The pages of human history are bespattered with blood, yellowed by time, and torn by turmoil. It’s no wonder, then, that humans have developed a hardwired curiosity for what can be defined as “horrific”, given that the frosty shadow of despair and dread has loomed upon and hounded human history since the first bipedal man.
Perhaps life has always been cruel, but humans make it all the crueler by brooding over it. Humans, alas, do not share the beast’s and brute’s bliss of innocence and ignorance.
With the heavens in interminable motion, and the ground beneath man’s feet forever a-stir, the world was obviously a terrifying place for early humanity, given the frailty of the human form in contrast to a world of swine and shadows.
Haunted by the ghouls shrieking within the human imagination, and tortured by the all too real specters without, storytelling became a fundamental way for humanity to make sense of the seemingly senseless.
Whether the horror genre sprung out of semi-morbid introspection, or else manifested itself as a tool to try and comprehend the incomprehensible, what’s clear is that it serves some sort of creatively clarifying purpose in the frenzy of confusion and chaos that defines human life.
Indeed, some of humanity’s oldest stories traceable to ancient times contain many of the elements that we’ve become accustomed to in modern horror.
However, it wasn’t until the Inquisition that horror as we understand it today truly emerged. Indeed, the religious geneses of horror are quite clearly documented in the obsession with witchcraft that persisted right through to the 17th century, and even beyond.
Even up to this day, Satanic and demonic horror is still hugely popular, with movies such as Possession and The Rite still fascinating people the world over, regardless of whether they’re strictly religious or not.
This religious element to horror is likely due to the fact that religion and mythology played a large part in informing people of the unspecified, the nameless, and the supernatural.
Religion thus had a claim of authority over the nebulous unknown, meaning that the evil specters that haunted the universe, such as devils and fallen angels, were tied up with notions of religion and divinity.
In the century following the Inquisition, Dante published Inferno, which was to be the first volume of his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy. His notion of Satan had a titanic influence on western conceptions of the Devil, and left an ineradicable smear on popular ideas surrounding Satan. His work, along with Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), still exerts influence right up to this very day.
The beginning of the 18th century saw the inception of a new literary form – the gothic novel. The first work of the Graveyard Poets was Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece on Death, which was published in 1714. His work, along with the other Graveyard Poets, such as Robert Blair and William Cowper, brooded over mortality, finiteness and, ultimately, death. All these works were seeded with the nascent germs that would effloresce into what we now call the gothic novel.
However, it wasn’t until 1765 when Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto that the first truly Gothic novel appeared. This work greatly influenced the horror genre at the time. Later works by Anne Radcliffe, Charles Brickden Brown, and Mathew Lewis would also weigh in heavily on the shaping of the gothic novel as a distinctly defined literary genre.
The gothic novel was then transformed in 1816 with the now famous incident of Percy Shelley, Dr. John Polidori, and Mary Wollenstonecraft sharing a villa on Lake Geneva where they conceived to have a writing contest. This subsequently resulted in Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley penning Frankenstein, which was published two years later. This work proved to be trailblazing, spurning the dawn of an entirely new genre we now know as science fiction.
Another major development in the evolution of the horror genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s work. Edgar Allan Poe (one of our favorites, of course) gave his own, unique slant on the gothic genre, with his first piece being MS Found in a Bottle, which he published in 1833. He then became famous for being the master of macabre and the forefather of detective storytelling.
Starting off with poetry, Poe subsequently refocused his attention on writing prose, with works published in various journals and periodicals. However, it wasn’t until he published The Raven in 1845 that he became truly famous as an established writer.
Poe’s sway on literature in the US and beyond is colossal. He has become the kind of household writer whose name is known by even those who haven’t read any of his works, with inestimable references to his character and works in popular culture, films, music, and television.
Poe’s most typical and recurrent theme is death. However, unlike the transcendentalist movement, which Poe invariably rubbished, Poe sought a more realistic reflection on its nature, such as decomposition, premature burial, and bereavement. With Poe, a more modern horror genre began to emerge, which saw a departure from the religious elements present during the initiation of a definable horror category.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, romanticism began its wane, and morality and individualism came to the forefront.
The Industrial Revolution and the Victorian era turned out to be a turbulent, disrupting, and choppy epoch, with many established conceptions set to dwindling. This is evidently mirrored in the literature it produced, including the horror genre.
The milieu of disarray and disorder was fertile ground for the now famous The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was published in 1885. Stark, credible, and terribly human, this type of fiction became popular, and reflected the growing fear of one’s fellow neighbor due to the ironic result of human isolation among many.
