Horror is one of those things that is relatively easy to spot when it’s there, but putting a concrete definition to is a bit more difficult. That’s the case with almost any abstract concept though. And like most abstract concepts we seem to be able to dance around the ideas contained within by giving examples and using metaphors. Really that’s the best we can do. Language is an imprecise thing in the best of cases. I think the act of trying to define a concept like this though is a worthwhile effort. We learn and grow by thinking and struggling with what we think.
One way to define a thing is to put it opposite something else and say what it is not. In this case I am opposing horror with love. In both there is some relation to an other outside ourselves. In both there is a revealing of secret, hidden things. In love it’s a sharing of understanding between two people. One of our greatest needs as humans is to be understood. That is what love aims towards. We look for an other with whom we can share ourselves, understand, and be understood. There is a longing for a communion of the inner life of another being. In horror there is only the absence of communion. Horror is an other that is unrevealed in every way except for one, as a force. And that force means us harm. It is a force that cannot be understood or reasoned with. One that cannot be resisted. Horror might feign at understanding. A protagonist might have a moment of feeling as though they are communicating with the antagonist. But in the end it is never successful. And that is what makes it so frightening. It is the complete opposite of the thing most of us long for more than anything. It is fear combined with alienation (as opposed to communion) made concrete in the form of a person, a creature, or an idea.
When we encounter a dangerous animal in nature, such as a wolf or a bear, it is a threat and therefore invokes fear. It may attack or kill us. But that animal is acting on instinctual self-preservation. It doesn’t make the fear any less real, but there isn’t any horror to it. It is attacking us with an instinctual reaction based intelligence that is at the very primitive base of our own intelligence. We can at least to a limited degree understand their motivations for food, protection, and avoiding danger and yet not see any malice in their actions. It is reason to feel fear, but not horror.
Other humans then by comparison are very understandable. But it’s that intelligence that allows the second component of horror to be revealed, alienation. When a being of comparable mind wants to inflict harm on us that is an upending of the expected order. A mass murderer is a creature like us in most ways except one; they don’t respect the societal strictures on harming other people. As a result we are alienated from one of comparable intellect and that defies our expectations of how we typically relate to other people. It’s that attack on those expectations that is the cause of the horror. As far as horror goes though this is the base level. There is a why behind what the murderer or psychopath is doing. It is a scrutable and comprehensible thing. Their motivations may be far outside the normal mode of human thinking, but we can encircle that dysfunction with the knowledge we have of psychology.
Moving up another level to alien intelligences we can work with the presumption that they may have similar thoughts and feelings to us as humans though their culture and motivations are entirely foreign to us. We can know another creature is intelligent (such as the xenomorph in Alien) and yet not be able to communicate with it. It is this sense of impotence in the face of another intelligence that has some malicious intent that causes the alienation in this case. Our lack of ability to fully understand the motivation of the creature or even reason with it (though it has a recognizable ability to reason) is a source of frustration and fear. There is a sense that if not for the lack some important key (communication) all could be fine. It’s a case of so close yet so far. Our need to connect is thwarted by an evolutionary path that is entirely unknown to us.
Yet another level up are creatures that have that seem to have the abilities and appearances of gods. Lovecraft’s horrors were often of this type; creatures that appear to have intelligence, in many cases vastly superior to our own. This superiority is in fact what alienates them from us. They are so far advanced that human intelligence is less than nothing to them and as a result we have no ability to communicate. Their malevolence is seemingly capricious and random. It likely has little, if anything, to do with us at all. We aren’t even allowed the “courtesy” of being the objects of the malice. We become collateral damage in some action that has nothing to do with us. This is in my opinion the most effective type of horror because it accentuates all the components to the extreme. We are entirely alienated from a seemingly intelligent creature. It possesses the ability to reason, but there is no way that we are able to reason with it. We can’t even understand its mode of thinking. It is too far beyond us. Humans become plankton in the sea of the universe, entirely irrelevant and insignificant regardless of our feelings of self-importance.
Horror is a negation of what we as intelligent humans most strive towards. It is anti-communication, it is anti-understanding, it is anti-communion. It hits one of, if not our deepest fear, to be isolated and not understood. The best horror plays up this isolation. It counters the idea of love by saying you will not and cannot be understood. Horror tells you that you are alone and will continue to be alone until you are finally cut down. You will not even get the courtesy of understanding why. Your life will end and it will have been meaningless. It is a truly strange thing to seek out this feeling through fiction. Why would we seek out the thing we fear the most? Maybe because it is actually a way of connecting. To see those things we fear played out for us in a book or on a screen means someone else is feeling them too. Someone else felt those feelings and represented them in a fictional manner. And through that medium we have made a kind of empathetic connection. An other has represented a feeling that we too feel and consequently has communicated something to us. Understanding suddenly has become possible again. Communion is possible. Love is possible. You are not alone. I am not alone.