Last week's post got me thinking about genre again (it's surprising how many things do that). Specifically, I was thinking about the horror genre and the age old question: what makes something horrific?
I don't know that there is a real answer to that question, but my personal favorite is a quote I read somewhere that I can't appropriately attribute because I haven't found it since (though I think it was credited to either Alfred Hitchcock or Guillermo del Toro). It's a very simple definition that I also think accurately sums up what I find horrifying (please note, I'm paraphrasing because, as I said earlier, I can't find the actual quote):
Horror occurs when something is present that should not be there or when something should be there and isn't.
I LOVE this definition! Think about the most horrifying movie you've ever seen. Which parts were the most terrifying? Were they the moments when you fully saw the monster? No, usually, they are the parts you can't see.
Due to serendipitous technical difficulties, Steven Spielberg's Jaws became the masterpiece that it is because they couldn't show the freaking shark! While seeing a fin heading toward a boat would have been scary, it was far scarier to see the barrels pop up out of the water and head toward the boat. Or, even worse, when the barrels disappeared when that should be impossible! An amazing bit of horror.
An interesting example is the old miniseries of Stephen King's IT, which is appropriate given the upcoming movie. I saw this miniseries on VHS when I was in high school--probably a sophomore. I hadn't transitioned to my enjoying horror phase, yet, so watching with friends was an act of stupidity I lived to regret (going into gym locker rooms still gives me the shivers). In my opinion, the first two-thirds of that movie worked exceptionally well. True, you did see Pennywise (sometimes), but he was so out-of-place, so "something that is present that should not be" that he was absolutely terrifying. The same thing with the balloons. In-and-of-themselves, they are not scary, but put them in a sewer with the words "We all float down here" and suddenly your skin crawls. And yet... And yet the last third of that movie was a major disappointment. Why? Because we finally saw the monster and it just wasn't that terrifying. It felt in-place in the deep underground, and we were expecting it (sort of). So in the end, it just wasn't that scary.
The trick, I've found in writing, is how do you create that feeling of alienness about something normal. Even a jar of peanut butter in the right setting with the right description can be horrifying. If you can figure that out, poof, you're a horror writer!
To my amazing wife's chagrin and to my surprise, I'm a horror writer. Looking back, I can't really say how that happened or when. I remember, as a 6-year-old, being so terrified of the movie Poltergeist that I was scarred for life. Ghostbusters had me terrified to go into my parents' back bathroom for fear that the Library Ghost would be waiting for me (NOTE: I have also never figured out why I thought the Library Ghost would haunt my parents' bathroom). I can even remember, as a child, the first time the horror of death really struck me (it was while I was watching Superman II). So I was a pretty sensitive kid who pretty much avoided everything horror, and I'm not sure when things changed.
By the time I was in high school, I was working on a series about a kid who saw monsters everywhere and set out to kill them. The first book--the very first one I ever completed--was about him stalking a poor town doctor that had the misfortune of looking like a vampire (read the first chapter). The story was played for laughs, but looking back, there were elements of horror in it, so sometime around there I started delving into the darker side of things, but it wasn't until recently that I went full on horror.
The thing is that, even as a kid, the idea of horror fascinated me, even if it scared the crap out of me at the same time. There is something incredibly cathartic about facing fears and coming out victor in the end. There is something inspiring about watching people struggle against Hell. Whether they succeed or not seems less important than the fact that they struggle. In spite of all the odds and the dangers and the pressing darkness and the betrayals, they keep fighting.
And then there's just the fact that monsters are cool. But that's a topic for another day.