What Does Horror Mean To You?

What do you think of when I say the word horror? Think about it for a minute; I’ll come back to it in a moment.

As you may know, February is “Women in Horror Month”. The other day, over on Twitter, I was mentioned in a tweet as one of these said women. This got me thinking about a conversation that occurred recently in a Facebook group about the nature of the horror genre. I had to ask the question, do I really consider myself to be a horror writer?

Let me elaborate. There are, very  broadly speaking, two types of horror story. The supernatural tales and the psychological or violent human driven horror.

Let’s cast our thoughts back to the era when horror literature really took off, the Victorian age. It was a time of spiritualism, a time before electric lights drove away the shadows, a time before science explained away the phantoms. The Victorians loved the supernatural and the ghost story flourished.

Ghost stories were a large part of the horror genre in those days and the following decades. However, there were many stories and writers who fell into the other category, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy du Maupassant etc. There was a balance, and perhaps the likes of Poe had more emphasis on psychological elements than on blood and gore.

But what of the modern age of horror? Now I come back to the question I asked at the beginning of this article. What was the first thing that came to mind? Possibly you thought of films like Saw or Scream. There in lies the dilemma in modern horror.

Horror today has, to a great extent, moved away from the mysterious and atmospheric supernatural tale and into the realm of human violence. The mantra of today’s horror genre seems to be “it’s not scary unless someone’s bleeding”. That’s not to say that there aren’t clever ideas and psychological undertones at work in some of these stories, and it’s not a criticism of this kind of horror, though mostly it isn’t my cup of tea. It is simply that the things responsible for bringing the fear have changed.

This change may be due to the fact, that the things that scare us have changed. Physical violence we can easily believe in. You only have to turn on the news and it will put most horror movies to shame. But the supernatural may have lost some of its influence over us, although most people claim to love a good ghost story. In an age of science and technology have we lost our fear of the unknown, of spiritual danger?

Possibly, there is another factor at work too. The ghost story has traditionally been at its best in short form. The classics of the father of the modern ghost story, M. R. James, were short stories; but as I have discussed here before, modern reading tastes have largely left the short story on the shelf. Could this have played a part in the fall of the ghost story?

Mark Nixon, founder of www.shadowsatthedoor.com,  has been on a mission to raise the profile of the ghost story. Mark, who was also involved in the Facebook discussion stated:

“Horror is a grossly over saturated market, full of cheap thrills and gore. We need more of the subtle terror that Monty  [M. R. James] did so well. That’s what I try and do with the site. Less Paranormal Activity, more Warning to the Curious!”

In light of this change in the direction of horror, it does make me question whether I really belong in the horror category at all. When asked about my genre I tend to say supernatural rather than horror. It’s true that although all my stories are supernatural, not all are scary; but aside from that, is the horror category really a fitting home for the ghost story anymore? When picking genres for your books on Amazon, ghosts are a subgenre of horror; but this makes me wonder, if people come browsing the horror section, is my book really the sort of thing they will expect or want to see? Is the ghost story really a subgenre of horror any longer or have the two become divorced from each other? Should the ghost story have a category of its own?

Which do you prefer, grose out horror or subtly creepy tales? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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