Fictional horror is a complex and subtle art form that is not easily mastered. Defining this instrument of writing is an even greater entanglement of humanities senses, the mind, and what it is to be in a state of horror. Not all horror must be blatant in its portrayal, and can be even less effective when it is. In fact, the subtle nuances of a story and the suspense that leads to whatever horrific place or event an author has in store for the reader, act in unison to enhance the final or many moments of dread throughout a horror story.
The problem with many stories that are viewed as a part of the horror genre is that they do not carry the “weight” a real horror story should. Many stories that claim to be of horror are actually of the suspense and thriller genre. These so called horror stories do not cause that familiar crackling itch, like a cascading ice, that will slink ever so softly down ones neck and spine till it nuzzles deeply in to the small of the back. We have all felt this prickling sensation of anticipation before. Whether you are young or old, there are many things that go bump in the night for each and every one of us. These things are what a horror story must capture. A horror story should give the reader a conscious sensation of foreboding. This can be done through putrid gore and violent scenes, or through more subtle means that expose deeper fears that weigh heavy on the hearts of many. These subtle fears are various, but the fears of failure, wasting one’s entire life, being consumed by obsession, or never being loved, are fantastic examples.
There are many different types of horror, but there are two kinds that stand out most prominently; physical horror and intangible horror. Physical horror is when a reader is subjected to images of the macabre sort. These are stories brimming with ghouls and blood and flesh and corpses, all thrown at the reader either subtly or forcefully. This can be done craftily or poorly, but is almost always an excellent way to keep readers on their toes. Physical horror presents the reader with a very real threat. Intangible horror is almost always more subtle and difficult to write if physical horror is not mingled throughout the plot. This is the sort of horror that takes advantage of our emotional weaknesses and the demons of guilt and phantoms of mania that stalk us in our very souls; the fear of being alone, the fear of karma, the fear of insanity, or the fear of compulsion. These, among many, are vulnerabilities we all face.
An excellent example of a masterpiece of intangible horror, although not a book, is the very end of the movie Hellraiser: Inferno, the 5th installment of the Hellraiser series. I have included a clip to the left. Please watch the entire clip to understand my point.
Physical horror is obviously present throughout this clip, and if your have ever seen the entire film you will know that it is present over the course of the movie. Although, if you are a careful observer, you will see that intangible fear haunts and overpowers every ghoulish display of death and dismay to the very end of this Hellraiser tale. In Hellraiser: Inferno, Det. Joseph Thorne is a man who believes he has all the control. He is a man who believes that life can be so easily solved and a man who manipulates and beguiles those around him. He turns a blind eye to his family and destroys himself through his own failure to realize what he has done to harm those around him. His vanity and self-serving nature cause his own ultimate downfall. Facing the consequences of these misdeeds was the real horror at the end of this tale. This is a horror that lurks in all of us. This is what intangible horror in fiction is all about. Of course, it is important to realize that intangible horror and physical horror are often features of a story that complement each other quite nicely. It is very important to use both when creating a horror story. Intangible horror, if left to tell a tale alone, can easily turn a story in to a suspenseful thriller rather than a horror story.
So, as you can see, a horror story is created by playing off the physical and intangible fears that all of us have. How well a story is written is up to you. It is not necessary to make your reader scream in terror when they are reading, and in fact is probably impossible. Just remember that a horror story should evoke the sensation of foreboding that I mention in the second paragraph. When defining horror fiction many writers will use excerpts from famous authors and movie makers whose work is in the horror genre. Understand that fear is an unlimited spectrum, and no man can possibly have all the answers. Using your own fears and vices rather than examples can make a horror story much easier to write, and more exceptionally written, because you will be approaching your work with a deeper understanding.
Determining the Genre
Now, as I have done in my previous articles, I will provide my readers with a simple way to decide whether or not a story is based in the horror genre. Now that you have better knowledge of what horror fiction is, it will make it easier to determine whether or not the six major elements of your story are a part of the horror genre. The building blocks of a story are the plot, setting, characters, theme, problem, and solution. By breaking these features of a story down and assigning a value to each facet you can easily gauge which genre you should assign your story too. I will use a hypothetical story as an example.
The Ghoul and the Ghost (Hypothetical Story)
- Plot (Draws from horror = 1 point for horror)
- Setting (Draws from fantasy = 1 point for fantasy)
- Characters (Draws from real history = 1 point for history)
- Theme (Draws from horror = 1 point for horror)
- Problem (Draws from horror = 1 point for horror)
- Solution (Draws from fantasy = 1 point for fantasy)
(Horror: 3 Points) (Fantasy: 2 Points) (Real History: 1 Point) = The Ghoul and the Ghost is Horror Fiction.
As you can see from my example above, although this hypothetical story had elements of fantasy, real history, and horror combined, the story is majorly composed of horror and thus is a part of the horror genre. It is important that you are unbiased when determining the genre of your story. Many writers set out with the intent to create a story that fits a particular genre. When submitting a story for publication on our website we want you to be honest with yourself and others by selecting the proper genre for your story. This will ensure that you attract the most readers and get the more reviews and shares. If you come up even when assigning values to the plot, setting, characters, theme, problem, and solution, than use critical think tip the scales towards one genre or the other. There is always something you could have missed when analyzing your own story. This could easily change parts of your story in to a different genre than you originally assumed.
I will recap now what our definition of horror fiction is. Horror fiction is a story that plays off of either our intangible and physical fears combined, or our physical fears alone, with these features defining at least three of the six major aspects of a story; the plot, setting, characters, theme, problem, and solution.
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