The Trouble with Horror

The Exorcist Bed Float

If you are reading this, I can safely assume you are a horror fan on some level. Why else would you be here when the ‘net has so much porn to offer? I love horror movies, horror books, horror comic books, and just about anything else to which you can attach the “horror” label. I also write horror fiction, and have been studying what scares me and others since the 1970s. For you younger readers, that is pre-Internet, pre-Google, and pre-just-about-anything-else-that-makes-researching-easier. After all these decades of study, there is one thing I’ve found that is equal parts unique and vexing to the horror genre.

Horror is the only genre that is punished by loss of its audience when it is at its most successful.

Let that sink in for a moment. When the genre, in whatever form it takes, is at its ultimate best, it is also punished for being its best. How the hell does that work?

I first became aware of this phenomenon when a magazine editor asked me to write a “dark” piece for publication. I did. I’m pretty good at writing dark and disturbing (or so say the critics). The editor promptly contacted me and said the piece was effective but “too dark and scary.” I reminded him that “dark” was what he asked for initially and it was what I gave him. I was not convincing him. I asked him what he would do if he assigned me to write a humorous piece in the future. Would he reject it if it were “too funny”? I was told I was being ridiculous. Was I?

No. Horror gets punished by editors, readers, movie audiences, and the like when it is too scary. People will shy away from it when it does its job properly. Will people avoid a comedy that is too funny, or a love story that is too romantic? Not at all. In fact, they will flock to it. Horror, though, will be shunned … even by some people who say they enjoy horror! They like to be scared, but not too scared. Scream is okay. It is not.

Sure, die hard horror fans will go see a movie that is too scary, and there are very scary movies that become popular (like The Exorcist), but far too many people will avoid a work of horror when it seems like it does its job a little too well.

How do you fix this? The simple answer is: you can’t. As a horror creator you have to understand that if you do your job as well as you can, you are going to isolate people. You are going to limit your potential audience simply because you succeeded, and that is a fate that is unique to our preferred genre. The only thing you can do is create the best work you can and hope some people get it.

I actually write stuff that I hope drives people away because then I know I’m doing my job properly, and when I get a review saying “I was afraid to read this, but I did and loved it,” then I know I succeeded. When I get someone that says, “The description alone said it would be too much for me,” then I know I really succeeded. So next time someone declines to watch a horror movie with you because it looks “too scary,” wait until they ask you to watch the latest comedy with them and say, “No thanks. It looks like I’ll laugh too much.”

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