SCARY IDEAS AND METAPHOR
‘I think horror and fantasy are arenas in which we can discuss anxieties, philosophical questions, and bring it almost to the level where abstraction becomes flesh. You know, you can, very much in the tradition of the Greeks, be able to manifest big ideas, big themes and make them reality.’ - Guillermo Del Toro
Genre is a complex idea. Whilst genres give bookshops and publishers discreet shelves with which stack similar books, for writers genre represents something much more important. Genre is an emotional contract with the audience. Readers choose a genre because they choose to 'feel' a certain way, and whilst a genre encompasses ideas, iconography, archetypes and patterns, above all it embodies Emotional Expectations. And that's the writer's responsibility, to deliver on the promise the genre makes.
When it comes to Horror stories, the audience come expecting to play a game with fear and to feel all the emotion pull that game entails - dread, shock, terror and anxiety.
Yet, there is a tangible and important difference between a horror story that wears the skin and trappings of the genre, and one that is genuinely delivering on the promise of the genre. Just because a story has a vampire, zombie, ghost, serial killer or monster in it doesn't necessarily mean it's a horror story. Emotional intent is the key element; what emotional response did the story intend to deliver? What was the promise it made? And where is the palpable human 'truth' that underpins that emotional promise?
This speaks to the difference between the Horrific Idea and the Horrific Circumstance.
Circumstances are, by definition, the given events and parameters of a story and, in the context of Horror they are those that are innately dangerous and scary. A monster from the deep attacking a city, a giant snake hunting human prey in the jungle, a ghost terrifying the crew of a ship, a serial killer stalking a victim in the city. These are circumstances that have innately high stakes and a level of direct threat that induces Fear. Horrific Circumstances are where most horror stories begin, originating with the ‘monster' be it ghost, demon, killer or creature.
The Horrific Idea of a Horror story however is something different and something more; a terror-inducing concept that goes beyond the monster, something that transcends it and invokes something deeper - something more human. Take seminal book and blockbuster film, Jaws. The Horrific Circumstance is a huge, man-eating, shark terrorising a seaside summer holiday town. Certainly sharks hunting hapless swimmers is a scary proposition, but the massive success of Jaws, both critically and commercially, and its impact as a gripping horror story is not owed to this two-dimensional circumstance. The Horrific Idea at the heart of Jaws is not the Shark but the Greed, Ignorance and Arrogance of the town which placed the 'summer dollars' of tourism above the safety of people. This central Idea is the essence that elevates Jaws above just fear of sharks, and into a greater metaphoric fear of greed, pride and arrogance.
We see similar blends of scary idea and circumstance across the broad church of Horror. Danny Boyle's zombie re-invention film, 28days Later has a zombie apocalypse encapsulating an Horrific Idea above and beyond the Circumstance. Certainly a virus that turns people into maniacal raging zombies is a very scary circumstance, but the Scary Idea at the heart of 28 Days Later is much worse. The film positions the hero and his companions to flee Zombie ravaged London and seek refuge with a ragtag group of soldiers, only to be at the mercy of desperate soldiers who've lost their grip on morality and any concept of right or wrong. In very real terms the characters become more afraid of the Soldiers than the Zombies. This is the Horrific Idea at the heart of 28 Days Later; not a fear of Zombies but rather a fear of losing our own humanity when faced with such desperate circumstances.
Further still, in what is arguably the most celebrated horror story of all time, The Exorcist, we see the same paradigm of conceptual horror elevating the circumstantial horror to something universal and more profoundly effecting. The circumstances of The Exorcist are horrific enough - the demonic possession of an innocent girl - but there is a much more complex array of Horrific Ideas beating through the veins of the story. More than half the narrative sees a mother exploring every medical, scientific and rational explanation for her daughter's "illness" until ultimately she is faced with acknowledging a power beyond her comprehension and beyond her control. The true horror at the heart of The Exorcist is a challenge to our modern faith in science, logic and rationality; the terrifying idea is one of Reason being stripped of away leaving us unarmed in facing that which we cannot rationalise.
What these three examples tell us is that whilst every Horror story must have a 'monster', Horror stories are not about the 'monster'. The monster of a good Horror narrative is a metaphor, an allegory, a catalyst for the truly scary bit; the Horrific Idea. And it is the Scary Idea that ultimately delivers on the emotional expectation that brought the Reader to the genre - to play a game with fear. When Horror stories are circumstantial their emotional weight is disposable and momentary. But when Horror stories are built on scary Ideas, that are beyond the monster, beyond the given circumstances, the fear they induce can never be truly escaped.