The Four Horrors Theory – Revised!

Axis of Four Horrors

Those of you who follow my tumblr, which predates Horror Flora by a few years and is where a lot of this site’s content got its start, may remember an article I wrote about my Four Horrors Theory.  For those who don’t, the jist of the theory (or thesis if we want to get all academic with it) is that I feel Horror Fiction as a whole can be divided into four main subgenres, which in turn can be further divided into more and more subgenres.  It’s been a few years since I first published this theory, and in that time I’ve gotten some very valuable feedback on it that’s allowed me to polish it a bit.  As such, let’s dive into a new column here on Horror Flora: Key Horror Concepts, beginning with the newly revised Four Horrors Theory.

What Is a Horror Story?

After consuming as much Horror Fiction as I can fit into my life since I was a child, studying it in college (not as a major – I just took the two classes offered in it as electives.  I don’t know if there is a college that offers a major in Horror Fiction Studies yet), and blogging about it for a few years, I’ve come to the understanding that not everyone agrees on what qualifies as a Horror Story.  Before we delve into what I think are the four main subgenres of Horror, we should define the genre itself.  Here it is:

A Horror Story is a story that aims to inspire fear in its audience in order to get its point across.

There – simple and to the point.  Of course, I feel the need to elaborate a bit on this.  A Horror story doesn’t only inspire fear – most stories aim to inspire a variety of emotions.  There can be funny moments in a tragedy, tense moments in a comedy, and so on.  However, a comedy’s main goal is to make its audience feel happy, and a tragedy wishes to make its audience sad first and foremost.  A Horror Story wants to make the audience afraid – fear is the emotion it relies on more than any other.

I chose the wording “aims to inspire fear” carefully, as there are some movies people don’t classify as Horror because they’re not considered scary today.  Many of the creature features of the 1950’s are classified as science fiction today, and while they fit that genre well enough to an extent, their original purpose was to scare people at drive in movie theaters.  Though they may have lost their power to terrify modern audiences jaded by flashier special effects and buckets of gore, those old monster movies aimed to inspire terror more than anything else – Horror was their genre to begin with, and it remains such no matter how corny their rubber suits and cardboard sets may look to a modern viewer.

It should also be noted that genres can mix.  Horror Comedies  – that is, stories that aim to inspire fear AND humor in equal measure – exist, and can teach us about both the Horror and Comedy genres at the same time.  In fact, the only reason they are often written off as abnormal is that Horror Tragedies are far more common.  Horror often mixes with its sibling genres, Science Fiction and Fantasy, and more than a few non-Horror genres have their roots in Horror Stories – Detective Fiction is a descendant of Horror, even though Fear is not always the central emotion of a modern Detective story.

Still, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on Horror as its own genre and ignore its crossovers for the most part.  So remember as we go forward: a Horror Story is a story that aims to inspire fear in the audience in order to get its point across.

Fear of What?

Four Horrors Theory splits the Horror Genre into four primary subgenres based on the source of the fear they want to inspire.  There are countless things that terrify people in this world – you can google a list of phobias to get an idea of how many options there are.  One could just as easily make a Ten Horrors Theory or a One Hundred Horrors Theory as a Four Horrors Theory, so obviously this thesis is going to be generalizing a bit.  But then, that’s sort of the point of a Genre isn’t it – generalizing trends in literature?

Each of the Four Horrors is defined by the source of the fear it inspires.  Gothic Horror makes the past a source of Horror – fear of ancient evil is its primary focus.  Atomic Horror is its opposites, making the present and/or future the source of Horror instead, and focusing on the fear inspired by new technologies and cultural trends.  Cosmic Horror blames neither the past, present, or future, but rather makes the entirety of existence a source of Horror: the cold, unfeeling Universe itself is its fearful focus, with terror being the obvious result of understanding the true workings of the world.  Slasher Horror is its counterpart, and posits that human nature is the source of Horror, rather than the world at large: nothing is more fearful in a Slasher Horror story than the choices human beings make on a daily basis.

Though the Four Horrors are technically two pairs of opposites, there is no reason they can’t actually mix together – indeed, there are some stories and even entire subgenres of Horror that explicitly mix two or more of the Four Horrors together.  A story can make both the past and the present/future fearful, or expose the inherent cruelty of both humankind and the universe at large.  Any taxonomy of literature is bound to have exceptions like these.

