While there are numerous ways to present the horror genre, I’ve found myself considering two distinct types of horror stories: those where the threat is paranormal, and those where the threat is mundane. When I say mundane, I mean something that we all acknowledge is within the realm of possibility. Stories that tell of gruesome killers and levels of cruelty only a twisted human imagination could conjure up and for all intents and purposes could actually happen.
I have found that I have a tendency to avoid this mundane horror — as I will refer to it from here on — in favour of stories that deal with more paranormal sources. I enjoy paranormal horror more because, despite my investment in reason and logic, the idea of something supernatural or unexplainable occurring terrifies me. On the other hand, I also find myself avoiding mundane horror because it is upsetting just how real it is.
It is a contentious issue in my mind when I try to determine which I actually find to be scarier. Without necessarily drawing any definitive conclusions and more for the fun of the discussion, I want to break down these two concepts as I perceive them.
As I said above, I find this kind of horror to be upsetting to experience. This is not to say I have a bad time with it, but that it is more prone to making me feel uncomfortable. Mundane horror is scary because it is real: very real. A good example of a story like this is the film The Strangers. A couple is terrorized by three masked assailants, intent on murdering them simply because they were home. While rare in everyday life, it is not an impossible occurrence. It could easily happen, practically speaking, and the kind of violence it exposes us to is very realistic. There is a disturbing simplicity to how functionally easy it is to stab and torture, and this is what makes stories like this effective.
While actual circumstances would be horrifying, mundane horror simply does not scare me when experienced through the lens of fiction. What lessens the bite for me is in my moniker for it: mundane. I may be thrown off by the reasoning and motivations of a psychotic killer, but that does not take away from my understanding of what they are: human. Susceptible to the physical weaknesses of nearly anybody else, I find there’s a part of me that can mentally peel back the layers of context and understand that it is physically just as easy to harm the assailant as it is for them to harm you. Great writing in a story like this can help make the why and how they’re doing it terrifying, but I will always understand what they physically are, and that means a lot to me when it comes to horror.
Despite the fact that I dismiss the threat in mundane horror (to an extent) because the threat is ultimately human, I do not do the same for the unreal elements of paranormal horror. I don’t believe in the otherworldly or the supernatural, but I’m opened minded enough to be very effected by the idea or suggestion of them. Paranormal horror feeds off of the absence of understanding. A benign action such as a door swinging on its own or an unusual noise becomes bone chilling when presented in a context where such a thing shouldn’t happen. From this, to the scale of an eldritch monstrosity that defies comprehension, I gravitate toward horror that offers something that shouldn’t be possible. In a time where we understand so much about the world, it would be fascinating in its own terrible way to be confronted with something like that.
Regardless, the unreality of the matter is an ever-present factor to consider. As much as paranormal horror is more likely to creep me out, if the story is poorly put together the impossibility of the situation will be glaring. At the end of the day my reflection isn’t going to move independently, nothing is hiding in the corner of my room that my brain isn’t trying to put there, and that noise came from any number of logical places. Additionally, so many paranormal horror stories recycle the same threats over and over again that they become too familiar to be immediately terrifying. Vampires and vampire lore, for example, have become so commonplace that it’s actually a pleasant surprise when a horror story is told about them.
There is of course, a lot more to horror than these two distinctions, but for myself I found them strong enough to influence how I approach what I read or watch. It’s hard to truly determine which I find to be the scariest, but it’s been fun to really hash things out in more detail.