Horror vs. Terror and the Gender Divide in Gothic Literature

Horror. Terror. They’re synonyms, right? Actually, they’re similar, but their meanings are slightly different, especially in the world of Gothic literature. In fact the terms represent two different schools of thought that early writers of Gothic literature divided themselves along. And at the beginning, this division occurred loosely along gender lines, as Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe were held up as the representatives of each camp.

Radcliffe and Lewis
Ann Radcliffe (Terror) and Mattlew Lewis (Horror)

Ann Radcliffe, prolific writer of Gothic novels and matriarch of the Female Gothic movement, was the first to discuss at length the differences between horror and terror. In an essay titled “On the Supernatural in Poetry,” Radcliffe describes horror as the cheaper, shock-value version of the emotion. Horror is the fear of something concrete, as experienced when one encounters a monster, a specter, or a scene of violence. Terror, on the other hand, is characterized by “uncertainty and obscurity.” It is the sense of anxiety and dread that comes from the fear of the unknown or the yet-to-come. Radcliffe felt that terror, and not horror, was the path to the sublime—the ultimate goal shared by Romantic poets and many Gothic writers of achieving a higher emotional state in which fear and awe are intermingled. Radcliffe exemplified this ideal of terror in her own novels which often featured young heroines trapped in spooky castles and tortured by ominous sounds outside their doors and shadows just out of sight.

The monk coverRadcliffe’s denunciation of horror was in all likelihood a dig at her rival Matthew Gregory Lewis, best known as the author of the most shocking and gory of the early Gothic novels, The Monk. In Lewis’s novel, the object of fear is not an ambiguous being of murmurs and shadows but rather a lustful monk who poses a very real danger to the characters in the story. Other dangers include bloodthirsty mobs and murderously sanctimonious nuns. The novel is full of scandalous scenes of violence, lewdness, and grotesquerie which have secured it a memorable place in the history of Gothic fiction.

While some followers and imitators of Lewis and Radcliffe continued to perpetuate the horror/terror divide, many writers use a balance of both emotions in their works of gothic fiction. Stephen King, one of the fathers of the modern horror genre, addressed the topic in his non-fiction book Danse Macabre, saying:

“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out.”

Interestingly, while the two have tended to blend together in literature, the divide between horror and terror seems to have become even starker in films. Many horror films these days can easily be divided into either slasher films—which horrify with their depictions of violence and gore—and psychological horror films—which build terror through suspense and implication.

Which do you prefer: horror or terror? Tell me why in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Horror vs. Terror and the Gender Divide in Gothic Literature”

  1. Hey Goth,

    I agree that terror is the more sublime, and something to strive for in writing scary fiction. I think terror, and that vague sense of dread is what makes H.P. Lovecraft’s work so compelling, even today.

  2. I’m a big fan of terror. Much in the same way that I love “thrillers” more than “slashers” I prefer terror to horror. Terror is wit and horror is a cheap joke. Which is to say I love a cheap joke every now and then, but BOY is wit much more appreciated and enjoyable in high amounts.

    1. Same. I was telling someone the other day: when it comes to horror movies, I enjoy bad slasher films and good psychological horror films, haha! Basically, I only like “horror” when it crosses the line into humor, but I will respect a film that can terrify me.

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