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Defining Horror as a Genre June 7, 2017

“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.”

Edgar Allen Poe

In order to have a serious discussion about horror as a genre of fiction, we first need to define what horror is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Horror as:

a:  painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay

b:  intense aversion or repugnance

This definition describes the emotion of horror. The term “Horror Fiction” then, refers to any work of fiction where the creator’s goal is to inspire a feeling of uncomfortable dread or dismay in the consumers of his/her work. For the purposes of this blog, the term Fiction will include all creative works of not based on actual events, regardless of their medium (ex: Video Games, Comic Books, Animation, Music, etc.).

At first glance, this may seem like a complete definition. Defining a genre based on the emotions that it is meant to evoke can be problematic though. Emotional response to stimuli will vary from person to person, and often the author’s intent is not made explicit to the audience. A crime drama or historical fiction is perfectly capable of inspiring intense fear, dread, and dismay in an audience. Yet crime drama’s are not classified as “horror.”

The movie Se7en follows detectives as they try to apprehend a serial killer who commits murders based on the seven deadly sins. The crimes are gruesome. The victim’s deaths are depicted in excruciatingly explicit detail. As the movie progresses to its brutal climax the audience feels a genuine sense of dread, fear, repugnance and aversion. All of the qualities that are attributed to “horror.” Yet, according to IMDB, Se7en is not a horror movie. It belongs to the genre’s of crime, mystery, drama, and thriller. (IMDB 1)

In contrast, the movie Scream is considered to be part of the horror genre. Scream does feature several suspenseful moments where characters are chased by a serial killer, known as “Ghostface.” There are several violent deaths and chases that are sure to invoke fear, suspense, and dread; however, Scream features many moments of humor, and satire. The film is very aware of itself and features characters making meta-references to other horror movies. There are many lines in the movie that were intended to be humorous. It is very far from the disturbing imagery of Se7en. In spite of this, IMDB places Scream into the horror and mystery categories. (IMDB 2)

One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that in order to be a horror movie certain “boxes” must be checked. By satirizing various horror movie tropes, Scream was able to check these boxes despite doing so in a humorous way.

Is the genre of horror fiction just limited to a few kinds of stories about monsters or knife wielding serial killers? The argument could be made that there are a number of stigmas against the horror genre. Horror is still thought of in many circles as a “lesser” form of fiction. Could this be enough for a studio to try to push any stories with horror characteristics into different genres, so that they will be taken more seriously by audiences?

While horror movies aren’t as marketable as crime dramas (a topic for another article), I don’t believe that is the only factor at play in this example. We’ll cover market bias towards horror in a future article. I believe that there is a key ingredient missing that keeps Se7en out of the horror genre. That ingredient is one of tone and atmosphere.

A horror story’s atmosphere should unnerve and frighten the audience. There are no safe spaces. There is a sense of wrongness in the air that seems to hint of danger lurking just around the corner. The audience is kept off guard, struggling to get a handle on the situation. There is something almost fantastic about horror, even when the horror story does not delve into the supernatural. If a thing is grounded in reality, and the environment is easily understood and able to be logically processed then the audience is able to remain on guard. They can find a solution to the problem before them.

Se7en is a journey into the mind of a psychopath. It is uncomfortable. It is challenging to watch. For me, personally, it is far more challenging to watch than Scream. In spite of this, it’s atmosphere is first and foremost one of mystery. We don’t want our detectives to have to go through the emotional pain and trauma of understanding the killer. All the same he must be stopped. Though the mystery is extremely dark and disturbing, it remains a problem to be solved.

The photo above shows Detective Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, holding up a photo of the crime seen as he analyzes the crimes. He is not afraid. His detectives are not afraid. They may be disturbed and repulsed and filled with a desire to stop this murderer before he hurts anyone else, but they are not in a state of dread, dismay or terror. (Seven)

Scream is also a story about a serial killer, but it is told from the perspectives of it’s victims. It takes place in a small town where everyone has a secret. The killer seems omniscient, and omnipresent. He seems able to appear and disappear from thin air. Though Ghostface is mortal, he purposely cultivates an atmosphere of terror for his victims. In fact, his victims helplessness is often exaggerated to an unrealistic degree to add to the movie’s atmosphere of horror.

Even though Scream winks at the audience with references to other horror movies, it does little to help the protagonists. Despite the fact that the movie acknowledge the tropes, it still follows them. When a character immediately responds to this advice with, “I’ll be right back.” We have a feeling of dread at what awaits him as he ventures off on his own. He has mocked the rules and will be punished.  The atmosphere is set for horror.

It is difficult to pin down a complete definition of horror. Certainly we know it when we see it. I would argue that atmosphere is the key component that separates true horror from the “dark” versions of a particular genre. True horror needs to present the audience with forces beyond their control or understanding. Many horror stories offer logical explanations for the events that occurred. Usually these come at the tail end of the 3rd act, and for good reason. Very rarely is anything made more terrifying when one gains a complete understanding of it. Horror fiction must not only evoke feelings of fear, dread, and dismay. It must also create an atmosphere where other emotions exists briefly, only giving you a chance to let your guard drop before the final strike.

Title Quote: Poe, Edgar Allen. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Harper Brothers, July 1838.

IMDB 1: “Se7en (1995).”

IMDB 2: “Scream (1996).”

Seven: Se7en. Dir. David Fincher. New Line Cinema, 1995. film.

Scream: Scream. Dir. Wes Craven. Dimension Films, 1996. film.

Bonus Content: 

Did you know there’s a Kpop star by the name of Se7en? I didn’t until I started researching for this article. Do you think he’d give me a “What’s in the box?!” autograph?

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