Intense perceptions, generally, cause all emotional expressions to become exaggerated and more erratic in nature. Intense emotions progressively assume control of behaviour as they intensify.1 Horror is a prime example of such varying extremes of expression. There are initial expressions which always accompany the emotion, for example dramatically raised eyebrows with a corresponding gaping mouth.2 At the upper limits, of horror’s intensity, continuity of expression breaks down and some actions are expressed while others are not.
If a shocking event turns out to be negative, the expression morphs into horror or terror. Horror and terror are both expressions of extreme fear, and they’re very similar in their expressions. What separates the two is horror’s additional element of revulsion.
The mouth is violently opened, just like terror, and the lower jaw may virtually lock near the chest. In addition, the tongue may be pushed out as if vomiting. Not always, but in some cases, abdominal muscles may contract so violently that vomiting occurs. This is often accompanied by a violent shudder as if shaking something off, which is a common expression of disgust. Perceptions of severe bodily harm mixed with disease or mutilation are what cause classical horrific responses. Horror is a reaction to violently repulsive perceptions.
D-Day, June 6th 1944, one hundred and sixty thousand troops cross the English Channel as they take part in an amphibious landing onto the beaches of Northern France. Veterans describe the rough journey in uncomfortable sea vessels. They say how they aired a willingness to disembark with statements like “The sooner we get off this damn boat the better.” Next they explain the worst days of their lives. They knew what to expect, yet they walk up the shore in shock. Witnessing the violent scenes shakes them to their cores, and they wonder if they will get out alive.
Veterans report feeling sick to the bottom of their stomachs as they walk up the beaches in their units watching the carnage of thousands of allied soldiers. Bodies lay dead, writhing, and twitching from excruciating pain, yet even if it’s their best friend that has fallen, everyone has strict orders to keep on marching past the bodies, to give first aid to no one. Under grey skies, sickly zombie-like structures walk with eyes pinned open and gaping mouths as they march through rows of their comrade’s mutilated bodies. This was the horror of twentieth-century war.
The horror film genre, when analysed, can be seen to create situations that elicit both intense fear and disgust.
A student is walking down a long corridor at a downtrodden college. She notices movement on the floor at the far end of the corridor. Whatever it is, it’s moving quickly her way. Lots of running legs and heads come into focus.
A troop of big hairy spiders are approaching. Eyes open wide and mouth gaping she stares in disbelief. Shocked, she freezes on the spot. As she turns to run, she feels a sharp stabbing pain in the foot on which she’s pivoting. Falling to her hands and knees the sharp pain in her foot gains a hairy sensation. She looks down to see a large spider with its bloody fangs embedded in her foot. The spider is moving around as it tries to gain a more secure location from which to sink a bite. The troop of spiders is getting closer. Horrified, she scrabbles to her feet and runs down the corridor with the spider still attached to her foot.
If people imagine a horrific situation or watch a horror movie, their emotional reactions will be far less dramatic than if they were a soldier walking up the beaches on D-Day. There are different intensities of emotion for being the soldier, imagining being the soldier, and imagining one’s self watching the soldier. The more detached a view of the event is, the less intense the emotional reaction will be. Nevertheless, perceptions create emotions. If people believe a perception, they feel the associated emotion whether the perception is true or not.
Horror’s expressions are otherwise the same as terror.
Latin. Horrere = to bristle with fear, shudder.
1. An intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.
2. An intense, painful feeling of repugnance and fear.