The way that writers write about horror is constantly evolving. Humans have been telling horror stories for as long as we’ve been able to speak. From the Vikings telling horrible stories of war, to the Celtic peasants telling tales of terrifying creatures and spirits that would steal your soul whilst you lay on your deathbed, (make sure to close all the windows facing west if there’s a chance you may be passing over to the other side any time soon).
But the specific Horror genre didn’t come about until 1764 when Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto, which centres around the supernatural, and was the first book to be considered a part of the ‘Gothic’ and ‘Horror’ genres.
Although the supernatural remained a constant theme, the antagonists and concepts in these horrific tales changed over time. From tales of bloody battles from the Vikings, to conversations of the human psyche during the Victorian era, Horror is a blatant exploration of Zeitgeist and primary evidence of key cultural events experienced by the writer.
“The 18th century was a time of great reflection and “enlightenment” resulting in the questioning of society, and changes in science which saw the belief in evil spirits regarded as superstition”
It is easy to see in the work of Victorian/Gothic authors, such as Henry James, and Bram Stoker that this was the case, mental illness being at the forefront of the plot, often insanity being a fate suffered by female protagonists, as some form of female ‘hysteria’. Edgar Allan Poe’s work is a clear indication of this, from his plots referencing the human psyche, to his clear formula for writing seen in his work, especially as he himself suffered with ‘bouts of insanity’;
- “The isolation of the reader
- The stunning of his sensibility
- The victimization of his emotions
- The premature burial of his reason”
As time goes on, there is a difference in what we become scared of as a reader, and this means there is a clear difference in what a writer will find horrific and will go on to write about. The 1980s in America saw the hysteria around the AIDs virus, a worldwide fear that put the 1960’s – 70’s sexual revolution on the back burner.
“The message to kids coming of age in the 1980s and ’90s was that sex—even thinking about sex—could kill.”
And Stephen King used this to his advantage in IT, published in 1986; in which Beverly’s fear of becoming a woman, and therefore having to face up to her sexuality truly navigates the plot. However, despite the key differences in horror over time, there are solid similarities. The fear of isolation and the fear of ridicule, all social, human fears that have not changed over time. In Poe’s work it shows an isolation from society, in IT you see children being separated from the safety of adults, the children being deemed as crazy or over imaginative.
“He thrusts his fists against the posts, and still insists he sees the ghosts”
You can even see this in the 2017 film adaptation of the book. Whilst sex is not at the forefront of the plot anymore, the clear themes of isolation, and ridicule are shown in the form of bullies and controlling parents, and are key themes in the film, that fit our current generation of Horror consumers, the children’s main fears even being changed to fit a more current view of horror, (creepy clown dolls replacing werewolves etc.) and King most definitely agrees;
“I had hopes, but I was not prepared for how good it (the new movie) really was. It’s something that’s different, and at the same time, it’s something that audiences are gonna relate to.”
Although innate human fears remain the same,
they’ve been given different masks as each era passes. Horror Writers have
adapted through time to provide work that will realistically frighten readers
of a certain generation. We are all frightened of isolation, but as a
generation, we aren’t really frightened of werewolves anymore.
 Walpole. Horace, The Castle of Otranto, 1764
 David R. Saliba, A Psychology of Fear (Washington D.C: University Press of American, 1980), p.17
 King, Stephen, IT, 1986, Viking Press
Ever since the day I latched on to the concept that there were things in this world that I couldn’t quite understand, I made it my mission to learn everything there was to know about absolutely everything.
Even a trip to Thorpe Park with my friends wasn’t complete without endless days of research… As a result, I could tell you all the mechanical ins and outs of most rollercoasters and rides… but I won’t do that right now because you would probably get very, very bored.
This obsession with needing to know everything has become the bane of my existence. When I was thirteen, I knew something was wrong with me, I felt different and strange. I liked things a certain way, and would regularly get anxious and upset over the silliest things. I spent hours researching what I thought it could be, only to be caught out when a trained medical professional told me it was Autism. I was devastated. Not that I was autistic… but that I didn’t see it coming.
What can I say? I’m a control freak.
I have this genuine need to be the cleverest person in the room. One step ahead of anyone or anything that’s out to get me. I tell you, there’s nothing scarier than playing the Sims 3 late at night in your room when you’re supposed to be asleep and watching a burglar tiptoe across your screen when there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.
I guess you could say my relationship with horror stems from my need for control and knowledge, and I’m not alone in this. It was M.M. Owen who said: “Horror thrives on discombobulation.”
I think that’s why Stephen King frightens me so much. His work is never predictable… until it is. I was shaken to the core (and honestly kicking myself) that I hadn’t realised that ‘redrum’ was ‘murder’ spelt backwards.
Owen went on to say that “the best way to survive a horror setting is to be supremely, boringly, sensible: don’t talk to strangers, don’t stay the night in a foreign town, don’t go to the aid of anyone who looks sick, don’t go in to that crumbling old building. If a very attractive stranger tries to seduce you, it is almost definitely a trap. Respect tradition, do not commit sacrilege, listen to the advice of elderly locals. At the heart of a lot of horror is a conservative craving for the predictable and the known.”
And in all honesty… I quite agree. As humans, we fear the things we don’t understand. This is why the concept of the uncanny is so terrifying. The whole idea of everything I know suddenly being switched for something else that’s pretty much identical makes me feel quite sick.
Muriel Gray’s ‘Roundabout’ is a perfect example of this. An utterly normal, (even boring) setting, but behind that facade lies a lurking beast, ready to change your life completely.
People read horror for many different reasons. Personally, I read it to cling on to the normalcy and boringness of everyday life. After all, “by putting normality in jeopardy, it creates a desire for its return and future security”
And if you’re like me, and want something genuinely terrifying… go and watch one of those driving safety PSAs… I’m still absolutely petrified by the fact that I NEVER SAW THE MOON WALKING BEAR.
- Electronic Arts, The Sims 3, (2009)
- M M Owen, Our Age Of Horror,
- Stephen King, The Shining, (1977)
- Muriel Gray, Roundabout, New Fears, Mark Morris, (2017)
- Kimberley Reynolds, Geraldine Brennan, and Kevin McCarron Frightening Fiction. (2001). p.8
- user: dothetest, Test your awareness: do the test, (2008),