It is that haunting time of year. October brings with it a heightened interest in the macabre. My daughter, Tasha, is currently moonlighting (a somehow appropriate term) in a local ‘Haunted Circus’ attraction in our community where tents and an unending chain of connected semi trailers — sort of a portable haunted house — are sending sought after thrills and chills up and down spines of all ages.
A haunted circus is appropriate. Bill Tancer analyzed the most frequent online search queries that involved the phrase, “fear of…”. His top ten list of fears consisted of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, success, and driving. By my estimation, then, a hot-air circus zeppelin filled with love-seeking zombies covered in snakes who refuse to date victims with money and expensive cars might be a big hit.
The truth is that it isn’t about fear; it’s about horror, terror and suspense … and the proper engineering that elicits a thrilling response.
Horror and terror are related concepts in literature and film. Terror refers to the feeling of dread that we have anticipating and preceding a horrifying experience or event. Horror itself, on the other hand, refers to the feeling of revulsion that we feel after we’ve witnessed something frightening or revolting. It include ‘awful realization’ of the significance of the fearful event. Basically, terror anticipates the fearful event while horror reflects on it afterward. According to Devendra Varma in The Gothic Flame (1966):
The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.
Suspense, however, is a more complex achievement. Suspense deals with anxiety about the outcome of actions. We in the audience see the choices that the characters are making and experience suspense as we become anxious over the results that these decisions portend.
Horror and Terror are concerned with the effect while suspense focuses on the causes.
What all this has led me to is to contemplate the misuse of the term ‘War on Terror.’
It seems to me that the emotionally-charged term terrorism (as we know it today) is not about terror at all: while we dread the possibility of future acts of terrorism these events are, by their very nature, unpredictable (or we would have stopped them) and only effective AFTER the fact. It is our contemplation of the after effects of these horrific acts of violence that gives them any power. Therefore, by definition, they are not so much acts of terrorism as acts of ‘horrorism’ doing something that will cause fear after the fact.
While this may seem like a trivial exercise in semantics … and I’ll admit that the phrase ‘War on Horror’ isn’t nearly as catchy as ‘War on Terror’ … the distinction leads us to an important distinction. For over a decade now, the citizens of the United States have been waging a ‘War on Terror’ by projecting military might to the furthest reaches of the globe — filled with dread over the mere possibility of another horrific event. But on reflection, I think we have really been waging a ‘War on Horror’ — so filled with dreadful reflection on the truly horrific events of 9/11 — that we have lost the belief in our own future, disillusioned by our own government and plundered by the very institutions — Wall Street and Banks — to which we looked to provide financial security and prosperity.
We are distracted overseas about terror when we need to deal with the horror at home.
I propose that we fight this War on Horror instead. If our house seems haunted and we think there’s a killer in the basement then it’s time we turn on the lights, get rid of the shadows and the secrets and don’t let anyone get separated form the group or leave anyone behind. If we absolutely have to face the monster in the basement, let’s do it together with every pitch fork, axe, shotgun, crucifix and preferably a large canister of liquid nitrogen if that’s what it takes.
We need to win this ‘War on Horror’ in our lives with joy, hope, determination and the faith that good people of differing views can come up with solutions to our problems if they are less interested in protecting their brooding castle of didactic ideologies than forwarding the good of all.
We all like a good horror movie now and then … but no one wants to live in one.