002) What Horror Is

The Bone Pile: Horror Reviews and Introspectives by K. Edwin Fritz

Last week I wrote about What Horror Isn’t. This week, I’m going to explain what it IS.

Let’s hope I don’t disappoint…


scared (1)At its core, Horror is a genre of storytelling with a simple purpose: To scare the bajeebies out of its audience. But tackling exactly what that means can be difficult, mostly because what scares one person will be boring to another.

Over the decades, Horror authors & filmmakers have more or less narrowed down the most successful methods to one of the following 2 flavors…

The first I’ll call “Gore & Grue Horror”. These are stories that emphasize the physical elements of the story: fountains of blood, torture, and loads of gratuitous nudity. The fear comes via a SHOCK AND AWE approach, and it can be very effective. But it’s also proven to be what so many non-Horror fans point to when they say they don’t like the genre. That’s a fair enough point, but it’s not the only way.

The second form of Horror is called “Psychological Horror” (sometimes called “Thrillers”). This is the kind of Horror that foregoes most of the physical tropes and instead gets you on an intellectual level. These stories make you question how far you’d be willing to go to save yourself or your loved ones in situations of extreme duress. In recent years, it’s proven to attract rather than repel new fans.

But whichever style you prefer, it should be the reasons why we Horror writers try to scare you that I think is the most important…


… specifically, what society fears. The major characters (both good and evil) in a Horror story are almost always a representation of the ‘Anyman’ in the real world. If you learn to look for this, you can learn from Horror about what we really feel as a people.

EXAMPLE #1: Take any Horror film from 30 years ago, and you’ll see a core set of stereotypical characters: the Jock, the Whore, the Geek, the Virgin, and the Druggie. The first to die is almost always the Whore. Why? Because society has deemed she’s the most immoral & therefore the most worthy of death. Next will be the Jock (he’s too conceited to realize he’s in danger), and then either the Geek or the Druggie (the Geek has serious social issues & the Druggie provides no benefit to society). Lastly, the Virgin is the only one who may actually survive… but only if she maintains her purity.

There are a hundred variations & addition to these basic characters, including: The Token Black Guy, the Young/Cool Professor, the Skeptic, the Third Wheel, the Reporter, & the Has-Seen-This-All-Before-And-Knows-What-To-Do-But-Is-Mysteriously-Ignored-By-The-Others.

But do you know what almost ALL of these characters have in common? They’re TEENAGERS.

And you know what else? They live and die based on their morality. Why? Because generation after generation has tried (and failed) to teach their young about the dangers of promiscuity, drug use, and unkind behavior.

EXAMPLE #2: A few hundred years ago, the antagonists in Horror were almost entirely paranormal monsters (vampires, necromancers, ghouls, & other undead creatures). Ever wonder why?

Answer: Because a few hundred years ago, what people feared most was the afterlife. Religion leaders, for instance, often culled their flocks based on the fear of Hell rather than the revelry of Heaven. Our relative lack of true knowledge of the world led to a population who Did What They Were Told rather than who Asked Why.

Yet these same monsters no longer hold the same mystique. (We aren’t really scared of vampires anymore. Not the way readers were when Bram Stoker first published Dracula). This is because our fears have changed, and as a society we’ve moved on. “To what?” you ask?

One word: Zombies.

Zombie lore has exploded in recent years, beginning with Geore A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and culminating currently with AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Simply put… Zombies. Are. Everywhere!

You may think my thread is thinning here. After all, zombies are undead monsters too. Moreover, they’re slow, dumb, hungry things notoriously easy to kill. What could be scary about that?

Well, viewed another way…

  1. Zombies are relentless, mindless consumers.
  2. Individually, zombies are easy to ignore. But en masse, zombies can take over the world.
  3. Worst of all, zombies breed with wicked speed and uncaring.

And that’s what we fear today: Millions of dumb gluttons who consume and don’t produce, who react rather than think, and who infect everyone around them until those of us with our brains intact are overwhelmed and overtaken by their sheer, voracious numbers.

Kinda cool, huh?

Yep. Horror is like that.  

So, can you name the next big Horror trope?

Did I open your eyes, even a tiny little bit?

I’d love to hear your answers in the comments.

-K. Edwin Fritz

“Use your brain, dammit. There’s no app for that.”  

K. Edwin Fritz

K. Edwin Fritz

Official Horror Blogger of the Fiction Vortex

Keith Edwin Fritz entered this world on Halloween. The year, 1974, was the same as when Stephen Edwin King published his first novel. Keith prefers to think neither the date nor their middle names were a coincidence.
Today Keith teaches 7th Grade Language Arts and writes to his heart’s content during his "spare time". The best of these moments are nearly always by moonlight. The worst of them are also by moonlight.
Keith lives with his wife, Corina, in Lawrenceville, NJ.

3 replies
  1. Fiction Vortex
    Fiction Vortex says:

    Thanks, Keith. This really clears up why I’ve avoided what I thought was horror. Turns out, I’m not a fan of the slasher/gore stuff. But I rather like the psychological, suspense type of horror. Apocalyptic stuff is fun for me, because I love to see what people do at their worst.


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  1. […] this is nevertheless part of the Horror genre, you need to look at my original post from this blog: ‘What Horror Is’, as well as it’s counterpart, ‘What Horror […]

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