What defines horror versus a science fiction or fantasy story?
I've never read or watch it. I have too many fears of my own (social anxiety, generalized anxiety, fear of success, fear of failure, fear of unemployment, fear of contracting cancer, ect, ect...) Real life has many horrors.
Certainly there is overlap. Not all horror is speculative fiction. I've always thought it had something to do with blood and gore. And not all SF&F are fear free, some of it is quite bone chilling.
The reason I ask is I've a short story (yes, the one about were-creatures) that I've considered science fiction. There is nothing that graphic and the mechanism is biological rather than supernatural, though not really explained. Changlings are not unheard of in SF. Neither does it scare me, in part because I wrote it, and on the other part, I fear more what will happen when my current contract ends at work...
However, many have suggested it may be horror rather then science fiction.
[This message has been edited by ChrisOwens (edited May 10, 2005).]
Good question! Was 'Alien' horror or sci-fi? I guess the only way to answer is to ask the question, 'could the same story have been written without the technology?' Was the technology critical or very important? If so, then perhaps it was sci-fi. If not, then perhaps it was horror, understanding of course, that there is a continuum between the two genres.
I get a bit frustrated when people try to choose only one category for things. Why can't it be equally both? A lot of what I write is clearly sci-fi, and just as clearly horror. There are other genres that can comfortably overlap as well: romance and sci-fi, for example.
Posts: 818 | Registered: Aug 2004
Yes, Alien is mos def an excellent example of horror.
It's not a "scary" movie, but it really hits the view where they're most vulnerable.
Trapped on a ship with a scary creature, Animals jumping out of your stomach. You know who's going to die and who's going to live, but there's still a tension in not knowing when it's going to happen.
Like When Ripley finally kills the alien, and is alone on the ship, I suddenly realized that my heart had been racing a mile a minute since the very begining of the movie, but I hadden't jumped or screamed once.
Alien really is a masterpiece.
::End of Spoilers::
And then there's Psycho, which at the moment is the only "horror" movie that I can think of that doesn't involve magic, ghosts, or technology at all.
I did jump the first time I saw Psycho, I guess it's more of a slasher flick, but since Slasher flicks haden't become a genre yet when Psycho was made, I think we can still say that it was made to be a horror story.
Oh, and Silence of the Lambs, the books never scared me, but the film is very very creepy - no magic or science there, just pure human psychology.
Oddly enough both Psycho and SOTL are based off the same true story.
I had always been told that Silence of the Lambs was soooOOOOOoooo scarey. I avoided watching for the longest time because of that. I finally saw it on TV (Bravo or Showcase or something; unedited, anyways) and it didn't bother me one bit. I've watched CSI episodes that were scarrier or more suspenseful. But that just goes to show that a definition of horror is subjective.
I divide scarey stuff into more than one category.
Dark/Horror: Very scarey, freaky, can't sleep cause I might not wake-up, disturbing stories. i.e. Event Horizon (movie), just about any book I've read by Frank Peretti.
Thriller: Thrillers are a lot like action adventure stories, except that they tend to have a deeper level that messes a bit with your mind, which adds to the intensity. i.e. Stanley Kubrick's version The Shining ('cause I haven't read the book), Alien (et al), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (by R.L. Stevenson).
In general, horrors and thrillers tend to be grouped together, and really the difference is subjective. What freaks one person out, might not phase someone else.
If you think of your story more as sci-fi, then send it to sci-fi markets, but consider that you might also be able to market it as horror or dark lit.
quote:The Twilight Zone was pretty good at evoking fear, and yet, most of it wasn't what I'd consider horror. But then, obviously I'm ignorant about the subject.
I never thought of myself as having watched any horror. For one thing, I wasn't allowed to and we never had any in the house. Then, as a teen, I started to get exposed to "horror" stories and movies and such, and I was felt like saying, "That's supposed to be scarey? That's horror?" A lot of it was laughable. Interview with a Vampire? Please. There was such a stink made about that movie, and when I finally saw it I couldn't figure out what the big deal was.
