Horror is a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing". It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is frequently supernatural, though it might also be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.
Horror in ancient Greece and RomeThe horror genre has ancient origins with roots in folklore and religious traditions, focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, the demonic and the principle of the thing embodied in the person. These were manifested in stories of beings such as demons, witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts. European horror fiction became established through works of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. The well-known 19th-century novel about Frankenstein was greatly influenced by the story of Hippolytus, where Asclepius revives him from death. Euripides wrote plays based on the story, Hippolytos Kalyptomenos and Hippolytus. In Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans focused on Cimon, the author describes the spirit of a murderer, Damon, who himself was murdered in a bathhouse in Chaeronea.
Pliny the Younger tells the tale of Athenodorus Cananites who bought a haunted house in Athens. Athenodorus was cautious since the house was inexpensive. While writing a book on philosophy, he was visited by a ghostly appearing figure bound in chains. The figure disappeared in the courtyard; the following day, the magistrates dug it up to find an unmarked grave.
Horror after AD 1000stories were popular in medieval French literature. One of Marie de France's twelve lais is a werewolf story titled "Bisclavret".
The Countess Yolande commissioned a werewolf story titled "Guillaume de Palerme". Anonymous writers penned two werewolf stories, "Biclarel" and "Melion".
Much horror fiction derives from the cruellest personages of the 15th century. Dracula can be traced to the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III, whose alleged war crimes were published in German pamphlets. A 1499 pamphlet was published by Markus Ayrer, which is most notable for its woodcut imagery. The alleged serial-killer sprees of Gilles de Rais have been seen as the inspiration for "Bluebeard". The motif of the vampiress is most notably derived from the real-life noblewoman and murderess, Elizabeth Bathory, and helped usher in the emergence of horror fiction in the 18th century, such as through László Turóczi's 1729 book Tragica Historia.
Gothic horror in the 18th centuryThe 18th century saw the gradual development of Romanticism and the Gothic horror genre. It drew on the written and material heritage of the Late Middle Ages, finding its form with Horace Walpole's seminal and controversial 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. In fact, the first edition was published disguised as an actual medieval romance from Italy, discovered and republished by a fictitious translator. Once revealed as modern, many found it anachronistic, reactionary, or simply in poor taste but it proved immediately popular. Otranto inspired Vathek by William Beckford, A Sicilian Romance, The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk by Matthew Lewis. A significant amount of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed towards a female audience, a typical scenario of the novels being a resourceful female menaced in a gloomy castle.
Horror in the 19th centuryThe Gothic tradition blossomed into the genre that modern readers today call horror literature in the 19th century. Influential works and characters that continue resonating in fiction and film today saw their genesis in the Brothers Grimm's "Hänsel und Gretel", Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, John Polodori's "The Vampyre", Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", Jane C. Loudon's , Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Thomas Peckett Prest's Varney the Vampire, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man, and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Each of these works created an enduring icon of horror seen in later re-imaginings on the page, stage and screen.
Horror in the 20th centuryA proliferation of cheap periodicals around turn of the century led to a boom in horror writing. For example, Gaston Leroux serialized his Le Fantôme de l'Opéra before it became a novel in 1910. One writer who specialized in horror fiction for mainstream pulps, such as All-Story Magazine, was Tod Robbins, whose fiction deals with themes of madness and cruelty. Later, specialist publications emerged to give horror writers an outlet, prominent among them was Weird Tales and Unknown Worlds.
Influential horror writers of the early 20th century made inroads in these mediums. Particularly, the venerated horror author H.P. Lovecraft, and his enduring Cthulhu Mythos transformed and popularized the genre of cosmic horror, and M.R. James is credited with redefining the ghost story in that era.
The serial murderer became a recurring theme. Yellow journalism and sensationalism of various murderers, such as Jack the Ripper, and lesser so, Carl Panzram, Fritz Haarman, and Albert Fish, all perpetuated this phenomenon. The trend continued in the postwar era, partly renewed after the murders committed by Ed Gein. In 1959, Robert Bloch, inspired by the murders, wrote Psycho. The crimes committed in 1969 by the Manson family influenced the slasher theme in horror fiction of the 1970s. In 1981, Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon, introducing Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In 1988, the sequel to that novel, The Silence of the Lambs, was published.
Early cinema was inspired by many aspects of horror literature, and started a strong tradition of horror films and subgenres that continues to this day. Up until the graphic depictions of violence and gore on the screen commonly associated with 1960s and 1970s slasher films and splatter films, comic books such as those published by EC Comics in the 1950s satisfied readers' quests for horror imagery that the silver screen could not provide. This imagery made these comics controversial, and as a consequence, they were frequently censored.
The modern zombie tale dealing with the motif of the living dead harks back to works including H.P. Lovecraft's stories "Cool Air", "In The Vault", and "The Outsider", and Dennis Wheatley's "Strange Conflict". Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend influenced an entire genre of apocalyptic zombie fiction emblematized by the films of George A. Romero.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the enormous commercial success of three books - Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, and The Other by Thomas Tryon - encouraged publishers to begin releasing numerous other horror novels, thus creating a "horror boom".
