Essay Towards a Systematic Understanding of Horror

For Jon


The purpose of our investigation is to arrive at a more or less systematic understanding of the meaning of horror as an aesthetic genre.  In average discourse, horror may refer to an event that has horrific qualities, or a genre of artistic production, be it film, written narrative, musical composition, television, or any media that conveys human action, or mood, over time.  The mood of horror, or horror as emotion, is the principle of all derivative modes of the presentation or representation of an horrific entity (an object of horror).  This is to say that horror arises out of a response to a perceived evil.  Evil, as it is used here, is meant to imply, but not necessarily intend, the average denotations we associate with the term: evil in a metaphysical or supernatural sense.  What we primarily want to intend by the use of the term ‘evil’ is a radical deprivation of the good.  Evil, here used, is privative: it means a lack, or absence.  Followingly, good is defined broadly as anything life-giving.  (Life-giving is anything that assists in the development and maintenance of human living, best demonstrated in the term “human flourishing.”  Evil, then, is any attack on the founding grounds of human flourishing and wellbeing.)


To begin with the originary meaning of the term, I want us to look towards the language out of which it emerged.  (I assume the stance that etymology serves as a conceptual orientation towards the underlying structure of the history and meaning of a term.)  Our word derives from the Latin horrōr, which roughly translates into “shudder, trimmer, bristle,” and should also suggest “the raising of one’s hair on one’s head.”  To go further in laying a network of understanding for the concept, I want us to also appropriate the ancient Greek rendering of the intension of the term.  The ancient Greek idea-cluster of the Latin horrōr is Φρικη, transliterated into “Phrikê,” (I like to attach it to the consequential idea-cluster of “freak,” as in, “freak out,” “a freak of nature.”)  The Greek term is also related to the Greek word for frost, which carries with it suggestions of the cold, a chill.  Additionally, Φρικη implies a chill in the sense of a feverish shivering, the onset of illness.  Finally, in the ancient Greek, Φρικη was identified as a daimona whose parent is conjectured to be Nyx, the primordial Greek deity of night.

To tie our etymological considerations into a coherent idea, horror, as it is handed down to us, originally meant a hair raising response to a dreaded phenomenon.  The sources of the response tend to derive from primitive phenomena: cold in the absence of heat; illness in the absence of health, night in the absence of day.  Lest we remain too far into the realm of abstract consideration, I want to also be sure we have in mind the visceral shock of sudden fright: the jump we experience when someone sneaks up on us; or the interior coldness we experience we realize we are responsible for a significant breach in the social order.




It is important to note for our investigation that the Greek daimona Φρικη was associated with Ancient Greek Tragedy.  It is my unconditional argument that horror, as a genre of contemporary cultural aesthetic modes, is necessarily founded on the genre of Tragedy (I use genre here in a non-rigorous and nebulous sense: one can easily speak of a tragic song as well as a tragic film; it is important that what I capture by my use of the term is an overall, representative mood-state that is developed within the observer by his or her orientation towards the artistic media: painting, film, song, and so on).


For the sake of concision, we will forgo a careful examination of the origins of Tragedy within the course of Western Civilizational discourse.  Let it suffice that Tragedy developed out of Greek religious ceremonies that had an aim, whether intentional or not, at maintaining the stability and viability of the then present social order.  Also, even though it is likely too late, we will try to avoid an over-dependence on ancient Greek examples, so as to eschew, as much as it is possible, an irresponsible and lazy euro-centrism.  This is also to say that, for the moment, we are now moving away from the language of the phenomenon of horror into horror and tragedy considered as concrete events.

Following Frye (who followed Aristotle {it seems this can’t be avoided}), we will make the major conceptual demarcation between Tragedy and Comedy as follows: tragedy as a rupture and comedy as a continuance in the present social order of a larger cultural context.  This is to say that a tragic episode is broadly one where the social order of daily living is breached, and a comedic episode is one where the social order of daily living is maintained.  (Please note here the sense of privation in Tragedy of a normative order of living: a breakdown of a person’s daily mode of living.)  This, I believe, is why so often horror movies try to present the protagonist, at the beginning of the film, in a light-hearted and humorous manner.  Humor is a consequence of well-being: no sane person jovially makes jokes when he or she is in a plane hurling towards ground zero.  In order to draw us into empathy with the characters, the film must endeavor to give us a sense of the daily routine of living of the characters involved (Jeepers Creepers and Scream come to mind as effective examples where, early in the film, moments of playful interaction between characters are demonstrated).

