For a while I’ve thought that there is a difference between terror and horror. And I’m pleased to find that others agree with me. For example, in Bruce Lanier Wright’s book Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies – The Modern Era (Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1995), he writes that in his view there are two kinds of fear. For him, “the first kind is the body-fear of pain, of injury, when you become a bit more aware of dying.” He calls this kind of fear terror. While he recognizes this as a valid type of fear that is often transformed into entertainment, he distinguishes this from another type of fear called horror. As Wright continues his description of horror he says:
“Horror is something quite different, and far more rare. …Horror is a fear unconnected to thoughts of your personal welfare. Horror has nothing to do with you, in that respect. Horror is impersonal.
“You fear a madman because he might harm you. You fear a ghost, if you happen to find yourself doing so, simply because of its existence – which is a crucial distinction of horror I think.
“An element of awe is always present in true horror. Animals feel terror, but they can’t experience horror; it’s a human sensibility, a peculiar intellectual fear. In effect, horror tells us that our maps of ‘reality’ are incomplete, that some impossible thing can in fact happen. The inexplicable tends to awaken a nebulous sort of panic in us, a suspicion that the universe is even stranger and more uncertain than we had imagined it to be.”
Although I disagree with Wright on some of the specifics (e.g., horror can be connected to fears of bodily terror, and it is often both impersonal as well as personal), I think he makes an important distinction in the types of fears we experience (and dread). With this distinction in mind as applied to current horror cinema, the crop of horror films being released by Hollywood for the last several years (such as Hostel and Rob Zombie’s recent take on Halloween) it appears as if much of it focuses on gore and bodily mutilation (including torture) that stirs up fears of terror rather than horror.
Personally, I don’t find films that elicit feelings of terror all that frightening, and I have no interest in the current slasher, gore, mutilation, and torture films. I don’t find these films very creative or compelling in their stories or in the emotions they are able to dredge up on the part of the viewer. Certainly there are exceptions to this once in a while, and a film like The Ring is a good example, but here we find a film that elicits fears of horror rather than terror, and it took the influence of horror as found in Japanese culture to influence American filmmakers, and perhaps its a good thing that American horror has received an injection of creativity from another culture.
But it may be that there is another source that might provide inspiration for horror in American cinema as a way beyond the current terror trend. Zombos Closet of Horror Blog included a post not long ago titled “Gore is Easy: Terror is Hard.” The post interacted with an article by Clive Thompson from Wired magazine titled “Gore is Less: Videogames Make Better Horror Than Hollywood.” Zombos blog does not use my terminology but he draws a similar distinction, one between gore and terror, and Thompson’s article touches on this as well as he discusses his dissatisfaction with many contemporary horror films that he sees lacking as a source of suspense and horror, and for him another source has provided an alternative to “the current trend toward torture-chic and metric tonnage of blood in scary movies.” He says that “for several years now, I’ve found that my favorite horror games experiences aren’t coming from movies any more. They’re coming from games.”
I understand Thompson’s feelings. I have enjoyed a few of these types of games on my Sony PlayStation 2 (forgive me, but I don’t have the discretionary funds yet to upgrade to a PS3 or to secure a X-Box 360), including Nightmare Creatures, Resident Evil 2, BloodRayne, and Dracula Unleashed. As Thompson compares current Hollywood horror films with horror in videogames he notes that:
“In contrast, the best scary-game designers have quietly perfected the interplay of tension and release that makes for a truly cardiac horror experience. They have, in a sense, become even more faithful interpreters of the horror tradition moves than Hollywood directors.”
He goes on to describe his experiences with BioShock, and its ability to generate a “free-floating anxiety.” He compares what some of these horror videogames are able to create in the mind of the view with dreams and nightmares:
“Games already seem like dream states. You’re wandering around a strange new world, where you simultaneously are and aren’t yourself. This is already an inherently uncanny experience. That’s why a well-made horror game feels so claustrophobically like being locked inside a really bad – by which I mean a really good – nightmare.”
We have all had the experience of waking from an awful nightmare with our hearts pounding, palms sweating, and a brief instant of uncertainty about whether we are awake and “safe,” or whether the nightmare was the reality. The experience we have during nightmares often touches more on the feelings created during an experience with horror rather than terror, and it may be that videogames provide us with not only a better experience of horror that some of us desire than many of Hollywood’s current crop of producers and directors. Until we interact more with other cross-cultural sources of horror for inspiration, here’s to hoping that videogames, and perhaps comics, exert greater influence on the celluloid nightmares of the future.