Monday, April 25, 2011

What Makes Horror? ~ Guest Post by Judy Black

What makes something horror? When reading a story what makes it classify as horror? Does there have to be a monster? Blood and gore? Chase scenes?

What is that element that makes something horror?

That’s one of the reasons I love horror so much. It is all of the above and more. Imagine all the possible answers to the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’ and you start to see the number of possibilities. Some of the answers might be ‘crazy’, some might be a little sad or bloody, but they all contain a moment of sheer fear.

The Horror Writer’s association tries to answer this troublesome question of ‘What is Horror?’ with the answer, “Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of horror as "a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay." It stands to reason then that "horror fiction" is fiction that elicits those emotions in the reader. Still vague, right? But that’s what fear is; it’s not something you can pin down and define in terms that will match for everyone. The reaction to something fearful may be mostly the same, but the cause of that reaction is widely varied.

I have a friend who is beyond terrified of spiders. Put him in a room covered with spiders and that would be pure hellish horror for him. Now, someone else might not like being in the room with the spiders but it wouldn’t be the same ice blood reaction.

What terrifies everyone is different and what inspires someone to write horror is just as varied. I tend to find more everyday things frightening. What people are capable of scares me—seeing how far people can be pushed before they snap. I’m not a monster or supernatural horror kind of writer. I have a lot of respect for writers who tackle monsters in their fiction. I think it’s a huge challenge to create a terrifying creature and I don’t know if I could convincingly do it.

The things that I draw on are based more in reality than in myth. I am horrified and fascinated by tales of true crime, and that is where I draw a lot of my ideas for both my poems and my works of fiction. The following flash fiction piece is based off of a story I read in the news many years ago about a girl who just wanted to be beautiful. She grew jealous enough of her older sister’s beauty to kill. This piece is being expanded on and becoming a longer piece of work, but this flash fiction was the beginning of it all.

Skin Deep

My grandmother used to tell me that only useless things were beautiful. After all, she always reminded me, my mother was the most beautiful person I knew and she was barely even around to raise me. She was the most useless woman I knew. I would spend hours staring into the mirror, searching out each imperfection on my body – pride swelling with every rising red bump.

I was not beautiful, and I never wanted to be.

The first thing I remember is watching my mother standing in her closet, picking out dresses and throwing them onto her bed. None of them were good enough for her. It was the same thing every night, watching the clothes pile up higher and higher. I always fell asleep in there, curled up with silk and satin draped around me. The closest I ever felt to my mother were those moments her clothing held me.

I keep a picture of my mother by my bed. She’s smiling at something left of the camera; her lips are painted red, teeth bleached white; her hair was falling onto her cheek, and I always imagined that even her hair longed to stroke her skin. But my favorite part of the picture was the tiniest detail just along her jaw – a scar. The lighting hit it just right, highlighting the one flaw in my mother’s face. It gave me hope that she wasn’t pathetic. That the woman who birthed me was not beautiful; it wasn’t her fault, just an accident.

My grandmother was the one who took care of me. Her hunched back, and mole-covered face made her work hard. She never sat still, always worked at something, even if it was just stitching together a worn shirt. She wasn’t old, at least not to me. I should be like that – a bent and withered, lifelong worker. I use to walk around the house, hunching my back and trying to move like her, but the movement was always rough, and awkward.

Grandmother always picked out my clothing, throwing away anything my mother gave me. Pearls, silk, and heels were all destroyed immediately, without question. I wore safe clothes, nothing that hinted I could ever be pretty. Nothing that flaunted my mother in me.

None of the other girls at my schools understood that beauty was dangerous, a bad thing to be cursed with. They would spend the lunch break hunched over a copy of Cosmo, ‘oohing’ about the makeup, and the clothes, and how pretty the girls were.

“I’m going to be a model,” Janice, the girl in our class who always had the newest clothes, told everyone. “My mother was, and she says I’ve got it.”

I never doubted that Janice would model. We had a group project together once and she did nothing. I had stayed up all night to finish out project about global warming. But when we presented, she got the highest marks, even though she read off the slides and couldn’t answer any questions. Even more than all the other pretty girls, who still pretended to work, she was utterly worthless.

She would be the first to die.


Jeffrey Beesler said...

Ooh, it so doesn't look good for Janice right now!

And I agree with the notion that an ice in the blood reaction is just the sort of thing a character should feel when confronting their darkest fears.

timqueeney said...

Interesting "big tent" definition of horror. Thought of in narrower terms. I guess.

Neat little story! Arrivederci, Janice!

Draven Ames said...

Thank you for stopping by again Jeffery. For those who didn't know, Jeff also lives in Portland. Janice should meet a horrible end.

Thanks for stopping by Tim. She did a broad sense of horror, but it can be hard to narrow down. Perhaps I could get your take on the subject? I'd welcome it, surely.

Michele Shaw said...

Great post, and I love that piece, Judy! Just awesome. I really hope you expand it because I'm dying to read the rest:)

Draven Ames said...

Thanks for stopping by Michelle. The story does leave it open and I want to see her meet the girl.


M Pax said...

Ta ta, Janice.

I love the suspense of the genre.

Poetic Justice said...

Love this Draven. That last line left my skin crawling. Can't wait to read more :)

D. U. Okonkwo said...

Very cool excerpt. I always feel like it's the really simple yet chilling things that make good horror. If I think about it, some horror authors usually give us a hint of what could happen in a certain circumstance, then leave it to us to figure out the rest. It's almost like they're letting our own imaginations conjure up thoughts.

Banacek said...

I tend to find mundane, everyday things creepier than what I'm supposed to be scared of in horror films and fiction.