As such, it is most useful to think of the Four Horrors as guidelines for understanding how many types of horror stories work, rather than rigid boxes that horror stories have to be fit into.  Some horror stories will fit into one of the Four Horrors very neatly, while others may bridge a gap between two or more of them.  Four Horrors Theory isn’t about forcing horror stories to fit four specific, strict categories – it’s about noticing the major trends in horror fiction and how different stories play with those trends.  The Four Horrors are (sub)Genres – they are generalizations.

Or, in short: they’re more like guidelines than actual rules.

Gothic Horror.png

Gothic Horror

While each of the Four Horrors can be easily summed up by stating the specific source of fear within them, those simple definitions could do with some elaboration.  We’ll start with the only one of the four (to my knowledge) that is officially recognized by Academia: Gothic Horror.  In Academia, Gothic Horror’s definition is even more specific than the one I’m about to elaborate on, and that was actually the reason I came up with this thesis in the first place.  Gothic Horror is too specific to encompass ALL horror stories in existence, and yet literary critics and colleges treat ALL horror stories as a subset of Gothic Horror.  The definition of Gothic Horror is crucial to this thesis, as the three other Horrors are partially defined by how they don’t necessarily fit with the rules of Gothic Horror.

As stated earlier, Gothic Horror uses the Past as the source of fear.  The earliest Gothic Horror stories were written during the Enlightenment/Age of Reason, and reflect the values of that time.  If society claims that modern civilization’s march of progress is good, it follows that the old ways of life it’s replaced are bad.  Many of the earliest Gothic Horror stories specifically took place in the Dark Ages, and by that name alone you can see how it contrasts with the modern world of the Enlightenment.  If modern civilization is safe and enlightened, the past is dark and full of terrors.  The past is barbaric, savage, uncivilized.

Nature is often demonized in Gothic Horror stories, because the natural world is older than the civilized one humanity currently lives in.  Nature is “red in tooth and claw,” wild and vicious, without compassion or remorse, as these are values that only an intelligent, modern, civilized human being can have.  If a Horror story emphasizes the idea that the natural world is fearsome because it lacks the ability to reason, think, and/or philosophize, then it is almost certainly a Gothic Horror story.

Sometimes the fear at the core of a Gothic Horror story is fairly mundane, like a crime that was committed in the past and has been covered up so the criminal can continue to victimize others.  Other times it’s far more fantastical: a ghost that haunts the living because of some misfortune that was never rectified, or a monster from some ancient myth or superstition that has returned to terrorize the modern day.  Regardless, the root of these fearful conflicts always lies in the past, and is often something the modern day protagonists of these stories isn’t fully knowledgeable of.

For this reason, many Gothic Horror stories are also mysteries.  Since the conflict of a Gothic Horror story is a forgotten relic, a Gothic Horror protagonist often has to find clues to figure out 1. what is causing the fearful events of the story, 2. how to stop that source of conflict, which is difficult as obviously no one has done so before, and 3. move on once the source of fear is dealt with.  This is very much in line with how the Enlightenment viewed human civilization: we have a problem we don’t understand and are superstitious about, someone figures out what’s actually going on and how to stop it, and civilization moves forward to be better than it was before.

Of course, once the Enlightenment ended, people started to realize that society didn’t always move in a benevolent direction.  Later Gothic Horror stories evolved a different take on their formula, working with the theme of Degeneration.  When something degenerates, it loses its best qualities and gains nothing in return.  Degeneration can also be considered a loss of complexity – the idea being that civilization is more complex than the natural world, and that progress allows humanity to do more things than they were capable of before.  The more complex something is, the better it is in this line of thinking, and as a result a thing that loses its complexity must be corrupted.  The decay of a dead body was considered a form of degeneration, as a corpse was once a human, only to lose thought, motion, life, and even substance as it slowly returns to the soil from which it came.  Indeed, Decay was a common motif in Gothic Horror long before Degeneration became a key theme of the genre.

Monsters in Gothic Horror stories tend to be portrayed as “less” than human, and their inferiorities are what make them horrifying.  The undead, while capable of movement, are rotting husks of the humans they once were, often lacking the complex feelings and/or thoughts they once had as well.  Shapeshifters that take on animal form are common – the werewolf degenerates from a thinking human being to a vicious brute controlled by primal hunger and territoriality.  Demons, while powerful to a degree, have few ambitions save wanton destruction – they corrupt rather than create, as they lack the spark of human inspiration to do so.

Mundane threats fit these themes too, of course.  Human villains in Gothic Horror stories are framed as deviations from the rest of civilized humanity – they are people who act as animals would.  A story that focuses on the horror of a wild animal also works with this theme of degeneracy, as an animal’s fearsomeness comes from its inability to reason and its primitive, primal motives of hunger and territoriality.  Even natural disasters and the weather can be demonized in this fashion.

