Antipodean Nights: What Is Horror?


What Is Horror?

Horror is an ancient art form. For as long as we’ve told stories around a fire, it’s likely a vast majority of those stories have been horror, or at least what we’d call horror today. Tales that terrify were probably used to educate the young in what danger lies ahead, and to pass on experience from one generation to the next.

From ancient ballads to modern urban myths, we willingly offer ourselves up to fear-mongering storytellers to be scared out of our minds, and we’re happy to pay for this.

Do we treasure the adrenaline that is generated by these tales, like safer version of extreme sports participants, or do we still use horror tales to show potential repercussions of breaking the rules of our society?

I believe that horror, in all its forms, suits both purposes to a tee, and takes care of the age-old desire to pass on stories of danger and potential repercussions of certain actions to the young.

Horror also serves another purpose. Sociologically, it can serve as a symbol of the anxieties and fears of broader society, showing us in image and word what society most fears at the time of writing. It allows us to contemplate and digest the nervous tics of society, to discuss without talk the things we most worry about, whether it’s the Great Wars and the massive epidemics of the early 1900s (Nosferatu shows a town – a microcosm of the greater world – overrun by death), eerily mirrored by fears of global contagion represented in 28 Days Later so many years down the line.

Horror provides a unique space for free discourse about the moral, political and societal shifts in our communal paradigms. What makes us what and who we are.

Each generation gets the horror films it deserves, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the study of the genre is the changing nature of the monsters who present a threat.

Fear is universal, a protective part of our nature that allows us to identify and react, not always appropriately, to things that are dangerous to us as single organisms as well as societally. It may well be a shared societal memory or even genetic.

Recent research has shown that there may be a relation between the COMT gene and whether horror makes us laugh or scream. I’m not a geneticist, so don’t ask me to expand further.

Over the next few columns, I plan to look at trends in horror over the past century or so, and what each decade, and its most famous pieces of horror in film and literature, could possibly have to fear the most.

I’ll start now with the early years of culture, in the beginning of written tales, but first I’ll look at a definition of horror itself.

HORROR (noun)

1) an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.

2) a thing causing such a feeling.

3) intense dismay.

4) informal a bad or mischievous person, especially a child.
— ORIGIN Latin, from horrere ‘shudder, (of hair) stand on end’.

Oxford English Dictionary

We have always told stories that today would be classed as speculative fiction. Myths, legends, tales of ancient gods and terrors from the sea. Myths of creation to explain where we come from and what our purpose is in life. All populated by demons and devils and darkness, a world beyond what we see with our eyes. Something to hold our behaviour in check to the norms of the time and culture. Something to tell us what to do and how to act and the best way to treat each other.

Heroes make their way through Greek myths of monsters and gods and normal men. Only the truly heroic can stand toe-to-toe with these creatures and survive. Stories of horrors that, in those days, were truly thought to exist. Horror fiction as non-fiction. Horror as truth.

Every culture hands down tales that deal with the unknown and the unknowable, tales that tell of things to send shivers down the spine. Tales of horror.

Next column, I’ll delve a little deeper into the alleged beginning of the use of genre to tell tales we all recognise, the time of gothic narrative and the movement away from the period of Enlightenment to the unreal Romanticism of Coleridge and Goeth, of Walpole and Radcliffe. Toward the supernatural in the modern recanting of horror as narrative storyline.


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