There’s been a battle raging among horror fans and horror writers for years. A fierce battle with all the monsters, deaths, and mysterious disappearances that one can expect from such a group. This battle is played out in bookstores and on bestseller lists, in interviews with magazines and television hosts, and even on message boards (because this is the age of the Internet, so why not?). The debate is: which is better, horror stories where the supernatural is the cause, or where humans are the cause?

Surprise to say, this is an actual debate among fans of horror. What makes for a scarier story, one where the horror is caused by something supernatural, or when it is caused by a human like you or me?* Or perhaps some combination of the two? Each side has their own pros and cons, and depending on which you prefer, can have a huge influence on what you tend to read and, if you’re a creator, what you put out in the world. Authors themselves tend to deal in both kinds, but if you observe an author long enough, you start to notice their preferences. HP Lovecraft and Anne Rice seem to go more for horror, while Jack Ketchum likes human horror. His Royal Scariness Stephen King has a lot of supernatural forces in his work, but there’s definitely a partiality towards human-based horror. One needs only read Misery to see that. Even in his more supernatural stories, there are usually human characters who are only to happy to cause pain and death, whether of their own volition (Carrie’s mother and Chris Hargensen in Carrie) or under the influence of a much more powerful force (Henry Bowers and Tom Rogan in It).

A great example of supernatural horror.

So is there a better source for horror? Let’s take a look, starting with supernatural-based horror. Honestly, this one’s easy to explain the appeal: whether it’s been called Satan, Lilith, dark faeries, demons, yokai, or a hundred other names, humanity has been scared of some possible other out in the universe. Something greater than human beings, possibly very malevolent, and ultimately difficult to understand. The only way to survive is to run, placate the monster, or find some way to fight back, and the last one often comes at a high death toll. There’s also greater room for imagination with supernatural stories. You can take forces right out of mythology, use them as they’re typically portrayed, or change up their mythologies. Sometimes you even come up with original creatures, like Stephen King’s Langoliers or the entity formerly known as It. There’s a lot of freedom and potential in supernatural based horror.

On the other hand, there’s a chance that you can fall into a trap of relying too much on a mythical creature’s established mythology. And if you try to create something original, you find it’s extremely difficult to do so. Not only that, but with something non-human, there’s the risk that, unlike a human villain, the reader will have difficulty connecting with them. Some readers really enjoy connecting with villains, which in this instance makes Cthulhu a bad villain choice.

My own human-based horror.

Human-based horror, on the other hand, is a lot more personal, and very true to life. Despite our lofty ideals of goodness and perfection, one needs only look at the news to know that humanity is capable of dark thoughts and acts.  Human-based horror taps into that, delving deep into what humanity is capable of without a supernatural cause or encouragement, as well as how characters and we the audience react to it. It’s a powerful, visceral way to tell a story, and is often quite effective at scaring us with not only the acts of the characters, but at what we ourselves are capable of.

And that unfortunately is also the con of human-based horror. No one likes to be exposed to their darkness or flaws, and this form of horror gets deep into those. Which for some readers can be more disturbing than they would like. Hell, for some writers it’s more disturbing than they would like, sending them to parts of their imaginations they would rather leave alone. And exposure to this sort of horror can not only leave readers scared, but depressed. I’ve written before about how the escape into imaginary horrors can be therapeutic, and sometimes people prefer an escape that doesn’t remind them of the reality they’re escaping. Or as someone from one of my writer’s groups put it, “If I wanted human horror, I’d put on CNN.”

So which is better? Well, I say neither. Like I’ve just shown, both have their pros and cons, as well as their supporters and detractors. Personally, I (and most of the members of one of my writers’ groups) prefer supernatural horror, but we all agree that the occasional jaunt into human-based horror and vice versa are great. Hell, one of my novels, Snake, is human-based horror, and it’s one of my favorite stories.  So in the end, whichever you prefer to read or write, make sure to every now and then dip into the other so as to better appreciate both once you dip out again. And if you write, whatever you write, remember to keep practicing both types, so that someday you can write it well.

What’s your take on this debate? Which is your favorite?

*Still debatable if I count as human, though.

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Comments
  1. Roger says:

    I prefer supernatural horror, provided a lot of blood is spilled, as witnessed by my own horror novels.

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