Terror Versus Horror


Figure 21 from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Caption reads “FIG. 21.—Horror and Agony, copied from a photograph by Dr. Duchenne.”

There was an interesting discussion made during one of the workshops at the recent HWC – horror versus terror.

It was pointed out that the horror genre, which includes Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ray Bradbury, is generally confused with the slash and gore associated with films like Friday the 13th, and what was referred to as the ‘terror genre.’

There’s a distinct difference between terror and horror that is often confused. In a frightening situation, terror comes first as the precursor to horror. Terror is hearing something breathe in the shadows just out of sight. Horror would be the monster stepping into the light.

Figure 20 from Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Caption reads "FIG. 20.—Terror, from a photograph by Dr. Duchenne."

Figure 20 from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Caption reads “FIG. 20.—Terror, from a photograph by Dr. Duchenne.”

Ideally, an effective work would elicit both emotions in a reader—terror and dread as the plot elements fall into place, building suspense, until the tension peaks into horror.

Terror creates hyper awareness. Every tick of the clock and creak of the stair seems amplified and nerves are taut and ready for action.

Horror, on the other hand, immobilizes. The ghost materializes and the scream freezes in the back of the throat. The reflection in the mirror transforms and the viewer stands transfixed and unable to react while the brain struggles to process. Terror is the build up, horror is the punchline.

Devendra Varma, a scholar of vampire lore and English Gothic tales, wrote of this in The Gothic Flame:

The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.

Maybe the real distinction isn’t horror versus terror but well written versus badly written horror. Every genre suffers from the cheap trick authors who read that vampires-zombies-aliens are “in” and try to take advantage by churning out similarly themed fictional pulp.

In any genre, imaginative, well edited writing will still be standing on the shelf while the pretenders have long fallen off the map, disheartened. Instead of dividing forces, scribblers with spooky tendencies might do well to recognize horror and terror as two sides of the same coin and play both to their advantage.

About Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher and author. Her first collection of poetry, In Favor of Pain, was nominated for an 2017 Elgin Award. Her latest novella, Bitter Suites, is a 2018 Bram Stoker Awards® Finalist. Currently, she publishes Space and Time magazine, a 53 year old publication dedicated to fantasy, horror and science fiction. For more information visit SpaceandTimeMagazine.com or AngelaYSmith.com.
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