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?

24 Responses to “Spooky Month Debate: The Limits of Genre”
  1. Greg G says:

    I agree with you that the Last Girl is the key figure of the better slasher film. I’ve always thought of bad slasher films being closest to action films, with the villain as the hero. The people who die in this sub-sub-genre are the villains by merit of being the sort of people that people who watch bad slasher films do not like or were unable to sleep with.

    Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” makes a good effort at defining a view of horror that I mostly agree with, though it’s terribly florid.

  2. Aluno says:

    Actually I think your first component is enough, there. ANY work designed first and foremost to scare its audience should be considered horror. The means by which it succeeds (or does not succeed, more often than not) is, in my opinion, quite irrelevant. Be it a sci-fi “huis-clos”, like the first Alien, an old-school slasher with its adoption of the final girl / psychokiller dichotomy, or the whodunnit style of the late 90’s neoslasher, up to the latest gorefests, what defines horror is the intention to shock, frighten or gross out the people who pay for it. That being said, it makes it easy to divide the genre in several declinations, like horror comedy, slasher, sci-fi horror (which settles the problem you had with Frakenstein and Jekyll & Hyde), and so on. But the intention is pretty easy to perceive, I guess, especially in movies. For instance, the movie Dead Snow which features zombies in Norway (I think) is described by its director as an action film with zombies, not as a zombie film (which would make it a “horror” movie”. Those are my two bits. Thanks for the riveting debate !

  3. Mark Clapham says:

    I’d say that horror is defined by being scary, or at least primarily aiming to be scary even if it fails (I can think of plenty of horror films which are pure genre while falling flat on their face and not being scary at all).

    The Hideo Nakata adaptations of ‘Ring’ and ‘Dark Water’ are my favourite horrors of the last decade or so, because they strip out everything from the original stories that isn’t relevant to building up an atmosphere of uncanny fear.

    On the flipside, Paul Anderson can’t write or direct a horror film for shit, and so his first ‘Resident Evil’ manages to make zombie dogs bursting through a window not-scary, even to people who are scared of normal, non-zombie dogs. It’s just another crappy CG action scene, no tension or fear at all.

    PS I originally wrote a long ramble about genre in this space, then realised I was going off on one rather than meaningfully responding to Dorian’s post, so I stuck all that on my blog if anyone is interested:

  4. Mark Clapham says:

    Two further points –

    – Aluno got their first, serves me right for not getting to the point. Go Aluno.

    – I forgot to mention how nice it is to see someone crushing on Chris O’Dowd. He always gets underrated due to being surrounded by chronic scenestealers.

  5. David Thiel says:

    I’ve reconciled myself to the conclusion that there are some stories that simply defy classification within a single genre. “Alien” is an excellent example. It certainly behaves like a horror film, and it’s usually dismissed as a “haunted house movie in space.” Yet, as I recently argued (, it devotes a lot of screen time to the alien’s biology and its potential as a military weapon. For that reason, I think of it as science-fiction with horror elements, rather than the other way around.

    Come to think of it, I guess I have a harder rule for science-fiction than I have for horror. If it’s about the impact of science on the world, it’s science-fiction.

    Even there some stories create problems. The “Frankenstein” films should be science-fiction by that standard, yet the science seems like an excuse. Similarly, many zombie apocalypse films have either a virus or radiation as the cause, yet I’d never put “Zombieland” or “Return of the Living Dead” in the sci-fi category.

    Agreed that the slasher films create another problem. Some folks like to call “Silence of the Lambs” a horror film, but as much as I’d like to think that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave a Best Picture Oscar to a horror flick, it’s pretty clearly a thriller to me. (I’d argue that the Oscar guarantees that it’s not horror.)

    I note that on my own website I classify the “Psycho” films as horror, but that’s a mistake on my part. They’re much more about the conflicted character of Norman Bates and the people he interacts with than the bloodletting.

    I think of the “torture porn” subgenre as horror for the simple fact that it focuses entirely on shocking the audience with gruesome imagery.

    Any slasher which includes supernatural elements is inarguably horror by my book. That’s any Freddy film, the post-zombie Jason films, and maybe even the entire Halloween series. (Michael’s disappearance at the end of the original strongly suggests the supernatural.)

    In short, there’s no easy answer. Which is why it’s such a good discussion topic.

  6. korshi says:

    Really enjoyed this post. But I wonder if we need to define horror so closely. I think of genre as a set of rules and conventions, but if you follow these too closely then you get a made for TV movie or something similar; good stories tend to constantly play with and stretch the conventions.

