For Halloween, Tess Pilgrim discusses how horror needs both fear of the unknown and inspiration from the past.
I am a horror fan. Maybe it’s because of this that I’m highly critical about most horror works. It’s one of the few genres where a genuinely good creation feels like a rarity rather than the norm. While my favourite books, films, and games tend to have horror elements at least, most of them are either not very good or good-but-not-scary (which is an issue when the whole point of the genre is to provoke fear).
I get why this is. It’s pretty ambitious to try to provoke a fear response in a fundamentally safe environment, much less one that has to try to hit the fears of a vast swathe of people at once. Too subtle and most people will find it boring or confusing, too open and it can veer into silly or obvious. You need a healthy understanding of human psychology and the current cultural atmosphere (though the best horror won’t be fleetingly scary, either).
Because of this, horror is extremely dependent on using ideas and tropes from older works. I’ve written about how creativity relies on borrowing before, and horror is one of the places this is most prevalent. It’s hard to think of settings or monsters that are truly new or unique. Interestingly, fear of the unknown is a big part of horror—whatever your imagination comes up with is scarier than any costume or special effects—so it seems contradictory that the genre is so reliant on using already-established ideas.
These ideas, however, are how creators can understand what people will be provoked by. They are also a way of knowing what an audience is likely to expect, and thus being able to follow or subvert this. By using previous ideas, a creator can make something known unknown again, or build fear as we know that something terrible is about to happen. For horror, using others’ content is a critical part of understanding the genre.
Like anything, it’s hard to really specify a definite beginning of the genre (or even certain aspects of it). Literature has evolved very collaboratively over time, with every pioneer influenced by the ones before. So, I’ll pick one of many starting points. Rather than a ‘traditional’ horror story, it begins with an epistolary, ground-breaking, feminist short story.
The Yellow Wall Paper (1892) plays with several genres, including horror. A husband has rented out an old mansion for the summer, and the story is presented as his wife’s journal entries as she falls into madness. It’s heavy on the Gothic tropes (themselves good examples of early horror) with its setting and madwomen in the attic, but its horror mainly lies in its uncomfortable realism. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote it as a critique of the ‘rest cure’, to show how it could drive one to madness rather than cure them.
A few years later, The King in Yellow (1895) was published. This collection of short stories has several related to a (fictional) play about the titular King, which drives any reader mad. The real reader is given tantalising quotes from the play, but its content is mainly left to the imagination. Robert W. Chambers was no stranger to borrowing content from others (The King in Yellow takes several names from the works of Ambrose Pierce), so many critics have suggested that the use of yellow and certain themes of the stories were inspired by The Yellow Wallpaper.
The thread of influence is less speculative with H. P. Lovecraft, who commented on both The Yellow Wallpaper and referenced The King in Yellow directly. Many of his stories deal with narrators discovering eldritch truths which drive them mad, in common with both these works. Lovecraft codified and expanded these ideas into the sub-genre known as Lovecraftian (or Cosmic) horror, which provokes fear through emphasising the insignificance of humanity in a vast, uncaring and incomprehensible universe.
Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is still being expanded today by other creators, but his characters and concepts outside of this have become a staple of the horror genre. House of Leaves (2000) contains both a sanity-bending impossible location and a (fictional) text which may or may not drive the reader mad. It builds on these established tropes through an experimental form, where the book itself becomes the house and begins to actively threaten you, the reader. The idea of the house being the eldritch abomination is also present in The Haunting of Hill House, both in the book (1959) and the Netflix series loosely based on it (2018).
Video games have also picked up on these ideas, directly borrowing or referencing them. Bloodborne (2015) has a distinctly Gothic and Lovecraftian plot, pulling influences from the works already discussed here and Japanese creators such as Junji Ito, a horror manga artist (who was also influenced by Lovecraft and Lovecraftian Horror). The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (2014) similarly borrows from Lovecraft and other weird fiction, but also differs by openly acknowledging their nature as stories. The Slenderman Mythos is a collaborative tangle of images, stories, games, videos, and modern folklore about a Lovecraftian presence which menaces humans in various ways.
Over a hundred years after those early examples were first published, the concepts they contained (and, in Lovecraft’s case, the actual creatures) still have the potential to horrify audiences. If creators continued to simply tread the same ground as The Yellow Wall Paper, the unknown would be gone, and the stories would no longer be effective. With a deft creator, however, the same concepts can be subverted and shown to be incorrect or altered so that the audience is left unsure and uncomfortable. If you’re tempted to write a horror story this Halloween, it’s worth bearing in mind. Alternatively, if you want inspiration for good things to read and watch, everything I’ve mentioned here is a great start—I’ve included some links to freely available content below, and of course your CLA Licence allows you to make copy extracts to share with staff and students if you want to inspire them, too.
Free to view/read works
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall Paper (full text on Wikisource)
- Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (full text on Wikisource)
- The works of H. P Lovecraft (full texts on Wikisource). Some of my favourites are:
- Marble Hornets (a YouTube series and one of the most famous works associated with the Slenderman Mythos)