Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Books: What are we feeling here?

Joe Hill, who looks more and more like his dad every author photo, interviews for The AV Club. It's promo for his latest book, Horns, and it contains an interesting take on the terror versus horror debate. Back before debates about participation awards and top ten lists became the primary fixation of horror blogs, bloggers used to actually spend their time debating points of the genre. One of these debates was horror versus terror. Now a lot of folks packed quite a bit of nuance into their positions regarding the definitions of these two brands of fright, but the cheat sheet version came down to something like terror being rooted in fear of physical harm and horror being a more psychological, uncanny thing.

Hill seems to agree with the widely held definition of terror, but his take on what defines horror is notable for its unique angle:

I was talking to someone the other day who was talking about a line in the new Peter Straub novel [A Dark Matter], which I haven't read. A character in the book’s saying, "What am I feeling here, horror or terror? I think it's horror." There is a difference. Terror is the desire to save your own ass, but horror is rooted in sympathy. It's really rooted in this notion of imagining what it might be like for someone else to suffer the worst. On that level, I suspect that horror fiction is very humanizing.

I'm just now mulling over this bit, so I don't really have a fully formed opinion on it. At first, I liked what I perceived as the clean applicability of it. The two-fold problem with horror in the conventional wisdom definition was that it 1) rested on a nebulous "know it when we see it" appeal to an emotional response that could exist separate from the content and 2) examples of the definition could often be boiled down to the threat of physical harm, suggesting that horror was just anticipated terror. On further consideration, I'm curious whether or not Hill's distinction doesn't mean that all the products of the genre always fall under the category horror and never terror, insomuch as films and books and the like are always mediated experiences through some stand-in (even first-person cinema supposes a character behind the camera who is, at most, a stand-in for the viewer)?


Sarah said...

As funny as it is reading your swipes at other horror blogs, I'm starting to think (and worry) you need to start ignoring these blogs before they drive you insane. I know some of the ones you're talking about and I deleted them off of my Google Reader last fall for some of the same reasons, on top of the fact I couldn't keep up with 100 film blogs anymore. Lists are worthless all around unless they're your personal grocery and to-do lists. I really don't understand or care about this award frenzy thing, but I guess most of it came about during my 6-month break. Blogspot is not well-designed enough to handle 25 sidebar banners.

Anyway, it was discussed in that class I took with Rebekah McKendry from Fangoria what horror was, and the definition fell along the same lines as Hill's. I don't remember us discussing the terror factor so much though.

CRwM said...


Funny you should say that. Others have given me the same advice. Perhaps it is time I scraped them off and moved on.

Scare Sarah said...


CRwM said...

If two out of two Sarahs agree, who the he'll am I to argue?

Though the ANTSS executive reserves the right to unilaterally deploy snark in moments of crisis without consulting the legislature for periods not to extend past 2 consecutive posts. To do otherwise is tantamount to letting the Axis of Bad Horror Blogging win.

CRwM said...

Damn the iTouch's auto complete. It's awfully tough on pleasantly tipsy barside commenting.

Unknown said...

I also like Hill's response, but now, you've got me thinking on another level here.

Is it possible to feel terror in a film, knowing that what you're seeing is not going to hurt you? In essence, you'll never need to "save your own ass," I guess.

But maybe a really good book or novel can surpass those differences and make you feel both. Or maybe I'm not making sense at all on the philosophical level. It's difficult to draw the boundary.

CRwM said...


You've gotten to the same knot that stalled me. You could propose that a book or film so perfectly represents terror that it "jumps" the boundary and makes the viewer/reader feel terror, though I'd be skeptical: I kinda assume that such a flick works its power by showing characters feeling terror and empathy with the screen/book characters allows it to jump to the viewer/reader. (And I mean empathy in a broad sense of shared humanity, not in the limited sense of personally liking or disliking a character. I'm not sure you need to like character to fell a twinge of pain when he or she gets brutally done in.)

Shon Richards said...

As a somewhat live and let live kind of guy, I think snarking about trends in other blogs is healthy for the soul. It is also healthy for discussing the issue of what you would like to see in other blogs.

I think detachment is a big part of enjoying horror fiction, which seems to run counter to Hill's definition. We wouldn't laugh at a gruesome but amusing death if we were watching to feel sympathy. Heck, I tend to find the most sympathy for the monster in most movies as I try to understand their motives.

Philucifer said...

I've always felt that the "cat jumps out of the dark" form of scare was a terror-based scare. Anything that's designed to make you jump out of your seat seems to me to be based on a self-preservation level of physical fright/flight. The gross-out seems more horrific, putting you in the position of empathizing with victim or killer, depending. But I think of real horror as that slowly dawning realization that things are most certainly NOT right, and may never be again.

Just my .2 cents.