A concrete example of a tragic event would be a mother who loses the life of her son in a car accident.  Already, we are distanced from the catastrophe of the event by the level of detail I provide in the language I used.  If I were to use an actual example, that of Linda Cantrell’s loss of her son Jeremy Cantrell at the intersection of Walker North and Highway 16, the event takes on a more forbidding connotation.  Also, because death is the ultimate breach of any social order, the anecdote carries with it a sense of violation: it is uncouth to talk about a fatal car accident and exploit a mother’s grief for something so trite as an essay on horror.  Nevertheless, Linda losing her son due to another teenager not paying attention while driving is by any standard a tragic event.

But for whom is the event tragic?  It is tragic to us, as only partly involved onlookers: we know the area, we speak the same language as Linda, we have more or less sympathy with her.  But for Linda, the nameless officer showing up at her front door shortly after she has come home from work, after she has just taken off her shoes, and being told there’s been an accident and she needs to come with the police, and the officer’s voice’s inflection and the careful choice of words he uses, signals immediately to Linda that something horrifying has happened to her only son.  Here, we can expect Linda’s heart to plummet inside her chest: if she was paying attention to her physiological response, we could imagine her noticing her interior temperature dropping significantly: her blood running cold.  For us, it is a tragic event.  For the officer, it is an awkward, painful, uncomfortable task, and for Linda, it is the very essence of horror.

What the concrete example above is meant to illustrate is the relationship between tragedy and horror.  A tragedy is an event that profoundly disrupts the present social order of any system of relations in a larger cultural context.  This may mean a family, a community, an intimate relationship between two people, or even one person’s perishing in the wilderness.  Consequently, a tragedy is never expected.  It is the nature of an absolute tragedy to be unforeseen by the community in which it occurs.  No person living in a consistent system of relations ever consciously anticipates a life-disrupting event.  Nevertheless, all measures taken for safety are also hints towards the possibility of a life-disrupting event: in the case of motor accidents: seat-belts, air-bags, stop-signs, law-enforcement, turning-signals, spare-tires, any number of artifacts and roles that are in place to mitigate the chance of disaster.


As suggested above, horror is a personal, rational reaction towards an event that, if considered from at least one remove, is tragic.  An event that was horrifying in the midst of the situation becomes more tragic and less immediately horrifying as time passes.  The experience of horror is, in part, the pealing away of the system of expectations a person depends on in order to live within a given system of social relations.

Despite what anarchists and radical Marxists purport to believe, the given social order is, in general, developed for the sake of large scale survival of human populations.  I would argue that the fact that there are, doubtlessly, repressed portions of the demography, is directly related to the fact that we have transportation networks, refrigeration units, grocery stores, a financial tender.  Though this system is hardly fair, or ethical, it is nevertheless a consequence of social hierarchical ordering, and in many cases, poor leadership or management of resources.  A tragic event, as the death of a mother’s son, is a major disruption in the lives of the network of actors who supported and depended on Jeremy.  Unless this sounds like cold functionalism, I want to point out that Tragedy as a fictional representation of events may convey the awe of a tragic event, but it, by necessity, does not carry with it the actual emotional, psychological, and material consequences of a tragic even in actu.  An example I may apply from my own lived experience is the Louisiana Flood of 2016.  In retrospect, it was a large scale tragedy: people died, people lost substantial property, people were dislocated from their homes: there were genuine historical consequences from the event.  However, when I was in my car, and my engine had died, and the water was steadily rising, both outside and inside my car, my interior body temperature dropped and I began wondering if I might die: it was a horrifying experience.

This brings us a step closer towards the personal experience of horror and how this is able to be conveyed as horror, through media, instead of tragedy.  In order for a film, or any artistic production, to create in the viewer a sense of horror, instead of the pity and fear provoked by tragedy, the artistic coordinator must resort to types of manipulation in narrative to arrive at the genuine horror a person experiences in the immediacy of a tragic event.


There are certain structural features of narrative and song-craft that the artist must exploit in order to render in the observer an experience approaching the horrific.  In the medium of film, for example, a director has the opportunity to exploit the limited visual area of the screen to focus attention on a person while hiding a horrifying image in the background that may be revealed for maximum dramatic effect.  Of course, done too frequently, this becomes a cheap thrill and does not provoke the heightened level of dread a horror film has the potential to effect.  Nevertheless, in a horror film, the viewer must be brought face to face with a strong impression of the idea of some evil.  In some way, the revelation of a horror must be sufficient to awe the viewer, in the same way that Burke and Kant speak of the sublime.  Though not actually injured, the onlooker must be brought to the immediacy of the possibility of obliteration.  In this way, horror as a genre and the sublime as an aesthetic mode are intimately related.


Horror as an artistic genre is effective to the extent that it realizes in the viewer the sense of overwhelming dread one strives to avoid in daily living.  Further, in giving the viewer a definite object on which to place one’s nervous tension (the vaguely defined, amorphous anxieties we feel regarding any number of commonplace, possible concerns (our health, our finances, the state of our community, etc..)), the horror artifact acts as a scapegoat, or a totem, where a fundamental continuum of nervousness may be heaped upon and discarded.  In this manner, the horror artifact effects in the viewer a type of catharsis.


