We need to talk for a moment about “horror.” It’s not a genre.
“What?” you say. “Not a genre? Well, how does that explain the HORROR section at the movie shop, and the HORROR section at my local bookstore? Why is there a HORROR category when I shop online for my media?”
Valid points. The truth is, horror, along with just about every genre of media, is being used in ways which works against the stories they’re being packaged as. That’s why I’ll invite you to look at “genres” for what they really are: elements of a story.
Have you ever sat down with a friend or family member, and had the discussion of “is it horror?” Have you ever found yourself debating the genre of a given book, film, or piece of music? Have you ever felt a lack of satisfaction in the conclusions of these conversations? It’s because of one detail that’s often overlooked; you can’t define a story by one genre or label, and while I find all labels suffer this problem, I’m mostly going to use horror for this example.
Let’s take a look at a film which, admittedly, is a little strange to bring up in this argument. Pinocchio (1940) is what Wikipedia calls an “animated musical fantasy film.” And if you’ve never seen it, I can assure you, there is plenty of fantasy and musical fun to be had—if that’s what you’d like to see. But what the label doesn’t tell you about, is the several disturbing elements contained in this story. For cryin’ out loud, a young boy turns into a donkey to be sold, in a scene which is terrifying just about any child. It’s a mature theme for a story for that age group, and something that could easily be labeled as “horror” if it were that scene in isolation.
But Pinocchio is not that scene in isolation. It’s a small part of an overall story which is indeed adventurous, musical, and deals with plenty of fantasy. The reason why those words are used, is because the overall story fits those labels. The reason we have genres in the first place, is to make finding what we want to watch easier—a product of commercial distributors of books, film, and music. If you want to watch an animated fantasy musical, you could easily include Pinocchio in your list of choices, purely because it fits the criteria of the labels.
But stories are far more complex than a label. Just because something is labeled one thing, doesn’t mean it can’t have other elements. The donkey scene is a good example. For horror specifically, you’ll find that it’s in just about every story ever told. And I’m not being hyperbolic. There are frightening scenes in other Disney films. There are frightening scenes in comedies. Remember Large Marge, or that creepy clown from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure? Or how about when that Nazi’s face melts off at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark? Disturbing, right? Neither of those films are classified as “horror,” but it would be silly to say those scenes aren’t horrifying because it’s not in the label.
Years ago, I wrote a very short story which has yet to see the light of day—mostly because I felt the subject matter was close to another story I’d written, and I felt that one was stronger. In any case, the piece involves a man who is talking with the devil himself, and Satan tries to convince him it’s a good idea to end his life. I sent the story to a friend, who told me “Y’know Chris, that was really good. It wasn’t scary per se, that was pretty sad, but I liked it.”
I couldn’t help but feel a little amused at that. See, most people I know think of me as “the horror guy,” perhaps in a similar way to other authors like Stephen King and Clive Barker, who are known to the general public as “the horror guys”—whether they like it or not. I can live with the label, if only because I’d be downright lying if I said my work had nothing to do with what is horrifying and macabre. It applies to a majority of what I create, so it’s not entirely unfair. But saying that I’m always trying to be scary, or just a “horror guy,” is misleading; some of my work is more melancholy than fear-inducing, and I’ve ventured off into places of fantasy, science fiction, satire, and dare I say it, humor.
But the only other justification I can accept for being labeled, is that I enjoy giving readers more than what they expect. If I can write something classified as “horror,” that has a few laughs, tears, and wonder to go in with all the dread and suspense, then I’m doing my job right. It would be a shame if all books and stories held onto one note the whole time. The best stories, and the ones that stick around, are the ones that go through the full range of human emotion. It can be a challenge to hit all of those notes as a writer, but it’s a challenge worth taking on.
With all of that said, it’s easy to see how genres can be unfair to stories. Is Alien a science fiction film, or a horror film? It’s hard to argue one way or the other, because it’s both, and even more than that. Alien has suspense, humor, and perhaps a little action mixed in—so should it be disregarded? I think not.
So we’ve covered just about everything. Genres don’t really exist in a purified form, rather, they’re elements that are used in a story. Unfortunately, this has caused a division in expectations: because what do you do with a book like “Requiem for a Dream” or a film like “The Passion of the Christ”? The latter is called a “biblical drama,” but is in fact, a brutal and uncomfortable viewing experience, and the former is a venture into the tragedy of drug addiction. There are no serial killers, monsters, or ghosts, but the devastation of addiction can be just as horrifying if not more than the expected horror genre tropes. To exhaust the point, what isn’t horrifying about “Silence of the Lambs,” a film often labeled crime/drama/thriller? It’s not so cut-and-dry as it would seem, which is why I find myself challenging the idea of genre. Labels disservice many stories, and turn readers and viewers away from media they would otherwise enjoy. I know friends and family members alike who refuse to look at anything “horror,” but LOVE true crime stories or thrillers—which can be even more disturbing than your average horror film.
So what do you think? Can we escape the iron-clad grip of genre? Is there any hope for books and films deserving awards, but are shunned for their “horror” label? We have a long way to go, but I think it’s about time we really considered these issues—as artists, and as readers and viewers.
Let it be heard, friends: no story is a single categorized island.
I’ll get back to you when I find a way to make that sound catchy.