Horror versus Terror

Horror versus Terror – These are the two major divisions of literary, cinematic, or otherwise artistic (representational, strategic) fear. Fear is—along with joy, sadness, anger, and anxiety—one of the most basic human emotions. While anxiety occurs without an external stimulus, fear occurs when we perceive a threat or feel pain. Fear in the brain engenders a whole range of responses in the body, including a sped-up heart rate, sweating, shivering, and goosebumps.

Our definitions of horror and terror come from Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe, who defines them chronologically: Terror is the fear of anticipation of pain, of death. Terror is fear of the future. In contrast, horror is the fear that strikes us after something bad happens, as we feel pain, as we die. Horror is the fear of the present and past.

Both horror and terror are not “real,” even if the fear we feel is real enough to us. The words on the page are not fear per se. They are tools to bring or strategies that artists use to make us feel fear.

(“Feeling” is key to remember: An unfelt pain or a danger of which a subject is not aware cannot result in fear, even if the danger results in death. Hence the feedback-, control-, and display-regimes of horrifying/terrifying/totalizing states: These always depend on the subject’s constant awareness of the ever-present threat of the gendarmes.)

Radcliffe shows that the two fears are opposed, and that Shakespeare and Milton strove not for horror but for terror: Make the audience do the work for you. Make them collaborate: They will always imagine a worse fear than you can give them. It’s an old, true rule of fear-art. Radcliffe intuits that future artists will go strictly for horror and produce the genre of camp, where atrocity is used strictly for guffaws. “Horror” pur sang, as a genre, usually consists of a series of terrifying moments that lead up to disappointing, been-there/done-that horrors. (David Lynch, in movies such as Lost Highway and Inland Empire, and especially in Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, is one of the only contemporary artists truly working in the genre of “terror.”)

Thus, horror is the cataphatic revelation of a pain or other source of fear. Horror is related to disgust, the body, blood, and death. Horror art would include the zombie movie, psycho-killer thrillers, and even Jurassic Park—any narrative or non-narrative work in which a cause for fear of death is shown.

Horror is realization. Gross stuff. Blood, guts. Horror is sensed, felt. It is bodily disgust, pain. Awakening pain. Awakening to pain. When you feel fear through the strategy, the tool of horror, you feel your own guts in your hands. You know you are alive. Horror is the minor fear. The fear of dismemberment. Horror—revolt, the grotesque. The “horrors” of war, violence—incomplete, wounded life. These are all things to feel or remember having felt. Horror, more, I think, than realization, is the fear-tool of life. This is the first fear.

Terror is anticipation. The awe-full/awful panic. The death anxiety. Terror of aging. Entropy, time, silence, violins, high-pitched, pain-neurotic, denial of object of obsession. The terror of remove, terror of the abyss, of nothing, fear of dissolution, of no-thing. The appeal of death. The what-if. The ultimate negative: Just say NO to life, around the other corner, lurking.

Truest terror is unimaginable. Terror is the major fear. The fear of dissolution. Merger with the infinite.

Terror—life/death anxiety, “intellectual” horror, the mind’s pain as it holds its guts in realization of its dissolution—preemptive, for the mind’s job is to anticipate and create reality, to fill in its gaps. Terror, the strategy, asks us to fill in the gaps before an event with the worst thing we can imagine. Then with something worse than that—something we can’t imagine. Terror is also the future. Terror of time, which is decay—madness. Terror will drive you crazy, because a totally future-oriented mindset is not healthy. No awareness of the now.

Terror-as-awe: Terror causes fear. But terror also inspires awe, meaning reverence, shut-the-fuck-up-in-front-of-ness (a messy construction, but you get it).

Monsters and Gods always awe us as they scare us. (Even God is supposed to scare us, according to many religious people.)

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