The horror genre has a broad but finite number of distinguishable thematic areas that we may identify and then explore the underlying symbolic function thereof (viz., how the narrative contrives to render horror in the viewer).  For the sake of clarity and ease of comprehension, the common horror subgenres will be demonstrated in outline.  Also, it is through these primordial symbols of evil, which is to say, symbols that represent a danger, both to human flourishing and to the expectations of a continuity of local relations, that these symbols are effective.  Without the uncanny degree of unknowableness present in these symbols, their effect becomes less horrific and more tragic.  It is the core of uknowability, and therefore inability to gain control over these symbolic entities, that imbues them with the power to convey the sense of horror any actual traumatic event naturally carries with it.

A. Haunting Narrative

i.  Haunted House (The Shining)

ii.  Cursed Place  (Silent Hill; The Mist)

B. Paranormal-Activity Narrative

i.  Posession (The Exorcist)

ii.  Assault from supernatural terror (Nightmare on Elm Street, Paranormal Activity)

C. Psychosis Narrative

i.  Nervous breakdown; the narrative perspective adheres to the character’s interpretation of reality (High Tension; Shudder Island)

D. Slasher-Gore Narrative (Scream. Saw)

E. Monster Narrative (Alien)

F. Serial Killer (Silence of the Lambs; Son of Sam; Zodiac)

A.  Being haunted, as well as ghosts in general, are cathartic symbols of pernicious memory.  During a person’s life-course, it is not impossible that a traumatic event may breach a person’s sense of ontological security (Giddens).  This event, which reveals dimensions of one’s lifeworld one previously could not comprehend, but have nevertheless continued to operate without any personal awareness towards, will likely leave painful memories that a person finds difficult to suppress or think beyond.

B.  Paranormal activity functions as a symbol for the ultimate boundary between what one empirically knows to be true and that which one has no absolute certainty about.  In the realm of the paranormal, causality, which is a form of conditioned ontological security (what we expect to be the case, how we build our lives around certainties, like the value of the dollar or the fidelity of our spouse), is suspended.  Our expectations about how the world works are jettisoned for a new set of rules, or non-rules, which we can no longer rely on, or use for our advantage.  (I’ll mention here that I see the film Paranormal Activity as an allegory for the forces that unravel healthy relationships.)

C.  Psychosis narratives are symbols for the most radical means of identity dissolution a person may experience.  In the type, a person’s sense of security and ease is not broken down by external events, but instead by cognitive deformities.  The threat of losing one’s sanity, due to stressful life events, or genetic abnormalities, exists as the other possible explanation for breaches of causality.

D.  Slasher narratives are more effective as cathartic object the more intimately the setting and characters appeal to the viewer.  Largely, it is a symbol for the violation of trust one may experience at the hands of a non-stranger social relation.  The film Scream becomes the archetype of this genre.  What is important is not so much who the social-relation is with respect to the victim, but the degree of accessibility the slasher has towards the victim’s privacy.  (It should be pointed out that in the slasher genre, or home invasion narratives generally, the setting is always that of a sort of community: the place where one goes about one’s daily living.  Even though the violence perpetrated during war is of a whole different order than a localized berserking, war-narratives tend to not carry with them the sort of shuddering quality that slasher-settings do.  This is because war is an environmental structure: a masked, or unmasked, killer in one’s home is a breach of the very meaning of ‘home,’ one’s sanctum from the public sphere.)

E.  Monster narratives are related to slasher narratives in the sense that there is a malevolent entity focused mainly on killing the victim (as opposed to more occult thematic, which seem not so much intent on killing the victim (in most cases) so much as breaking him or her down psychologically (The Shining being an interesting exception)).  The symbolic veil of the meaning of a monster narrative is effectively lifted in the film Ghost in the Darkness, where lions assault an engineering crew trying to lay down a railroad in turn of the century Africa.  A monster narrative targets the fear one has of the natural world, but in a localized way: the world in which one lives is not disintegrated: but a force penetrates the normal order and destabilizes social relations from within.

F.  Finally, there is the tradition of serial killer narratives.  What is horrifying about the serial killer motif is the thought of a clever social actor, within in the social system, hiding his or her true motives, while clandestinely going about murdering others.  Again, like the slasher narrative, the ontological security of a person or family is radically interrupted, and interpersonal trust, which is necessary for the sustainability of social functioning, is violated.  (I want to draw special attention to the film Zodiac: not only is the film about a serial killer, but more importantly, the killer is never empirically confirmed to be the primary suspect.  Here, we are brought to the ultimate epistemological frustration: closure as to the true identity of the killer is withheld; lose ends are unresolved: a night never gives way to day.)


