Horror vs. Terror: A Gothic Battle of the Sexes!
When Hunter first asked me to write a post for him to put up on his blog, I was thrilled, then terrified! Having read a lot of his work and knowing how well-versed he is in all things horror movie and book-related, what could I write about the subject that would interest him as well as his fans? While recently reading his novel We Are Always Watching, I began to compare it to one of my own upcoming novels. Both take place in rural Pennsylvania with the focus on an old, run down farmhouse and some pretty strange, slightly insane, people. The similarities end there. I couldn’t help but wonder if some of that is due to the fact that we are different genders.
Not long ago I was reading about the life and works of Ann Radcliffe. Ann was a pioneer when it comes to the Gothic novel, predating Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker by a hundred years. (Her premier Gothic novel, Mysteries of Udolpho, was published in 1794.) During my studies, I learned that in the late 18th century there was a distinction between the terms Horror and Terror, especially when being applied to literature. Horror was considered more to do with emotions and setting a frightening mood and atmosphere, while creating a growing tension. It was much more subtle and mysterious. Terror, on the other hand, ran more along the lines of physical displays of the grotesque and graphic depictions of torture, murder, and death. Women, like Radcliffe, tended to writer Horror and Ann was generally praised for her unique approach and is given credit for popularizing the Gothic genre, especially among women readers.
Men wrote things more along the lines of Terror. In 1796, Matthew Gregory Lewis released “The Monk”. It was considered quite scandalous, where “… scenes of grotesquery and horror abound”. It was said that Lewis “… had devoted the first fruits of his mind to the propagation of evil” and that he was “… a reckless defiler of the public mind.” Over the years the Horror of Radcliffe has blended with the Terror of Lewis and has become almost exclusively known as Horror. (As an aside, “The Monk” and Radcliffe’s “Mysteries of Udolpho” are also classified as Romance. As far as the Romance genre back in those early days, it was barely considered literature and was denied the prestigious label of being an actual ‘novel’.)
As a Horror fan, it all makes perfect sense to me. My favorite types of movies and books are of the Horror genre, as defined above, or what I’d label as psychological thrillers or psychological horror. In my yet-to-be released novel Dark Hollow Road, I took on the latter without even knowing that such a sub-genre existed. When I discovered the definition of Psychological Horror, I laughed. Wiki says this about it, “…a subgenre of horror and psychological fiction that relies on mental, emotional and psychological states to frighten, disturb, or unsettle readers, viewers, or players. The subgenre frequently overlaps with the related subgenre of psychological thriller, and it often uses mystery elements and characters with unstable, unreliable, or disturbed psychological states to enhance the suspense, drama, action and horror of the setting and plot and to provide an overall unpleasant, unsettling, or distressing atmosphere.” This is the type of atmosphere I tried to create with my ghost story, No Rest For The Wicked, also. Two of the ghosts are unstable and psychologically disturbed and they are definitely creating an unsettled atmosphere for the living who are trying to deal with them.
I’m not very interested in watching Terror and what I would equate with Modern-day slasher films full of random acts of mindless gore and buckets of blood, intestine-eating cannibals, exploding heads and the like. Once in a while, sure, I can really get into all of that and have found that I love one particular “Terror” writer when he’s taking on the many cryptids of the world. But for the most part, I’ll pass on that sort of thing – especially when it comes to a movie. Films like Saw, Candyman, & Scream aren’t my overall cup of tea.
I’ll toss in something gruesome every now and then for good measure into my writing, like, “Flies swarmed over the body of Sarah’s decomposing child, neatly cradled in the arms of the scarecrow.” or “The strings of coagulating blood had stretched from under the flattened portion of his brother’s skull, down to the blacktop, then snapped and dripped and oozed some more.” My goal is not to gross my readers out, at least not too much. A quote over on Goodreads states, “Horror writers shouldn’t play nice. Disturb & unnerve your reader. Make them uncomfortable, but not so much they stop reading.” The last thing I want for someone to do while reading one of my stories is to stop reading. Plus, I have no interest in writing what I wouldn’t enjoy reading myself. I’ll leave the Terror to those who enjoy it.
All this is not to say there aren’t some fine lady authors out there writing gruesome and bloody tales of terror or men who know how to be subtle and slowly heighten the suspense. But, is there a difference in what men and women enjoy more when it comes to Horror vs. Terror?
Who would you say wins this Gothic Battle of the Sexes? Do you want that slow, creeping horror that sneaks up on you and leaves you psychologically damaged for a time, or something more along the lines of images so terror-filled, gruesome and gut-wrenching you have to stop reading or reach for the puke bucket?