I often hear the words “I don’t like horror” when actually what the person means is they don’t like films such as Hostel, Saw and so forth. Horror is actually a very broad category with multiple subgenres, and many stories not classed as horror contain elements of these. Of course, the horror genre has always been disreputable to a certain extent, though I observe that over time stories initially considered beneath contempt by a certain elite, or by moral guardians, can eventually become classics.
One only has to cite novels such as Dracula or Frankenstein to support this argument. Horror novelists such as Stephen King are also a case in point. In movies, the likes of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead or William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, both banned in the UK during the video nasties scare, are now considered classics of the genre.
So what is horror? Some would say any story that horrifies can be considered horror, but I don’t agree. For example, a drama about the Holocaust would not be classed as horror, but I can’t think of anything more horrifying. Does that make Schindler’s List or Son of Saul horror movies in the genre sense? I would say not.
Like film noir, horror has a certain atmosphere and particular iconography that defines it as a genre. But the overall emotion experienced by the reader or viewer, regardless of whether the outcome is positive or negative, must be an escalating and suspenseful sense of fear or dread. It does not, however, necessarily mean the story will contain buckets of gore (although it sometimes can), and again whenever I hear the “I don’t like horror” line, often that is what is being objected to.
I suppose my frustration with those who dismiss the horror genre outright comes from the knowledge of what they are missing. For example, The Babadook – my favourite film of 2014, and the best horror film this decade to date – has so much power, catharsis and compassion for those suffering with guilt and grief that I hate not being able to recommend it to certain people.
However, I have discovered there is a way out of this predicament. In certain cases, these stories could equally be labeled as different genres. For example, Psycho, or more recently Green Room, could easily be classed as thrillers. Alien could be classed as science fiction. William Friedkin famously claimed The Exorcist was not a horror film, but a supernatural drama, and I would fervently argue that case could also be made for The Babadook or The Sixth Sense.
I have written a number of novels I intend to release over the next few years – including my soon to be announced The Thistlewood Curse – which could easily be lumped in the horror category. But I don’t want to unfairly limit my readership, especially as I genuinely think they would fit better under the “supernatural thriller” label; a category which also applied to my earlier novel The Birds Began to Sing, though that does also contain horror elements.
To date, those who have read and enjoyed The Thistlewood Curse do not think I should limit my readership by describing it as “horror”, even though it is ultimately, in my mind at least, a horror story. As I discuss the novel in the upcoming weeks on this blog, I shall try to be careful to clarify what I mean in this respect.