In a Nutshell: History of Horror

Horror means something different for everyone. For one it may be horror clowns, for someone else a nest full of spiders, and for another meeting the in-laws. Horror literature is intended to fill its readers with powerful feelings from fear to terror to disgust.

The first novels that had the characteristics needed to be defined as a horror story appeared in the 18th century; one particular work was The Castle of Otranto, 1764, written by Horace Walpole. It’s supposedly the first Gothic novel and inspired many later works of the genre.

A large amount of these works were written by women, for female audiences. One scenario re-occurred in many of these stories: A young female protagonist in a gloomy, spooky castle.

Director Guillermo del Toro recreated that typical setting in his 2015 horror picture Crimson Peak.

Horror literature blossomed in the 19th century and produced some of the most iconic works of the genre. Mary Shelley published Frankenstein in 1818, Robert Louis Stevenson published his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, Bram Stoker’s Dracula appeared in 1897 and Edgar Allan Poe’s works were widely popular.

These authors created iconic, recognisable characters and monsters that are still apparent in today’s film and TV.

There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.

Mary Shelley.

Horror fiction became even more commercialised in the 20th century as authors had now the chance to publish their works in weekly or monthly periodical magazines. Many of today’s horror scenarios such as monsters, demons or zombies are likely based on works like H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos or the 1954 novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This book was also the basis of the 2007 film starring Will Smith.

One of the most famous contemporary horror authors is Stephen King, creator of the iconic novels Carrie, It or The Shining. The 1990 It will also have a film remake this year, and the trailer just got released.

Horror as literature genre is first and foremost meant to make readers feel. Horror is designed to provoke a reaction from the audience, emotional, physical or psychological, in many cases the desired reaction is fear.

[Horror fiction] shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.

Clive Barker, horror writer and producer (Book of Blood, Dread).

Readers are not messed up for seeking out such fiction – looking for thrilling and scaring experiences is a normal act and not at all weird. People go on rollercoasters, jump from the ten-meter tower or walk into a haunted house to look for excitement.

Reading horror or wanting to be spooked does not make someone weird or have questionable taste. Horror is supposed to make readers think, perhaps confront ideas they would normally ignore and make sense of the scary sides of the real world.

We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.

Stephen King.


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