Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
What constitutes horror? The answer is both simple and complex.
To understand the meaning of a word, it helps to know its origin. Originally, words usually have simple meanings which relate either to the body or to the world at large. It is only through repeated usage and adaptation of meaning that they develop more complex significance.
According to Online Etymology Dictionary (a great resource for writers), “horror” made its debut in the fourteenth century, from Old French horreur, meaning “bristling, roughness, shaking, trembling.” In other words, it referred to the standing of hair on end and to the shuddering of the body, not from cold, one may surmise, but from fear--to the physiological manifestations of terror.
It is similar, the Dictionary suggests, to the Sanskrit word harsate (“bristles”), to the Avestan term zarshayamna (“ruffling one’s feathers”), to the Latin noun eris (“hedgehog”), and to the Welsh word garw (“rough”). The Latin word horrifus (“horrific”), the same source informs its readers, means “terrible, dreadful,” or literally “making the hair stand on end,” and the Latin adjective horrendous, likewise, means “to bristle with fear” and to “shudder.”
Scientists tell us that animals make themselves as big as they can by assuming an erect posture, rearing upon their hind legs, and raising their forelegs; by bristling their fur or quills; ruffling their feathers; or, in the case of frogs, for example, puffing up. These physiological responses to a perceived threat are intended to intimidate and warn. They are protective postures. People have similar responses: their hair stands on end. They swell their chests and raise their arms.
They glower. Perhaps they will even display their teeth in a snarl.
Horror fiction concerns both the physiological effects of fear: the standing of hair on end, an increased heart rate, hyperventilation, the widening of the eyes and the gaping of the mouth, and so forth, and the objects of fear--that is, the causes of such physiological responses. The horror writer, in fact, brings the two together in a cause-and-effect relationship: the appearance of the monster (or the monstrous) causes the standing of hair on end, an increased heart rate, hyperventilation, the widening of the eyes and the gaping of the mouth, and so forth. In a nutshell, horror writers use words to create pictures and situations that produce a fight-or-flight response in their readers.
How writers perform this amazing feat is the complex part, but it is answered, more or less, in many of the articles I have already posted on Chillers and Thrillers, and, no doubt, it is an issue that I will continue to revisit and update.