As a reader and viewer, I’m a big fan of ambiguity. I like it when works have room for multiple meanings and interpretations. Which is why I always feel slightly chastised when I have to reluctantly admit that, yes, I do in fact think that there are some hard and fast rules for what does and does not constitute a work in the “horror” genre.
For me the rule is very simple, at least it sounds so: if it involves aliens, it’s science-fiction, not horror. When pressured, I’ll even go so far as to say that if a film or novel’s story involves any iteration of “science gone bad” it should probably be considered science-fiction and not horror. This still leaves plenty of room for science-fiction to be scary, and even opens up room for a bastardized hybrid genre, sci-horror, but does give us a good base on which to separate two genres from each other for ease of discussion.
There are, naturally, a whole bunch of problems with this approach. For one, it almost entirely ignores the intent of the creators. It’s obvious that Alien is meant to be a horror film, for example. It could be argued that a work exists within the horror genre if it’s supposed to be a work of horror. But then, I’ve never been one to put primacy on authorial intent. It’s too limiting, and tends to completely cut off the possibility of multiple meanings. The example I like to use is Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. People continue to read and value works because they have meaning to them, regardless of how far from the time of creation the reader is. In that play’s case, people have found it to be a commentary on British anxiety over colonial enterprises. Or the story of a father trying to shield his daughter from the outside world. Or a political propaganda piece directed at those questioning James I’s right to the throne. Or an examination of the dysfunction that exists in the British class system. Would we still be reading it if the only possible meaning is that old Will felt like writing about a wizard who lives with fairies?
Another flaw with this logic is that it excludes a lot of early, important works in the genre. If we consider tales of “science gone wrong” as science-fiction rather than horror, then that makes Frankenstein and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde works of science-fiction. This is a problematic position, as those two works, along with Dracula, are as close to ur-texts as modern horror has. We can perhaps overlook this if we suppose that prior to the twentieth century, fantastical works were not a distinct enough category of fiction to necessitate the kinds of genre distinctions we have now.
A parallel argument to this I’ve seen occur from time to time is whether the slasher sub-genre, which is generally considered to be horror, is more properly classified as a type of mystery or thriller story. The roots of the genre appear to trace back pretty strongly to the “whodunnit” style of mystery, and it could be argued that slasher stories are essentially murder mysteries that incorporate the cultural fascination with serial and spree killers into their plots and themes. This is where I risk making a hypocrite of myself, because while I see the logic, it doesn’t practically work for me. There’s no “mystery” to a film like Halloween of Friday the 13th, because the identity of the killer is incidental to the story. One of the problems that has arisen with the slasher as a genre, as I see it, is the rock star-ification of the killer. The best slasher films treat the killer as a Macguffin. The story is about the Last Girl. Treating the killer as the heroic, audience identification figure leads us to trash like Saw and Hostel, where the point isn’t to scare the audience but to see how much we can make them squirm by presenting them with unpleasant images.
So what, then, does constitute horror? I think there are two key components. The first is a clear intention to frighten the audience. The second is to create a world in which the natural order of things is suspended. While this would suggest that supernatural themes are paramount in horror works, it also leaves room for the more human and human-as-monster works, as being stalked by a masked killer is not part of your average person’s everyday experience.
But that’s just me. What about you? What makes something “horror” and what does and doesn’t belong in the genre?