The thing is, I know what I find to be scarey. If the subject matter is something that I take seriously, then there is a greater chance I'll take it as horror. For example, spirtuallity and religion are a big part of who I am, the books and movies that bother me the most, are ones that emphasize some aspect of this.
Does someone have to die for it to be horror? No. I read Frank Peretti's Young Adult novels when I was about 14. I don't think anyone died in them, but they dealt with some very intense spiritual situations and in such a real way, that they bothered me a bit. Same thing goes for Event Horizon. The idea that anything could travel to Hell and come back possessed, kinda creeps me out.
But I watch something like "Jeepers Creepers" and laugh almost all the way through.
If you are getting comments from people indicating that you may have unwittingly written a horror story, you might need to ask them what specifically makes them think that? If you aren't sure where the horror line is, ask for specific examples of why someone thinks you've crossed that line? But remember it all subjective.
I wrote a vampire story last year. It isn't really scarey. No one actually dies in the story, but it is hinted at. For some people it would be horror, but I think of it more as dark fantasy. What's the difference? Who knows.
If you aren't comfortable grouping your story with horror stories then don't. It's your story.
OSC mentions something like this in "How to Write Sci-Fi and Fantasy".
He talks about how he first sent his original short story for The Worthing Saga to a Sci-Fi magazine, but they rejected it saying that it was fantasy. This is because in OSC's mind, he knew that the story delt with Telepathy and other sci-fi concepts, but to the reader, it just seemed like the main character was a magician who could read minds.
So basically you should really depend on oppinion of the outside reader to tell you your genre.
Stephen King also speaks about this, saying that he never intended to write horror, but the genre sort of "fell upon" him. (This could explain why his best stories aren't horror at all, The Stand, The Dark Towers Series, Eyes of the Dragon, The Body - later to become the movie Stand By Me, etc...).
I always thought of the Twilight Zone as sci-fi.
As for Psycho and SOTL (and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre), they're all based off the story of Ed Gein, as small town loner who was descovered to have killed and butchered about 8 women. I'll allow you to look up the grisley details if you want to know more.
I classify horror as anything that leaves me with nightmares and the heebie jeebies. That slasher/blood/gore stuff just leaves me cold.
Hitchcock was the master, because he knew how to creep you out. I still can't be around a large flock of birds without getting nervous, and I have lost track of how many times people I know have made nervous jokes about being in the shower.
And who said Twilight Zone wasn't horror? Good golly, it may have had elements of sci-fi and fantasy thrown in, but at the core it was horror. Don't you remember the most horrific one of the lot? The one where the old myopic guy comes out of his shelter and discovers the entire world has suffered a catastrophe and he's left all alone with no people - and he always HATED people - and he discovers it's just him and all the library books he can read? And then he DROPS HIS GLASSES AND BREAKS THEM!!!
All those books and no way to read. It's the stuff of horror, folks.
I see Horror as a genre that uses overt ways of scaring the crap out of me - monsters, chainsaws, ax wielding maniacs, etc.
I see Thriller as a genre that frightens me more subtly. In fact, I don't know I'm getting scared until I either can't go to sleep or someone walks in on me and I hit the roof. I also see Thrillers as more psychologically scary; it's something that could reasonably happen to me.
I'm not likely to be on a spaceship with a monsterous alien. It still startles me and I hide behind my fingers or husband while watching it but it doesn't make me glance over my shoulder as I'm walking to my car at night. Whereas a Thriller usually has the possibility that it could actually happen. It's not likely, but it's possible.
To me, Suspense is not a genre - it's a technique.
The only way I could deliniate Horror from Sci/Fi or Fantasy is something like Chainsaw Massacre. It has no speculative elements - it's just a wacko with a chainsaw. But a lot of Horror movies rely on speculative elements like ghosts, or corpses rising or vampires or such.
I'm with Autumn. I don't like pidgeon holing stories but I understand why bookstores need generalized categories.
[This message has been edited by TaShaJaRo (edited May 11, 2005).]
