Horror fiction

An Illustration of Poe's "The Raven" by Gustav Dore
An Illustration of Poe's "The Raven" by Gustave Doré

Horror is a genre of speculative fiction which is intended to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle its readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Literary historian J. A. Cuddon defined the horror story as "a piece of fiction in prose of variable length... which shocks, or even frightens the reader, or perhaps induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing".[1] It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror is frequently supernatural, though it can be non-supernatural. Often the central menace of a work of horror fiction can be interpreted as a metaphor for the larger fears of a society.


Horror in ancient Greece and Rome

Athenodorus and the ghost, by Henry Justice Ford, c.1900

The horror genre has ancient origins with roots in folklore and religious traditions, focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, the demonic and the principle of the thing embodied in the person.[2] These were manifested in stories of beings such as witches, vampires, werewolves and ghosts. European horror fiction became established through works by the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans. The well-known 19th century novel about Frankenstein was greatly influenced by the story of Hippolytus, where Asclepius revives him from death.[3] Euripides wrote plays based on the story, Hippolytos Kalyptomenos and Hippolytus.[4] Plutarch's "The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans: Cimon describes the spirit of a murderer, Damon, who himself was murdered in a bathhouse in Chaeronea.[5]

Pliny the Younger tells the tale of Athenodorus Cananites who bought a haunted house in Athens. Athenodorus was cautious since the house was inexpensive. While writing a book on philosophy, he was visited by a spectre bound in chains. The figure disappeared in the courtyard; the following day, the magistrates dug it up to find an unmarked grave.[6]

Horror after AD 1000

The earliest recording of an official accusation of Satanism by the Church took place in Toulouse in AD 1022 against a couple of clerics.[7] Werewolf stories were popular in medieval French literature. One of Marie de France's twelve lais is a werewolf story titled "Bisclavret".

A Print of Vlad III
Vlad III

The Countess Yolande commissioned a werewolf story titled "Guillaume de Palerme". Anonymous writers penned two werewolf stories, "Biclarel" and "Melion".

Much horror fiction derives from the cruellest personages of the 15th century. Dracula can be traced to the Prince of Wallachia Vlad III, whose alleged war crimes were published in German pamphlets. A 1499 pamphlet was published by Markus Ayrer, who is most notable for its woodcut imagery.[8] The alleged serial killer spree of Giles de Rais have been seen as the inspiration for "Bluebeard".[9] The motif of the vampiress is most notably derived from the real life noblewoman and murderess, Elizabeth Bathory, and helped usher in the emergence of horror fiction in the 18th century, such as through László Turóczi's 1729 book Tragica Historia.[10]

Gothic horror in the 18th century

Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), initiating a new literary genre.[11]

The 18th century saw the gradual development of Romanticism and the Gothic horror genre. It drew on the written and material heritage of the Late Middle Ages, finding its form with Horace Walpole's seminal and controversial 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. In fact, the first edition was published disguised as an actual medieval romance from Italy, discovered and republished by a fictitious translator.[11] Once revealed as modern, many found it anachronistic, reactionary, or simply in poor taste — but it proved immediately popular.[11] Otranto inspired Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1796) by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1797) by Matthew Lewis.[11] A significant amount of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed towards a female audience, a typical scenario of the novels being a resourceful female menaced in a gloomy castle.[12]

Horror in the 19th century

A photograph of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe

The Gothic tradition blossomed into the genre that modern readers today call horror literature in the 19th century. Influential works and characters that continue resonating in fiction and film today saw their genesis in the Brothers Grimm's "Hänsel und Gretel" (1812), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), Jane C. Loudon's "The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century" (1827), Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Thomas Peckett Prest's Varney the Vampire (1847), Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850), the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Each of these works created an enduring icon of horror seen in later re-imaginings on the page, stage and screen.[13]

Horror in the 20th century

A proliferation of cheap periodicals around turn of the century led to a boom in horror writing. For example, Gaston Leroux serialized his Le Fantôme de l'Opéra before it was a novel in 1910. One writer who specialized in horror fiction for mainstream pulps, such as All-Story Magazine, was Tod Robbins, whose fiction deals with themes of madness and cruelty.[14][15] Later, specialist publications emerged to give horror writers an outlet, prominent among them was Weird Tales[16] and Unknown


Influential horror writers of the early 20th century made inroads in these mediums. Particularly, the venerated horror author H. P. Lovecraft, and his enduring Cthulhu Mythos transformed and popularized the genre of cosmic horror, and M. R. James is credited with redefining the ghost story in that era.[citation needed]

The serial murderer became a recurring theme. Yellow journalism and sensationalism of various murderers, such as Jack the Ripper, and lesser so, Carl Panzram, Fritz Haarman, and Albert Fish, all perpetuated this phenomenon. The trend continued in the postwar era, partly renewed after the murders committed by Ed Gein. In 1959, Robert Bloch, inspired by the murders, wrote Psycho. The crimes committed in 1969 by the Manson family influenced the slasher theme in horror fiction of the 1970s. In 1981, Thomas Harris wrote Red Dragon, introducing Dr. Hannibal Lecter. In 1988, the sequel to that novel, The Silence of the Lambs, was published.

Early cinema was inspired by many aspects of horror literature, and started a strong tradition of horror films and subgenres that continues to this day. Up until the graphic depictions of violence and gore on the screen commonly associated with 1960s and 1970s slasher films and splatter films, comic books such as those published by EC Comics (most notably Tales From The Crypt) in the 1950s satisfied readers' quests for horror imagery that the silver screen could not provide.[18] This imagery made these comics controversial, and as a consequence, they were frequently censored.[19][20]

The modern zombie tale dealing with the motif of the living dead harks back to works including H.P. Lovecraft's stories "Cool Air" (1925), "In The Vault" (1926), and "The Outsider" (1926), and Dennis Wheatley's "Strange Conflict" (1941). Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend (1954) influenced an entire genre of apocalyptic zombie fiction emblematized by the films of George A. Romero.

One of the best-known late-20th century horror writers is Stephen King, known for Carrie, The Shining, It, Misery and several dozen other novels and about 200 short stories.[21][22][23] Beginning in the 1970s, King's stories have attracted a large audience, for which he was awarded by the U.S. National Book Foundation in 2003.[24] Other popular horror authors of the period included Anne Rice, Brian Lumley, James Herbert, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker,[25] Ramsey Campbell,[26] and Peter Straub.

Post-millennial horror fiction

Best-selling book series of contemporary times exist in genres related to horror fiction, such as the werewolf fiction urban fantasy Kitty Norville books by Carrie Vaughn (2005 onward). Horror elements continue to expand outside the genre. The alternate history of more traditional historical horror in Dan Simmons's 2007 novel The Terror sits on bookstore shelves next to genre mash ups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), and historical fantasy and horror comics such as Hellblazer (1993 onward) and Mike Mignola's Hellboy (1993 onward). Horror also serves as one of the central genres in more complex modern works such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award. There are many horror novels for teens, such as The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey (2009). Additionally, many movies, particularly animated ones, use a horror aesthetic. These are what can be collectively referred to as "children's horror"[27]. Although it's unknown for sure why children enjoy these movies (as it seems counter-intuitive), it is theorized that it is the grotesque monsters that fascinate kids.[27] Tangential to this, the internalized impact of horror television programs and films on children is rather under-researched, especially when compared to the research done on the similar subject of violence in TV and film's impact on the young mind. What little research there is tends to be inconclusive on the impact that viewing such media has.[28]

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