Where’s the Horror?

Last week, I was writing a post on my own blog about lesbians in fantasy, and I came across an interesting list of so-called best lesbian scenes/plotlines in science fiction and fantasy. (Best in a feminist way, not a pervy way.)

Anyway, the author included Willow and Tara from Buffy but said it was “cheating,” because Buffy the Vampire Slayer is technically horror, not fantasy or sci-fi.

I was flummoxed. I always think of Buffy as urban/contemporary fantasy: to me, “horror” means Anne Rice and Stephen King, Silence of the Lambs, murderers in creepy masks, and teenagers trapped in lakehouses. Of course Buffy has some of those elements, but I never even connected it with the horror genre. So where’s the line between fantasy and horror, particularly in the paranormal/contemporary fantasy genres?

I did some checking. Wikipedia classifies Buffy, Supernatural, True Blood, and Charmed as both horror and “supernatural drama.” Of those four, only Charmed and True Blood get the fantasy label. (All four get other classifications, but I choose to conveniently ignore those.)

But what’s the difference? All three shows have demons, vampires, and other ghoulies. They all have witchcraft and magic of varying types and pantheons. Trusty old Wikipedia says supernatural drama is

a subgenre of fantasy combining elements of supernatural fiction and the drama genre. This genre deals with ghosts and other paranormal topics, but without the tone and scares associated with the horror genre. The storylines of supernatural dramas have always been centered around magic or unexplained phenomena that cannot be rationalized by science but, rather by pagan or supernatural explanations.

Well, that settles things, doesn’t it!

…not really. It’s quite a loaded mouthful, too. And to throw another definition into the mix, horror is a

genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s most primal fears. They often feature scenes that startle the viewer through the means of macabre and the supernatural, thus they may overlap with the fantasy and supernatural genre…

Horror films often deal with the viewer’s nightmares, hidden worst fears, revulsions and terror of the unknown. Plots written within the horror genre often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage, commonly of supernatural origin, into the everyday world.

Well, that’s a little more enlightening. Supernatural drama is fantasy that seeks to scare us by manipulating our most primal fears. I think I can buy that for all four of those television shows have subsumed the best parts of horror to make fantasy more frightening. In answer to my earlier question, there’s not so much a dividing line as an area of overlap.

Be dazzled by my graphic-design skills!

A few weeks ago, Claudia wrote a post about the difficulties of defining the paranormal genre. And it’s true across all genres. There doesn’t seem to be clear-cut fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal, or horror genre. We paranormal writers are all muddling around in a big, sloppy puddle of fantastical and horrible elements.

And despite the messiness, it’s quite fun. There are no rules—we can define our own genre, especially if we forego the traditional publication route.

Do you have an genre-definitions? For you, what makes a story a horror story, a fantasy, or a paranormal drama?

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3 thoughts on “Where’s the Horror?

  1. Shauna Granger

    I totally agree; I would never think of Buffy as horror. I’ve had that same issue in my books – I call them YA Urban Fantasies, but because they have some romance, people automatically call them Paranormal Romance. And I have some scary fight scenes so that must mean horror or thriller. It’s all very subjective. I guess, as long as the right readers are finding the right books for their personal tastes, that’s all that matters.

  2. When I first came up with the idea for my paranormal/urban fantasy series, I was totally thrown as to how to classify it. In fact, at that point I didn’t even know what urban fantasy was. I was browsing through Netflix the other day and saw that Hannibal is classified as a “thriller,” but like you, I’d put it in the Horror section for sure. I think there’s so much overlap between these “dark” genres that people use the terms interchangeably. As authors, the important thing to do is tag, tag, tag our stuff on Amazon, Goodreads, our blogs, and wherever else possible! 🙂

  3. Claudia Lefeve

    Great post and it still muddles the mind. I love the pie chart BTW and you’re right, it’s not clear cut. I still don’t know what mine is…paranormal (they have manufactured paranormal powers), sci-fi (there’s alternate universes/time-travel), dystopian (one alternate world is destroyed), romance (there’s definitely love), UGH! And I would never have figured Buffy for horror. I categorize that as supernatural/paranormal (hello, vampires?). If I wanted to give an example of a horror TV show, it would be American Horror Story…

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