That's just pure comedy...because it is farsighted people who can't read without glasses
"Horror" as distinct from SF or Fantasy is very simple. The story must not introduce any novel SF or Fantasy elements, and relies mainly on the arousal of unreflective terror for its appeal. Movies like Alien are not distinct from SF. In Alien, two critical characters, "Mother" and the android Ash, are impossible without technology. Both reflect the essence of SF, that which is impossible is made believable by asserting that science could eventually discover it.
It is true that the alien itself is designed to be terrifying at a primal level. But the story doesn't trade primarily in primal fears of bogeymen and demons in the night. Even if it did, the presence of clearly defined SF elements that are a critical part of the story would prevent the same story from being written as anything other than SF.
It is interesting that JB makes that point about Event Horizon and Mimic, that the original stories used the fundamental concepts for purposes other that horror. One can imagine that this is true of many stories that are "hybrid" horror, they could be interesting without being horrible. This is probably as good a way as any to see whether or not something is a "pure" horror concept, to be placed in opposition to any other genre. Could the essential concepts of the story be used in such a way as to be non-horrible? The alien in Alien, even though it is horribly dangerous, is seen as a potentially valuable resource by Ash (and the company that programmed him, represented by Burke in the second movie). And indeed, this is a valid direction to develop that idea. Ash and Mother are both seen as beneficial before they betray the crew for reasons that don't take the value of human life into account. And androids particularly are redeemed in the later movies, eventually held up as being morally better than humans.
A story that requires you to think is not Horror. Nor is a story that requires you to suspend your conscious disbelief in the events. In simple form, Horror has the most in common with coarse pornography, and there is a reason that the two genres are so easily, almost inevitably, combined. Both aim for the atavistic reaction rather than for any thoughtful response.
This is shown by a new genre that has come into existence, the horror spoof. Horror spoofs work by simply getting you to think about how silly all the invarient tropes of Horror are. They are never horrifying or pruient in the least, since actually thinking about what is being depicted reduces it all to a joke, something you cannot take seriously. Of course, the humor might be too offensive to amuse some people, but the fact remains that it is laughable rather than visceral. Once the audience begins to think, the wrong part of the brain is in control of the response.
On the other hand, just as there is erotic literature, so there are more thoughtful forms of stories that provoke fear. Stories of this nature were usually not thought of as Horror until recently, Alfred Hitchcock was the master of Suspense, not Horror. I'm not sure whether the blurring of this distinction means that Horror as a genre is dying out, or whether it means that the larger audience is no longer smart enough to tell the difference between Suspense and Horror.
My personal suspicion is that the mass audience never was smart enough to tell the difference, they just were better at listening to their pastors (both religious and otherwise). But you all know me.
I've been a lurker around here for some time, now, and I finally thought it time to jump in. You see, I'm a "horror" writer as well as a "horror" fan, and it's pretty obvious to me that no one here knows what they're talking about.
Theodore Sturgeon once said that 90% of everything is crap. Well, in the "horror" genre, you have to raise that to about 99% of everything is crap. Too much of horror is pornographic, as Survivor said, but to define the "genre" as those stories in which you don't have to think is asinine.
The problem lies in the name "horror." Someone here quoted Douglas Winter, who defines horror as an emotion experiences from the story. Yes, that's true--partly, at least--and it's a great definition if you feel you have to legitimatize the genre, for the feelings of "horror" can be found in virtually every genre, from SF to fantasy to literature to mystery and even in romance. Harlan Ellison proposed calling it "literature of the macabre," which is much better, because it indicates the intention of the author--namely, to write about dark subjects. I prefer an older name, which is the title of one the best anthology around, "tales of terror and the supernatural." This title--which is far too verbose to be the name of a particular genre--is the best, I think, because it indicates that the genre itself may or may not have supernatural elements, or may or may not have terrifying elements. The ghost stories of M. R. James are hardly terrifying, though they deal with the weird, the uncanny, and the supernatural.
