Horror and terror

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Figure 20 from Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Caption reads "FIG. 20.—Terror, from a photograph by Dr. Duchenne."
Figure 21 from Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Caption reads "FIG. 21.—Horror and Agony, copied from a photograph by Dr. Duchenne."

The distinction between horror and terror is a standard literary and psychological concept applied especially to Gothic literature and film.[1] Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience. By contrast, horror is the feeling of revulsion that usually occurs after something frightening is seen, heard, or otherwise experienced. It is the feeling one gets after coming to an awful realization or experiencing a deeply unpleasant occurrence. In other words, horror is more related to being shocked or scared (being horrified), while terror is more related to being anxious or fearful.[2] Horror has also been defined as a combination of terror and revulsion.[3]

The distinction between terror and horror was first characterized by the Gothic writer Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823). Terror is characterized by "obscurity" or indeterminacy in its treatment of potentially horrible events; it is this indeterminacy which leads to the sublime. She says in the essay that it "expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life". Horror, in contrast, "freezes and nearly annihilates them" with its unambiguous displays of atrocity. She goes on: "I apprehend that neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil."[4]

According to Devendra Varma in The Gothic Flame (1966):

The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.

Horror is also a genre of film and fiction that relies on horrifying images or situations to tell stories and prompt reactions in their audiences. In these films the moment of horrifying revelation is usually preceded by a terrifying build up, often using the medium of scary music.[5]

In his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, Stephen King elaborated on the themes of terror and horror, also adding a third element which he referred to as "revulsion." He describes terror as “the finest element” of the three, and the one he strives hardest to maintain in his own writing. Citing many examples, he defines “terror” as the suspenseful moment in horror before the actual monster is revealed. “Horror,” King writes, is that moment at which one sees the creature/aberration that causes the terror or suspense, a "shock value." King finally compares “revulsion” with the gag-reflex, a bottom-level, cheap gimmick which he admits he often resorts to in his own fiction if necessary, confessing:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.”[6]

Horror and terror in film[edit]

Horror and terror stem mainly from movies and literature. Horror is the feeling you get after seeing something violent and disturbing, while terror is the apprehension before something bad happens. To increase horrific feelings in the audience, plots often involve the supernatural, serial murderers, disease/virus outbreak, and surrealism. Themes involved to induce horror and terror include gore, werewolves, villains, torture, ghosts, curses, satanism, demons, vicious animals, vampires, cannibals, haunted houses, and zombies.[citation needed]

In the United States, the horror genre in film became popular in the early 1930s, and was especially identified with Universal Pictures. Most notable are Frankenstein and Dracula. Some of these early movies blended science themed with Gothic and horror, such as James Whale's The Invisible Man. Big names in the horror genre include actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and makeup artist Jack Pierce.[citation needed] In the 1950s and 1960s, new sub-genres began to appear. Two most popular were the horror-of-armageddon and the horror-of-demonic film. The horror of armageddon consisted of end of civilization, while the horror of demonic dealt with demons controlling people's souls and further used the supernatural element to a slightly bigger extreme. The Japanese cultural reaction to nuclear attack and its aftermath during and after World War II led Japanese producers to create an especially large share of 1950s armageddon films. The horror of demonic started out as ghosts and monsters, but by the mid to late 1960s, more film makers decided to deal with satan and the devil entering one's flesh, such as Rosemary's Baby from director Roman Polanski. Armageddon films did not have as much notice until 1963, when Alfred Hitchcock directed The Birds. Rosemary's Baby brought horror film into a whole other realm. More occult films were accepted. The Exorcist remains one of the most influential horror movies dealing with an evil spirit invading one's soul. The 1970s brought with them the zombie movie, which is still relevant in today's society. Many of the same came the next twenty years, with a revival of The Exorcist in early 2000. The Saw and Final Destination franchises define what kind of mode we have entered into. Disaster elements have become almost necessary, with remakes of foreign horror movies up there in equal importance. The influence of Swedish and French horror films is obvious over the past two to three years.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Radcliffe 1826; Varma 1966; Crawford 1986: 101-3; Bruhm 1994: 37; Wright 2007: 35-56.
  2. ^ Varma 1966.
  3. ^ Carroll 1990.
  4. ^ Radcliffe: 1826.
  5. ^ Wisker 2005.
  6. ^ http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/17240


  • Steven Bruhm (1994) Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Gary Crawford (1986) "Criticism" in J. Sullivan (ed) The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural.
  • Ann Radcliffe (1826) "On the Supernatural in Poetry" in The New Monthly Magazine 7, 1826, pp 145–52.
  • Devendra Varma (1966) The Gothic Flame. New York: Russell and Russell.
  • Gina Wisker (2005) Horror Fiction: An Introduction. New York: Continuum.
  • Angela Wright (2007) Gothic Fiction. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Julian Hanich (2010) Cinematic Emotion in Horror Films and Thrillers. The Aesthetic Paradox of Pleasurable Fear. New York: Routledge.
  • Noël Carroll (1990) The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge.