Horror and Terror


You all know the difference between horror and terror, right? Terror is the cold grip of fear you feel when you walk into a darkened room and sense that everything you’ve ever feared is in there with you, and it’s got a chainsaw. Horror is the moment you switch on the light and realise you were right. Broadly, terror is the anticipation of something horrible; horror is that something horrible.

Take Paranormal Activity. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I first saw it I was terrified. I sat down bubbling over with optimism, joy, and lust for life, and stood up sectioned under the Mental Health Act of 1983. But when I watched it again last month, I was bored. This is because the film relies entirely on terror – yes, she gets a bit bloodstained and chucks a corpse around at the end (depending on which of the disparate endings you saw), but we never get to actually communicate with or meet the demon, which is only explained very cursorily in a token “Hey, guys, I found this weird old book…” scene.

Therefore, the film cannot stand more than one viewing. The fear comes from the “We’ll see it in the next scene. Nah, definitely the one after that. If not, then we have to see it after – GOOD GOD, WAS THAT A SHADOW?!”. Once you know nothing horrifying is going to happen, it becomes somewhat of a waste of time, and this is true of all films that rely solely on terror. They’re the tantric sex of the horror film world- bringing you to the brink of something really good, then don’t actually do anything. They leave you gagging for a bit of solid horror.

Horror has a very broad meaning in film- it can be anything from the nasty clown puppet in The Hole, to some sinister twig arrangement in The Blair Witch Project, to the brutal mid-sex double spearing in Twitch of the Death Nerve. For the sake of argument, I’m going to define horror as The Payoff- you know, the actual introduction of a monster, or the serial killer’s attack, or just some honest-to-goodness violence. The thing you’ve been waiting for. Films based on horror alone just don’t work; they’re the equivalent of somebody shouting “BOO!” in your face for two hours while pulling a funny face. I’m going to pick on the first Guinea Pig film here- the title roughly translates as “Unbridled Agony”.

The film is ostensibly about two men testing the limits of human pain, by performing a series of flinch-worthy experiments on an attractive woman. The problem with these sorts of films is that the plot is driven by violence, when the violence should be driven by the plot. Yes, have outrageous gore- go overboard, be up to your nipples in viscera, giblets, and blood, have that kooky teenager being turned inside out in an unlikely gymnastics accident.

But the violence needs to be incidental to the story. The acid test to see if a film has too much horror is to mentally move all the violence and nastiness off-screen and see if there’s some semblance of plot (or, indeed, film) left. Even films seemingly based entirely around violence- such as Saw or Hostel- do stand up to closer examination when their bloodstained veneer is stripped away.

The best films have a mixture of both. Obviously, the balance is different from film to film- some films choose to focus more on building the tension, while some do call for a higher level of gore-but overall, all the iconic films, all the ones that are able to stand up to re-evaluation, the passage of time and the constant evolution of the genre, mix the two together. Think of your favourite horror films. It’s more than likely that they aren’t just endless seas of gore, or hours of tantalising tension with nothing at the end. They’re unbelievably tense, with a satisfyingly cringe-inducing payoff. They’re super-violent, with every ingenious demise woven into a meticulous plot. And, most importantly of all, they’re bloody terrifying.


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      1. Lydia Peever February 7, 2012 at 2:06 pm

        “… the violence should be driven by the plot.” Too true. When horror is really good, you enter that mind-fuck plateau where you are nearly skirting violence-for-the-sake-of, yet at the same time the viewer can relate and agree it is the only recourse. I tried to watch Guinea Pig, and may someday, but it did not hold my attention like, say, Sick Nurses did. Less gore, more story, far scarier. 

      2. Anonymous February 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm

        This is a great article. I have been trying to nail down the best way to describe this balance for years, and have not come up with a better description than that. I think that explains why we can have a dozen “horror” movies out, and I can’t enjoy hardly any of them. Many just feel like a waste of time, it is so rare for the horror, as you put it, to scare me, that without a powerful terror it does not do a thing.

      3. Anonymous February 11, 2012 at 10:52 pm

        EXACTLY!! I’m so glad someone managed to define it! The main things I want is suspense, some feelings towards the characters whether I like them or loath them and some entertaining death scenes that make me say “oh!” Rather than “ick!”. Sadly not many nail this for me.