    Oh, and yes to everything you say about vampires. I don’t get them either.

  7. Bah says:

    Alien, I’ll say right off the bat, is on my short-list for “best horror movie” ever, but analyzing it beyond that is challenging. Yes, it’s obviously horror; and yes, it’s obviously sci-fi. Yes, its use of Giger’s disarmingly inhuman designs and its generally human-dwarfing sense of scale connect it, in some crucial way, to Lovecraft; but it’s basic plot structure of unstoppable monster emerging from the shadows to pick off humans one-by-one connects it just as deeply with the then-emergent slasher subgenre.

    The issue, then, is how to determine which elements define genre–but even here, we run into problems, namely that both genres are defined by utterly unrelated elements. While “horror” as a genre is taken to imply a certain supernatural bent, the only real way to define horror is, as Mark put it, something being scary. On the flip-side, sci-fi refers to what the story is about, rather than the emotional influence; to oversimplify it, sci-fi refers to a story’s general content, whereas horror refers to its emotional context. The result is that a movie can be sci-fi and horror without notably breaking from either mold.

    Of course, the biggest issue is the flawed assumption that runs beneath almost all genre discourse: that being, that genre is in any way exclusive. There are rules for determining what IS horror, but there are very few rules for determing what is not. Is a movie not horror if it fails to be scary? Not necessarily; it might just be bad horror. Is a movie not horror if it makes you laugh? Not necessarily; “Return of the Living Dead” is certainly horror even while being one of the funniest films ever. And if such crucial things as “not invoking horror” or “invoking amusement” don’t disqualify a film, how can we argue that something as insignificant as, say, “is there pseudo-science in the monster’s origin” would make something more sci-fi than horror, even though the work (like Alien, or Frankenstein) might include every key element of a traditional horror story? The only logical assumption is to accept that such stories are horror and sci-fi simultaneously; not a hybrid “sci-horror,” or anything so clumsy, but simply that they exist within both groups… even if it does make organizing your DVD collection that much more complicated.

  8. Maxo says:

    I mostly agree with the comments so far, but I would parse it a little further and say horror is something that has the intent of being scary (a thriller can make you jump out of your seat, but that doesn’t make it horror).

    I think an important component of the horror genre — beyond the trappings we all generally agree on — is a sense of a lack of control. Terrible things are happening, and we (as the reader or viewer or whatever) share the characters’ sense that there’s nothing they can do about it. This is probably why most horror tends to be supernatural — it’s something that can’t be easily explained away or that a character can have much control over (and why, as mentioned in the original post, early sci-fi could overlap into horror).

    What do you think of the “weird” comics of the Golden Age? Those really seemed to often be a mash-up of science fiction and horror.

  9. Evan Waters says:

    I’d actually go against the “scary-as-primary-element” definition. One of the reasons I consider DAWN OF THE DEAD my favorite horror film- and really, my favorite movie- is that, yeah, there are a few shocks here and there, but it’s interested in doing a lot of things, from satire to slapstick to action to character drama. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is another picture that’s not really scary (at least anymore) but is almost objectively brilliant and loads of fun to boot. I generally think horror works better when the filmmakers aren’t thinking, “Okay, this is a Scary Movie, we need a body count of at least X and let’s think of some good shock moments” (though there are exceptions- EVIL DEAD is a pure shocker and I love it so.)

    Which- hmm. I want to start with the supernatural, but that does leave out, say, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and the like. I agree that LAMBS falls more into the realm of suspense thriller (not sure about PSYCHO), but I’m not sure where I’d put the line there. I think you’re on to something with the “world” bit. I’d say that even if there’s nothing overtly supernatural about the world a horror film creates, it’s still something that’s vaguely twisted and not right.

  10. Mojo says:

    I’m sure there is a way to use the story’s narrative structure as a method of definition. As in, romances are films that begin in disorder and move to a restoration of social order.

    Horror films are about a world that has come under threat. And by “world” we can mean the real actual world, or just a character’s personal world. I remember a really interesting lecture from college where one of my professors went off on this idea of coherent vs. incoherent horror as two separate genres or sub-genres.

    In coherent horror, the threat/monster/killer comes from outside the community, the threat is usually quite obvious, it kills people, and is defeated by traditional authority figures (police, priests, the army, big strong men, heroic scientists). See, every horror film from before the 50s, and most horror from the 80s.

    Whereas in incoherent horror the threat comes from within the community, it slowly takes over, insinuates itself. The divide between monster and not-monster is thin. Traditional authority figures are useless against it, either because their methods are poor or because they are corrupt or because they have already been compromised. A victory over incoherent horror is often a pyrrhic victory. See, the work of Cronenberg, the pod people films, etc.