The weird, the uncanny, and the supernatural--that's the essence of horror as H. P. Lovecraft defined it back in the 1930's, and it's pretty much been the definition genre writers have used since. However, non-genre writers--or serious writers, if you will--also wrote tales of the macabre. Hawthorne, Austen, Twain, Edith Wharton, Henry James, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, just to name a few; these authors, for the most part, have operated under a different definition--either telling the traditional ghost story, or telling tales of the grotesque. This is the reason why the genre itself contains tales both fantastic as well as realistic (a term I don't like, but will have to do for now)--stories such as SALEM'S LOT and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.
What's the difference between SF and horror? Or, why does the horror community claim a movie such as ALIEN as its own? Partly because it's a dark and scary movie. But that's not the only reason. The SF/Horror story has a long pedigree that beings with FRANKENSTEIN, continues through DR JEKYLL AND MY HYDE, through the work of Lovecraft and Richard Matheson. Many of the horror movies of the 1950s were about aliens coming to take over earth (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS), the mad scientists (DONAVAN'S BRAIN), and technological terrors (THEM!). Are these SF or Horror? Both, as far as I'm concerned.
What's the difference between fantasy and horror? That's a little trickier. DRACULA is horror, but INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE is dark fantasy, and the difference lies, I think, in the fact that in Stoker's novel the vampire is a malignant monster, whereas in Rice's novel, the vampire is a monster we're asked to empathize with; it's a kind of anti-hero. The same thing can be said of ghosts. The movie GHOST and THE SIXTH SENSE are certainly not horror movies (though THE SIXTH SENSE does have it's moments) because in neither are the ghosts malignant. But you take a story such as THE SHINING or GHOST STORY (not the movies, but the novels), and you have yourself a horror story because the ghosts are out to get you. It seems to me that the key distinction between fantasy and horror is that in fantasy (so long as we're dealing with magical realism, not other-world fantasies) is that the fantastic element of a horror story is evil, malignant, and is the antagonist of the story.
But this isn't always the case. Take a short story such as Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," and you have an uncanny tale of the macabre, which is truly horrifying and grotesque, but the fantastic element of the story is a blatant allegory and/or metaphor. Read it, and you'll see what I mean.
Finally, you'll want to make a distinction between the emotions one can feel by reading a "horror" story. Stephen King sets this up in his nonfiction book, DANSE MACABRE. The horror story can terrify you, horrify you, or gross you out, according to King. Because of the closeness between the words "terrify" and "horrify"--and because "horror" is the name of the genre--I prefer to speak of these emotions as creepy, disturbing, and the gross out. So you read a short story such as "The Monkey's Paw," and you're not going to be disturbed--because there's nothing disturbing in it--but you will get the creeps. And you'll probably get the creeps by reading the short fiction of M. R. James. But if you read the work of Clive Barker, you're going to be disturbed, not creeped out, because Barker is a disturbing writer. In terms of movies, HALLOWEEN is certainly a creepy movie, but the 1970's version of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is just disturbing (and perhaps gross, depending on your point of view). Neither one, by the way, deals with anything supernatural.
The gross out? In the old days, you had the gorefest films such as BLOOD FEAST and ISTAR. Nowadays, most horror movie writers don't understand that gore isn't scary. Clive Barker, however, uses gore as a way to disturb you; but it's a fine line, and he's one of the few who is able to walk it without falling.
But even then, these distinctions don't always work. (Distinctions rarely do.) The best stories by H. P. Lovecraft or Algernon Blackwood aren't very creepy, or disturbing, and they're certainly not gross. So should they be called horror? The question itself is anachronistic, because you're trying to pin down a writer of yesteryear using today's ideas. My answer is yes and no. Yes, they're horror writers because that's how they were defined years ago. But I'd call both of these writers primarily fantasy writers whose tales boarder on the uncanny and the macabre.
Strangely, the greatest "horror" writers of all times have never seen themselves as horror writers. They either see themselves as fantasists (Bradbury, King, Barker) or as literary writers dealing with the grotesque and uncanny (Wharton, O'Connor, Joyce, Straub). Few have taken up the mantle of horror and have continued to write quality fiction (Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell).
But the first step to understanding what "horror" fiction is, is to unlearn the idea that horror fiction must be "scary," or that it must deal with certain subjects, or have certain monsters in it. It's far bigger than anyone here has given it credit for . . . however, I certainly understand why it's viewed so negatively.
