Horror is a genre of fiction that plays with human fear, feelings of terror, dread, and repulsion to entertain the audience.
The term comes from the Old French, “orror,” meaning “to shudder.” It has roots stretching back for centuries. Stories take much of their origin from old fears, those of something powerful, deadly, and out of one’s control. Horror stories are often based on religion, history, and even folklore.
Definition and Explanation of Horror
Horror stories, whether they be novels, short stories, or films, include death, evil, the supernatural, fantasy, and more. These stories allow writers and readers to explore the depths of human darkness and the embodiment of their own fear (It by Stephen King is a great example of the latter). Sometimes the central evil in a story is a human being with ill intent, while other times, it might be something entirely invented.
Examples of Horror Novels
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Dracula, published in 1897, is a horror novel that depicts the character of Count Dracula and established the vampire genre. It depicts the count’s attempts to move from Transylvania to England so that he might find new victims.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A classic ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959 and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The novel focuses on a growing terror in a mansion occupied by a couple and their children.
It by Stephen King
It is one of King’s best-known and widely-read novels. It follows seven children in their youth and adulthood as they battle a mysterious and deadly force at work in their town, Derry. Known as “It,” or Pennywise the Dancing Clown, this monstrous being entices children into the sewer system that runs around the town and feeds off of them.
Examples of Horror Short Stories
“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
One of Poe’s most commonly read short stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” is a story of guilt and insanity. It follows an unnamed narrator who decides to kill an old man with a “vulture-eye.” He dismembers and buries the body under the floorboards but is haunted by the sound of the man’s heart beating, a symbol of his never-ending guilt.
“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs
“The Monkey’s Paw” is a supernatural horror story published in 1902 in The Lady of the Barge, a collection of short stories by W.W. Jacobs. It follows the White family and the arrival of their son’s friend, who brings a mummified monkey’s paw to dinner. The paw has a spell on it that grants three wishes, but there are terrible consequences for them.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” is Shirley Jackson’s best-known short story. In it, her narrator tells the story of a small town in which an annual rite, known as the Lottery, occurs. One member of the community is selected at random every year. This time, Tessie, mother of three, is selected, and the story ends with the suggestion that the other community members stone her to death. This is done for the good of everyone, the story implies.
Examples of Horror Films
Directed by Jordan Peele, Get Out is one of the best horror films of recent years. It was released in the United States in 2017 to rave reviews for its chilling plotline. The story follows a young black man who meets his white girlfriend’s family members and uncovers a horrifying secret. The film hints at something terrible underneath the surface from the beginning, and it is only towards the end do the movie that viewers understand the depth and horrible complexity of what’s been occurring. Suspense is one of the primary horror elements at work in this film.
Another popular recent horror film, The Witch, is all about atmosphere and the presence the various characters have on the screen. It was released in 2015 and followed a Puritan family living on their New England farm. The movie starts with the disappearance and death of the family’s fifth child and their belief that a witch stole him and used his body to make a flying ointment.
Types of Horror
- Gothic Horror: includes elements of horror and Romanticism. For example, the classic stories of Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- Supernatural Horror: include fictional elements like ghosts, zombies, and vampires to create fear and terror. The human beings in these stories are faced with the unknown and have to tackle it or lose their lives.
- Non-supernatural Horror: does not include supernatural elements. Instead, they focus on human-caused fear, such as losing one’s mind, being the victim of a murder. These are things that could happen in real life and have to other people.
Why Do Writers Write Horror?
Writers write horror in order to engage with deep, human fears that plague all of us. These stories are entertaining and often shocking, but they also allow one to safely confront that which might be terrifying in another circumstance. Horror stories, when combined with other genres, also allow anything to happen. One can include entirely fictional elements or keep their story realistic. Depending on the author and how they write, reality might be frightening enough.
Thriller, terror, gothic, nightmare.
Related Literary Terms
- Gothic: that which deals with themes of death, the supernatural, sorrow, fear, loss, and more.
- Science Fiction: a literary genre that focuses on imaginative content based on science.
- Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.
- Antagonist: a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
- Protagonist: the main character of a story, generally considered to be the hero or the force for good.