“Taxonomy” is a fancy word for classification system--a sort of intellectual file cabinet for grouping things on the basis of their similarity to one another or their sharing of a common trait that excludes anything that lacks this trait. In biology, organisms are grouped by whether they have a backbone (vertebrates) or not (invertebrates), and animals are grouped as reptiles (scales), amphibians (able to breathe in water or on land), and mammals (ability to bear live young).
Whether horror fiction can be so classified is a debatable point. What is the single trait that is essential to literature that would be cause it to be considered horror fiction? Literary works that cause readers to feel fear, one might suggest, are specimens of horror fiction. This approach to the taxonomic problem classifies the work by its effect. Certainly, Edgar Allan Poe would subscribe to such a principle, as his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” makes clear.
Many things that one would not ordinarily, if at all, regard as horrific nevertheless disturb us: a steelworker’s accidental fall from a skyscraper, the crash landing of a jet airplane on the ocean, a house on fire, the sight of an animal’s cadaver alongside the highway. We tend to speak of such events as “tragic” or “unfortunate,” or “gross,” but, although they shock, sicken, and disturb us, they seldom actually frighten us.
For an incident or a situation to be horrifying, it must be personal: it must affect us individually and personally, directly or vicariously. Otherwise, it may be terrifying, atrocious, and sickening, but it is not horrific or horrifying.
This seems to be the first criterion for classifying a narrative as a horror story, then: it must affect us individually and personally, directly or vicariously.
If we are on board, a runaway train is terrifying, as would be a car that won’t stop, no matter how many times or how hard the brake pedal is stomped, or an airplane that takes a sudden and irreversible nosedive into the planet. However, it is not the train, the car, or the airplane itself that terrifies. Rather, it is the fact that it is on an uncontrollable course that could well result in our own injuries, deaths, and destruction. Since we are passengers aboard the train, or in the car, or aboard the airplane, the uncontrollable, headlong dash toward injury, death, and destruction makes the situation personal. It affects us directly and individually. Even if the runaway train, out-of-control car, or plummeting airplane were to be brought under control, its initial behavior would be harrowing. During the time that we were, as it were, at the mercy of the vehicle, we would experience true horror. If we analyze the cause of our horror, however, we understand that it is not the mere train, car, or airplane that horrifies but the fact that it is out of control. We can make no appeal to a machine, for it has neither ears to hear nor brain to think nor heart to feel.
This seems to be the second criterion for classifying a narrative as a horror story, then: the menace with which we are threatened must be out of control (beyond appeal). When the menace is a human being, part of what may make him or her uncontrollable, or beyond appeal, could be his or her inhumanity. A lack of the ability to experience emotions or the lack of a conscience, for example, puts a sociopath beyond appeal. Emotional pleas mean nothing, because he or she feels neither sympathy nor empathy, and moral appeals mean nothing, because he or she has no sense of right and wrong.
Although the threats with which horror fiction confronts its readers need not be human, and, therefore, may lack discernment and purpose, a third criterion, perhaps more desirable than necessary, as an ingredient of horror fiction is consciousness, or intelligence, for it seems that an out-of-control menace that threatens us personally and individually, directly or vicariously, is more horrific if it is intelligent than if it is merely a insentient force or being like a forest fire, a disease, or a runaway train. Intelligence gives the menace will and the ability to execute sophisticated plots. A madman, who is able to reason, after a fashion, and yet who lacks humanity--a sociopath, in other words--is far more horrific a threat than even a plummeting airplane, because he or she threatens us personally and individually, is out of control (beyond appeal), and is able to carry out his or her schemes relentlessly.
Perhaps we can classify any story, in print or on film, that meets these two criteria as being an instance of horror fiction:
1. The threat must affect the reader or audience individually and personally, whether directly or vicariously.
2. The menace with which the reader or audience is threatened must be out of control (beyond appeal).
These two elements, we may say, are essential characteristics of the horror story. To them, we can add a nice-to-have element, which, like a good seasoning, spices the plot:
3. The menace with which the reader or audience is threatened should be conscious, or intelligent, if possible.
The adoption of these criteria leaves ample room for the most monstrous monster, but it also allows us to include such stories as Psycho, Jaws, Cujo, and The Island of Dr. Moreau in our taxonomy, and most horror writers, fans, and critics would agree that these stories, involving a mad, transvestite killer; a shark; a rabid dog; and quasi-intelligent human-animal hybrids, respectively, should be accorded room on the genre’s specimen boards.
Of course, a taxonomy usually also includes subtypes. Perhaps they shall be the topic of a future post.