Very Afraid: An intro to horror (for people who don’t like horror.)

I shouldn’t be a horror fan. People who are horror fans are supposedly meant to be thrill-seeking, adrenaline fuelled nightmare-hounds: bravely soaking up the scariest stuff they can get hold of, gleefully assessing the goriest kills and most shocking scares, revelling in the fear and the revulsion. Margee Kerr argues (in her excellent book on fear, Scream), that being scared leaves us “feeling good, in control, confident, and secure in our abilities and ourselves” (p 227), demonstrating that she’s clearly never developed a nervous aversion to privet hedges because she watched an Anglia TV mini-series that was on past her bedtime.

I am not one of those fearless people. I was a cautious, nervy child, and have matured into a cautious, nervy adult. I don’t like being really, properly scared, and to this day some horror can have me doing the switch-the-lights-off-and-run-upstairs terror gauntlet. Much of the film and TV I watched when young seems quite regrettable in hindsight – why did I tangle with Ghostwatch, Chimera, or the Scotch Tape skeleton? These were properly nasty experiences, yet somehow, despite the post-watch terrors, intrigue always won over caution, and I kept on with horror. (I had no choice about repeatedly encountering the damned Scotch Tape skeleton, it being the early 90s and there only being four channels, with unskippable ads).

So why did I carry on seeking out scary stories? Despite the immediate downsides, I found something deeply compelling about horror. It was always more immediately gripping than other fiction, with slow reveals that drew you in, and sharp punches for the payoff. Horror promises secrets, and who can resist a mystery?
Pure curiosity brought me back again and again, and gradually I started to see beyond the shocks and connect with horror in other ways.

By its very nature, horror is never fully real, but it shows a sideways view on very real issues. Horror can provide catharsis; it can be ridiculous, funny, or plain weird. Horror is allowed to go to places that other genres aren’t, simultaneously tackling fears both universal and deeply private. Most horror is also not horrific for most of its running time. You have to have a build up to the scares, a context for the dread or characters that you care about enough to be fearful for, and in this space horror stories can explore a multitude of themes and viewpoints.

But, fairly enough, many people are just not keen on being freaked out for entertainment’s sake. When I speak to friends who don’t like horror, their main complaint is that they just don’t like being scared This is understandable. It’s not enjoyable – why would you want to spend their time having an actively unpleasant experience?

From my years of trial-and-error horror fandom, I’ve found something to hold true which isn’t usually talked about in discussion of horror – enjoying horror is not actually dependent on feeling truly scared. Many reviews of horror focus on the fear factor – is it scary? A work can be deemed a success or failure depending on the fear elicited, but this is on its own too blunt a measure, and fear itself is inherently subjective.

Horror is so much more than this, and fear itself is not a one-note emotion. There is horror that makes me wince, horror that makes me gasp, horror that sickens me, horror that makes me feel deeply sad, horror that makes me feel a sense of impending dread, and even horror that makes me laugh.

There’s no one way to be scared, and for each individual, they’re palatable or not. Everyone has their no-go horror elements, whether it’s gore, jump scares, creepy children, eye stuff or anything else – but if you’re not a fan of a certain thing, you can absolutely avoid it.

I’d like to introduce people who don’t like horror to the horror film, book, comic or artwork that they truly love. I believe that horror is an amazing, rich, interesting and beautiful genre, that is a home for anyone who likes stories. To enjoy horror you don’t have to be a horror nerd, you don’t have to like gore, you don’t have to have watched the dozen-plus Friday the 13th sequels (I certainly haven’t) – you just have to think that you might want to experience the odd spooky story now and then.

I’d never dictate to anyone what they should or shouldn’t like, but I hope that this can serve as a guide to anyone who would like to get into a bit of horror, but perhaps doesn’t know where exactly to start.

Hopefully I can lead you on the right path through the dark woods, past the occult ceremony, swerving the undead and up to the gothic castle, all the while assuring you that horror doesn’t have to be horrible – even if, like me, you are Very Afraid.

Horror locations: a tourist guide for the afraid

Physical spaces are fundamental to horror.  There are haunted houses, doomed to inflict the events of the past on new residents or visitors; remote communities that operate outside moral norms, that outsiders visit to their peril; supposedly safe, everyday places that take on new, sinister aspects.  Horror can happen anywhere – in classically “spooky” places like crumbing gothic castles or abandoned hospitals, but also average suburbs or bright, sunny fields.  

Although horror can happen anywhere, if you want to judge at a glance whether a certain horror is right for you, an excellent place to start is to look at where that film is set.  The location can give you a fair idea of the subgenre.  For the novice horror fan looking to avoid their worst scares, this knowledge is a valuable tool in the mission to enjoy horror while avoiding the elements that you personally want to avoid. 

Monsters and menaces tend to stick to their dedicated locales – you’re unlikely to start watching what you think is a classic gothic ghost story, only to run into a hoard of zombies part way through. 

