I’ve always been a fan of horror stories. My childhood copies of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series were very well-worn. The grim charcoal illustrations no doubt played a roll in traumatizing a generation of young readers, so much that the books have since been tamed with less terrifying imagery. The stories, though, remain the same. These books are aimed at young readers, but contain the same elements you’ll find in scary stories to tell grownups: gross-outs, horror, and terror.
The Master’s DefinitionI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what defines horror. I had a sort of nebulous idea of different things that unsettle us, then I found this great quote by Stephen King that sums it up and breaks it down beautifully.
“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
Yeah. That sounds about right. Let’s dig deeper.
I’ve got a high tolerance for the gross-out. I keep hissing cockroaches as pets, and giggled like a little jerk when The Martian used his own poop to grow potatoes. It makes a lot of other people squeal.
It makes evolutionary sense that disgust is such a physically unsettling feeling. A lot of the things we’re repulsed by, bodily fluids or rotting meat, for example, are things that can harm us. That makes them easy fodder for visceral horror stories.
RL Stine’s Goosebumps books had plenty of gross-out gags for the kids, and writers like Clive Barker and Jack Ketchum are masters of the splattery stuff for grown-ups. There’s definite crossover appeal outside of horror, too. Game of Thrones has a nice sprinkling of gore and poop jokes.
Stephen King’s definition of horror is basically that which should not be. You know, monsters. When I think monsters, one particular writer always comes to mind.
HP Lovecraft was a reclusive, racist weirdo whose writing was clunky and difficult to read. (Yeah, I said it.) But, man, those ideas. If you read anything today about demon cults, backwoods creeps, cosmic monsters, or evil things living in the walls, you owe some thanks to this maladjusted dude. He had some serious problems, but his legacy to horror cannot be denied.
Lovecraft’s characters have a tendency to lose their damn minds when confronted with the horrors he serves up. That’s one of the things that makes horror so unsettling: it shatters what we think we know about reality. Monsters aren’t real, are they?
An inborn, evolutionary fear of monsters makes sense, too. Cavemen didn’t have names for the hulking, hairy, sharp-toothed things that sometimes ate them. Just because Pi’s tiger has an English sailor’s name and a scientific Latin name doesn’t make its bloodlust any less horrifying. Richard Parker wants to eat you, young man. Be afraid.
King says this is the worst one, and I tend to agree. Terror is unsettling in that it’s your regular life, but wrong. It’s your world turned upside down. It’s the fear of what could happen. What just might happen.
Taken without gross-outs and horror, terror is the meat of suspense and thrillers. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a master class in terror. The opening terror is the lives disrupted by a woman’s disappearance. The mid-book terror is a reveal that someone is actually a far worse example of humanity than they’d always appeared to be. The closing terror is that all the previous atrocities are wrapped up in a way that most will find absolutely, screamingly, wrong.
Everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. Perfect.
Gross-outs, horror, and terror. I’ve been mulling over it ever since I read the quote, trying to think of any vital, fear-striking element of fiction that he may have left out. I can’t think of one. Stephen King is not without his share of misses, but he really nailed this one.
Of course, next time a book makes you gag or gives you chills down your spine, you won’t be thinking about any of this. Scary is good. What more reason do you need?