What Is Horror Fiction

Vision 2

What Is Horror Fiction

By Teresa Hopper

©2001, Teresa Hopper



Sounds like a pretty simple question, doesn’t it? I’m sure that many of you out there reading this already know the answer, or think that you do. Up until a week ago I thought that I knew the answer as well, but I was wrong.  You might be too. 

So, what is horror? If you’d asked me that question a week ago, I would have told you that for a piece of fiction to be considered ‘horror’, there had to be a supernatural element. It didn’t matter what kind of supernatural element – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, curses, zombies, witchcraft (and too many more to name), but it had to be there, or I just didn’t consider it to be horror. I was, I suppose, a bit of a horror snob.  

I’d read a lot in other genres – crime and suspense fiction, dark thrillers, but I saw them as distinct and separate genres. Sure, at times these novels had disturbed me, maybe even scared me a little, but they weren’t horror.  

Then, last week I started to read a book that has changed my views on not only horror fiction, but also the dividing lines between all kinds of fiction. What is the book that sparked off this insight? A how-to book? No. An article on the nature of the horror genre today? No. It was a novel by Jonathan Kellerman called Monster (Little, Brown and Company, 2000). A suspense novel about a serial killer – one of those other genres. For some reason this book got under my skin and into my head in a way that not many books do. It scared me. That night I had to check under my bed to make sure there wasn’t a madman there, with a long, shiny knife waiting for me to turn out the light. I’ve had to check under my bed before, nothing unusual in that, but before, I was checking for whatever monster had been in the latest horror novel that I’d read.  

And that book got me thinking about the nature of horror – what is horror really? If you take the old definition and scrape away all the monsters under the bed and the vampires and the ghosts, horror is about fear. It’s about abnormal occurrences happening to normal people, which they are often powerless to prevent. Lots of novels that aren’t considered horror are based around fear, and the old me would have said ‘but they’re different, that’s a different kind of fear.’ But is it really? Imagine you are in bed at night, naked and all alone, you’ve just woken up and hear a noise outside the bedroom door. On the other side could be a ghost or a monster, or it could be a maniac with a sharp knife and a grin. One option comes straight from the pages of a traditional horror story, and the other from crime or suspense. But is there really any difference? Obviously, one has a supernatural bent, and the other does not, but both focus on fear. For both types of fiction the fear comes from horrific and abnormal events happening to ordinary people. The fear comes from the belief that that person could be you. 

So, what am I suggesting here? That we re-classify anything scary as horror? No, certainly not, but what I am suggesting, is that maybe we have been thinking of horror in very narrow terms, keeping it firmly within the realms of the supernatural, when maybe the dividing lines between horror and other genres are more blurred. A novel concerning serial killers which focuses on fear, has elements of both horror and crime/suspense.  

And one of the reasons that I think this has occurred is the negative image that horror fiction, and therefore the horror writer, has with the general public. I often try to get non-writers to talk about horror fiction (without them knowing that I am a horror writer myself), because I am interested in their opinions. Invariably it is either something they love or hate; very few people have no opinion, but even amongst those who like to read horror, horror writers are still considered to be odd. They are viewed as strange, almost scary. One person said to me that horror writers were a bit frightening, because “they go around with all that [scary] stuff in their heads all the time”. No wonder then, that a lot of people would rather not classify themselves as horror writers, even though their writing might be highly fear-based.   

So maybe we shouldn’t be looking at horror in the strict terms of the supernatural, but we should widen our criteria. I suggest that two types of horror exist - supernatural horror, and a horror which is not supernatural, but based around the horrors of our real world – hate, murder, cruelty. Both are equally valid but related forms of fiction.