When people think of the two separate words, ‘horror’ and ‘terror’, they usually think of them as interchangeable. Horror seems to be the prevailing term, as the go-to term for everything deemed frightening, whether movie, book, or music. There really isn’t a ‘terror’ movie genre, but instead ‘horror’ movies that are terrifying. Horror is usually the genre, while we use terror and its many variations as an adjective to describe the horror film/book/etc.
I generally don’t have a problem with this in the film industry. It works just fine, and when I want to see a movie I know exactly where to look. The line is vague, but there. But when we get to writing… I feel that the line between the two adjectives need to be more clean cut.
Horror and terror mean two separate things. Generally both are frightening, but the distinction comes from what makes it frightening.
When I think of horror… something that is horrifying, I usually think of gore. Shock value. Saw, Hostel, The Human Centipede… what happens in those movies are horrific. I mean, people getting chopped in pieces, tortured, and sown mouth to anus? Disgusting. Horrifying. It is horrible to see these things happen, because the thought of it happening in real life to anyone including yourself makes you sick and scared. That is typically how horror works, at least in my mind, is the real of something that gruesome happening to yourself or people you care about.
Terror, on the other hand, is a bit more heavy handed and also subjective. Something that is terrifying is generally more mental. Someone’s terror won’t be yours and vice-a-versa, but whatever yours might be it is a truly terrible thing to witness. It sends chills down your spine. You start looking behind your back, and jumping at the smallest sound. Your brain goes into high alert, and the thought of it being a film is usually no consolation.
Something that is terrifying has a lot more fear factor than horror does. Less gore, more mentality that screws with the way you know things. Terror brings the fear from the movie or book, and forms itself into something very real inside your head. It puts a pit in your stomach of pure dread.
Films like the first Nightmare on Elm Street, Insidious, The Evil Dead, and the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Once again, subjective, but generally things that rely on ambiance, subtlety, and surrealism fare better as terrifying then things that have visuals that are, horrible or not, based in reality.
Terror is the unknown. The ‘what could be’. It’s the suspense of not knowing, it’s the fear of whatever hit that personal spot in one’s mind that makes them afraid in the first place.
Terror is the little child who truly believes that there is a monster under his bed. It is the child who tries sleeping with one eye closed, one eye in the shadows to watch that creeping shape. It is the person who swore he heard his name called, or heard a scream, or saw an image in the corner of his eyes. The feeling of not knowing is intense. Whether or not there is something lurking in the shadows doesn’t matter. It is the fear of not knowing.
Horror is the feeling you get after you know for sure… after you swallow that lump in your throat and realize that yes, there is something in the corner that is going to jump out at you once you move or scream.
Both are brilliant emotions, but must be used carefully and must be controlled and tamed for whatever you may be writing. My own horror novel, The New Phantasm, strives for the terror of uncertainty for a good portion of it. The main character, Aubrey Kasey, has no clue what is hunting him or why. It is an enigma, the villain is literally made of the shadows, so he has no idea how to fight back, how to defend himself, or even where to look.
I do believe terror is more potent, which is why I spread it over the majority of what I’m writing. I feel that the horror should come at once, in one big blow, in one revelation, and let the horror of what has happened carry the rest of the story.
Of course, this is just my opinion. People have different methods for delivering horror or terror, and a lot of them work brilliantly. The key is finding the right combination that works for you, and how to deliver it so there isn’t an overpowering sense to whatever your writing. There have been books I’ve had to stop reading, movies I’ve had to stop watching, because I didn’t think I could stomach anymore.
The trick is to keep them on the brink of that… never let them go over, keep them invested enough that they want to know what is going to happen so they keep on turning the page… but at times, so scared they don’t know why.
So to everyone, keep on writing… NaNoWriMo is right around the corner, and I’ll have more information on my first year participating soon.
Everyone enjoy the continuing descent into Autumn, and I’ll see you on Halloween for a little more movie talk.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
– Brandon, 11:24 PM