‘I don’t read horror’ or ‘I don’t like horror films’ are things I’ve heard plenty of times, and they’re even things I’ve said at points in my own life—which is odd when I spent so much of my childhood obsessed with ghost stories and loved anything spooky. I do have an overactive imagination, though, so if a story freaks me out it’ll stay with me for weeks and, during my childhood and teens, I’d genuinely lose sleep because I was too frightened to close my eyes.
The older I got, the more I decided to prioritise my sleep over anything else. Yet now that I’m older still I’ve begun to appreciate the horror genre more and more, and so much of that has come from discovering the kind of horror I like. Like any genre, there’s so much within the horror umbrella and, if one story doesn’t work for us, we can’t assume that any story that falls under that umbrella won’t.
As Halloween approaches, it’s the perfect time of year to read and watch horror—but, in my opinion, that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to terrify ourselves in the process! Have you ever watched Sleepy Hollow (1999) or The Mummy (1991)? Congratulations, you’ve watched a horror film!
They might not seem like the kind of stories we’d define as horror today because, for many people, I feel like the term ‘horror’ has become synonymous with body horror films such as the SAW franchise or slashers like Halloween, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. In comparison, Sleepy Hollow and The Mummy (which just so happen to be two of my favourite films) are campy, adventurous romps. (This is no shade on you if you do find either of these films scary!)
But if you were investigating a series of murders and found yourself pursued by a headless horseman, or you accidentally woke an ancient Egyptian mummy who started sucking the flesh off his victims, you’d be pretty horrified, wouldn’t you?
The scenarios the characters are in are 100% horror scenarios, but the stories are told in such a way that we don’t want to sleep with the light on. So when we talk about the horror genre, I guess we have to ask whether it’s ourselves we expect to be horrified or the characters? And if it’s the latter, does that mean these stories don’t count as horror?
Personally, I think we can definitely call a story a horror story even if it doesn’t frighten us—in fact that’s the kind of horror I love! I enjoy being a little creeped out, but I hate that kind of sick fear that makes you wish you’d just decided to watch that rom-com instead.
Body horror, for example, isn’t my thing, and it’s why you’ll never catch me watching a SAW film. They’re too gross for me, and I don’t like the kind of horror that comes from physical torture. I’m also not a big fan of anything with creepy dolls and, while I love ghost stories, I tend to stay away from horror films with ghosts because I will never sleep again.
For me, the kind of horror I love is the kind of horror that gives me characters I love and root for. Horror is a genre built on putting its characters in danger, and if I don’t care about what happens to them then, for me, that story isn’t doing it right. Horror is at its best for me when I desperately want the characters in danger to be safe.
It’s why IT: Chapter One was such a successful film for me, despite my fear of clowns that initially made me unsure if I’d ever watch it. Now it’s one of my favourites, and I’ll often put it on in the background while I do chores because I love those kids so much. The idea of something happening to them had me on the edge of my seat. That, for me, is horror done right.
Since then (and before then, too) I’ve even read horror I’ve enjoyed! I loved Joe Hill’s NOS4R2 because he made me care so much about his heroine, Max, who has to face the biggest fear from her own childhood to save her son. The Diviners series by Libba Bray has become one of my favourite series, and it’s definitely a series that falls under the horror umbrella; Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation and Deathless Divide are alternate history novels that are also horror thanks to her inclusion of zombies; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is a fantastic, fresh homage to classic Gothic horror; and let’s not forget Mira Grant’s Feed and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which are both horror and both two of my favourite novels.
So, for someone who once said she doesn’t read or watch horror, it looks as though I actually like it quite a lot!
Still not sure where to start? No problem! Why not check out some of the short stories published in Nightmare Magazine? I personally really enjoyed Nibedita Sen’s ‘Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island‘, which was short-listed for a Hugo Award earlier this year.
Alternatively, I recommend giving the Books in the Freezer podcast a try; the hosts focus on a different theme in each episode, from underwater horror to romance in the horror genre, and I’ve found the podcast so helpful in discovering the kinds of horror that sound right up my street. They also give each book they mention a rating so, if you’re still a little nervous around the genre, you can pick up a book that’s guaranteed not to give you nightmares.
Like any genre, we just need to find the branches of it we like before we dismiss it completely.