horror or horror story, literary genre in which an eerie, tense, often suspenseful atmosphere typically builds to the discovery of something repugnant, such as cannibalism, incest, or the killing of children, or to something terrifying, such as the appearance of a demon, ghost, monster, or vampire, creating a feeling of fear, dread, repugnance, or terror. Marked by the irrational, unexpected, and disturbing, horror sometimes overlaps with science fiction and mystery.

The beginnings of the horror story lie in ancient folk literature, much of which is characterized by the supernatural as well as blood and gore. The Inquisitions of the Roman Catholic church, established to investigate heresy, often produced accusations of witchcraft, which contributed to the development of horror literature. Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765) and the subsequent Gothic romances of the late 18th and 19th cent. are among the earliest fully developed examples of modern horror. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), which introduces the monster as a vehicle for horror, has been reinterpreted in film many times. The German author E. T. A. Hoffmann is noted for his stories of madness, grotesquerie, horror, and the supernatural. In the United States, Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror fiction in the short story form, including The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), The Tell-Tale Heart (1843), and The Cask of Amontillado (1846). Horror at first focused on outside evil forces; with the development of psychology, the unwanted or disturbing forces or desires often became internal, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) recalls the evil doings of the vampire Count Dracula, and has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.

In the early 20th cent., such works as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), W. W. Jacobs's The Monkey's Paw (1902), Walter de la Mare's The Return (1910), and Guy Endore's Werewolf of Paris (1933) appeared. With the development of motion pictures, horror became a film genre as well; early horror films include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) in Germany and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) in the United States. The pulp magazine Weird Tales (1923–54) featured the stories of H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu Mythos series (c.1915–35) includes some of his best-known tales of horror. The 1940s and 50s saw the rise of horror comics, which grew out of pulp magazines, but the formation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA; 1954) forced many publishers to emphasize suspense and mystery until the relaxation of the CCA in the 1970s.

By the mid-20th cent., writers were combining science fiction and horror in short stories and novels, as in Ray Bradbury short stories in Dark Carnival (1947) and his novels The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953, films, 1966, 2018). Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man (1956), Jack Finney's Body Snatchers (1955, film, 1956), and Rod Serling's television series The Twilight Zone (1959–64) reflect postwar and cold war unease. Shirley Jackson wrote numerous horror stories, including her harrowing short story The Lottery (1948) and her novels The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

The late 20th and early 21st cent. saw the emergence of a new group of horror writers, including Ira Levin with Rosemary's Baby (1967, film 1968) and The Stepford Wives (1972, film 1975); James Dickey with Deliverance (1970, film 1972); Jay Anson with The Amityville Horror (1977, film 1979); and Anne Rice with Interview with the Vampire (1976, film 1994) and a number of sequels. The most prominent contemporary writer of horror fiction is Stephen King, whose cinematic novels have often been translated into film, including Carrie (1974, film 1976), The Shining (1977, film 1980), Misery (1987, film 1990), Dolores Claiborne (1992, film 1995), and A Good Marriage (2010, film 2014). Horror webcomics and horror video games have also become popular in the 21st cent.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Literature: General