Bite-Sized Fantasy Worldbuilding -- Horror in High-FantasyIn honour of this day when the veil between the material and the ethereal begins to thin, I have decided to write a small workshop on the matter of writing horror in High-Fantasy, and why it is so gods-damned difficult to do effectively in a genre such as High-Fantasy.
However, first and foremost, we must address what, exactly, horror is. One thing is very easy to determine: the primary goal of horror. Horror stories aim to create a visceral reaction in the reader—particularly one of fear. What, exactly, horror is, is another matter entirely. Luckily, in Danse Macabre, Stephen King provides a categorization of horror that should prove useful for our purposes. King relates that there are three different kinds of horror stories: tales of revulsion, tales of horror, and tales of terror in order of increasing intensity of extracted reaction.
[fieldbox=Three Types of Horror, #8fd9c5, solid, 0, palatino]Tales of Revulsion — Tales of revulsion are relatively self-explanatory. These stories seek to exploit the human tendency to react rather violently to disgusting things. One need not look any further than the film The Human Centipede to see a story that uses revulsion to achieve its goal. Of course, it is another thing entirely to argue that the film used revulsion effectively since it seems to fall flat after the big reveal. Regardless, it is not difficult to see why revulsion is an effective way to elicit fear from an audience.
Tales of Horror — Where tales of Revulsion are likely to produce the most intense physical reaction, as disgust is wont to do, tales of horror create a much more intense emotional reaction. Horror is very similar to the third category, but in horror, the audience is shown the source of the current circumstance. Horror thrives, particularly, in brief bursts of fear—hence the popularity of jump-scares in the genre. Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds is a fantastic example of a tale of horror.
Tales of Terror — There are two distinct differences between Terror and Horror. In Terror, the audience is rarely, if ever, exposed to the cause of the horrific circumstances that the main protagonist/s find themselves in. This leads nicely into the second difference. Where tales of horror thrive on the momentary peaks of fear, tales of terror create a reaction that is on an entirely different level of intensity. Tales of terror thrive on the audience feeling almost claustrophobic. The fear that tales of terror elicit is in perpetua. It does not end until the story ends, and even then, that is not a given.
The Uncanny Valley — though the Uncanny Valley certainly can help with the other kinds of horror, it most certainly lends well to tales of terror. As King puts it himself, "Terror, when you come home and notice that everything has been replaced by an exact substitute." The Uncanny Valley is one of the most effective ways to inspire extreme discomfort in people—if not fear. The Uncanny Valley is to blame for the instinctive terror that we feel when we see the lights flicker momentarily in a normally-benign hospital hallway. Everything seems to be the same—except for very minor details that are just enough to make a person extremely uncomfortable.
[fieldbox=Horror in High-Fantasy, #8fd9c5, solid, 0, palatino]So, why exactly is horror really difficult to write in a genre such as High-Fantasy? Well, part of the reason is the inherent suspension of disbelief in the genre, as well as the accepted notion of fantastical creatures and beasts that are just a part of this world. Reanimated bones? Liches with flesh sloughing off of their pale skeletons? Hordes of undead ravaging the battlefield, tearing through the living? Screeching spirits filled with a desire to end all life? These things are all standard tropes of fantasy, and it is quite difficult to use them in an effective way to elicit a visceral fear-response to writing.
Unlike science fiction, which often carries with it the innate fear of things going wrong, and the claustrophobia of being in a metal monstrosity in the cold void of space, High-Fantasy by its nature is more focused on adventure and epic heroism. Most monsters that the mind can conceive of, when placed in the context of High-Fantasy where such things are commonplace, are just viewed as typical of the genre. This renders High-Fantasy near impossible to write a tale of revulsion for, and makes effectively writing tales of horror significantly difficult.
High-Fantasy, however, in my mind, is oddly susceptible to tales of terror. The nature of the fantastical itself means that creatures can be conceived of that are perpetually present, but undetectable. This does, however, require a few departures from the staples of the genre. In order to write an effective High-Fantasy horror story, one must draw back from the epic-scale story that most High-Fantasy tales suffer, and turn the eye of the audience toward a more insulated setting. Second, the atmosphere of adventure must be changed to either one of suspense, or one of desperation.
Finally, because High-Fantasy is heavily burdened with tropes, the uncanny valley can be used to great effectiveness. What is more terrifying than a cadre of perpetually-smiling elves, whose grace is just a little lacking? What is scarier than a horde of bawdy, rowdy orcs with slightly discolored skin suddenly falling quiet as death when the sun sinks beneath the horizon?
The horror of High-Fantasy will draw largely from the psychology of the audience—as well as the repertoire of their fantasy knowledge. Because grotesqueries and surprise attacks are a typical part of High-Fantasy, it is imperative that the atmosphere be just right to turn something that is typical into something that is to be feared. In my setting of Elyne, for my Lux Tenebris story, the horror comes not from the shadows that are lurking in the corners, that brought down the pillars of a false-utopian society, but from the very people in that society who are exposed to a gnawing hunger for anything, even Elynian flesh. In Lux Tenebris, the audience, and in this case the players, are confronted with the very real and very terrifying choice of cannibalizing their friends or dying of hunger—all this wrapped up in the ever-present threat of the lurking shadows that can kill them with a single touch.[/fieldbox]
So, what do you think? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Is there anything you can add to writing horror stories in the High-Fantasy genre? I would love to read what you have to say and what you have to add.
P.S. Awooo! Happy Halloween!