What is horror? Is it the same thing as scary?
Let's say that the sum of human experience is represented in metaphor by a typical Midwestern residential street. Picket fences, families, people walking dogs, all that.
There's one house on the block, old and decrepit, grass is over three feet high. Maybe nobody lives there, or maybe it's that old woman and her cats. Or maybe it's some lonely guy with no teeth who covers every window to his basement and only emerges to empty his mailbox.
That house is Scary. People talk about it, kids dare each other to go up to it, people cross the street rather than walk by it. Dogs won't approach it. But in the end, it's just a house. it never hurts anyone or anything, except property values. Ugly, harmless, and scary. It's like a communal hangnail. Everyone picks at it; even though it hurts, it also feels good.
Then there's the well-kept house on the corner. Lawn is neat, Old Glory waving from a flagpole in the yard. That's Mister Fetterman's house. Sweet old guy. Widower, war veteran, volunteers with the Lion's Club corn dog booth at the community festival every Spring. Everybody loves him. All the kids play in his backyard. He wouldn't hurt a fly. Everyone is sure of that, until the cops eventually break down his door and find twenty human torsos walled up in his crawlspace.
Mister Fetterman is Horror. He's real, and you never know until you know, and then it's too late.
We need to be scared. Scared is human. Scared is when we are who we really are. It's fight or flight, it's a rush of inborn chemicals. It's a direct line to our ancestors. It cuts away the layers of detachment that we pile over our lives. Scared is a positive emotion. We feed it. It protects us, preserves us, keeps us alive in every sense.
Horror is our mind trying to process something that it shouldn't have to, and by all rights cannot prepare for. It's not simple suffering, or loss, or pain. We expect our loved ones to die. We do not expect to have their severed heads land in our laps during a car accident. Horror is when our natural defenses fail, when fight or flight are not options. The gates are open, and the enemy is pouring in. Horror is destructive, the Joker to our Batman, the dark side to our Force.
Do 'horror' and 'scary' overlap in written work?
I think most horror writing—GOOD horror writing—is "merely" scary. That is, it's entertaining, and gets under your skin in that delicious way that drives us to repeat old urban legends by campfire light. We know the story isn't real, just like the legend, but we want to set that aside and believe it's real for a moment.The Deliquescent CellI have been in isolation for four days now. I think.
The dark . . . So solid you could carve your hands through the stagnant air and feel as though you were parting folds of thick, dusty velvet, like the drapes at Grandmother's house. I spent the first day just trying not to choke, suffocating on my own circulating anxiety and the faint trickle of blood cleaving to my throat from a broken nose.
To pass the time I sleptslept and gasped and dreamed of Anna, my fingertips clawing out into the heavy emptiness to feel the velveteen of her skin one last time. After so many years of sleeping beside someone, it's difficult to quell the urge to embrace, and every failed attempt found me waking in a cold sweat, my heart fluttering like a cat's throat when it purrs with fear, struggling to comfort itself.
On the second day, I began to explore my cell. There was not much to findwalls so rough they had the intricate texture of a hardened fur, a slick concrete floor, a tin pan of unident
When writing transcends (not rises, transcends) to the place of Horror is when we've left the realm of entertainment and the story has scratched us so deeply that it has broken a nail off in our flesh. Something has changed, and you're going to think about this story from time to time for the rest of your life. With Scary, you remember the feeling fondly, and you seek it again. Horror haunts you. It might be an enjoyable haunting, it might not be. When it's enjoyable is when Scary and Horror have mixed together. When it isn't, then you have something that stabbed you in the gut.
What I'm not talking about here is bad writing. That's "horrifying" in a whole other dimension, especially if you paid money for it.
Subjectivity aside, is there a 'safe' starting point for the genre?
Not sure where I picked it up, but I seem to have developed a thing for "body horror," or stories, scenarios and characters that involve awful things happening to a character's body, or doing awful things to someone else's. I don't read this stuff, but I tend to write it.
Your fave story The Chandler's Around the Way is the best example; the whole thing is about the human body being reduced to a commodity in a gritty, survivalist world. I've written several things involving murder, cannibalism, atomic blast shadows left when a body is disintegrated, a girl who tears her "hair" out every morning in a fairy-tale twist on trichotillomania, corpses preserved in a peat bog, and other such things. Verdigris is about fragile doll-people eventually developing flesh bodies, but only after at least one of them is crushed to death.
the Chandler's Around the WayThe hose slipped out again. Chan cursed, and shoved it back into the incision he'd made, adjusted his mask, and bent over the pump. He yanked the cord, and the pump started to life with a cough of biodiesel. It bounced on the sand as it grumbled away. Chan kept one hand on it and held the hose in place with the other.
If fucking Fathers would spend the bone on a new one, I wouldn't be all night at this, Chan grumbled. He ached for a smoke, but didn't have the hands to spare. Plenty of hands here, he thought as he glanced at the riverbank. Some of them even had a pulse.
"Hey," he said to whoever was closest.