Some of the subgenres of Gothic Horror include Ghost Stories (where the spirit of a deceased person must be put to rest by discovering the horror that killed them in the past), Vampire Fiction (stories with vampires in them), and the Imperial Gothic.  The latter is particularly interesting to me and relevant to my Four Horrors concept, as the Imperial Gothic is sort of the bridge between Gothic Horror and the other three horror genres.  You see, while the Imperial Gothic still claims that horror is rooted in the past, it adds on the idea that said horror is being brought back to the present BECAUSE our “progress” in the present is, in fact, a barbaric retread of our ancestors’ mistakes.  It claims that modern man is backsliding, and the old defeated horrors of yesteryear will roam free as a result.  Other horror stories will take the genre even further from there.  Detective Fiction also has its roots in Gothic Horror stories, but whether it still counts as a horror genre or evolved into its own animal altogether is debatable.  I personally wouldn’t count most detective tales as horror stories, but it’s interesting to note their connection.

Examples of Gothic Horror Stories: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, Dracula by Bram Stoker, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman

Atomic Horror

Atomic Horror

On an opposing end of the spectrum from Gothic Horror is what I call Atomic Horror.  Unlike Gothic Horror, it’s not an officially recognized Horror genre, but it is nonetheless a very different take on Horror than the traditional Gothic, and was incredibly prominent in the 50’s and 60’s (and remains a core horror genre today).  It Gothic Horror treats the past as a source of fear, then Atomic Horror feels the present and, worse still, the imminent future is where terror truly lies.

I named this genre Atomic Horror because it rose to prominence after the invention and use of the atomic bomb, in the era we call the Atomic Age.  If there is only one invention that disproved the Enlightenment’s belief that civilization was purely a force for good, the atomic bomb would be it.  This modern marvel put all the torture devices and brutality of the middle ages to shame, being rivaled only by the worst of natural disasters – and unlike a tornado or earthquake, and atomic bomb is a result of a conscious choice made by humanity, rather than a random reaction of natural forces.  While humanity had doubts about the benevolence of its “progress” before, nothing gave our species greater need for pause than this grisly invention.  While you could argue stories that fit my definition for Atomic Horror may have existed before the atomic bomb’s creation, they were at the very least extremely rare, and the genre did not rise to prominence until after World War II.

Technology unleashes terror in an Atomic Horror story.  Atomic tests create mutant monsters, teleportation machines fuse a man with a fly, and alien life with technology far beyond our own wreak havoc upon the world.  The future looks bleak in these tales, and often the end will come with a question mark – as the horror will always possibly resurface in mankind refuses to learn from its mistakes.

The earliest Atomic Horror stories borrow some elements of Gothic Horror, only to put new twists on them.  Mad scientists exist in both, but the mad scientists of Atomic Horror are more rooted in modern theories than the alchemy of characters like Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll.  Ancient primeval terrors are abundant, with the Prehistoric Monster being a key archetype of this horror genre, but emphasis is placed on the fact that these creatures have been displaced by modern advances.  Had they not been awoken by the atom bomb, magnified by radiation, or brought back to life with genetic engineering, they would be no threat to us.

It’s important to note that Atomic Horror doesn’t have to demonize progress entirely, just as Gothic Horror didn’t always treat progress as wholly benevolent.  Atomic Horror emphasizes that unchecked progress is dangerous, as mankind can create a lot of problems by rushing into using technology without first figuring out all the downsides of it – again, this is best exemplified by the real world reaction to nuclear weapons, as countries around the world stockpiled these deadly devices long before the full extent of their destructive power was known.

It’s not just technology at fault in Atomic Horror, either.  Other aspects of modern life can cause terror – corporate greed is just as often to blame as unchecked technological progress, and sometimes is even the reason no one waited to explore the problems of the technology in question.  Government bureaucracy and unchecked militarization are other likely suspects.

There are (at least) four main monster archetypes in Atomic Horror stories: the Prehistoric Monster (creatures from the past that are taken out of their rightful time and place by humanity – an archetype that Atomic Horror took from Gothic Horror stories and made its own), the Mutant (a creature that is made by humanity meddling with nature), the Robot (a machine that can operate without human assistance, often with deadly purposes), and the Alien (a creature from another world – often acting as a dark mirror of humanity, showing us how awful we could end up if we don’t change our ways).  Mutation and dissection are the main tools of Atomic Horror stories – we are horrified to find that our “progress” requires us to destroy the current world to build an awful new one in its place.