Remember, 99% of the horror fiction you'll read (or see) is crap.
Any time all the best writers in a genre claim to be writing in other genres, you have a genre definition problem.
All stories trade in dramatic conflict. For there to be conflict, there must be the potential for an undesireable outcome. Where there is potential for an undesireable outcome, there must be some degree of fear.
I tend to define genres in very simple terms. SF is fiction that invokes science to make the (currently) impossible plausible. If a story doesn't do this, then it is not SF. Horror (as opposed to Suspense, or "Tales of Terror and the Supernatural") invokes the visceral reaction to the presence of something repugnant and fearful. That's why we use the term, "Horror" rather than "Terror" or "Weird". It's what the word happens to mean.
For me, the alien in Alien isn't horrifying. I can fully empathize with Ash's observation that it is a superior form of life (not necessarily superior to humans, but certainly much better than, say, dogs). When Bishop says "Magnificent, isn't it?" I say "yes it is." The creature design possesses a strong aesthetic, such that it is not difficult to see them as beautiful.
On the other hand, the way they show those little guys tearing their way out of the flesh of their victims is horrible (particularly in the first movie, where they used actual mammal blood for the effects). You don't blink an eye when all the characters freak out, because you're freaking out too.
But what about the scenes where one of those face huggers is attached? There's really nothing horrible about it. But it is terrifying because you know that this is a very bad thing.
The fight with Ash is terrifying at first. Butonce Ash's head gets knocked loose, it's pure horror.
The scenes with Mother (and with Ash's head) are not horrifying, nor are they suspensful. They're pure SF. And the story hinges on them.
I'm not saying that a movie like Alien doesn't have any Horror elements, nor am I saying that the Horror elements are bad, they are fairly essential to the composition of the narrative as a whole. But the SF elements; the ship, the uninhabited planet, the alien ship, the alien, Mother, and Ash, are more important to the basic story and present throughout more of the film.
So it's SF with a few Horror elements.
Remember, I'm not saying that Horror is bad (though yes, it does tend to be). I'm just saying that it trades in horror rather than fear, suspense, dread, or anything else. SF trades in fictional science, Fantasy trades in the fantastic, Romance trades in romance...can we agree that there is a pattern here?
>>>>Any time all the best writers in a genre claim to be writing in other genres, you have a genre definition problem.
Yes, that's my point. The term "horror" isn't the proper term for the genre. For a long time, "horror" fiction has been a subset of fantasy. But, really, only half of horror fiction can be considered "dark fantasy." The other half, which doesn't deal with anything fantastic at all, was usually found within mainstream fiction.
It was really in the 1980s that the horror genre as we think of it today was established. That's when Stephen King was at his height of popularity, and when Hollywood was making all those crappy (but fun) horror movies, such as FRIDAY THE 13TH.
I suppose you can define "horror" as stories that invoke "the visceral reaction to the presence of something repugnant and fearful." But as a horror fan, that's not my definiton. I'd include some stories that include fear and dread in them. Someone mentioned that Hitchcock didn't make horror movies. I beg to differ. If the climatic scene in PSYCHO doesn't constitute a truly scary moment, then I don't know what does. And THE BIRDS operates in the old tradition that transforms natural phenomena into something terrifying (in the horror field, you have stories dealing with rats, roaches, spiders, and its pretty much the same story as THE BIRDS).
Is it me, or is that a limiting definiton of SF? What about STAR WARS? That's not SF according to your defintion. Don't they call that science fantasy? And what about utopian SF where no futuristic technology is needed?
Of course, there comes a point where all of this becomes academic. What the hell difference does it make after a certain point? If you really want to know what a genre is about, you have to read widely in it; you can't let other people define it for you. The point of my original post wasn't to stir of a genre debate--God knows there's enough of that around. My goal was to try to make some things clear about what horror fiction is . . . at least from the perspective of a horror fan and horror writer.
Genre is sometimes a useful guide, sometimes not.
