What is horror?
It’s a question I’ve been much plagued with recently. As I work on the manuscript of “Reaper,” I find myself constantly pausing to think, “Am I on the right path here? Am I doing this right? Am I actually writing horror?”
When I think of horror, my mind immediately fills with images of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Pennywise, and Hannibal Lector. But the characters that fill the pages of my horror stories are nothing like them. They’re regular people, going through regular things.
At the “request” of one of my bosses, Jeff, I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It was “required reading,” he said, “and the only story I’ve ever said that about.” And then, “Here’s what makes the story so scary: it is based on her life.”
I read the story, and while I agree with him that it’s one of, if not the, best psychological story I’ve read, I didn’t find it scary. Well, not in the usual sense of the word. My heart didn’t race, my adrenaline didn’t increase, it wasn’t cause for keeping me awake later that night. I didn’t wake screaming from nightmares about the figure crawling around in the wallpaper.
What the story evoked from me was recognition. I recognized the narrator’s descent into madness, because I suffer from mental illnesses myself. I’ve done enough research into the time period of the story to know how stigmatized mental illness was then, and I’m sad to say that though steps have been taken, that stigma still exists today. I’ve been personally privy to it.
But I digress.
What was “scary” about the story, what was horrific about it for me was that it was real. I’ve seen similar things happen in the day-to-day. I’ve suffered similar things in the day-to-day.
So, for me, horror is the everyday.
Horror is knowing that 1 in 3 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. I have three daughters. According to the statistics, at least one of them will go through that trauma, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.
Horror is watching my father deteriorate from the man I once knew to the shell he is now because of Nonalcoholic Steatohepatitis, a liver disease that has put him on the liver transplant list.
Horror is the anxiety I feel over the upcoming election.
Horror is willing ignorance, hatred, and bigotry.
Horror is the fear of being trapped, which keeps me from sitting in the middle of a crowded movie theatre, or stepping onto an overly crowded elevator, or being pinned beneath my husband during sex, so I don’t get dragged into a panic attack.
Horror is abandoned children.
Horror is hearing a baby left alone to cry with no one and nothing to comfort it.
Horror is the contempt felt for anything different, and the refusal to understand or accept.
Horror is cruelty.
Those are the things that I write about. Because those are the things that “scare” me. But they don’t really scare me–not in the usual sense of the word. They sadden me. They anger me. They disgust me. They make me want to cry, and scream, and rage against an unfair and unjust world. Sometimes they make me want to simply sit down, shut myself away, and give up.
And that is a horror in and of itself.
So I write. I write about the things I consider horrific, the things I believe are genre-worthy. And when I find myself doubting whether my work fits within the genre, I try to remind myself of something else Jeff told me:
The scariest things in life, and on paper, are the things that are plausible. If I can follow that, I think I’ll manage just fine.
So now, because I want to know your thoughts, I leave you with the plaguing question:
What is horror?