Just a short while after, such fears were compounded when Jack the Ripper hacked his way through the shadows of a tremulous and skittish London.
At the beginning of the 20th century, America witnessed a significant upswing in the horror genre, thanks to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Bringing a bout of existential and cosmic trepidation to the genre, Lovecraft’s works sought to examine human alienation and the mercilessness of the universe, with his mythic creatures serving as powerful metaphors for the scale and spite of nature.
In 1927, H.P. Lovecraft published The Call of Cthulhu, which went on to become encrusted as a literary classic, complete with a cult following that stands firm to this day.
As a highly original horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft’s works were brushed with the black chalk of nihilism that would go on to billow about a society-shredding century that contained in its sullied hands The Great Depression and two world wars, no less.
Obviously, such war, privation and strife would have an enduring psychological toll on society, which resulted in the horror genre being made redundant.
With reality providing a superfluity of horrors, fictional ghouls were rendered needless.
However, in 1954, Richard Matheson published a revived and modern vampire classic, I Am Legend, which was recently adapted into a blockbuster movie starring Will Smith, sufficing to reveal the hold eschatology has over humanity. Shirley Jackson also captivated readers in the 1950s with The House on Haunted Hill (1959), which still remains famous to this very day, and was also adapted into a movie.
Following the hot wars, the Cold War brought with it new anxieties altogether, principal of which was the fear of invasion and the threat it posed on one’s way of life. A blatant exhibition of such fears was in Rosemary Baby by Ira Levin, which was published in 1967.
In the following decade, the now famous household writer, Stephen King, raged onto the horror genre scene with his publication of Carrie in 1974. In Europe, Clive Barker’s gruesome collection of short stories, The Book of Blood (1984), revived the horror genre in the UK and Europe, bringing with it a more distinguished and sophisticated caliber to a genre that previously drew criticism for being low-brow and shoddy, thanks to the 1970s and 1980s obsession with gore in cinema.
Many critics have argued that the horror genre has slumped into a literary nadir from which it’s struggling to escape, and in which it’s left languishing.
Ironically, then, is literary horror now resigned to the chilly shadows about which it once wrote?
Of course, there are many exceptions, with high-quality literary output from horror staples Stephen King and Clive Barker. And, indeed, Ramsey Campbell might well be described as the Nabokov of horror, or the literary writer’s preferred horror author. More subtle and psychological, Campbell’s works tend to fish out the real horrors that jaggedly swim through the swamp of the human soul.
However, what of other horror works?
In film, there has been an overreliance on shock elements and a plethora of sequels that have left both critics and audiences cold, but not in a good way.
As Stuart Kelly, writing in the Guardian, illustrates, there is a drought in quality modern horror writing, one which gallons of blood cannot quench. He cites but a handful of horror writers worthy of literary status, among which are the works of Robert Jackson Bennett and Will Elliot. Nevertheless, their writing tends to rely heavily on old and tarnished horror props and pyrotechnics that clash and batter against a wall of compassion fatigue among today’s demanding postmodern audiences.
Stuart Kelly goes on to argue that there’s a stack of material in the postmodern world ripe for adaptation into quality horror writing:
“Our postmodern, capitalism-in-crisis, media-saturated world is ripe to describe it anew. Our very language seems to demand it. A mortgage, literally, is a death grip. Negative equity means being haunted by your own house. Corporations have legal personhood: they can be held responsible for criminal actions and claim “human” rights, but ironically they have no body. PR and political spin are referred to as “dark arts”. Your computer can be a zombie, “possessed” by a Trojan virus. Charley Douglass started to make canned laughter in 1953 – and it’s still in use. Every episode of Friends is accompanied by the cachinnation of the dead.”
What is intriguing about his comments is that they allude to something that horror writing should remember about its evolution:
It has always tended to mirror the fears and anxieties that exist in the epoch in which the works are written, acutely distorting and analogizing, but in no way misrepresenting, the horrors of the day.
From the witchcraft during the Inquisition, to scientific exploitation with Shelley’s Frankenstein, horror has served the purpose of mirroring, albeit in a warped way, human woes and natural calamities. Arguably, such dramatization of real horror serves to appease our concerns about the time in which we live by carving entertainment from gravitas, thus externalizing our fears in a manner that’s creatively nourishing.
Alas, today, modern horror errs in attempting to shock for no apparent reason, and thus fails to shock at all. The horror genre has gone awry because the content contained within modern horror, both on page and on screen, is either irrelevant to modern audiences or else wholly silent on the crises through which we’re all living.