Annihilating the Soul

In the course of one week, I have three times come across statements from as diverse sources as Stephen King (Danse Macabre), Ann Radcliffe (“On The Supernatural in Poetry”), Bernard Perron (Silent Hill: the Terror Engine) and Kevin Lucia (via his introductory Horror 101 segment of the Tales to Terrify podcast) regarding the relative hierarchy of terror and horror in the context of art. We all know the drill because it is practically scripture, but say it with me anyways: Terror is ALWAYS the superior of the two. Any time we aim for horror, we are settling for less only because we cannot achieve terror. I’ve always felt a little put off by that bland assumption, despite the arguments given to back it up, but only recently (during a rather lengthy bout of toilet-bound contemplation if you must know) found the reason crystallizing for me.

First, lets define these two nebulous and slippery terms as they work within my own squiggly mass of grey tissue. To me, terror lies completely in anticipation. It’s in the drawn out, breathless moment of waiting. In the ephemeral moment of nothingness. Contrarily, horror comes in reaction to actual events. Often, but not necessarily, it is the payoff that terror builds to.

I can understand the preference given to terror. We are nothing if not meaning making machines. We like to ascribe purpose and value to the things in our life and it is much easier to do that when we don’t know for certain what the thing is. The undefined thing can then become anything and whatever we make it becomes ours, a personal possession among these words or images created by someone else. What isn’t there to like in a game like that?

Also, terror is tough to build. It takes a lot of work, slowly building the moment stone by stone, block by block. Giving just enough to let the audience know that something bad is coming, but not enough to know what it is. Establishing weight and significance to something that would drive Schroedinger bonkers isn’t easy and we prefer to reward the things that seem harder to accomplish, regardless of the result.

On the other hand, Horror seems so simple and concrete. We can see it sitting there, right in front of us. The ghastly remnants of our once beloved family slouching towards the bedroom door. A little person with a sledgehammer and pliers. Whatever it is, it is no longer up for debate and belongs only to the person who created it. Worse, it’s easy. Anyone can draw up a pulpy mass that was momma or close in on the knife as it slowly enters the belly. Heck, as Stephen King has pointed out numerous times, little kids kick out dead baby jokes that will churn your guts.

But not really. At least not in my opinion.

I think the problem comes from an assumption that horror is dependent upon the gross out, that this experience of soul-annihilation (to paraphrase Radcliffe) comes as the result of something physically icky. The idea that horror is Micheal Myers stabbing the teenager, or the mob chomping on still squirming flesh. However, I firmly believe that the experience of horror comes as the result of something more existentially, psychologically icky.

For an example, I’ll use George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, since I am sure most of you have seen it and it makes wonderful use of both terror and horror.

The opening sequence in the graveyard is terror at its finest, as we watch our first zombie lurching toward Barbara and Johnny. We know what this being is, because we have come to see a film about cannibalistic dead people, but we also know that Babs and John-boy are oblivious and treat him as if he is just another mourner. Romero uses the slow, plodding pace of his zombies to build the tension of the moment, to force us to wait for the attack we know must occur. By the time the zombie has reached them, the tension has morphed into terror and we are riveted. Then, the same slow and sure tenacity ramps up the terror as these creatures surround and attack the clearly temporary stronghold of the farmhouse. In the mean time, he uses the false security of the house to buy time for the simmering racial and power struggles to percolate as they under the pressure of the exterior stresses. We know something bad is going to happen as a result of these situations and that anticipation of the unknown bad thing is what creates the sense of terror.

While the sources of terror seem to be fairly universally agreed upon, the moments of horror tend to be a bit more viewer-specific. However, three moments tend to be mentioned the most: the zombie “feast”, Judy’s death at the hands of her daughter and Ben’s death at the end. All three moments include the blood and flesh of physical revulsion, but that was not where I found their true horror. To me, beneath the rotten animal parts, the feast displayed a loss of hope. This disparate, bickering group finally put aside their differences to achieve a common goal for the good of all of them and it exploded in their faces, ending in blood and death. Judy’s death showed that even behind their walls, they were no more safe than anywhere else and that concepts such as love and duty to family might mean nothing in such tumultuous situations. Ben’s death then brought it all together by slapping us with a total absence of hope in the realization that “we” are no better than “them.” The horror I encountered in these moments had less to do with the acts committed than what those acts meant to me within the context of the story being told.

The horror I experienced with this film, it doesn’t seem so simple or easy to me. It isn’t the result of the individual moments on their own, after all. A film that consisted only of the tearing and mastication of flesh, stabbing via garden trowel and a gunshot to the head would be dull. Empty. God knows we’ve all seen those films, read those books or looked upon that art often enough to know that it elicits no sense of horror. The impact of each moment comes from the context that had been built around it steadily since the opening shot and while they may have come partially as the payoff to mounting terror, it was the context, not the terror, which gave them their weight.

Maybe, then, this requires a re-evaluation of why so much value is placed on terror over horror. Certainly, of those experiences within the world of NOTLD, the terror was the more pleasurable. My heart pounded and my mind raced while trying to figure out what would happen or what I would do to avoid it. The whole is great fun when you don’t have to live it. But in those moments of horror, my heart stopped. My mind froze on the simple thought of how wrong it all was. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes elicits a degree of introspection into realms of the self we don’t want to traverse. How horrible. There is no fun to be had there.

But then I am drawn back to Kevin Lucia’s reiteration of the conceit of what constitutes literature, that it must reveal or elucidate some aspect of the human condition. While I appreciate the expansive joy of the experience of terror and admire the art required to bring it to fruition as much as anyone else, I don’t believe it meets that goal. I cannot think of anything there is to be learned about ourselves and each other in that breathless moment of waiting between beats. However, I do believe that lessons abound in those images and words that make our hearts stop and our brains freeze and threaten to undo all that we are.