable because of the obvious madness the characters exhibit. The audience has to wonder: did events happen as presented (as the characters remember) or are even those thoughts and recollections a product a deluded mind? Even by the end of the film, there is no clear answer; the viewer must find their own answer. We as an audience feel the terror of not only uncertainty that comes from not having closure, but also the knowledge that this could be us; after all, not everyone has a perfect, crystal-clear memory of their lives. How can we be sure what we remember is what really happened?

Jaws movie poster
Jaws movie poster | Source

Survival

One of the classic story archetypes is man versus nature. Horror stories built around this archetype are frightening because of the safety and surety that they strip away from us; the main character(s) are lain bare of the conveniences and security of civilization and must struggle against the ravages of the natural world. Mundane predators, no matter how extraordinary or normal, are likewise terrifying because of our natural fear of being stalked and devoured by the beast; such animals can be considered natural boogeymen/slasher-villains in those regards. Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster classic Jaws presents a tale of the natural world lashing out against the human world. There is nothing far-fetched about the shark in the movie, even considering its remarkable size and ferocity, and people have been attacked and eaten by sharks before. The stark realism of the brutal predator striking at nearly any moment makes for a harrowing experience; not knowing if it will ever be safe to return to the water.

H.P. Lovecraft
H.P. Lovecraft | Source

Existential

Some horror comes not from the unknown, but actually knowledge itself. Whether it is so-called forbidden knowledge or a profound deeper understanding of the world, the universe is an immense vastness that dwarfs humanity with its scale and wonder. Underpinning this grand knowledge is the subtle understanding that humanity is truly insignificant in the universe. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, a science documentary, expressed that if the entirety of the universe’s history were to be represented as a Gregorian calendar, then all of human history and pre-history would be demarked as the final minutes on December 31st; such grandness is truly terrifying to behold. Famed horror author H.P. Lovecraft explored and pioneered the “cosmic horror” genre with the collective works of his Cthulhu mythos. In these works, not only is humanity nothing compared to the vastness and evil of the Great Old Ones, but even studying and comprehending such entities will drive oneself into madness. There is little hope for humankind in that world as the Great Old Ones are truly immortal; they can only put into slumber before they awaken to destroy the world with casual disregard and drive everyone into insanity.

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    • Kevin Debler profile image
      Author

      Kevin Debler 2 years ago from Expansive Highlands of Michigan

      Excellent point! I forgot about dystopian settings. I will see about rectifying that as soon as I can. Thank you.

    • Besarien profile image

      Besarien 2 years ago

      Very nice look at various aspects of horror. I was just telling someone that movies like the Manchurian Candidate and Soylent Green were far more frightening to me that more conventional horror movies. I lost actual sleep worried about future distopias.