Horror and Terror

HorrorIt’s that time of year again: the time of year when the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer, and the time of year we like to huddle around a campfire and scare the pants off each other. (Or is it huddling around a campfire sipping things flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg? I can never remember.) Oh yes, Halloween is just around the corner (or…tomorrow) and it’s time to discuss all things horror.

Horror as a genre has something of a long and varied history. Humans have been telling scary stories for as long as we’ve been telling stories at all, and over the years, we’ve honed the art of writing scary stories. I love horror, and I always have, and I’m always on the lookout for a good scare.

Wikipedia defines the difference between horror and terror as the feelings that precede and follow a horrifying event. To paraphrase, terror is the anxiety and dread that comes before something scary, while horror is the revulsion and fear that comes after the revelation. Good horror writing balances the two, but I will admit I prefer terror to horror in my reading, as does Stephen King.

The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…

I love feeling unsettled or creeped out, and I define good horror read as something I can’t simply rationalize away by the light of day. For example, one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, and while it is not a straight horror novel, there is a scene that involves a decaying house, a possibly going-mad matron, and soft, scratching noises that may or may not be resolving themselves into a message from a ghost…or is it? Similarly, one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen was Black Swan, which is about a prima ballerina who has an evil doppelgänger trying to take her place…or is it all a figment of her imagination?


I think the element of uncertainty, of whether or not the fears are imagined or real, is what makes something truly scary. How often are we disappointed by the climax of a horror novel or movie, where the killer turns out to be someone or something mundane? (Or is that me?) How much more frightening is it when the dangerous is force is not something to which we can put a name or a face, if it is a supernatural or alien force, or even something within human nature itself? In this way, horror is often the best mirror of society and offers really sharp critique and commentary on the fears that plague us. The Twilight Zone (and to a lesser extent, the first 100 books of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, which apparently stole plots wholesale from The Twilight Zone—hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?) was great at tapping into the fears of its time: the insidious rise of Communism, and the idea that a traitor or spy might be lurking in every neighbour. The show might have been filmed in black and white and there might have been very little gore, but imagery doesn’t have to be grotesque to be scary.

What about you? What do you think makes a great scary book? What are some of your favourites? Tell us below!

6 Responses to Horror and Terror

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Oct 30 2013 at 7:27 am #

    I once did a term paper on the subject of horror. I had just discovered a book called Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, in which the author, Noel Carroll, presented the idea that what horrifies is something that defies categorization, inspiring in us both fear and revulsion. I thought his ideas had merit, but I had a slightly different take on what ‘defies categorization’ meant. Categories are things we make up, after all, so adding ‘giant’ to ‘spider’ in and of itself doesn’t do much. The only category we are given is ourselves. What makes a giant spider horrifying is not the size of it but the smallness of us, the fact that we are now prey. We have become the insect. The most horrifying giant spiders I can think of weren’t giant at all. The spider sequences in The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Fly had the human reduced, not the spider enlarged. So to me, the only genuine monsters are the human ones. Zombies, vampires, and ghouls inhabit the world of fiction, where they are at a safe distance.
    I’m not much of a fan of horror. The most horrifying stories I can think of, and not in a good way, are some short stories. ‘The One Who Walked Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K. LeGuin, and The Coat, a ghost story about a coat invested with the spirit of the Nazi officer who wore it. The Lottery is another classic of the genre. In movies, Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist, The Uninvited (the 1940’s ghost story), and The Changeling are all great stories. I’m much more tolerant of it in film than in print, don’t ask me why.

  2. Rowenna Oct 30 2013 at 9:50 am #

    I think it’s worth noting the distinction between suspense and horror, too–I love Hitchcock not for his horror, but for his suspense. He was a master of making you question absolutely everything in the story and even, ultimately, yourself for being so unsure! Most great scary books and films, IMO, employ a good deal of suspense. I kinda think that the key to good scares is suspense, not horror. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the best scary stuff taps into the kind of fundamental messes that being human creates, the way The Twilight Zone did. The Monsters are Due on Maple Street is probably my favorite, because it highlights that horror that human nature can create so well.

  3. Alexa Y. Nov 6 2013 at 3:46 am #

    I really like how you described the difference between horror and terror in this post! It’s not something I’ve ever really been specific about, but I really think that it makes a difference now that I know about it. I’m not much for horror novels, but I do like a good horror movie every now and then.

  4. Sandy Nov 27 2013 at 11:57 am #

    I avoid horror anything as much as I can because I am a whimp but the things that tend to scare me the most are when naturally innocent or harmless “things” are turned into something dangerous like little kids and dolls or when the main character or reader aren’t sure if something other is actually happening or if it’s all in the MC’s mind. That kind of uncertainty and inability to trust yourself or the protagonist is quite unsettling and helps the terror rise.

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