One of the best-known late-20th century horror writers is Stephen King, known for Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery and several dozen other novels and about 200 short stories. Beginning in the 1970s, King's stories have attracted a large audience, for which he was awarded by the U.S. National Book Foundation in 2003. Other popular horror authors of the period included Anne Rice, Brian Lumley, Graham Masterton, James Herbert, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and Peter Straub.
Post-millennial horror fictionBest-selling book series of contemporary times exist in genres related to horror fiction, such as the werewolf fiction urban fantasy Kitty Norville books by Carrie Vaughn. Horror elements continue to expand outside the genre. The alternate history of more traditional historical horror in Dan Simmons's 2007 novel The Terror sits on bookstore shelves next to genre mash ups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and historical fantasy and horror comics such as Hellblazer and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Horror also serves as one of the central genres in more complex modern works such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, a finalist for the National Book Award. There are many horror novels for teens, such as The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey. Additionally, many movies, particularly animated ones, use a horror aesthetic. These are what can be collectively referred to as "children's horror". Although it's unknown for sure why children enjoy these movies, it is theorized that it is the grotesque monsters that fascinate kids. Tangential to this, the internalized impact of horror television programs and films on children is rather under-researched, especially when compared to the research done on the similar subject of violence in TV and film's impact on the young mind. What little research there is tends to be inconclusive on the impact that viewing such media has.
CharacteristicsOne defining trait of the horror genre is that it provokes an emotional, psychological, or physical response within readers that causes them to react with fear. One of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous quotes about the genre is that: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." the first sentence from his seminal essay, "Supernatural Horror in Literature". Science fiction historian Darrell Schweitzer has stated, "In the simplest sense, a horror story is one that scares us" and "the true horror story requires a sense of evil, not in necessarily in a theological sense; but the menaces must be truly menacing, life-destroying, and antithetical to happiness."
In her essay "Elements of Aversion", Elizabeth Barrette articulates the need by some for horror tales in a modern world:
In a sense similar to the reason a person seeks out the controlled thrill of a roller coaster, readers in the modern era seek out feelings of horror and terror to feel a sense of excitement. However, Barrette adds that horror fiction is one of the few mediums where readers seek out a form of art that forces themselves to confront ideas and images they "might rather ignore to challenge preconceptions of all kinds."
One can see the confrontation of ideas that readers and characters would "rather ignore" throughout literature in famous moments such as Hamlet's musings about the skull of Yorick, its implications of the mortality of humanity, and the gruesome end that bodies inevitably come to. In horror fiction, the confrontation with the gruesome is often a metaphor for the problems facing the current generation of the author.
There are many theories as to why people enjoy being scared. For example, "people who like horror films are more likely to score highly for openness to experience, a personality trait linked to intellect and imagination."
Stephanie Demetrakopoulos illustrates a common interpretation of one of the benchmarks of the canon of horror literature. Tina Broussard in an Horror Stories - Ghost Stories of Dracula surmises Demetrakopoulos' thesis:
It is a now commonly accepted viewpoint that the horror elements of Dracula's portrayal of vampirism are metaphors for sexuality in a repressed Victorian era. But this is merely one of many interpretations of the metaphor of Dracula. Judith Halberstam postulates many of these in her essay Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker's Dracula. She writes:
Menacing villains and monsters in horror literature can often be seen as metaphors for the fears incarnate of a society.
Halberstram articulates a view of Dracula as manifesting the growing perception of the aristocracy as an evil and outdated notion to be defeated. The depiction of a multinational band of protagonists using the latest technologies to quickly share, collate, and act upon new information is what leads to the destruction of the vampire. This is one of many interpretations of the metaphor of only one central figure of the canon of horror fiction, as over a dozen possible metaphors are referenced in the analysis, from the religious to the anti-semitic.
Noël Carroll's Philosophy of Horror postulates that a modern piece of horror fiction's "monster", villain, or a more inclusive menace must exhibit the following two traits:
- A menace that is threatening — either physically, psychologically, socially, morally, spiritually, or some combination of the aforementioned.
- A menace that is impure — that violates the generally accepted schemes of cultural categorization. "We consider impure that which is categorically contradictory".
Scholarship and criticism
Modern scholarship on horror fiction draws upon a range of sources. In their historical studies of the gothic novel, both Devandra Varma and S.L. Varnado make reference to the theologian Rudolf Otto, whose concept of the "numinous" was originally used to describe religious experience.
A recent survey reports how often horror media is consumed:
To assess frequency of horror consumption, we asked respondents the following question: “In the past year, about how often have you used horror media for entertainment?” 11.3% said “Never,” 7.5% “Once,” 28.9% “Several times,” 14.1% “Once a month,” 20.8% “Several times a month,” 7.3% “Once a week,” and 10.2% “Several times a week.” Evidently, then, most respondents claimed to use horror media several times a year or more often. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between liking and frequency of use.