Welcome to Terror World: The Meaning of Fear

The Horror

The weird thing is that there is very little proper definition about what “Horror” means. We know it’s not fear, nor is it terror since we’ve defined those and there’s no room for horror in either of those definitions. Worse, authors will tend to talk about horror in different ways. So here come the quotes. Stephen King said about it, “I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud.” At the least we can get that terrify and horrify are different things, so that’s a good start.

The writer Philip Van Doren Stern said, “Horror and fear, although of the same family and often mistaken for each other, are not identical. Unlike fear, which can be of long duration, horror is necessarily climactic in effect. The mind can stand only so much, then its protecting agencies quickly come to their rescue and benumb the nerves. Thus it will be seen that horror transcends fear and is even more powerful. The word has been used too loosely. There is no horror, for instance, about a corpse, no matter how unpleasant it may look. Nothing substantial can be truly horrible; it may, by some odd quirk of association, inspire horror, but horror itself can be found only within ourselves. It is rooted in the imagination rather than in anything in the external world.”

So let’s throw another definition on the top of the pile. I think that Van Doren Stern is right about horror – it’s a gut punch. If terror makes you freak out, if it makes your brain freebase adrenaline, then horror just sucks the energy out of you. Horror hits you so hard because you don’t have a reaction. It is truly awful, and approaches the sublime. In my mind, fear is about something unseen. Terror is a reaction to something that might happen. So horror, true horror is what happens when your fear has become true.

Horror looks like this:

I don't think this is something you just walk off.
I don’t think this is something you just walk off.

See? Terror was fun, and fear is something you can push through. Horror is just, well, kind of horrible. This brings us back to Scream. Where we last left Casey she was terrified, and just learned that the psycho killer has her boyfriend and asked her to turn on the lights. Here’s what happens next (please excuse the mild overlap – click ahead to 0:46 if you are feeling excitable)

Alright, so of course she tries to open the door and rush out. That’s a terror response, and Casey is totes freaking out. Lots of freaking out and talking about playing a game. These of course are a mix of fear (in this case worry and apprehension) and terror (a panic) but no horror yet, and the section heading promised us some of that. So here we go. (as another side note, at 1:33 look at that closed framing again with Casey caught between the outside where her {doomed} boyfriend is, and that blue screen of death)

Alas, poor Steve, we hardly knew ye. I wonder since he didn’t have any lines if he was technically an extra. Anyway, the real meat of the scene is at 2:54 and Ms. Barrymore’s reaction to Steve being all slice and diced is a horror response. It’s not screaming or anything like that, but a turning inward. She sees what has happened and it is exactly what she feared would happen. She’s not afraid of it anymore, just deeply traumatized. That’s because Horror is a mental reaction. Barton Mt Armand, Brown University Professor and writer on HP Lovecraft said of horror, “Horror overtakes the soul from the inside; consciousness shrinks or withers from within, and the self is not flung into the exterior ocean of awe but sinks in its own bloodstream.”

Here’s the rest of the first scene from Scream. After the horror of seeing her boyfriend get his mortal coil shuffled like a deck of cards, Casey goes back to being terrified, which is a perfectly reasonable reaction given the circumstances. Let’s see what she does now.


Finally, at 0:40 Casey grabs a decent weapon and takes stock. This is that “rally” example from the section on terror. Now, her terror managed, she just has fear to suppress, which she does at around the 0:50 mark. She moves outside and away from the person she’s seen in her house. Then, well, it all goes even more to shit. Things happen and at 2:35 she’s stabbed, and there’s that horror sense again. The very thing that she was worried about starting all the way back in clip numero uno is happening, it is actually happening. As a member of the audience we are feeling that same horror, because our fear at the scene has now become true as well.

What’s interesting about horror is that there is very little catharsis in it because it saps your mental energy. But there are games that use horror as a game mechanic. Let’s talk about Limbo.

What’s that? You say that Limbo isn’t a horror game? I would disagree wholeheartedly. In it you play a small child in a dark world where everything is trying, and usually succeeding in killing you softly. The tropes of a horror game are all there. No power? Check. Die all the time? Check. A mood that is designed to illicit fear of the unknown out of you? Double check. I mean, the game looks like this:

But reconsider Scream and what horror actually means – that it is your fear come true. The weird thing about Limbo is that it uses those fears and the horror that comes about from dying all the time as a mechanic. In Limbo you die and try again because many of the puzzles require knowing how you will die to solve them. It puts the horror in front and forces you to think about it. Limbo says, “No, look at it. Now you know what happens if you fail. Do it better.” Like Casey, the nameless protagonist is doomed from the start, but unlike her, his numerous deaths all lead to something better. That’s literally how the game is designed and it makes you complicit in the horrible things.

With that, we’ve reached the end of the ride. I hope you kept your arms and legs inside the article at all times. In the spirit of Halloween, tell us in the comments if there is anything I missed and what your favorite ways to enjoy fear, terror, and horror are.


Eric Carr

Occasionally has mad notions, and more often than not runs with them. Welcome to one of those.

You May Also Like