Dread, terror, horror

Sän has an interesting post about horror up at his blog. I would have commented on it earlier except, you know, I only meet Sän a few days ago.

His distinction between smart horror and dumb horror reminds me of something I got from Orson Scott Card a long time ago. This was from one of his writing books (I forget which one), and he suggested that there are three kinds of fear:

  1. Dread, which is the feeling when you know something is wrong but you don’t yet know what. Dread is the anticipation of Terror to come.
  2. Terror, which is the heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled rush when you see the monster and (vicariously) experience immediate danger
  3. Horror, which is the revulsion and discomfort we experience in the aftermath of seeing something, er, horrible.

The strongest of these, he says, is Dread, but it’s also the hardest to sustain. Slasher films tend to deal almost entirely in Horror with snippets of Terror. OTOH, a really excellent thriller like Alien or The Ring manages to keep you in Dread for most of the movie. (In Alien, consider how rarely the monster is actually on screen, and how much time is instead spent creeping around in the shadows wondering where the monster is.)

Interestingly, Sän’s categories are almost entirely orthogonal to Card’s. You can do dumb Dread and smart Horror–in fact, some of the best stories I’ve read are best classified as smart Horror.

The last commenter mentions the Silent Hill games. Silent Hill 2 is the only game I’ve stopped playing because it was too frightening–and in gets this power almost entirely from Dread. The monsters in Silent Hill are not very frightening and you’re never in very much danger, so the Terror is pretty mild. There’s plenty of gore in some areas to provoke Horror, but they’re fairly rare. Rather, through a brilliant use of music, pacing, and lighting, the game creates a powerful atmosphere of Dread. So powerful that the game became no fun, because I dreaded putting the disk in.

1 Comment

  1. Hello, stranger! You’ll never read this, because I’m commenting on a post from 2008 that I found while perusing blogs on Card’s types of fear. (A little dorky of me, yes.) I feel I must defend slashers, if only because that’s where Card fumbles–he’s defining slashers by the franchise rather than the film, and that’s not fair.

    As a general rule, in any slasher franchise, the first movie is all about dread, punctuated by terror, with the occasional slap of horror for the kiddies. A first sequel is hindered by the now-savvy audience, but still usually manages a fair amount of dread. It’s only as they spin into a full-fledged franchise that the films go ridiculous, give up on dread and embrace horror punctuated by brief burst of terror.

    The best proof of that may be that “The Ring” is technically a slasher, completely with a big franchise in its country of origin. The brilliance of the American remake wasn’t in maintaining dread, it was in playing on our cultural preconceptions about genre and story: it looks and feels like a standard ghost story to Western audiences, but it works like a slasher. (That may also be why the second film flopped.)

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