It was a sunbather. A walker who drew enough bone to slot time on the beach without having to fight for it. She had each arm draped around a man, both of them tattooed in the same place with the same sigil. Chan was jealous. Someday he'd have his own numbers, but they'd be women. All of them. He was old-fashioned like that.
The walker answered without raising her sungl
VerdigrisThe sun was red the day Slicker died. She watched him fall a hundred levels, to shatter against a fat, reinforced gas pipe, shards of him breaking across archways and supports and cables, plummeting into the foggy void below. His blud drenched a cluster of backup valves. It dripped from the nozzles, thick and syrupy.
Slicker was unsticking the gears on the Bigtime, with such focus that he paid no attention to the approach of the Quickhand, making its minute-long journey around the Bigtime's face. He had clamped safety cables to the supports, but was careless. The Quickhand caught a support line, and dragged him off the gears, sending him plummeting. The Bigtime was in such poor repair that the other clamps had torn free, sending scraps of rusted steel along with Slicker to his death.
Shine had tried to shout a warning, but Slicker couldn't hear. Or wouldn't. Slicker loved his work, loved the way things ran smoothly when he was finished. Mostly, he loved it when things worked, as
Because horror frequently touches taboo topics, do you think it can be inappropriate to seek it out?
I don't see a problem with seeking out horror. Quite the contrary, I find it to be healthy, a mostly-harmless way to poke a stick at things that we shouldn't or don't want to explore in reality. I've noticed in my interactions that many of the nicest, most well-adjusted, mentally strong people I've met are big fans of horror, or producers of same. They have their outlet, as do I.
Where I do see an unfortunate breakdown is when people allow horror tropes to affect their lives in what I consider baffling ways. The "zombie prepper" fad is an example; consisting of people who not only have convinced themselves that a zombie apocalypse is possible, it's also inevitable, and they are going to be ready for it. I'm not talking about kitsch here; nothing wrong with a tongue-in-cheek "Zombie Response Vehicle" sticker on your SUV, or hanging up a zombie target at the firing range. I'm talking about people who stock up on firearms, fuel, food, and survival gear specifically for the purpose of defending themselves against zombie hordes. Preparedness is great, as long as you've got hurricanes, flooding or power outages in mind. Walking Dead? Mkay.
Do you think taking horror seriously is something unique to the genre, as opposed to sci-fi, etc?
I also worry about people who actually believe they are vampires and are into the blood-drinking scene. I knew a couple of those personally. Even so, I don't see that as an extension of horror tropes as much as a lifestyle choice, and if they're safe about it, fine. Still squicks me out.
It's certainly not unique to the genre. For every zombie-prepper or vampire scenester out there, there's a couple planning a Klingon wedding, a Muggle Quidditch game being played, or a group of college students repairing their arsenal of foam weapons for the next LARP.
I think genre fiction and media of any kind give us a window to a world more aligned with the one we'd like to experience, if only temporarily. I guess some people aren't content to just look out the window, they want to jump through it. There's nothing really wrong with that as long as your health or the people around you don't suffer for it.
In many ways, this sort of thing is beneficial to the world. There's a whole series on the Science Channel called "Prophets of Science Fiction," about sci-fi writers and icons who informed, foresaw or inspired the advances that gave us the world we're living in now. I remember reading a foreword in some book or another that sci-fi was the "jester in the court of science." It plays the fool, pokes our imaginations, and inspires innovation.
(Jay is a mindreader several times over)
Your next question is probably going to be, "Does Horror lead to the same kind of high-minded benefit to mankind?" Not in that it inspires education and advances in science, but it can serve both as a vent to our fears, a warning about our bad habits, and as a commentary on modern society (for better or for worse).
Consider what Romero did with his Living Dead films; each has something specific to say about modern life in the era in which each was made. For Night of the Living Dead, it was racism. Dawn of the Dead had not-subtle things to say about consumer culture. Max Brooks picked up the torch again, commenting a great deal about foreign policy and post-millennial anxiety in his World War Z novel.
The vampire has been dug up time and time again over centuries to reflect our carnal nature and dark side, through the looking glass of the times. Dracula dealt with that, as well as gender roles, Victorian sexual mores, how we treat the mentally ill, and much more. And you can't have a conversation about the dangers of science without Frankenstein coming up eventually.
Stephen King, when he's not scaring us, is giving us a pretty honest, clear-eyed view of community culture and the darkness that can reside behind all the picket fences. The list goes on.
Have you ever written anything that scared/horrored you?
I may have written a scary thing or two. I don't think I've written anything horrifying in the "good" sense. That's not a bad thing, nor is it some kind of self-deprecation, I just know that I write grisly things mostly to entertain, not change the reader. Horror changes you. If it didn't, you were just scared, or left with a sense of disgust or unease.
And there is no objective standard for either one. What scares or horrifies me may not be the same for you.
What big categories of horror are there, and are any of them mutually exclusive?
Categories? Wow, that's a can of maggots, isn't it? This list isn't bad, and simple to go through: joannaparypinski.com/2011/06/2…
One that I didn't see listed there is Horror Comedy, which has become popular lately as a way to hang a lampshade on all the cliches and familiar tropes of horror for modern audiences, which still scaring them a little. While horror-comedy isn't new, it probably came to the forefront with the Scream films (more horror than comedy, but with more than a few winks to the audience), then to stuff like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, and so on.