The tricky business is deciding which horror locations you’re ok with, and which to avoid.  As with all art forms, this is very subjective.  You might be ok with horror in outer space – you’re unlikely to ever go there, and so it’s a safely fantastical arena.  You might be adverse to bloody deaths – it’s therefore advisable to steer clear of films set in suburbs, summer camps and high schools, here teenagers are likely to meet a grisly end.  If you’re not keen on creeping, ghostly dread, stay away from the gothic mansion or creepy castle.  

It may depend on your own personal circumstances – places can be less / more depending on your own situation.  Personally,  American home invasion thrillers will never scare me in too much as their scares rely largely on a killer sneaking in and around a massive house, unbeknownst to the occupants. Living in the UK, there are basically no houses large enough for this – the walls are thin enough that I know too much about my neighbours’ sex lives and taste in music – I’d definitely know about a masked marauder the second they set foot inside.

To help you decide which horror destinations you may want to go to, here’s a rough tourist guide to the places a protagonist might find themselves on the horror film trail, and examples of what might be lurking within – whether you want to visit is up to you!

  • You’re in a gothic castle / mansion.  There might be a host who seems fairly amenable; the locals may have warned you about some unspecified danger (you have foolishly ignored them). 

You’re in a gothic horror, quite possibly a Hammer production.  You’ll likely encounter some kind of monster – perhaps of the supernatural kind, or born of someone’s scientific hubris.  Your host may well try to kill you.  If the setting is 20th century, there’s probably ghosts, but you won’t know who they are are, or if they’re definitely real or the product of your own psychological breakdown.  Maybe you are the ghost?

EXAMPLES: Nosferatu, The Black Cat, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Innocents, The Others, The Orphanage.

SCARE FACTORS:  Low on gore, high on dread and tense atmosphere.

  • You’re in a city, but things aren’t quite right.  Where is everyone?  The people you don’t meet don’t seem terribly friendly, although you may encounter an unlikely ally if you’re lucky. 

This could well be zombie country, and in this case there is unfortunately a better than average chance that one of the undead will try to chew your face off.  If you avoid this fate, there’s sadly a good chance you’ll have to off a close friend / family member when they get bitten / infected. 

In the event that no zombies are present, you’re having instead to deal with the aftermath of a catastrophic society-altering event, like a plague or an alien invasion.   Other humans will prove to be the most dangerous threat.  Inevitably, the authorities are no help at all, and probably caused the whole business in the first place.

EXAMPLES:  28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead, The Girl With All The Gifts, Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Attack the Block, The Stand, Children of Men, The Crazies, most John Wyndham novels.

SCARE FACTORS:  High likelihood of gore and lots of jumpy moments.  Someone will be getting eaten. You may well see a disembowelling.  Overall feeling of dystopian despair.  Don’t expect a happy ending!

  • You’re at an American high school, or hanging out with tbe teens in the suburbs or at summer camp. Something tragic may have happened in your town a significant time period ago, which no-one talks about.  All the adults are a bit shifty.

You’re in a slasher.  Someone is on a homicidal rampage, and they won’t stop until they’ve killed all your mates, and probably you as well, unless you’re the resourceful and plucky Final Girl type.  There may be some form of revenge motivation going on, with past sins being revisited on the next generation, but sadly revelation of this dark history won’t actually help you in stopping the ongoing massacre.  You may also just be in the wrong place / wrong time as alien forces or rogue telekinesis do their worst.  If you’re in the late 90s, you’ll still probably die a nasty death, but you’ll get some good quips in first.

EXAMPLES:  Halloween,  A Nightmare on Elm St,  Prom Night, Carrie, Scream,  I Know What You Did Last Summer, Friday the 13th, Cherry Falls, The Faculty. 

SCARE FACTORS:  Gore – fairly light but pretty frequent.  More sharp implements than you can shake a stick at. Expect chase scenes, screaming, and blood.  A lot of the characters are paper thin and quite annoying though, so seeing them offed isn’t too distressing.   

  • You’re in the European countryside.  It seems nice and peaceful, and the locals are friendly seeming folk.  (Unless they’re all children, in which case they’re wildly unnerving). There’s some sort of festival coming up soon – that should be fun! 

This is folk horror territory.  Things will be quite nice at first, with some singing,  dancing, maybe even a bit of tasteful nudity. Don’t be fooled – there’s human sacrifice on the horizon, and unless you can pull off a daring escape or win a dance-off, that sacrifice is going to be you.

The Wicker Man, Midsommar, Children of the Corn, Straw Dogs.

SCARE FACTORS: Lots of dread and paranoia, possible gore, scary children, high likelihood of human sacrifice.  It’s all a bit harrowing.  Might well ruin enjoyment of future trips to picturesque locations. 

  • You’re in the American countryside, in or near some woods or a lake.  You might be staying in a semi derelict cabin.  There are strong hints that you might not be welcome – someone may actually have said to you “you’re not welcome!” You of course ignore this and carry on your merry way.  

