Shades of Meaning, horror and fear

So, a follow up to the post on happiness and joy, let’s look at the flip side: fear and horror. Again, the question is what is the difference? Is ‘horror’ just a synonym for fear? Is it just a “very strong” fear?

The quotation that led to this question being asked in class was from Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi from the point at which the title character is about to rape a woman and

she had stopped her scream and was staring at the box with a horror deeper than her fear of him


Let us start with a consideration of – perhaps my least favourite – genre of film: the horror film. I do tend to watch these through my fingers, cringing behind half-lidded eyes. I remember squealing – most definitely not screaming – out loud in the cinema when I went to see The Exorcist: the attic, why enter the attic?! Cold shivers!


But what makes these horror films and not just fear films?

Let’s look at a less intimidating example. To be honest, after the attic, I didn’t see much of The Exorcist!

Let’s try Jaws.


There is horror in the dramatic irony – shared by Chief Brody – that beneath the surface of the ocean lies danger, unseen; horror in the vast unseen threat hidden from sight. Once we see the shark – even accounting for its terribly rubbery appearance to a modern audience – we experience fear but no longer horror. We can rationalise it, flee it, fight it, analyse it and therefore contain and control it.

The same technique creates horror in What Lies Beneath and the wonderful Black Swan – those mirror images that don’t turn around with Natalie Portman! – as well as the gloriously outrageous Piranha 3D and 3DD.

If we think about Chief Brody or Naomi Watts in the Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, is their quest not to reduce horror to fear in order to control and contain and destroy it?


Hmmm… Look at all these luminal images that congregate and cluster around the genre: surface and depths; reality and fantasy – that moment in The Ring when Naomi Watts plucks from the screen the image of the fly as well as Samara’s crawling her way through the television screen; dream and waking; known and unknown; life and death

So what does this tell us about the shades of meaning? Horror seems deep, primitive, irrational; fear seems rational.

To use Freudian language language, horror seems to be a deep, unconscious response from our Id; fear is a conscious response.

To use (probably with serious errors) the language of neuroscience, horror may be the reaction of our primitive, reptilian hindbrain, that first part of our brain to have evolved; fear, the reasonable mammalian response of the – wonderfully named – amigdala of the Limbic System.

The etymology of the word seems to support this too. From the Proto-Indo-European ghers- and the Latin horrere meaning “to bristle with fear”, it suggests that the word has connotations of very physically and viscerally reacting in that very reptilian way.

So, if you met a wild eyed, snarling tiger, fear would seem the right word to fit; on a darkened night, alone in the forest, when a breath touches the hairs on the back of your neck, horror seems entirely apt.


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