Two of the subgenres within Atomic Horror include the Alien Invasion Genre, where monsters from outer space invade earth with superior technology, and the Kaiju Genre, where humanity is attacked by a literally gargantuan monster because of our violation of the natural order.  Kaiju stories sometimes leave the horror genre altogether, but I personally think most still stay within its boundaries.

Examples of Atomic Horror Stories: Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly

Cosmic Horror

Cosmic Horror

The term “Cosmic Horror” predates my 4 Horrors Theory, and has even been used in Academia at least a few times.  However, it’s rarely defined as something OTHER than a subgenre of the Gothic, and I feel that does it a disservice.  Unlike either Gothic or Atomic Horror, Cosmic Horror doesn’t focus much on human progress, either for good or ill.  The past, present, and future are equally bleak in a Cosmic Horror story, as the true source of fear in these tales is reality itself.

In a Cosmic Horror Tale, the universe is an inherently cold, uncaring place that is beyond human comprehension, and as such is beyond caring for humanity.  It has ALWAYS been this way, as the terror not only predates humanity, but will last long after humanity is gone as well.  While discovering the truth will solve the conflict in a Gothic Horror story, in a Cosmic Horror story it only makes things worse, as the more one understands about reality, the more bleak and impossible their chances of survival look.  Yet remaining ignorant of the threat isn’t particularly better, as it just leaves one vulnerable to the unimaginable threats lurking in the unknown corners of reality.

More than any other Horror genre, Cosmic Horror puts stock in the unknown, particularly focusing on the unknowable.  Madness, confusion, and miscomprehension are the main tools of these stories – our ability to see the world around us and not understand the meaning of it keeps the reader ill at ease, especially when that world grows increasingly awful and terrifying.  A Cosmic Horror story tries to impress the unfathomability of the universe upon its reader, conjuring images of beings and places that cannot exist in reality as we know it.

The main monster of the Cosmic Horror story is the Eldritch Abomination, a creature whose very existence defies comprehension.  Eldritch Abominations are more than just supernatural – they also cannot be truly explained, at least not in the ways one might explain a vampire or irradiated mutant.  The inability of mankind to understand these monsters is their key characteristic – they are not only strange, but strange to the point of being incomprehensible.

Cosmic Horror stories rarely offer their heroes a way out – if one does manage to defeat the terror, it is always temporary, and the hero is generally scarred beyond repair by the experience if they survive at all.  Often one is only safe from the horror if one is ignorant of it – and even then, “safe” only lasts as long as the horror remains ignorant of us as well.

Examples of Cosmic Horror Stories: The Cthulhu Mythos stories, Awful Hospital, Uzimaki by Junji Ito

Slasher Horror

Slasher Horror

Our fourth horror is also the most controversially named one of the bunch.  “Slasher Movies” are a fairly commonly recognized Horror subgenre, and much of what I call Slasher Horror is built on those films.  People have suggested alternates to avoid confusing this genre with the specific group of films, but I’m not sure I want to avoid that confusion.  Not only do Slasher Movies make up a great deal of the Slasher Horror genre, but the stories that fall within Slasher Horror that aren’t Slasher Movies still work with the formulas and strategies that Slasher Movies made popular.  There are Gothic Horror stories without a trace of the medieval in them, Atomic Horror stories that never mention nuclear power, and Cosmic Horror stories that never look to the stars – there can thus be Slasher Horror stories that don’t star Slasher characters.

Anyway, on to what Slasher Horror actually is.  If Cosmic Horror makes reality at large the source of fear, Slasher Horror places the blame closer to home – mainly, on humanity itself.  In Slasher Horror stories, horror is an endless cycle, as it is caused by an evil that’s inherent to the human condition.  As long as humanity is cruel and selfish, there will always be grotesque monstrosities to torment us.  Slasher Horror holds one thing as true: humanity needs to be punished, and oh how cathartic it is to watch that punishment unfold.

Slasher Horror stories tend to demonize humanity as a whole, often filling their cast with characters that are either bland and one dimensional, or downright strident in how relentlessly awful they are.  While there will usually be at least one or two exceptions to this rule, a Slasher Horror story generally doesn’t expect its audience to sympathize with most of its characters.  Even the ones that aren’t actively offensive will be too self-involved to properly care for others.  Slasher Horror characters ignore drowning children, have sex when their friends are being slaughtered in the next room, and rarely trade words that aren’t petty insults or cruel teases.  Most characters in Slasher Horror stories are unlikable by design.