But I try to look at it as, if it became published by some stretch of the imagination, what section of the bookstore would I find it? In that regard, SF&F are one genre, Horror another, Romance, Westerns, Mystery, Fiction.
You will notice that Horror is something with a subjective definition not a definitive one. IN other words it is how you perceive it. in sales it is how your publisher / distibutor / bookstore sees it as how it will be placed.
One person's horror is another's comedy.
And Dark Country I'd love to read some of your stuff- where are you published at?
[This message has been edited by JBSkaggs (edited May 11, 2005).]
Actually, most bookstores no longer have "horror" sections--at least bookstores where I live. Which itself is a problem. So you find the horror fiction of Lovecraft under SF/F, but the horror fiction of Anne Rice under "General Fiction"--even though it's highly fantastic.
The reason for this? 99% of horror fiction is crap, and horror isn't as popular as it was in the 1980s, which means many big publishers have cut their mid-list horror section. There's just not enough writers in the field to constitute a "horror" division itself.
Yes, I know all about the Horror Writers Association, but in my opinion, they're one of the reasons the genre is in such a state of confusion. It was better when horror writers were up for the World Fantasy Awards, which kept horror fiction in its proper place--as a subset of fantasy fiction. In one sense, the field is just too small to constitute a separate association. Of the books that have won the Bram Stoker Award, all but one that I have read were utter crap. King's BAG OF BONES was the only exception. There's just not enough good horror published on a yearly basis to give out yearly awards. Sad, but true.
JB -- I've yet to be published, but, then, all I write is novels, and I have yet to finish one. Six or seven, now, have petered out on me, and I've finally come to the realization that I need to spend several weeks working out a plot outline/treatment. As Asimov exhorted: the one thing a writer must know is the ending to his story, that way he always knows what he's working toward.
I do have one short story sitting on my wife's nightstand waiting for her to read before I send it out. But writing a short story is a rare thing for me.
Yeah, Lucas called StarWars a "science fantasy". It does have major SF elements, interstellar travel and cloning and "technological terrors", but in the final analysis it isn't seen as true SF.
As for utopian "SF", either the utopia is based on some hypothesized technology (even a purely social technology like a system for figuring out who should really be in charge) or it isn't an SF utopia.
Anyway, I like my definition. First, it's pretty simple. Second, it's derived directly from the actual meaning of the term "science fiction". And additionally, not only is it limiting, it's limiting in a useful way. That's the entire purpose of a definition, to place useful limits on the meaning of a term so that the term actually means some things and not other things.
You could try it yourself. You say that the term "horror" isn't the proper term for the genre of stuff you like. Well, stop calling yourself a horror fan. Identify the things you like by their proper terms and call yourself a fan of those genres (or subgenres).
i didn't realize that Lucas didn't even try calling Star Wars normal SF... of course, i don't care for the "Science Fantasy" thing, i would rather call it "Space Fantasy" and lump it in with a bunch of other similar stuff.
but anyways, i think that HWAs definition of Horror is the best i have seen proposed. which, interestingly, is closely aligned with Survivors definition.
I'm not entirely certain i agree with Survivor's definition of SF, imo, it is a little too simplified, but it does cut to the point, and if you understood enough about SF the clauses and such should be obvious. besides, SF is large enough that there is definitely no lack of a genre-definition. except that many libraries and bookstores lump SF and Fantasy together on the shelves, but that's only because of space and the fact that most people who enjoy SF don't mind Fantasy, and most people who enjoy Fantasy don't mind SF.
there is, of course, no reason that genre's can not blend. Alien is firmly and obviously SF, but it also fits the HWAs definition for Horror.
Anne Rice's fiction could certainly fit in with Fantasy, some of it, but it is also very obviously Horror. of course, some of her stuff is more mainstream, or at least speculative without firm Fantasy bearings.
speculative fiction is a lump-category that i've only ever seen used by writers. it basically means SF, Fantasy, Horror, or anything with elements from any of the aforementioned that do not, however, fit firmly into any single category. the ones that do not fit firmly into any single category usually get put wherever that writer is most famous for, or sometimes, whichever element is the strongest.