You’re in American folk horror country, sometimes called hillbilly horror / hicksploitation.  There’ll be a local family who’ve taken it upon themselves to kill you in various ingenious ways.  Expect to have all the flaws of your city ways mercilessly exploited, amongst a background of sometimes dubious commentary on rural class inequality. 

EXAMPLES: The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, The Cabin in the Woods, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Cabin Fever, Tucker and Dale v Evil, Deliverance. 

SCARE FACTORS: Lots of peril, gore, and some torture likely.   Everything looks a bit grimy.  

  • You’re at home. 

Sorry, in this case all bets are off.  If there’s one thing horror films like more than anything else, it’s making you feel uneasy at home. 
All sorts of dreadful things can happen to you even within the supposed safety of you own four walls, including but not limited to:

  • Traditional ghostly hauntings (The Innocents, The Conjuring, The Others,  The Haunting of Hill House, The Changeling)
  • Full on demonic possession (The Exorcist, Paranormal Activity, Starry Eyes)
  • Unpleasant things getting at you through the TV (Poltergeist, Ringu)
  • Your husband getting you impregnated with the Antichrist (Rosemary’s Baby), or going ahead and adopting the Antichrist (The Omen)
  • Annoying psychopathic people showing up and ruining your day by physically and psychologically tormenting you (Funny Games, You’re Next, The Purge, The Strangers, Hush) 
  • Annoying pretentious people showing up and ruining your afterlife with bad decor (Beetlejuice)
  • Neighbours that are probably murderers (Rear Window,  Summer of 84, Disturbia)

And of course, the ultimate enemy:

  • Yourself (Repulsion, Eraserhead)

Horror Matchmaking Questionnaire

In my mission to help unite the horror-reluctant with some suitable spooky fare, I’ve made a horror matchmaking questionnaire, to provide a bespoke service to pair you with your perfect horror! 

Fill in and submit the form, and I’ll suggest a recommendation based on your own preferences.  Please do let me know if you like the recommendation, or if you dont; I’ll then either feel lovely and smug / shall accept the fail, suggest another if you like, and try to recalibrate the sophisticated algorithm (me trawling my DVD collection and IMDb). 

A couple of disclaimers – I’m no Kim Newman, and have a far from encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre. Although many of my blank spots are in areas not likely to appeal to the horror novice in any case (extreme body horror or a sequel four deep into a franchise not being great starting points for a beginner).

Also, being from the UK, horror from here and the US make up most of what I’ve seen, along with a smattering of Japanese,  Korean and European works.  I’m trying to widen my viewing, but for now it’s a definite gap in what expertise I have.

However, I hope my extensive expertise as a certified scaredy cat (who nevertheless consumes a silly amount of horror) qualifies me to appreciate what might appeal to those who are looking for a great story without the bitter side serving of unwelcome fear. 

So please give it a go, or recommend to a horror-reluctant friend! You’ve nothing to lose but the heebie-jeebies…

Horror Matching Questionnaire

What is horror, anyway?

The idea behind this whole exercise is for it to serve as an introduction to horror for non fans, and for it to do so it’s fairly necessary to establish a basic definition of the subject. 

So what is horror, anyway? 

The answer seems obvious at first- we all probably have a fairly good idea of what a horror is: a scary movie, a ghost story a creature feature.  We know the genre, what it’s made of and where it lives, helpfully flagged as such on streaming sites,  made by a King or a Carpenter, and reviewed in the pages of mags like Fangoria. 

Horror appears in this way to be neatly compartmentalized, helpfully fenced off so as to be easily identified for fans to find, and others to avoid.  But this does mean it can seem very niche, something you have to dedicate time and effort into appreciating.  

However,  horror in reality is a far broader and more fluid beast; shape-shifting and creeping its way into wider culture like a  mist. Even if you don’t consider yourself a horror fan, there are likely to be works of horror that you have enjoyed, although you may not have realised that they’re horror. 

In future posts I’ll explore in more depth the various defining characteristics of horror (and the problems with these as a means of categorising works).  I hope that I’ll be able to show that there’s more to the genre than the obvious, that there’s something in there for everyone, and being a fan of (some) horror is a painless pursuit. 

I’ll also try to provide a (very) rough field guide to horror, to help you spot horror in the wild that will appeal (and not appal!) 

So, what is horror? (Spoiler: no-one really knows / can agree).  

Your standard “this is horror” criteria:
It’s by a known horror author/ director.

It is marketed explicitly as horror.

It’s meant to be scary.

People actually do find it scary.

It has monsters / supernatural  / occult stuff in it.

It explores themes common in horror.

Academics have categorised it as such.

If it cleaned up at the Oscars, it’s probably not horror…

The debates about “what is horror” are unlikely to ever go away.  At best, they can help to give insight into human fears and the history and evolution of the genre.  At worst, it can end up with tedious quibbling and many well-crafted works being deemed too good to be horror (hello, “elevated horror”!)

I want to clarify the definition as best I can, and to show non-fans that not only might they enjoy a good horror, but that perhaps, without even knowing it, they already do!