Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman
There are at least four distinctive categories of horror: the ominous, which features an unseen menace, such as a stalker; the eerie, which features that which is strange, such as a monster; the ghastly, which features the gory, the gruesome, and the deformed, such as a hunchback; and the frightening and shocking, which frightens by shocking.
Each category can be referenced by a cluster of synonyms that, perhaps, give a better idea of their meaning; some of the more common synonyms for each category are provided below, along with a few examples of each category, mostly from horror films.
Ominous, threatening, warning, worrying, gloomy, portentous, menacing, boding evil, ill-omened, unpromising, disquieting, unsettling, nerve-racking, distressing, frightening, alarming, bullying, intimidating, looming, startling, harassing, daunting, overwhelming
Ominous scenes include:
- The gathering of blackbirds in The Birds: Out of the blue, birds gather from miles around, many of them perching along a power line across the street from the local grade school, awaiting their opportunity to attack the young coeds and their teachers.
- Freddie Krueger stalking Nancy in the high school boiler room in A Nightmare on Elm Street: After staying awake all night, Nancy falls asleep in class. In her dream, she follows Freddie downstairs, into her high school’s boiler room, where the claw-handed pedophile stalks her in a horrific nightmare.
- The little girl saying “They’re back!” in The Amityville Horror.
- Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest”: As discussed in a previous post, this whole story is extremely ominous because of Stoker’s manipulation of his anonymous protagonist’s consciousness so that it is uncertain as to whether he is hallucinating or actually experiencing the bizarre incidents in which he seems to become involved during a hike in the countryside outside medieval Munich.
- Buffy and Faith walking down a dark alley in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Bad Girls” episode: The alley’s darkness, awash in crimson, suggests death and blood, and the flashing amber light atop the nearby construction sawhorse warns of danger. A moment later, sure enough, vampires attack!
Eerie, creepy, uncanny, strange, weird, peculiar, unnatural, supernatural, ghostly, ghostlike, paranormal, spine-chilling, frightening, sinister, alarming, mysterious, odd, bizarre, unusual, outlandish, extraordinary, irregular, abnormal, atypical, curious, eccentric, aberrant, perverted, twisted, deviant, mystical, ethereal, wraithlike, vaporous, indistinct, spectral, remarkable, surprising, astonishing, nonstandard, uncharacteristic, malformed, nonconforming, different, uncommon, intriguing, unconventional, anomalous, distorted, misused, tainted, altered, warped, cruel, bitter, unwholesome, numinous, otherworldly, unearthly, alternative, avant-garde, quirky, jarring, contaminated, stained, spoiled, soiled, infected, unhygienic, polluted, fouled, corrupted, changed, misrepresented, bent, deformed, pitiless, mean, unkind, nasty, brutal, malicious, spiteful, vindictive, merciless, heartless, ruthless, vicious, harsh, callous
Eerie scenes include:
- As A Nightmare on Elm Street opens, little girls, jumping rope, sing an eerie rhyme in a singsong fashion: “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you;/ Three, four, better lock the door;/ Five, six, get a crucifix;/ Seven, eight, better stay up late;/ Nine, ten, never sleep again.”
- The backs of a kid’s parents’ necks in Invaders From Mars: The sign that one has been possessed, as it were, by invading aliens, is a round wound in the back of the neck; a young boy, aware of this, is horrified to see the injury in the backs of both his parents’ necks.
- In The Shining, Jack, the caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel during its off-season, appears among guests in decades-old photographs posted in the lobby.
- A deranged family of misfits hosts a dinner for terrified captives in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
- A dog with a human head races past the camera in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Ghastly, terrible, frightening, appalling, horrifying, grisly, awful, dreadful, terrifying, horrendous, unspeakable, atrocious, shocking, gruesome, sickening, horrid, repugnant, macabre, hideous, outrageous, vile, deplorable, wicked, disgusting, beastly, revolting, nauseating, repulsive, gross, abhorrent, loathsome, ghoulish, ghastly, chilling, morbid, deathly, shameful, contemptible, despicable, evil, depraved, low, bad, wrong, immoral, iniquitous, sinful, impious, heinous, nefarious, fiendish, hateful, detestable, odious, unnerving, morose, gloomy, dark, melancholic, stony, dishonorable, malevolent, demonic, unbearable, unendurable, dissolute, dishonest, dissipated, decadent, debauched, unjust, irreverent, monstrous, scandalous, sleazy, agonizing, excruciating, insupportable, painful, degenerate, self-indulgent, profligate, unfair, unreasonable, impertinent, grotesque, ugly, wasteful, reckless, unwarranted, ill-tempered, impolite, brazen
Ghastly scenes include:
- The exploding head in Scanners.
- The aliens that burst through a human host’s chest in Aliens.
Frightening/shocking, startling, surprising, amazing, astonishing, astounding, staggering, disquieting, unsettling, alarming, fearsome, upsetting, worrisome, unexpected, unforeseen, unanticipated, unpredicted, remarkable, out of the blue, incredible, miraculous, wonderful, beyond belief, confounding, troubling, distressing, disquieting
Frightening/shocking scenes include:
- Jack hacks down the bathroom door with an axe to get at his wife in The Shining.
- A skull appears, superimposed, on Norman Bates’ face in Psycho.
- The viewer is shocked by the abrupt appearances of the monster in Jeepers Creepers.
The writer who uses these categories, in an appropriate fashion, will generate horror as surely as such individuals as Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Craven, Stuart Rosenberg, Bram Stoker, Douglas Petrie, William Cameron Menzies, Stephen King, Don Siegel, David Cronenberg, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, and Victor Salva have done in using these same techniques in their movies or novels.