Horror is Not a Dirty Word

Guillermo del Toro

Just when you thought it was safe to go to the book store, or walk into your local theater, horror is back. Well, it’s been back. For a while. No, horror didn’t just perform its own jump-scare and pop up from behind the sofa. This all started several years ago, maybe as long as a decade ago. For some time now, horror has been creeping up behind us through small publishers and independent horror films, ready to pounce from the shadows into the mainstream. A lot of people in the industry already knew this. They saw it coming and have been preparing for it, with their market specialist and trend management departments. For the rest of us, we’re either just excited people are back into horror again, or comfortable in the knowledge that everything eventually comes back into popularity.

If you are a fan of horror, you’ve probably noticed the return, because you have your finger on the pulse. Horror made a big splash during the 90th Academy Awards this year. A horror film, Get Out, won the Writing (Original Screenplay) award, given to Jordan Peele (who was also the first POC to win that award), and two horror films, Get Out and The Shape of Water, were in the Best Picture category. The Shape of Water won, and its director, Guillermo del Toro, received the coveted Directing award.

Whether or not you believe Get Out or The Shape of Water are actually horror films is a matter of taste and opinion, and best saved to debate another day. Sadly, a massive majority refused to call these films horror publicly, preferring to tiptoe around the issue and celebrate ‘genre’. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘genre’, except for the oversimplification and generalization that has plagued horror since the dawn of time. There are a few creators in the industry that used the ‘genre’ term properly, as both of these two films mentioned above cross-pollinate quite nicely across multiple genres. Jeff Burk (chief editor of Deadite Press, host of the Jeff Attacks Podcast) captures this sentiment perfectly: “I’m one of the people saying ‘genre’ because it was a win for horror, fantasy, science-fiction, and romance. It’s a win for a lot of people doing a lot of different things.” But not everyone is as brutally honest and blunt about it as Jeff, who knows a thing or two about genre and marketing. Many fell into the old trap of side-stepping the obvious to cater to a broader general public. Sadly, we often mistake the general public for actually giving a damn if this or that film was horror or not. Ultimately, the general public uses genre labels as a means of pointing them in the right direction for products they want. Entertainment is their goal and is a worthy goal all creators should strive to attain. The general public doesn’t care about the nuances of horror. They want to shudder in fear when they watch a scary movie or read a scary book. Who doesn’t want that experience when they encounter horror?

If we all agree that we enjoy being scared when we encounter horror, that ‘painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay’ (Merriam-Webster) is all that’s required, then why do so many creators of horror specifically shun the label to cater to an audience that simply wants to be entertained? Part of the problem is our constant need to narrow the definition, which seems more like a way for properties and creators to distance themselves from a label they should accept with open arms. The massive amount of time spent debating and defining horror at this point is somewhat pointless, as the genre has a firm grip on the mainstream anyway. Ask any horror fan if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film with absolutely no supernatural or paranormal undertones, is a horror film. 9.9 out of 10 people will enthusiastically agree that it is indeed a horror film. The only people who ever disagree on this are those contrarian creators who routinely reject the horror label because they feel their work aspires to something greater.

Greater than what? You want your ‘dark suspense’ story about the ghost of a killer who haunts a girl’s dormitory to aspire to something greater than horror? And all of this because someone told you, incorrectly, that horror doesn’t amount to anything significant, and you should reject that label because it isn’t sophisticated?

Some of the oldest stories ever told are horror stories. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is a horror story. The only reason some reject the horror label for this story is because one hundred years of high-brow literary ‘criticism’ fits into the current high school or college curriculum. Does this particular work by Dickens provide more than just thrills and chills? Yes, it certainly does. The story is much deeper than a horror story because the best horror stories can and often do fall into other categories quite easily and are often much more complex once we look past all the rattling ghostly chains on the surface.

Jordan Peele Get OutLabels are a funny thing. Creators either flat-out reject any form of categorization, or wholeheartedly embrace whatever label the marketing department drops them into. A few ride the line, crossing the imaginary barrier like a pendulum, taking advantage of whatever momentum provides the highest return. This is probably more evident in the horror genre than any other. We talk about the horror booms in history, including the one we’re in now, yet some continue to mention that certain properties, film and fiction, are able to transcend the genre, as though by mere ascension the film or story rises above everything like steam. It’s a commonly used phrase, and I’ll be the first to raise my hand high in the air and proclaim ‘guilty’. Honestly, there was a time when hearing something transcended the genre was a good thing for most of us.

That time has long passed us by.

For horror to truly embrace its full potential, it needs to shed its fears brought on from decades of harsh criticism by stuffy old snobs decaying in their armchairs, gripping their rolled-up degrees like shoddy sabers, ready to cut anyone who stands in the way of mediocrity. Horror needs to surrender the idea of ‘transcending genre’ and ‘aspiring to something greater’ because it has been that sophisticated from the very beginning. Creators need to quit fearing the horror label. If you are on the fence about it, there’s an imaginary line that will disappear as soon as you quit thinking Horror is a dirty word. Science-Fiction, Romance, Fantasy, and Mystery have all gained a universal acceptance by fans, critics, and creators alike as culturally relevant and capable of presenting the human condition in a way that is relatable and entertaining. These genres have, over time, become respectable, yet horror, which is quite possibly the oldest genre, remains on the bottom rung, constantly struggling to keep its feet from plunging into the brackish water at the bottom of the well. And if there is a single genre that can best exemplify the plight of the human condition, most would agree that horror is, and has, been quite adept in that department since the first stories told many centuries ago.

If creators make an effort to embrace horror, then it will no longer be considered insignificant, or inferior. Or immature, as some that criticize the genre say, oblivious to the fact that a lot of the writers and directors we think of when we think horror are well into their sixties and seventies. When a film or book falls into the horror genre, creators should label it as such without fear of critical repercussions. Obviously, other forces have the ultimate say what the label says on the spine of the book, but that doesn’t mean the writer needs to accept that claim just because Mike in Marketing thinks HORROR is stupid and THRILLER sells better. If they could get away with it, they’d stamp ‘Stephen King’ on the spine and smile all the way to the bank, even if he didn’t write the book. Especially if he didn’t write the book. Their job is to sell, and most of the time you have little control over that unless you’re self-publishing.

Horror creators shouldn’t fear the horror label, especially now, at this time, when horror is poised to boom once again. These swells in popularity are unpredictable and usually come to an end by over-generalization and mass saturation in the marketplace. All we know is that sometimes the cosmos aligns in such a way and things become popular once again. Writers and filmmakers owe it to themselves to call their projects horror, loudly and proudly. Every single time we tiptoe and sidestep and label our projects anything other than horror to appease an imaginary demographic that really doesn’t care, we lose a little more ground, and do ourselves and our fans an incredible disservice. Our job is to entertain our audiences and readers, the least we can do is point them in the right direction.


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1 comment

  1. Great article Bob,almost a manifesto, and, as a writer, I love your use of the word ‘brackish’. Keep up the great work my friend.

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