What is Horror Fiction, and How Do You Know if You’re Writing It?

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What is Horror Fiction, 
and How Do You Know if You’re Writing It?

By

Teresa Hopper

Copyright © 2002, Teresa Hopper ,All Rights Reserved

Welcome to the first article in a series covering horror fiction. I’ve chosen to begin with what I thought would be a simple question – ‘What is Horror Fiction?’ It’s a question that I’m often asked by new writers who aren’t sure if what they have written is classified as horror or dark fantasy or thriller. As with everything in life, answering that question didn’t turn out to be as simple as I had expected.

I planned to start this article with a nice clear-cut definition of what constitutes horror fiction.  However, as you can see, there isn’t one, and the reason for this is because I couldn’t find one!Now I don’t claim to have looked at every book and web site for a definition, but I had a damn good look. The Horror Writer’s Association web site  (http://www.horror.org) didn’t explain what made their members’ fiction different from, say, the Science Fiction Writers of America. The how-to book that the HWA have published in association with the Writer’s Digest, Writing Horror: A Handbook By the Horror Writers Association (ISBN 0-89879-798-5) gives no definition either. A Google (http://www.google.com ) search on ‘horror definition’ proved equally fruitless.

So, lacking a definition of horror fiction itself, we’ll go back to basics with a dictionary definition of horror. The following is from the Collins Paperback English Dictionary (ISBN 0-00-472208-6). 

“horror (noun) 1. Extreme fear or terror 2. Intense hatred: she had a horror of violence  3. A thing or person causing fear, loathing, or distaste  4. Having a frightening subject, usually connected with the supernatural: a horror film”

Obviously it’s not all appropriate to horror fiction, but it’s actually quite a good definition, and it is the starting point for our discussion. 

“1. Extreme fear or terror” 

Well, that’s obviously referring to the emotion of horror, but it’s still relevant to us here, because that’s what we’re trying to make our readers feel, after all. If we were trying to make our readers laugh and feel happy all the way through the book it wouldn’t be called horror fiction, would it? No, we are trying to scare them, so that they don’t want to turn off the lights or look under the bed. 

“4. Having a frightening subject, usually connected with the supernatural: a horror film” 

This is one of the most contentious issues surrounding horror fiction – does horror fiction have to be about the supernatural? Some people think yes, and some people think no, and both sides will argue their point passionately. I don’t claim to have the definitive answer, I’m not sure there is one, but I’ll give you my opinion on the subject.

I used to be a member of the yes camp, and I’m not afraid to admit that I was a bit of a horror snob – if it wasn’t supernatural I didn’t consider it to be horror. I also had a very limited knowledge of horror fiction, which pretty much included only Stephen King. Since then, I’m glad to say, I’ve seen the error of my ways, and I now read as large a range of horror novelists as I can. My ideas about horror have changed also.

I no longer think that it is the supernatural element which makes a novel into horror fiction or not, but rather that it is the focus and aims of the author. If the author’s aim is fear – both creating it for his characters and instilling it in his readers -- then it seems pretty clear to me that he is writing horror.

Let me give you an example, albeit from the movie world. The basic plot of the various Alien films staring Sigourney Weaver involves a woman on a spaceship being chased by an alien monster that is trying to kill her. Emphasis here is everything – if the spaceship and alien angle are emphasised, it would be a science fiction film, but if the fear of the woman and the viewer are emphasised then it would be more of a horror film. I believe that the same is true for novels.

The main reason I now think that there is more to horror than the supernatural is that there are many more things that scare us, and a good horror writer can find fear in sometimes unexpected places. Stephen King wrote Misery about an obsessed fan, and Dreamcatcher about aliens. Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed concerns a too-powerful computer, and Rats by James Herbert is about giant mutant rats infesting London. These are just a few examples; there are many more.

I did think that including non-supernatural fiction was a new direction for horror, and that it was a modern phenomenon. A look through the classics, however, quickly proves me wrong; since the beginnings of the genre there have been non-supernatural horror novels such as Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R S Stevenson, which sit equally beside Dracula by Bram Stoker and the Victorian ghost stories.

So if you’re writing a piece of fiction and you’re not sure whether it’s horror or not, have a think about what you’re trying to achieve. If you want to give your reader chills, or pit your character against a terrifying monstrosity, then you’re likely to be writing horror.