    I’m rambling. Forgive me, I’m stoned on cold medicine.

    The divide between horror and sci-fi is an artificial one. Sci-fi is often a matter of setting, whereas horror is a descriptor of the story.

  11. Genre is such an interesting subject. Genres definitely exist, but it often seems the longer you look at them the less substantial they are. Hardly anything seems to be “pure” one thing or another, so you get a lot of nerds (WHO RUIN EVERYTHING) arguing about how Star Wars isn’t really science fiction.

  12. dwinn says:

    Great post! I’d only add that while the big guns in the slasher genre don’t apply to horror-as-mystery, there were a bunch of mid-level films from that time that do. PROM NIGHT, TERROR TRAIN, MY BLOODY VALENTINE and SLEEPAWAY CAMP immediately jump to mind.

  13. Bah says:

    Mojo, your definitions still has the same issue with lacking exclusivity that I raised before. After all, the plot of “world under threat” simply boils down to the basic concept of conflict, something that drives virtually all narrative. Everything from The Odyssey to Hamlet to Superman deals with worlds under threat, and none would constitute “horror.”

  14. Mojo says:

    You’re right, Bah. But I wasn’t trying to given a perfect definition of horror. Just making a note.

    Also, I bet you could make a production of the Odyssey, Hamlet or Superman that *was* horror. The threat is there, right? So it would be all about the tone. I mean, the Odyssey has some fairly horrific scenes in it (I’m looking at you, Cyclops). It’s essentially the story of a lost sailor and his ever-dwindling crew being torn apart by supernatural monsters as he tries to find his way home, right?

    Hamlet is full of murder, paranoia, madness, poison, backstabbing friends, etc. Couldn’t you see it done in a sort of Rosemary’s Baby tone? A mid-70s paranoia vibrating behind the scenes.

    I haven’t read enough Superman to tell you the name of a horror story he’s in, but in 60+ years there have got to be a few. Plus, Bizarro scares me.

    I think any story that involves an external threat *could* be a horror story. This is what makes horror difficult to pin down. It’s less about setting or plot structure, and more about tone and mood.

  15. I tend to look at horror more as a reinforcement of natural order than a violation of it in many cases. Horror films, at least the more substantial ones, are modern-day Grimm’s Fairy Tales, grisly warnings about what not to do and assurances that the natural order will correct by proxy anything that misbehaves. In a lot of cases, the Final Girl lives because she’s the one that is chaste or, at very least, remorseful about her missteps.

  16. Allan says:

    Ultimately for me it comes down to the most simplistic definition possible–a horror film is any film that invokes a feeling of horror, regardless of its narrative elements. Take the early films of David Cronenberg, whose plots are all rooted in science and the natural world, yet could never be properly described as science-fiction because of the overwhelming feeling of revulsion and terror they provoke. Walking away from those films you feel “horrified” and that’s really all that counts.

    This explains the difference between slasher films and traditional mysteries. I’ve often argued that the term “Thriller” was a marketing device used to sell horror movies to audiences who claim to hate the horror genre, but the dividing line is clearly that in the slasher sub-genre the emphasis is placed on the activities of the murderer and the stalking of the victims, while in the later it is in the aftermath and the detectives attempts to determine who the killer is. The former forces the audience to confront images they do not want to see, while the later spares them that experience, making the distinction between them an emotional one. If you are watching a mystery and never feel anything but curiosity, it can be considered a success, but if you watch a slasher movie and never feel frightened, there is probably something wrong with it.

    And Jeff is right in suggesting that horror films are our version of fairy tales, but I would quibble with his suggestion that the FInal Girl’s survival is dependent on her chastity or regret. I’ve always felt that the Final Girl lives because she is the non-conformist in her group–the one who takes life seriously and respects the fact that youth is fleeting and part of growing up is preparing to face the future. In contrast her friends defiantly live only in the moment, enjoying immediate pleasures that do little to prepare them for the tests of adulthood, so when such a test comes, they cannot deal with it and fail, unlike their one friend who innately understood she would someday face it. Thus the moral of the films isn’t don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t drink booze, but simply don’t be an asshole.

