Written by Alex Taylor
The other day, as I was walking through a bookstore looking for a copy of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves — this great horror book that all my peers had told me I absolutely needed to read — I found myself lost. As highly raved about as this book was, I couldn’t find the book anywhere. Imagine my surprise when I realized that, of all the genres, from Manga to Graphic Novels to Romance, there was no section for Horror.
At first, I thought this had to be a mistake. I went past each of the shelves again, searching for the books and authors I loved. I found Lovecraft tucked away in Science Fiction, King in New Fiction, and Poe in Literary Fiction. These authors, whose texts speak to and about each other and should be tucked closely together in conversation with one another, were scattered about the store, isolated. Sure, the argument can be made that H.P. Lovecraft belongs in Science Fiction, and that all of Stephen King’s books belong in New Fiction because they’re always coming out—but it remains significant that these texts are forced into secondary genres when what really defines them is horror.
And yet, for one reason or another, people are afraid to label them as horror.
When I finally found House of Leaves, it was nestled under Fiction. Oftentimes, when horror texts become popular enough to achieve their deserved literary acclaim, they are wrenched free from their rightful genre and moved to something more palatable in a move that drips with disdain for such a ‘lowbrow’ genre. It’s a problem not limited to House of Leaves — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one famous example, and it’s the same reason why I was met with such surprise when I told people I was reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved for my American Gothic and Horror class. They told me that they didn’t realize the novel—a story about hauntings, torture, ghosts, and murder—had anything to do with the horror genre (a misunderstanding explored in an article by Grady Hendrix found here). And that’s because of the tendency to think that if something is worthwhile, it can’t be horror—a fundamental misunderstanding.
Part of why horror is often considered a lower genre is because it is disgusting or disturbing. But so is our world.
Now, to be fair, many bookstores do have a horror section—obviously, this isn’t an indictment of every last one. But my personal experience still points to a larger problem: the fact that the horror genre is often looked down upon as a “lesser” form of storytelling than other types of literary fiction. The common misconception lies in the underlying assumption that horror is only meant to scare the reader and is therefore a singular kind of entertainment. One of the biggest mistakes is to assume that horror is a surface-level genre — that there is no reason to dig deeper. It ignores the fact that much of horror reveals anxieties and worries about our society and the people in it. I think most people would agree that to say Frankenstein is a monster story with no insight into the human condition would be a false and belittling statement. Just as Frankenstein is about scientific overreach and aching loneliness, other horror texts are so much more than their monsters. To portray Lovecraft’s Cthulhu as a mindless ‘Godzilla with tentacles,’ is to ignore what he represents — the ultimate smallness of Earth and humanity in an infinite universe.
Horror holds up a mirror to the world, unafraid of just how strange or horrible the reflected image is. It’s less important to think about a text as being scary or not than it is to consider why it scares us — just because something is ugly doesn’t mean you should avoid looking at it. Part of why horror is often considered a lower genre is because it is disgusting or disturbing. But so is our world — and we can’t fault stories that, through metaphors and monsters, show us how terrible we can be. Zombie narratives, for example, reveal our anxieties about mass outbreaks of disease and losing ourselves completely to illness. Werewolf stories reveal the inherent and uncontrollable violence in people while pointing to the fact that humans are animals too. Ghost stories—like Beloved — are stories of pain, regret, and loss, their “unfinished business” revealing our anxiety of not doing enough with our brief, unpredictable time on this planet. And the monsters of horror tackle some of the fundamental questions of religion: what happens to us after we die? Is it possible to come back? In many ways, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, H.P. Lovecraft, and more all argue the same thing: maybe, but not without consequences. Not without losing part or most of who you are.
Even beyond the monsters, horror makes us look at what we most fear about ourselves. Take a look at Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or any of Poe’s guilt-ridden narrators, and you’ll find hugely important discussions about who we are and what we’re capable of. If you want to know to what limits someone who is spurned will go, look no further than Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” or for the reasoning behind why we commit self-destructive acts, “The Imp of the Perverse.” Psychological horror is a process of self-reflection, of looking within and realizing that monsters don’t have to be external, alien figures. We read and watch slashers about deranged serial killers to see just how much a “safe” suburban environment can be disrupted by a single individual, to see how fragile our world really is — to see just how easily it can all break down at the hands of someone who might otherwise be just like us.
Horror allows for the safe exploration of human fear. It is a genre that lets people look the source of their terror in the eye, to examine from all angles the object of their disgust from the comfort of their living room chair. It pushes boundaries that other genres cannot or will not because it is inherently transgressive. Trauma that can only be hinted at in other genres takes center stage in horror — both Beloved and stories by other authors like Carmen Maria Machado use the frightening and the supernatural as a means of showcasing the terror in suffering. And, more and more often, horror is being used by people of color and other oppressed groups as a way of exploring their own social and political anxieties. Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out showcases a particular form of liberal racism that often lies buried, one that many people fail or outright refuse to acknowledge. So it makes sense why there would be such an undeserved negative reaction to it — nobody wants to look at something horrible or disgusting. But sometimes, you have to. It’s important to recognize that people aren’t always good; that the world can be a horrible, tragic, and disturbing place. Fear is one of the greatest motivators in existence, so why should the genre that employs it the most be the most disdained?
Horror has been given carte blanche to show things that happen in the world in ways that no other genre can. Horror relishes in the horrible deaths, traumatic experiences, and gruesome mutilation — to name a few things — that other genres shy away from for the sake of their audience. And while the stories may be intense, thrilling, and frightening, they’re often equally subtle. They teach you lessons, warn you of the dangers of the world, and you may not even realize it. They can be political commentaries, cautionary tales, suggestions of how to make a better world — and yes, they can sometimes scare you.
Digging deeper into horror texts isn’t just a good idea, it’s necessary. Just as we wouldn’t boil Moby Dick down to chasing whales, these texts require careful analysis. Monsters like whales, vampires, and tentacled alien creatures are more than what they seem to be— if being predatory was the only thing that made a monster scary, there would be no reason to be afraid of many of the creatures in Lovecraft’s mythos. But careful examination doesn’t happen when an entire genre is dismissed off-hand as mere entertainment (as if being entertaining is a negative quality in the search for worthwhile fiction). So the next time you’re at your local bookstore, demand that they dedicate a section to horror. Find something that truly terrifies you and stare it in the eye, refusing to look away until you understand why it has the effect on you that it does. Because that’s what horror is all about — facing our fears.
Photo found on WDEF.com