I’ve been writing Iconic Characters of Horror Fiction articles for over a year to a modest amount of success, and in that time I’ve covered a lot of strange territory - both in the number of different characters I’ve written about, and in the number of weird personal theories about them and the horror genre in general that I’ve shared in the process. While I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I want to do with this series, I have come to the point where I feel some of those weird theories need their own article. So allow me to present to you the first ICHF Key Concept article! And what better to start off with than my moderately popular genre taxonomy: the Four Horrors.
When it comes to Academic literary criticism, the horror genre is mostly uncharted territory. I was fortunate to have a college that offered two courses on horror literature - I mean, they both focused almost exclusively on British horror literature that was published before the 20th century, but y'know, baby steps and progress and all that. One of the things I was surprised to learn in those courses was that, as far as literary critics are concerned,there is no distinction between Gothic Horror and Horror in general - all horror is gothic, apparently. As an amateur scholar of horror stories, I felt that was INCREDIBLY wrong, and so I began working on a more accurate description of the horror genre - one that allows for more diversity. One that recognizes multiple modes of horror. A taxonomy, if you will.
I ultimately settled on dividing Horror into four main subgenres, each of which can be divided into even more subgenres on top of that. Let’s find out more about them, shall we?
We’ll start with the only officially recognized horror genre, the Gothic. Part of the reason I protest it as the ONLY form of horror is that, according to literary critics, it’s a very narrowly defined genre - one that cannot contain all the horror stories we’ve come up with in our history.
Gothic Horror demonizes the old, primitive, and ancient parts of our history. The horror in a Gothic story comes from the past - a crime committed in the olden days, or an ancient evil that has survived despite the passing of time. In Gothic horror stories, evil is something that humanity has to grow out of - it its destroyed by progress and discovery.
Monsters in Gothic Horror stories tend to be either undead creatures (like ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc.), mythological monsters (dragons, sphinxes, etc.), or humans that are turned into a more “primitive” creature (Mr. Hyde, Werewolves, etc.). Decay and degeneration are the main tools of Gothic Horror - the audiences is presented with vivid images of rotting bodies, both literal and metaphorical. Evil is defeated in Gothic horror stories by uncovering the truth and civilizing the old world - society must progress to keep the dead wickedness of the past buried.
Some of the subgenres of Gothic Horror include Ghost Stories (where the spirit of a deceased person must be put to rest by discovering the horror that killed them in the past), Vampire Fiction (stories with vampires in them), and the Imperial Gothic. The later is particularly interesting to me and relevant to my Four Horrors concept, as the Imperial Gothic is sort of the bridge between Gothic Horror and the other three horror genres. You see, while the Imperial Gothic still claims that horror is rooted in the past, it adds on the idea that said horror is being brought back to the present BECAUSE our “progress” in the present is, in fact, a barbaric retread of our ancestors’ mistakes. It claims that modern man is backsliding, and the old defeated horrors of yesteryear will roam free as a result. Other horror stories will take the genre even further from there.
Detective Fiction also has its roots in Gothic Horror stories, but whether it still counts as a horror genre or evolved into its own animal altogether is debatable. I personally wouldn’t count most detective tales as horror stories, but it’s interesting to note their connection.
Examples of Gothic Horror Stories:The Castle of Otranto, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”
Cosmic Horror was the first horror genre to split off from the Gothic entirely (in this little concept of mine, which is not law). In many ways, it seems similar to its parent. Heroes in Cosmic Horror stories often try to uncover the truth behind a supernatural mystery, and it often involves exploring some horrifying and primitive relics of the past. However, while uncovering the truth solves things in a Gothic horror tale, it only makes things worse in a Cosmic Horror story.
Cosmic Horror does not demonize the past. Instead, it demonizes existence itself. The universe is a cold, uncaring place that is beyond human comprehension, and as such it is also beyond caring for humanity. Evil is rooted in the very fabric of reality, and built into the utter apathy and indifference our world has for us. Madness, confusion, and miscomprehension are the main tools of these stories - our ability to see the world around us and not understand the meaning of it keeps the reader ill at ease, especially when that world grows increasingly awful and terrifying.
The main monster of a Cosmic Horror story is the… *sigh* eldritch abomination, whose good name as an archetype has been sullied by people applying it to any and all monsters. At one point, though, eldritch abomination was a phrase that meant something - specifically, a “monster” whose anatomy and nature cannot truly be comprehended by human minds, one who is almost thoughtlessly destructive simply because we are utterly insignificant to it.