In some sense, for certain viewers, the horror aesthetic may serve as an object of relief.  It is soothing for the anxious personality to have one’s worst fears realized, but done so in such a way as to not do harm to person or property.  A horror narrative, under the right circumstances, is appealing because it offers a glimpse, albeit mediated through customary symbols of evil, into a state of affairs where one’s expectations about the nature of the world are forcibly broken.  This may be reassuring to someone who has directly experienced a traumatic event, or to someone who lives in a heightened nervous state.  Reassuring in the way that it is always comforting to know one is not alone in one’s moods, emotions, and impression of possible catastrophe.


This brings me to my final note about the conclusions of horror narratives.  A horror narrative confirms or denies a possible worldview regarding the meanings, in extremity, of a person’s lifeworld.  What I mean by this is the way a horror narrative ends also determines, in a large way, how the preceding horrific events are to be interpreted after the events have occurred.  This is critical because every actual tragic-horrifying episode must be given some sort of intersubjective meaning within the community the episode takes place.  How an actual tragedy ends up becoming interpreted later renders the historical significance of the event itself.

For the sake of concision, I will confine my following analyses strictly to film.  A horror film may end on at least one of three tonal notes: 1) With hope towards the maintenance of the pregiven social order, 2) Without hope towards the maintenance of the pregiven social order, or 3) the film may end ambiguously, without definite closure regarding the consequences of the events of the horrifying episode.  An example of 1, With-Hope, would be The Shining: Charlie and his mother survive the horrible events that occur within the hotel.  Although Jack dies (and is absorbed into the structure of the hotel’s malevolence), it is questionable weather or not it was the best thing for the sake of the social order.  I say this because the film suggests that Jack was emotionally and physically abusive towards his wife and son.  That, and also the narrative suggests that Jack belongs in the Hotel: the final picture of Jack with the ghosts shows him smiling more sincerely than at any other point of the film.

For an example of 2, Without-Hope, the Spanish-American film Darkness (2002) is perhaps the finest example of the ontological decimation of the lifecourse of a human person.  At the end of the film, it first appears that the main characters have somehow triumphed over the forces of evil; however, their joy sours when the brother and sister realize that they have in fact not escaped the horror: they have been overcome by it.  A classic example, if we exclude the sequels, is A Nightmare on Elm Street.  At the end of the film, it is revealed that Kruger has not been defeated and the protagonists are still being manipulated from within their dreams.  A final illustration is the more recent film comedy-horror-action film, Krampus.  The movie concludes with the family’s realization that they have been trapped within a snow-globe, forced to continue to live out a Sartian No Exit scenario for eternity.

Finally, there are horror narratives that end with an ambiguous stance towards the given social order.  A good example of this type of conclusion is Silence of the Lambs.  Though the film ends with the death of Buffalo Bill and the rescue of the senator’s daughter, Hannibal Lecter escapes custody.  What is more interesting about this instance, from a narrative stand-point, is that the the viewer is drawn into empathy towards a serial killer: the viewer must reflect on the fact that he or she is cheering for a sociopathic murderer who conveys that he is about to kill again.  What I want to draw the reader’s attention to is the fact that even though the overall social order is maintained (the senator’s daughter lives, Sterling graduates the FBI academy, and Crawford closes another case); nevertheless, Lecter is loosed: a wolf has been reintroduced into a population of lambs.  Not only that, but the sheer charisma of Hopkins’ performance keeps the viewer from being too upset about this fact.  Not only is the social order metastable (because of Lecter’s escape), but the viewer is brought into a position where he or she has to question: “why am I glad one murderer was thwarted while another, more lethal man, with a higher body count, is free, and I’m titillated by this turn of events?”


Though this chapbook doesn’t claim to be complete, I hope that the above sketches can provide some gestures towards an architectonic regarding the overall structure of the horror genre as a relevant cultural artifact.  In essence, horror as a genre is a reminder of the fragility of the social order: a recurring recollection about the ease, even the emotional necessity, of taking the current state of affairs for granted.  ‘Taking for granted’ is another way of saying ‘expectations.’  It is through a complex system of institutional and interpersonal expectations that the stability of daily living is maintained.  Horror qua genre is a memento mori on the life support systems on which we depend.  What distinguishes horror from tragedy, or mere movies on catastrophe, however, is its achievement of the affect of personal threat.  It is easier to empathize with the terrifying experience of one person or a family than it is to understand the totalizing horror of a natural disaster or war.  Nevertheless, fundamentally, the living of the human person, and the organizing systems that sustain that person, are always under threat.  Horror is the effective means by which this truth is aesthetically represented.


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