Tuesday, April 21

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

Terror vs Horror In Gothic Fiction

I’ve been reading and writing Gothic stories all my life, though I didn’t always know that’s what they were.

As a girl I tore through Mary Stewart’s Gothic Romances and most recently I’ve been ensnared by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s marvelous Pendergast series, an example of Southern Gothic.

I’m not going to lie, Gothic fiction is a big topic and perhaps I should start off with definitions and talk about how Gothic fiction differs from other sorts of fiction, and so on, but I’m not going to. Today I’m just going to dip my toe in the water and discuss what I think is an important and fruitful distinction in ANY kind of literature: terror vs horror.

Terror vs Horror: The Anticipated vs The Actual


In what follows I’m drawing from material I found on the university of Virginia’s servers. It came up in a Google search on “psychological overlay.” Here’s the link: Individual and Social Psychologies of the Gothic: Introduction.

Although terror and horror might appear superficially similar (terror is extreme fear and horror is defined as “an intense feeling of fear, shock or disgust”) one could argue—as Ann Radcliffe did in an 1826 essay—that ...

“[...] terror is characterized by ‘obscurity’ or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy that leads the reader toward the sublime. Horror, in contrast, ‘nearly annihilates’ the reader's responsive capacity with its unambiguous displays of atrocity.” [1]

One gets the feeling Radcliffe would NOT have appreciated the 2004 movie Saw.

Echoing Radcliffe, Devendra Varma characterized the difference between “terror and horror as the difference between ‘awful apprehension and sickening realization,’ [...]”. Of terror she writes: “Sounds unexplained, sights indistinctly caught, dim shadows endowed with motion by the flicker of the firelight or the shimmer of the moonbeam invoke superstitious fear.” [2]

Horror, on the other hand, depends upon seeing the physical objects our fertile imaginations cast in a thousand shades of darkness. As Radcliffe put it, "the forms which float half-veiled in darkness afford a higher delight than the most distinct scenery the Sun can show." [3]

Summing up, Devendra P. Varma writes: 

“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. [...] Terror thus creates an intangible atmosphere of spiritual psychic dread, a certain superstitious shudder at the other world. Horror resorts to a cruder presentation of the macabre: by an exact portrayal of the physically horrible and revolting, against a far more terrible background of spiritual gloom and despair. Horror appeals to sheer dread and repulsion, by brooding upon the gloomy and the sinister, and lacerates the nerves by establishing actual cutaneous contact with the supernatural...” [2]

Another Perspective: Physical Ambiguity vs Moral And Psychological Ambiguity


While I’m personally convinced by the arguments put forward by Radcliffe and her modern ally, Varma, there is another way of looking at the distinction between the terrifying and the horrible. 

Robert Hume begins his critique by pointing out that Radcliffe’s technique, how she generates terror, is by using “dramatic suspension.” Which is another way of saying that Radcliffe “raises vague but unsettling possibilities and leaves them dangling for hundreds of pages.” (Where have I heard that technique used before? Lee Child.) Hume remarks that “Mrs. Radcliffe's easy manipulation of drawn-out suspense holds the reader's attention through long books with slight plots.” [4]

But, Hume says, terror isn’t the only game in town. Other writers hold the readers attention just as well and without aid of either suspense or dread, instead “they attack him frontally with events that shock or disturb him.” [4]

Rather than enumerating a labyrinth of possibilities that never materialize “they heap a succession of horrors upon the reader.” These sort of books gain much of their effect “from murder, torture, and rape.” [4]

Hume sums up his position: 

“The difference from terror-Gothic is considerable; Mrs. Radcliffe merely threatens these things, and Walpole uses violent death only at the beginning and end of his book. The reader is prepared for neither of these deaths, which serve only to catch the attention and to produce a climax, respectively.”

“[...] with the villain-heroes of horror-Gothic we enter the realm of the morally ambiguous. Ambrosio, Victor Frankenstein, and Melmoth are men of extraordinary capacity whom circumstance turns increasingly to evil purposes. They are not merely monsters [...]”

“To put the change from terror-Gothic to horror-Gothic in its simplest terms, the suspense of external circumstance is de- emphasized in favor of increasing psychological concern with moral ambiguity. The horror-Gothic writers [...] wrote for a reader who could say with Goethe that he had never heard of a crime which he could not imagine himself committing. The terror novel prepared the way for a fiction which though more overtly horrible is at the same time more serious and more profound.” [4]

The Appeal of Moral Ambiguity


Think of “The Silence of the Lambs,” either the book or the movie. That story was one in which the protagonist’s mentor, Hannibal Lecter (aka Hannibal the Cannibal) was a brutal serial killer. And, strangely, he was kinda, sorta, a good guy. Why? Because he helped stop another serial killer, Buffalo Bill, and because Hannibal only killed jerks. Buffalo Bill, on the other hand, killed without regard to the intrinsic characteristics of the victim; what they were like as people. Buffalo Bill’s victims were simply a means to an end. He was only interested in their exterior, their skin. 

For myself, one of the fascinating things about the universe Thomas Harris created was that he not only crafted a complex character like Hannibal Lecter but that he made me genuinely care about him, even root for him.

To Sum Up


Although a particular story could eschew horror and rely only upon suspense in order to create narrative drive, or vice versa, they (of course) work best together. That said, I thought it was interesting and possibly instructive to try an conceptually tease the two apart so as to meditate upon what is unique to each as well as how such feelings might be generated in readers.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: Sketch by Edward Gorey.

Notes:


(All references are from “Terror and Horror.”)
1. Ann Radcliffe, "On the Supernatural in Poetry," The New Monthly Magazine (1826): 145-52.
2. Devendra P. Varma, The Gothic Flame (New York: Russell & Russell, 1966).
3. Ann Radcliffe, “The Mysteries of Udolpho.”
4. Robert Hume, "Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel," PMLA 84 (1969): pp. 282-290.

4 comments:

  1. It had been a while since I said hello. :) So hello

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  2. I like the Tim Burton Batman for the fact that you hated to see the death of the Joker.

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    1. Ack! Sorry for the late reply! For some reason your comment didn't show up in my mailbox. I've been manually going through the comments left on the site.

      In general, Tim Burton's creative mind is to-be-envied. Love his work.

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