We’re probably going to need a new word for that archetype soon, since people seem to love calling any and all monsters that are even remotely strange “eldritch abominations” these days.
Cosmic horror stories rarely offer their heroes a way out - if one does manage to defeat the evil, it is always temporary, and the hero is generally scarred beyond repair by the experience if they survive at all. One is only safe from the horror if one is ignorant of it - and even then, “safe” only lasts as long as the horror remains ignorant of us as well.
Examples of Cosmic Horror Stories:The Cthulhu Mythos stories, most Slender Man stories, Burrgrr, Awful Hospital, Hellstar Remina, Uzumaki, The Thing
When the Imperial Gothic Horror genre suggested that our progress may be unleashing the horrors of the past, it laid the seeds for the third main horror genre to blossom. Atomic Horror takes things a step further by suggesting our progress will make its own evils - evils the likes of which humanity could never have experienced in the past, for they could only be made by unleashing the newfound powers of modern technology.
In other words, evil is rooted in the present/future in an Atomic Horror story, rather than in the past like in a Gothic tale. Many Atomic Horror stories try to temper this aspect of their genre by emphasizing that progress is only bad when it is unchecked and uncontrolled - while scientists may make a monster, they can also be the ones to find a way to stop it. The progress in question doesn’t have to be scientific, either - industrial development schemes or military campaigns are just as likely to create a monster in Atomic Horror as a mad scientist’s experiments.
There are (at least) four main monster archetypes in Atomic Horror stories: the Prehistoric Monster (creatures from the past that are taken out of their rightful time and place by humanity - an archetype that Atomic Horror took from Gothic Horror stories and made its own), the Mutant (a creature that is made by humanity meddling with nature), the Robot (a machine that can operate without human assistance, often with deadly purposes), and the Alien (a creature from another world - often acting as a dark mirror of humanity, showing us how awful we could end up if we don’t change our ways). Mutation and dissection are the main tools of Atomic Horror stories - we are horrified to find that our “progress” requires us to destroy the current world to build an awful new one in its place.
To stop evil in an Atomic Horror story, one has to change the way humanity is progressing - either stopping the progress itself, changing its direction, or simply reining it in a bit. We have to rethink what we are doing and consider the effects we have on the world we run - or else the end will always have a question mark.
Two of the subgenres within Atomic Horror include the Alien Invasion Genre, where monsters from outer space invade earth with superior technology, and the Kaiju Genre, where humanity is attacked by a literally gargantuan monster because of our violation of the natural order. Kaiju stories sometimes leave the horror genre altogether, but I personally think most still stay within its boundaries.
Examples of Atomic Horror Stories:Godzilla, Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The War of the Worlds (1953 film), The Blob, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly
Finally, we have Slasher Horror. Born out of the exploitation films of the 70’s an 80’s, Slasher Horror doesn’t focus on the past or the future very much. While it shares an existential dread with Cosmic Horror, it looks inward for evil rather than outward. It’s not the universe that is evil, necessarily, but rather humanity itself. Something in the human condition is sick, twisted, and, with rare exception, predisposed to wickedness. Slasher Horror holds one thing as true: humanity needs to be punished, and oh how cathartic it is to watch that punishment unfold.
Slasher horror demonizes humanity itself, and it does so by presenting a cast of almost completely unlikeable and one dimensional characters. Humans aren’t necessarily moustache-twirlingly evil in Slasher stories, but they are selfish to a ludicrous extent. They ignore drowning children, have sex even as their friends are being slaughtered in the next room, and rarely trade words with each other that aren’t petty insults. When a character is introduced in a Slasher story, they are almost certainly designed to make you desire their death.
However, there is generally an attempt at making an exception to this rule in most Slasher stories. You will normally find at least one character who is unique in that they care about other people and, y'know, aren’t shitty human beings. This is your hero, and they have the enviable task of stepping over a very low bar to become the least wretched person in your story.
“Monsters” are rare in slasher stories, as most tend to go for an anonymous killer instead - some ominous masked man who picks off the other awful people one by one, often in increasingly preposterous ways. When one of these killers survives long enough, they may gain an identity - and since this tends to involve surviving several definitely lethal injuries, they often become undead monsters as well.
