Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The horror, the horror

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With Halloween right around the corner, my thoughts have been turning to horror, and not just at the prospect of providing candy for the 250 trick-or-treaters I’ve been reliably told to expect. The success of the third installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, which scored both the highest October debut and the all-time best opening weekend for a horror movie, provides ample proof that the horror genre is alive and well. And while I have no intention of seeing Paranormal Activity 3, or anything else from the makers of the loathsome Catfish, I can’t help but admire the ingenuity behind a franchise that has grossed $450 million worldwide on a combined $8 million budget. Audiences love horror, it seems, which remains the only genre truly independent of budget or starpower, so I thought it might be fun to spend the next few days reflecting on this most potent, and misunderstood, segment of popular culture.

The first point, which can’t be stressed enough, is that horror in film and horror in literature are two very different things, although they’re often misleadingly conflated. Cinematic horror is a communal experience: nothing compares to seeing a great horror movie, whether it’s Psycho or The Descent, in a packed auditorium with an enthusiastic crowd. At its best, this carnival atmosphere adds enormously to the fun, as the A.V. Club’s Mike D’Angelo notes in his recent consideration of Scream 2, and is only diminished when a movie is experienced on video. (For what it’s worth, I suspect that the increase in the critical reputation of The Shining, which was widely dismissed on its initial release, is because it’s one of the few great horror movies that can be profitably watched at home, although its power is incalculably increased on the big screen.)

Horror fiction, by contrast, is experienced in solitude. This is true of all fiction, of course, but here the solitude is as much a part of the reading experience as communality is at the movies. For the full effect, horror novels or stories are best experienced alone, at night, in an empty house, and the best horror fiction amplifies the reader’s loneliness, so that every creaking floorboard or unexplained sound participates in the overall mood. (It’s no accident that many of the best horror stories are built around a spooky house.) And while every good novel is grounded on the reader’s identification with the characters, horror takes the identification to another level, until it becomes not just mental, but physiological. The sweating palms, the accelerating heart, the white knuckles—these are all signs that the identification is complete. And it can only achieve its optimal intensity when the reader is completely alone.

Clearly, an art form centered on a communal experience will evolve in utterly different ways than one that depends on solitude. And indeed, successful works in either medium have developed distinctive strategies to achieve the common goal of complete identification with the characters, at least for the duration of a scene. It’s unfortunate, then, how often aspiring writers in horror fiction take their cues from the movies, without realizing that the two forms have little in common, and how badly the movies have distorted the works of serious horror novelists like Stephen King. Writing good horror fiction, in particular, is a skill that only a handful of authors have managed to achieve, which is partially due to the misleading influence of cinematic horror. Tomorrow, I’ll talking more about this distinction, and about the differences between horror, terror, and the most powerful sensation of all, dread.

Written by nevalalee

October 24, 2011 at 9:10 am

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