What Is Horror

A girl, Jinx, holds a camera to the viewer, with a mysterious and ghostly shape reflected in the lens

As Scholastic Press and I gear up for the February release of No Filter, my new horror novel for kids, I have been thinking a lot about what horror means to me. The genre is one of the more difficult ones to pin down. Sure, sci-fi and fantasy have some fuzzy edges, but broadly we can describe the former as a story that includes technology that is more advanced that our own, and the latter as stories with some element that defies the laws of physics as we understand them.

But horror? What is it exactly? And what is the difference between horror, or suspense, or even just a story where terrible things happen? Most genres are defined by the elements they contain, but horror is defined by the intended feeling it invokes in the reader. Fantasy can make a reader feel any number of ways, from cozy to grimdark. But horror should horrify the reader, otherwise it's not horror.

When I talk to people who are not avowed horror buffs about the genre, many of them say things like "Oh, I'm not really a fan of scary stuff."

Yeah, honestly, neither am I. When it comes to horror movies, I'm actually kind of a wimp. During the revision process for No Filter, my editor told me to watch an Australian horror film called The Babadook. The problem was, my son had gone to college, and nobody else was available to watch it with me. So I had to watch it alone! I did get through it, but it took a while because I had to take several breaks.

This may seem strange for someone who writes horror novels. But to my mind, whether a horror novel is scary is a secondary concern. After all, it's not called the scary genre.

So wait, what's the difference?

Let's roll it back a minute. I read Stephen King's Skeleton Key at a very impressionable age. Some of the stories in that collection still haunt me (particularly "The Raft"), but so does a quote from King on the back cover about his personal hierarchy for horror novels. He wrote, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion, and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud."

This hierarchy has been lodged in my brain since middle school and after many years of pondering it, I fear I must humbly and reluctantly disagree with the King of Horror. To my mind, horror should be at the top. Rather than mere "shock value", as he describes it, I view horror as something akin to anagnorisis, that moment in Greek tragedy when the flawed hero fully comprehends for the first time just how screwed they are.

Think of that moment when Oedipus finally understands that, without realizing it, he's had sex with his mother and murdered his father. It's an excruciating frozen instant that feels like it stretches on forever, as though he has been turned to stone. Or a somewhat more modern example, that moment in both Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, when Kurtz, on his deathbed and fully understanding just how bad things have gotten, whispers, "The horror, the horror, horror."

This is the moment I hunt down in every horror story I read, and strive for in every horror story I write. Because anagnorisis, as excruciating as it can be, is necessary to achieve catharsis. And ultimately, it is catharsis that I crave. That release, that brief respite from the crushing temptations of despair. I think it no accident that during these fraught and challenging times in which we live, horror has made a striking comeback in nearly every entertainment medium. Many of us are seeking either escape or catharsis. And horror can sometimes even provide both at once.

Is No Filter scary? Perhaps. I'd imagine your mileage may very, and fear is extremely subjective. As a child, I found Empire of the Sun and Aliens to be equally frightening. Episodes of Amazing Stories haunted my nightmares just as frequently as Poltergeist and The Shining. Yet, I absolutely adored Frankenstein and Creature from the Black Lagoon, and often took toy versions of those characters to bed with me at night. Who knows what does or doesn't do it for you.

So I can't promise you scary. But after experiencing a few days in the head of Jinx McCormick, I can promise you both horror, and more importantly, catharsis.

No Filter will be out Feb 6th, wherever fine books are sold. You can preorder now.

Please note that No Filter is a contemporary horror story that includes elements of suicide. If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, please call 988 in the US or 116 123 in the UK.