Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An interlude: Horror vs. Terror


 Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Patrick Shearer.

Although horror and terror commonly are employed synonymously, the dictionary unmistakably links the former term with that of revulsion experienced upon witnessing something ugly, disgusting, shocking, etc.  Terror carries no such connotation.  Its meaning is cleaner, more profound, deriving as it does from the Latin terrere, to frighten.
    -- Afterword, Marvin Kaye. Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural (1)

Well, as I always say: “When in doubt, whip some Latin out.”  That turns every point made into a slam dunk, right?  (For me, it just gets my hackles up.)

But I think he’s got it backwards on which is more profound.  Not that Marvin Kaye cares what I think.  Who am I, anyway?  “Assholes & opinions”, am I right? 

H.P. Lovecraft wisely stepped around the whole horror/terror kerfuffle and called his stories “Weird”, but he still wrote an entire essay on the subject. (2)  The problem being that Lovecraft defines the terms one way, and Marvin Kaye defines them exactly the opposite (but at least he admits as much), and thus the debate has gone since 1764 or so.  (It’s probably been going on longer, but I think I’m pretty safe with the publication of The Castle of Otranto.) 

I’m siding with Lovecraft on this one because it jibes with my experience (“what the thinker thinks, the prover proves” as a wise man once said) and because there’s been a lot of discussion about terror ever since we declared war on it almost a decade ago.

Ultimately, it’s more constructive to think of these things on a scale of horror on one end, terror on the other.  They’re inextricably linked, but such stories tend to be further toward one end of the scale or the other (and because fear is such a personal thing, rarely would two people’s scales be the same, even for the same story.)

BECAUSE Kaye goes back to the Latin root to show that terror means very simply “to frighten”, I can’t help but equate it with what happens when the tension is building and building, and then a cat jumps out of the dark, and everybody in the theatre screams.  Kaye cites such an easy scare as being Horror (which I've taken the liberty of changing in the below quotes.]   We react to such things because our central nervous system is programmed to do just that. 

Horror is a much more complex reaction. 

I should be clear, though: as a practitioner I see nothing at all wrong with making an audience jump.  It should be a part of your toolbox, and you should use it when opportunity presents itself.  It’s just that it gets boring if that’s all you’re trying to achieve, over and over again, time after time.  Or as Kaye says:
 “I’m not suggesting that horror should be divorced from terror and exiled from the kingdom of night. That would be both foolish and impractical. When you romp through graveyards or play Peeping Tom to a sociopath, you must expect to feel the impact in the pit of your stomach at the same time those icy glissandos xylophone their way along your spine.” 
 -- Afteword, ibid

Maybe Marvin and I can work it out, after all.
Even at its crudest, most melodramatic level, [horror] has the ability to stir up the secret dreads embedded in our individual and collective imaginations.  By recognizing our worst nightmares, we are capable of exorcising them, at least temporarily.  When a great artist turns to the genre, he or she elevates the exorcism process to the level of catharsis: that working-out of pity commingled with terror that the Greeks experienced at the close of the Sophoclean trilogy -- a massive cultural/spiritual purging that permitted the participants to leave the sacred theatre uplifted and better equipped to deal with the everyday fears of life itself.  Thus it is, in its most noble incarnation, a vital component of the art of tragedy.
 -- Afterword, ibid
It therefore follows that great works of [horror] depend largely for their power upon characterization.  By their very nature, the related genres of fantasy, the supernatural, mystery, science fiction and suspense -- all of them capable of producing tales of [horror] tend to stress concept, i.e., the plot gimmick, the vampire, the animated flayed hand, the sadist with the eternal smile on his face.  Because concept is so striking, too many writers and film directors become enamored of the device to the detriment of character...

Character is more important than plot every time.  Without it, a writer might just as well hide in a closet and yell “Boo!” at passersby.  That, in essence, is what most modern [terror] literature and cinema amounts to.  But when the reader begins to believe in and care about a fictional protagonist, he or she becomes susceptible to those calculated manipulations that a masterful fabulist must devise in order to invoke a sense of wonder and horror (the two often go hand in hand)."
 -- Afterword, ibid.

And here’s where I think we can begin to talk about horror onstage, and bring in all of the terrific comments from last week.  Because theatre, let’s face it, does “character” very well.  As well, if not better, than any other medium.

So thus far, what do you think?  Do you entirely disagree with these horror/terror definitions?  (usually people do)

Was the ending of Agamemnon the Psycho of Greek Tragedy? 

Is there even a connection between Horror and Tragedy, and is it any different than the connection between Horror and Comedy?  (I think similar arguments can be made about the horror/terror dichotomy as can be argued between styles of comedy.  A cheap scare gets almost the same reaction as a cheap laugh). 

(1)  Many years ago I picked up this collection of short stories, and I’ve been grateful for it ever since.  Sometimes these totems just tumble into your life, and you don’t recognize their significance until much much later.  I can’t even rightly remember whether I picked it up off the sale rack at my local bookstore, or whether I got it as part of the start-up batch of ten or so books they used to give you for signing up as a member of the Fantasy and Science Fiction Book Club (think Columbia House, only for nerds.)  Not only is it the best anthology of scary stories I’ve ever seen, it also has an “afterword” to die for.  
(2)  If these posts are of any interest to you, and you haven’t already read Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, then you really should do yourself a favor and do so.  It can be found online (


1 comment:

  1. Though I didn't see it, the descriptions I've read of Sarah Kane's Blasted seem like horror to me - pity and fear, mixed with a heaping handful of revulsion to round things out. Not my cup of tea, of course, but seems pertinent. A lot of what people call "Horror" has more to do with the element of the fantastic or murderous, or both (the serial killer that can't die, the demonic possession, the Leprechaun that kills you if you try to get his gold). But horror, for my money, is always in what we do to each other.