A few weeks back, Shaun quipped to me that horror is “fantasy with scary bits.” Even further back, a discussion went around on Twitter as to whether horror and epic or high fantasy could coexist. A few remarks this week (which I will get to in due course) had me thinking about this issue again.
As I’ve argued previously, horror is too polymorphous to be considered a genre — any attempt to define it as such winds up with exclusions and inclusions so remarkable as to invalidate the definition. For example: an insistence that there must be an element of the supernatural excludes the likes of Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and so on. On the other hand, horror’s symbiotic/parasitic nature allows it to use just about any genre for its own purposes. Science fiction and horror, for example, have a long history of entwined DNA: Alien, much of Lovecraft’s work, etc. etc. etc. (We see this in the multi-genre fusion of Warhammer 40,000 too, which is one of the many things I love about writing it.)
What about fantasy then? Here, the mixture seems to be more rare. I can think of a couple of reasons for this. One is that in worlds where the extraordinary and the supernatural are common, it is much more difficult for a menace of that kind to appear strange and terrifying. As well, generally speaking, the more powerful a protagonist, the less frightening the narrative becomes. I should add, though, that the relative scarcity of the mixture is, I think, more a feature of Western cinema and fiction. Japanese film, to take just one example, has plenty of horror narratives set in what one would think of as fantasy settings (such as the vengeful ghost tale Kuroneko).
At any rate, scarcity is not the same as absence. Consider Black Death and Season of the Witch. Granted, the first is a good film and the second is dire, for reasons that go beyond the treatment of horror and fantasy, but that treatment is, I believe, a contributing factor to the success or failure of the two movies.
Both films take place around the same time period, their medieval Europe settings being perfectly conventional fantasy backdrops. Hell, Black Death even features Sean Bean with a sword. Both have knights in conflict with women they believe to be witches and blame for the spread of the plague. There the similarities end. Season of the Witch fails on a number of fronts, and its use of the supernatural is one of the big problems, in that it hopelessly muddies the film’s stumbling attempts to criticize institutionalized misogyny. Black Death handles the complexities of its situation rather more deftly. It is also far more effective as a horror film than Season of the Witch. Perhaps significantly, it jettisons the supernatural aspect.
In fact, a number of the horror films set in periods prior to the 19th Century do not have supernatural elements. Witchfinder General, for example, situates the locus of horror in the belief in the supernatural, and the atrocities that belief pushes one to commit. An admittedly entertaining exception is Blood on Satan’s Claw. But I find it interesting that its use of the supernatural, as in Season of the Witch, shifts things from an excoriating critique of the male fear of female sexuality back to an expression of that very fear.
In print, one of the few works I’ve encountered that really does blend horror with epic fantasy is Teresa Frohock’s Miserere. It was her comments about writing horror, and her frustrations with how the book has been often miscategorized (as YA, for instance) that I was referring to above. And it is true that there are sustained passages here that I would unhesitatingly qualify as horror, where the supernatural, though present throughout the novel, becomes genuinely menacing. Perhaps not insignificantly, the protagonist is a shadow of what he once was, his power at low ebb, and so the threat in this scenes is palpable.
My feeling, then, is that despite their apparent proximity due to the presence of the fantastic itself, horror and fantasy, in the Western tradition, have a much more fraught relationship than is the case between horror and many other genres. Horror can flourish on fantasy’s terrain, as I think these examples show, but its cultivation takes great skill.
Edit: Teresa has just reminded me about Tanith Lee, and I deserve to be beaten soundly about the head and shoulders with an iron mace for that oversight. If there is anyone who has shown that horror and fantasy can work together, and work brilliantly, it is Lee.