I don't think any subgenres are mutually exclusive. Horror is always remixing itself, much in the same way as speculative fiction (which is just a fancy way of blending fantasy/sci-fi).
I'm all for Horror Comedy. Can things be simultaneously scary and funny, or does the levity exist solely outside of the scary bits?
I think horror and funny happen at the edges of your consciousness, where the grass is tall and you have to poke around with a stick, and deal with whatever jumps out when you poke it. Of course these can overlap, or one can overtake the other.
This is precisely what makes Halloween as much fun as it is. People like to be scared, and they like to scare other people. It's cathartic. The high you get when you're scared is the same one you get when something is hilarious. Often, you find yourself laughing just a moment or two after you've been scared out of your wits. It's also the reason why it's so much fun to scare someone else. Many a prank is born from that simple pleasure.
Horror-comedy is a thing precisely because these two emotions can intersect so well at the same part of your brain. Ghostbusters is hilarious, but the first time I saw it when I was a kid, I ain't gonna lie; the evil dog in Dana's fridge scared the shit out of me. So did the library ghost. I peed a little, just before I laughed at the guys' reactions to her.
Shaun of the Dead is twice as edgy, spooning a sauce of funny over a world quickly gone to shit. Or shite. Shaun would probably say shite.
The Dawn of the Dead remake hammers this home (what is it about zombies that lend themselves so well to horror and comedy?) when the survivors are hanging out on the roof of the mall taking out shamblers that resemble celebrities. I don't care who you are, that's funny. Many a novel have made great use of humor in the midst of horror. Max Brooks has made a cottage industry out of satirizing American culture and post-millennial anxiety in his zombie books, which are bursting with dark humor and irony even as they crawl with the living dead.
But you're asking specifically about whether something can be scary and funny in the same moment. What makes that question so tricky is the sheer subjectivity of both horror and humor. What scares me and makes me laugh may not be the same for you, and you've just told me that you find a lot of horror scenarios funny.
So I guess I'd give that question a qualified No. I don't think you can be truly scared and find something truly funny in precisely the same moment, because both reactions are so elemental and involuntary. You don't decide to be scared, any more than you decide to find something funny. It just happens. What scares everyone else in the room might strike you as hilarious, or vice versa. But I don't think you're going to laugh your ass off and piss yourself in fear at exactly the same time.
Got any tips for the aspiring horror writer?
I'm not a professional horror writer (or any kind of writer), so presuming to advise other amateurs like I know what I'm doing is a little over the top. All I'll say is that what makes something really scary (or horrific) is what our mind does with what our senses encounter, not what we're explicitly shown or what we hear.
Filmmakers, professional haunted attraction designers and asshole pranksters have the luxury of the jump-scare. Writers don't. So let the reader's imagination scare them; as a writer, you need to give the reader's mind just enough fuel to make their imagination take off running, and hopefully, screaming.
Please link me some of your favorite onsite horror!
It's a Small World After AllDeep beneath the Magic Kingdom, alarms were going off.
Sanchez palmed the red override switch, and the hooting silenced, though strobes and flashing indicators lit up half the power board. Something had seriously gone wrong in Walt Disney Worlds electrical grid.
His phone rang while he punched up diagnostics.
Sanchez, Ive got blackouts in
I know, he muttered absently into the throat mic, stand by.
Other calls came in from all over the park. He routed them into the same queue and conferenced them together. Everyone, stand by. Im on it. Something big has happened; Ill let you know what I know when I know it.
He clicked the Hold button and parsed through scrolling diagnostics. Indeed, something major had happened. It looked like one of the primary conduits had been severed near Interstate 4 probably due to a construction fuckup.The Final GirlUnofficial Soundtrack
Open in a new tab and listen while you read.
The Carnival Infernale chugs through the dead of night, wagons shambling over a lizard skin of frost broken roads. Bright canopy music plays from a brass pipe organ pulled along by the skeletons of long dead bray horses. Marching zombies pretend to juggle balls suspended from metal wires nailed to their backs. Small clowns with porcelain faces breathe plumes of fire for whoever will witness it. Scarecrows on thirty foot stilts with jack-o-lantern heads lumber and wave like flaming pyres in the sky. Leading it all is a devil of a Ringmaster decked out in top hat, pin-striped suit, and gold lace macramé. His face is painted as red as a Tandoori chicken. Two goat hooves have been grafted onto his ankles and he wears the most stylish short pants in all existence to show them off wi
Both are by gents whom I firmly believe have to Q-tip excess talent from their ears when they do their morning ablutions. Both of these stories contain horror, humor and an offbeat, quirky kind of darkness that makes you nervously smile while you slowly consider the ramifications of what you just read.
Thanks for playing
Thanks. This was fun.
What I'm really hoping for, of course, is that this gets everyone to write lots and lots of gore, as it is a healthy coping mechanism for life. (And then you follow this up by linking it to me, because my healthy coping mechanism for life is reading all the things. )
Thanks again, Memnalar!