Why write horror? Why not the socially more accepted Science Fiction or Fantasy, in which the reader experiences wonder and the heights of imagination? Why not the even safer Mystery or Western? Literary forms so conventionalized you don’t have to worry about stepping on toes. Go to even greater lengths and write “mainstream” fiction, in which you can just report the obvious and not stimulate much of anything new.
That word “stimulate” is interesting. Because that’s what good horror does, it stimulates parts of the brain many of us would rather never experience directly. The terror of a car crash, a shark attack, physical assault by an armed assailant, etc. This is also why some people think horror is “sick”, “twisted” or “perverse”. To them, stimulating feelings of terror or revulsion or any of the subtler shades of horror, are to be avoided, not explored. For them, the romantic ideals of the Western hero, the blushing heroine, the stalwart detective or any other “stablizer”. Stories can lull the terrors away as easily as they can provide them. For others, fiction itself is a dirty word and only DIY manuals can provide the tranquilizer.
But the horror fan is another creature altogether. This person, surprisingly more often female than male (60/40), seeks out stimulation to the Limbic System, the fight-or-flight center of the brain. Not in trauma-inducing volumes but in a slow IV drip with occasional lightning bolt zaps known as horror fiction. Why? Are these people deranged? I think not. If anything, the other seems more likely. Unlike your Mystery novel junkie or Romantic Comedy self-medicator, the horror fan can handle a much more rigorous course. Like the adrenaline-junkie who sky-dives or bungy-jumps, the horror fan is looking for the next challenge. If you don’t believe me, simply read some Victorian horror fiction and see what frightened our great-grand-fathers. Pretty tame by today’s standard. And that is because unlike other genres, horror pushes that envelope in a constant evolution. The Western or Mystery doesn’t evolve on an emotional level. Horror changes. And change scares some people.
The horror thrill is an attempt to tame the untameable, to tap into the Great God Pan (to use a Machenism). This frisson is close to sexual arousal, fueling the accusations of degenerate misconduct. Sex frightens some people; horror likewise. But horror need not explore these fears directly. Can you imagine a more asexual character than H. P. Lovecraft? And yet his fiction is a Freudian smorgasbord of tentacles, old families cross-breeding with non-humans and other sex taboos.
This points to one of horror’s master tools, the sliding scale of symbolism. Most horror fans have a sweet spot on the scale that appeals to them. On the one end you have fears embodied through symbols like monsters. Dracula, Cthulhu, Godzilla. On the other end is the non-supernatural school with mentally deranged killers. Norman Bates, Hannibal Lector. Each writer, each reader, has a comfort zone, or perhaps a better name is “effective zone”. How much gore? How much suspension of disbelief? Science (and its offspring, Science Fiction) can intervene at times to play in the middle zone. Realism versus Fantasy can also play a factor. A tale set in a normal suburb in which everyone is pretty ordinary will feel different to a tale of a super girl killing vampires. The use of the mundane was one of the innovations of Victorian ghost story writers over their Gothic predecessors, a far cousin to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Horror is a versatile beast. it can be Science Fiction, Fantasy, Western, Mystery, even “Mainstream”, while still being Horror. John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” is both a horror tale and classic Science Fiction. The evils of Mordor in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (not to mention Ringwraiths, Shelob, and ghost armies) are as dark as any Stephen King novel. The Weird Western seems to flare up and fizzle out every fifty years or so (they require the writer to be able to write in both genres equally well). Joe Lansdale’s Dead in the West being the most recent example. An example of a “Mainstream” novel using horror well is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (Chapter Four) in which the greedy Uncle Ebenezer sends the clueless David Balfour up a broken staircase. Only the flashing lightning lights his way and saves him from falling to his death.
I’ve left Mystery for last because it is a genre so closely linked to Horror. Modern Mystery was invented by Edgar Allan Poe, a writer equally famous for his horror fiction. Both genres are offsprings of the Gothics, starting with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), but seek different ends. The Mystery plot begins in confusion and seeks to reveal the truth. The horror tale begins in calm and rushes towards chaos, unveiling terror.
Classic Mystery/Horror stories include Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Speckled Band” and The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as the entire sub-genre of Occult Detectives that include E. and H. Heron’s Flaxman Low to William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, who used the You-Won’t-Know-If-It’s-Real-Until-The-End style of plot. A horror fan’s tastes will determine whether this hybrid appeals or not.
So to return to the question: why write horror? The Reader is seeking a jolt to the Limbic, but what about the Writer? There is a lot of talk about ‘exorcising your demons’. Poe got this one going. He had many demons and a bum-wrap from the publishing community after his death. But the great-grand-daddy of Horror is Horace Walpole. Could a guy be less ‘haunted’? Rich and famous, he spent his fortune creating a fairy tale castle in England called Strawberry Hill. It seems pretty obvious Walpole’s demons were boredom, not crippling mental health. The simple matter is: it varies. Ramsey Campbell has talked about how horror writing helped him deal with a terrible childhood, as did Saki who gave us “Sredni Vashtar” as well as Clovis Sangrail. My own experience, knowing quite a few horror writers, is that most are pretty ordinary, mentally balanced, fun, cool people with no real hang-ups. (Wilum Pugmire might disagree.) For me, a day job, two grown sons, married for twenty-eight years, a rough patch in High School (common to writers of all stripes), and no reason to really complain about anything (except royalties on ebooks). I think when people hear you are a “horror” writer they expect Goth tats and a wardrobe from a Satanic Black Mass. Beer gut and bald spot are so disappointing, I can tell you.
I can’t answer this question for every horror writer. Only myself. Sort of. I think H. P. Lovecraft had a similar reason for writing horror. He was a materialist, a complete non-believer. Many people are today. Not necessarily complete Atheists but if you have a scientifically-oriented background, you don’t put much stock in bearded gods, Heavenly angels, etc. That’s a pretty dull existence for most of us. The Universe is immense, fascinating but day-to-day, unless a meteor threatens Earth, life is pretty mundane. You eat, go to work, watch TV in an endless cycle broken up by vacations and Christmas parties. Horror fiction stimulates the same part of the brain that religion used to. It is something that horror fiction began in 1764 with the sensationalistic Otranto. In the Age of Reason, Horror became popular, through the Industrial Revolution with Victorian ghost stories and into modern times, fusing with other genres like Science Fiction in the last eighty years or so. Before this people had enough horror in day-to-day life as well as religion to fill the void. Sure, people told fairy tales and such around the campfire. That goes back to the beginning. But horror as a genre, a thing you seek to read and write, begins in 1764. I am an SF-F-H guy, a product of the last 249 years. Science may have taken away religion and the fairy tales but SF-F and Horror gives it back at least on a small scale.