The exceptions to this rule still make up a minority in the cast, though there will almost always be one present (as it’s hard to sit through a long story where none of the characters are likable).  You will normally find at least one character who is unique in that they care about other people and, y’know, aren’t shitty human beings.  This is your hero, and they have the enviable task of stepping over a very low bar to become the least wretched person in your story.

“Monsters” are rare in slasher stories, as most tend to go for an anonymous killer instead – some ominous masked man who picks off the other awful people one by one, often in increasingly preposterous ways.  When one of these killers survives long enough, they may gain an identity – and since this tends to involve surviving several definitely lethal injuries, they often become undead monsters as well.  Despite these occasional delves into the supernatural, the villains in Slasher Horror rarely put emphasis on the supernatural elements, as it’s the human cruelty on display that’s truly the focus of the tale – the supernatural is just a means to an end.

The main tool of the slasher movie is gore.  Splattering organs, buckets of blood, and impossible wounds are the gross out of choice, and often play less like horrifying scenes and more like money shots in a porno.  Slasher Horror is all about catharsis – while other stories may want to horrify you, Slasher tales let you indulge your darker desires for a time.

Evil is defeated in a slasher movie when the hero loses almost everything and, in desperation, finally snaps and raises a hand against the awful nature of humanity – in a literal fashion, i.e. by killing the slasher.  This violent act may also be why few heroes in Slasher stories survive coming back for a sequel – by killing the slasher, they have become another wicked person who selfishly put their own life above others.

Examples of Slasher Horror Stories: Friday the 13th, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Scream Queens

The Axis of the Four Horrors

Tumblr user skeletonphonic was the first to make an axis out of my four horror genres, so credits go to him for the idea for this visual.

If you look at my four horror genres, you can see that there are two pairs of apparent opposites.  Gothic Horror vilifies the past, while Atomic Horror villifies the future.  Cosmic Horror claims the universe is evil, while Slasher Horror claims evil is inherent to humanity itself.  We could use this axis to try and force existing horror stories into one of these four genres – for example, the more a story vilifies humanity, the more Slasher it is.  Simple, right?

Well… no.  See, these pairs aren’t actually opposites.  A story can vilify the past AND the present – hell, that’s basically what the Imperial Gothic does.  Likewise, humanity being evil doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe itself isn’t evil too.  A horror story could hit all four points on the axis.  If one were to graph horror stories on this axis, I think it would be smart not to do it with a simple point.  Instead, show how far a given story stretches in each direction – some may lie firmly in one direction, while others may stretch into two, or three, or even all four.  It could be an interesting experiment for more mathematically included horror scholars than myself to try.

All that said, generally one of the Four Horrors will win out as the most dominant Horror on display – unless a story is incredibly unfocused.  While there are many stories that hybridize two or more of the four genres, eventually one of the four will be more pronounced than the other(s).

Problems with the Four Horrors

While I obviously like this little division of the horror genres, and have found it very useful in my writing about Horror in general, I can’t say it’s flawless.  It’s mostly based on Western literature, specifically English language literature, and as such there are A LOT of horror stories out there that could theoretically not fit anywhere on this axis.  That’s a major problem that I can’t address entirely on my own – even a glutton like myself could never read every horror story ever made, or even MOST of the horror stories ever made.

Academics might also argue that my division is forced.  A lot of Slasher and Cosmic Horror stories have an evil of the past as part of their story – the murder of Jason Voorhees, the ancient cult of Cthulhu, etc.  We could force them into the Gothic, and then kick Atomic Horror stories out of the Horror genre and into Science Fiction (which a lot of critics do).  I think that’s too simplistic, but y’know, I’m not the ultimate authority on Horror.  I’m just a weirdo who thinks too much about horror stories.

There are other taxonomies as well.  Some have divided horror into Supernatural and Radcliffian tales – Supernatural Horror has a horror that is, obviously, supernatural, while Radcliffian Horror reveals that the horror was man-made all along (think Scooby Doo).  Others have divided Horror into Thrillers and Creature Features – Thrillers involve a mundane, realistic threat, while Creature Features have monsters in them.  Or we could divide horror between its two sibling genres, Sci-Fi and Fantasy – Sci-Fi Horror, Fantasy Horror, and Mundane Horror for those tales that don’t have a supernatural element.  There are probably a billion ways we can divide the genre – many people have even tried to suggest a fifth and sixth horror for me to add to my axis, though none have quite swayed me as of yet.

For me, though, the Four Horrors do an adequate job of dividing Horror into more manageable chunks to emphasize the variety of the genre, while being loose enough to fit most if not all Horror stories I can think of.  It may not be a perfect taxonomy, but it’s one that works for me.

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