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What is horror in literature?

What is horror?

When you think of horror, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s a grinning clown in a storm drain or a ghost haunting the halls of an old decrepit house. To put it simply, horror refers to any kind of storytelling that intends to frighten, scare, shock or even disgust the reader. As humans, we are attracted to the macabre and fascinated with all things dark. Our obsession with horror can even be traced back to childhood when many of us read, and were slightly scarred by, books like Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz or Goosebumps by R.L Stein as kids. For many of us, these books were a gateway into the horror genre. In a similar way to how we seek thrills in real life through roller coasters or sky-diving, horror allows us to explore dangers in a safe and controlled way.

Horror can be divided into several sub-genres such as psychological horror, comedy horror, post-apocalyptic horror and supernatural horror and slasher horror. But where does it all come from?

The first Gothic horror novel is thought to be Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto which was written in the eighteenth century but horror stories have been around for much longer than that.

The horror genre actually has oral roots dating back to before we started to write things down! Stories of witches, demons and ghosts have been told and passed down through generations since ancient times. Horror has come a long way since telling ghost stories around the campfire, but much of it has also stayed the same. Horror is a fluid genre which changes to keep up with the times and back then, horror stories often centred around religious themes that we can still see in a lot of today’s horror. Horror is often associated as a metaphor for the larger fears in society for this reason - as our fears change and develop, so does the horror genre.

Horror as we know it started to take shape with the Gothic novels that became popular in the nineteenth century. Some of the biggest horror icons originated in nineteenth century literature, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula who are still prominent figures of the genre today on screen and on the page. Frankenstein and Dracula have been such influential figures that they have infiltrated other genres - for example, Kiersten White’s novel The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein puts a Young Adult feminist twist on the classic novel and the Twilight phenomenon of the 2010s would not have existed without Dracula setting up the vampire framework all those years ago. Horror has also found its place within the Young Adult genre, in books such as Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, making the genre more accessible for teens and young adults.

The influence of the Gothic on the horror genre can also still be found in more recent novels within the genre. The proclaimed ‘Master of Horror’ himself, Stephen King, has clearly borrowed some tropes from the early Gothic novels in his own works - for example, the traditionally Gothic setting of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining and the Dracula-esque vampires in Salem’s Lot. It should also be noted that not all horror is supernatural and sometimes the most horrifying of books are the ones that show us the things that other humans are capable of, such as in Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter franchise or Stephen King’s other works such as Gerald’s Game or Misery.

So, what makes up a horror story? All of the best horror books evoke feelings of fear but there are a few other ingredients needed to create a horror story. Some more elements of the horror genre include:

● Characters: a protagonist that is relatable and worth caring about when things start to get spooky. When readers are presented with a protagonist they care about, the stakes are higher.

● Something or someone to be feared: all horror stories have some sort of monster that acts as a threat to the protagonist. This could be a literal monster, like Stephen King’s Pennywise, or a metaphorical monster that represents something larger, for example, society itself like in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

● Fear of the unknown: a sense of anxiety-inducing dread. The best horror stories tap into common fears and anxieties like the fear of being hunted by a serial killer or being cut off entirely from the outside world in an old mansion or even something as simple as the dark.

● Taking readers out of their comfort zone: we read horror as a safe way to explore terrifying situations. Shock your reader and put them into a situation that is beyond their comfort zone or imagination.

● A frightening setting: horror has long moved on from the quintessential Gothic castle and has now found itself in different settings in the modern world. For example, cabins in the woods, abandoned buildings and hospitals or asylums. Grady Hendrix has even written a horror novel set in IKEA, named Horrorstor.

● Shocking plot twists or reveals: readers should be shocked at the outcome of the story.

● A killer ending: horror stories should always have an ending that haunts the reader for long after they turn the last page.

Do you enjoy horror? Then you might enjoy our anthology The Abyss Within. Featuring thirteen chilling tales of survival and madness, this anthology is bound to keep you up at night!

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