The main tool of the slasher movie is gore. Splattering organs, buckets of blood, and impossible wounds are the gross out of choice, and often play less like horrifying scenes and more like money shots in a porno. Slasher Horror is all about catharsis - while other stories may want to horrify you, Slasher tales let you indulge your darker desires for a time.
Evil is defeated in a slasher movie when the hero loses almost everything and, in desperation, finally snaps and raises a hand against the awful nature of humanity - in a literal fashion, i.e. by killing the slasher. This violent act may also be why few heroes in Slasher stories survive coming back for a sequel - by killing the slasher, they have become another wicked person who selfishly put their own life above others.
Examples of Slasher Horror Stories: The Halloween series, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, Friday the 13th series, the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, the Saw series, Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon, the Scream series
The Axis of the Four Horrors
skeletonphonic was the first to make an axis out of my four horror genres, so credits go to him for the idea for this visual.
If you look at my four horror genres, you can see that there are two pairs of apparent opposites. Gothic Horror vilifies the past, while Atomic Horror villifies the future. Cosmic Horror claims the universe is evil, while Slasher Horror claims evil is inherent to humanity itself. We could use this axis to try and force existing horror stories into one of these four genres - for example, the more a story vilifies humanity, the more Slasher it is. Simple, right?
Well… no. See, these pairs aren’t actually opposites. A story can vilify the past AND the present - hell, that’s basically what the Imperial Gothic does. Likewise, humanity being evil doesn’t necessarily mean that the universe itself isn’t evil too. A horror story could hit all four points on the axis.
If one were to graph horror stories on this axis, I think it would be smart not to do it with a simple point. Instead, show how far a given story stretches in each direction - some may lie firmly in one direction, while others may stretch into two, or three, or even all four. It could be an interesting experiment for more mathematically included horror scholars than myself to try.
Problems with the Four Horrors
While I obviously like this little division of the horror genres, and have found it very useful in my writing about Horror in general, I can’t say it’s flawless. It’s mostly based on Western literature, specifically English language literature, and as such there are A LOT of horror stories out there that could theoretically not fit anywhere on this axis. That’s a major problem that I can’t address entirely on my own - even a glutton like myself could never read every horror story ever made, or even MOST of the horror stories ever made.
Academics might also argue that my division is forced. A lot of Slasher and Cosmic Horror stories have an evil of the past as part of their story - the murder of Jason Voorhees, the ancient cult of Cthulhu, etc. We could force them into the Gothic, and then kick Atomic Horror stories out of the Horror genre and into Science Fiction (which a lot of critics do). I think that’s too simplistic, but y'know, I’m not God. I’m just a weirdo who thinks too much about horror stories.
There are other taxonomies as well. Some have divided horror into Supernatural and Radcliffian tales - Supernatural Horror has a horror that is, obviously, supernatural, while Radcliffian Horror reveals that the horror was man-made all along (think Scooby Doo). Others have divided Horror into Thrillers and Creature Features - Thrillers involve a mundane, realistic threat, while Creature Features have monsters in them. Or we could divide horror between its two sibling genres, Sci-Fi and Fantasy - Sci-Fi Horror, Fantasy Horror, and Mundane Horror for those tales that don’t have a supernatural element. There are probably a billion ways we can divide the genre.
But the Four Horrors work for me, and they’ve helped form ICHF into what it is. They won’t be leaving this blog any time soon.
(For those interested in the little mascots I made for this essay, here are their names: Count Gothic, Cthon Cosmic, Doctor Atomic, and Sam Slasher.)
Vixen Mari Jiwe McCabe | the Atom Ryan Choi | Icon Augustus Freeman | Hawkwoman Kendra Saunders | Doctor Light Kimiyo Hoshi | the Flash Jesse Chambes | Zatanna Zatara | Big Barda Free | Green Lantern Jessica Cruz | Batwing David Zavimbe
So apparently DC is going to release a series about an updated Justice League which includes both heroes and villains defending earth and the multiverse. I’m not sure if they’ll be color coordinated in the actual books yet but these are apparently the four teams that they will spit up into.
Four giant beings made up of the universe’s major energies - Mystery, Wonder, Wisdom, and Entropy - have to devour planets to sustain their lives. In order to stop these beings from destroying the planet Colu the superheros of Earth have to form new alliances.
Above is Justice League: Team Mystery, comprised of Superman, Martian Manhunter, Starfire, Starro, and Sinestro.