Why Is The Fear Of The Unknown So Important In The Horror Genre?

2016 Artwork The Horror Genre And The Fear Of The Unknown article sketch

Although this is an article about making horror comics and writing horror fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about TV shows for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

As regular readers of this site might know, I’m a fan of a TV show called “Supernatural“. One of the really interesting things about this show is that it started out as a genuinely frightening horror show in it’s early seasons and then it just kind of gradually became less and less scary.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an absolutely great show – but it is noticeably less frightening in, say, season seven than it is in season one. The interesting thing is that the show still contains a lot of horror elements in the later seasons – gruesome deaths, ghosts, demons, monsters etc… but it’s just less frightening than it was in the earlier seasons.

And I think that I know why. By the later seasons of the show, the audience is just more familiar with all of this stuff. Even when the show introduces a new type of monster, it’s not really that frightening, for the simple reason that you’ve already seen many other types of monsters on the show. After watching several seasons of “Supernatural”, you’re familiar enough with the “world” of the show that nothing in it really scares you that much.

On a wider scale, you can see a similar thing happening with some of the more famous sub-genres of horror fiction. For example, whilst novels, comics, computer games and movies featuring zombies might be extremely cool- they’re not usually particularly frightening. Why? Because everyone already knows what a zombie is.

The same is true for vampires, werewolves and – to a lesser extent – ghosts too. Although all of the familiar parts of the horror genre are really cool, they aren’t really particularly scary in and of themselves for the simple reason that they are at least slightly predictable. They’re familiar. They’re known.

One of the central parts of making something in the horror genre frightening is the fear of the unknown.

This is why, for example, so many people are afraid of being alone in the dark. Even though, ironically, actually being alone in the dark is fairly safe. It’s the idea that you might not be alone in the dark (and you can’t tell what else is there) that makes the dark so frightening for many people. In other words, it’s the fear of the unknown.

The creepiest horror stories, films etc.. often contain unknown and unpredictable things. For example, one of the creepiest horror novels I’ve read (“Slights” by Kaaron Warren) revolves around what happens to people after they die (eg: something no-one can truly know until it happens to them). It also includes lots of other creepily mysterious stuff too (eg: like the fact that the narrator sometimes finds random objects that have mysteriously been buried in her garden).

Moving back to more “traditional” types of horror fiction, the fear of the unknown is also why ghost stories can still be frightening, even though everyone already knows what a ghost is.

Unlike vampires, zombies, werewolves etc… writers often have to make up their own “rules” when it comes to ghosts. As such, audiences never really know exactly which type of ghost a ghost story will include. It could be a poltergeist, it could be a haunted object, it could be a spectral figure that doesn’t really do anything, it could be a ghost that can take physical form etc… It could be anything.

Even if a horror story doesn’t include ghosts, it can be significantly more frightening if the audience knows as little as possible beforehand.

For example, there’s a brilliantly disturbing horror novel called “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami. The novel is about a guy who gives nightlife tours of Tokyo to tourists. His latest client is a mysterious guy who seems slightly strange

I guess that what I’m trying to say here is that the horror genre is at it’s scariest when there aren’t really any spoilers. And, unfortunately, placing your horror story or comic in a familar sub-genre (eg: the vampire genre, the zombie genre etc…) spoils a lot of what makes the story scary in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, these sub-genres are incredibly cool, but they aren’t usually very frightening because everyone knows what to expect.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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