    I would also quibble with Dorian’s describing the SAW and HOSTEL films as trash, if only because the growing narrative complexity of the SAW franchise is more than enough to elevate it beyond its most simplistic elements, while the Swiftian style satire of the HOSTEL films (especially in the second one) should not be ignored even in the face of such graphic violence. I won’t get into a whole debate about it, but in this rather long online essay I wrote about the trend of onscreen castration in recent horror films I do make my feelings on the HOSTEL films much more clear:

  17. Dorian says:

    the growing narrative complexity of the SAW franchise

    Yeah, I’m going to stop you right there…

  18. Allan says:

    As someone who has actually taken the time to watch the SAW films and not merely judge them by their reputation (as I’ve found is most often the case with their most vocal detractors), I stand by that statement. Ignoring the grisly torture set pieces that most people associate with the franchise, all of the films feature scripts that not only employ the kind of complex non-linear structures that are inevitably praised when used in more overtly artistic cinematic fare, but also do a remarkable job of continuing on a series built around an antagonist whose fatal disease and inevitable demise would seemingly deny the possibility of sequelization. Though it is perfectly valid to be repulsed by the imagery the films contain, this repulsion alone does not justify the statement that the films are entirely without merit and devoid of any discernible craft. You can choose not to recognize it if you want, but in doing so you are making an aesthetic argument, not an intellectual one.

    Personally, when I ask people to engage in a debate with me I try not to “stop” them as soon as they say something I disagree with, since the whole point of taking part in such a discussion is to open yourself up to new opinions and insights. It has been my experience that it’s impossible to learn anything new inside of an echo chamber.

  19. Dorian says:

    It’s also impossible to learn anything when you have no sense of humor and can’t recognize a joke when you see one.

  20. Bah says:

    Mojo, you’re absolutely right–in fact, my earlier choice of Hamlet turns out to be fortuitous, since the paranoia and literally supernatural elements would make it quite easy to adapt as horror. As you say, the genre is so vaguely defined, however, that it is almost impossible to determine what should qualify.

    Also, Allan: I read your article on castration. I’ve always liked Teeth, but your analysis actually helped me figure out just why I enjoyed a film that seems to have been passed off by many as little more than a joke.

  21. Lugh says:

    Bourgeois Nerd: I feel that genre should primarily exist to help people discover tales that they’d enjoy, rather than being a way to keep stories seperate and away from each other.

  22. Mike McGee says:

    Genre is REALLY tricky sometimes (I don’t think, say, the “western” label is very hard to apply), and horror is tough to put in any kind of box that doesn’t leave out a whole lot of things that seem to qualify as horror. Any definition of horror that would exclude an Alien or a great many zombie films doesn’t seem to work that well. But at the same time, a definition as broad as “intending to scare” opens a box way too big, as I think it’s hard to argue that a movie like Schindler’s List ISN’T scary, but it’s very difficult to call it a horror film and get anybody to go along with that. And of course a number of films with horror elements are largely intended as comedies — leaving aside stuff like the Scary Movies, easily written off as parody and therefore outside the argument, you’ve got things like Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead and Planet Terror and maybe even Ghostbusters…none of which I think are mostly intended to scare an audience. (Planet Terror is basically a funny action movie with some horror on top, which I’d consider yet another horror subgenre…maybe Army of Darkness fits in there; definitely a lot of John Carpenter does.)

    So yeah. Genre. Hurm.

    I also think you’re being kinda hard on the Hostel movies, BTW, though I generally have little love for (American) torture porn. We don’t seem to get it. French and Japanese directors, though….

  23. Mike Loughlin says:

    I think “horror” isn’t a direct synonym for “fear” in horror movies. Fear is the main emotional response the filmmakers are going for, but there must also be an element of repulsion. The audience rejects the monster, killer, demonic force as unnatural, even if they like the antagonist(s) on another level. Sci-fi movies with strong horror elements, movies about human serial killers that emphasize their deeds, horror-comedies and horror-Westerns all concentrate on characters and events that scare the audience while including elements far removed from reality.

    A movie like Schindler’s List plays to the repulsion we all feel towards Nazis, but does not attempt to generate the fear-drenched atmosphere horror movies strive for. Sorrow, yes, but not fear. Action thrillers look to jolt the audience, but the tension isn’t the same as the fear one feels when presented with an unknown, or at least unreal, menace. Traditionally, super-hero stories are about good triumphing over evil without evil claiming lots of innocent victims. The adolescent-male-power-fantasy element gets subverted when the reader is forced to be scared (a form of weakness) for any appreciable time. All other genres may incorporate horror elements, but the fear-laden atmosphere combined with the sense of unreality are what put stories in the horror genre.

  24. Mike Loughlin says:

    Or, pretty much everything you said in your last full paragraph, which I forgot about after reading other people’s posts. Oops.

© 2012 Dorian Wright Some Images © Their Respective Copyright Holders