From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Horror fiction is, broadly, fiction in any medium intended to scare, unsettle, or horrify the audience. Historically, the cause of the "horror" experience has often been the intrusion of an evil—or, occasionally, misunderstood—supernatural element into everyday human experience. Since the 1960s, any work of fiction with a morbid, gruesome, surreal, or exceptionally suspenseful or frightening theme has come to be called "horror". Horror fiction often overlaps science fiction or fantasy, all three of which categories are sometimes placed under the umbrella classification speculative fiction. See also supernatural fiction.
Supernatural horror has its roots in folklore and religious traditions, focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, the demonic and the principle of evil embodied in the Devil. These were manifested in stories of witches, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and demonic pacts such as that of Faust.
Early horror writings
Horrific situations are found in some of the earliest recorded tales. Many myths and legends feature scenarios and archetypes used by later horror writers. Tales of demons and vampires in ancient and more recent folklore were often quite horrific.
The eighteenth century saw the arrival of the gothic novel with such works as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1796) by Ann Radcliffe and The Monk (1797) by Matthew Lewis. A lot of horror fiction of this era was written by women and marketed at a female audience, a typical scenario being a resourceful female protagonist menaced in a gloomy castle.
The Gothic tradition continued in the 19th century, in such works as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Edgar Allan Poe's short stories, the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Enduring icons of horror derived from these stories include Victor Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Monster, Count Dracula, and Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde.
At the same time, John William Polidori devised the kind of vampire story that has since become familiar with his short story The Vampyre. This kind of supernatural character, combining evil with sinister charm, has since been much used and elaborated by horror writers.
Other early exponents of the horror form number such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft who are widely considered to be masters of the art. Among the writers of classic English ghost stories, M. R. James is often cited as the finest. His stories avoid shock effects and often involve an Oxford antiquarian as their hero. Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows" and Oliver Onions's "The Beckoning Fair One" have been called the best horror stories. Lovecraft and Sheridan le Fanu called some of their writing weird fiction or weird stories.
Horror fiction reached a wider audience in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of the American pulp magazine. The premier horror pulp was Weird Tales, which printed many of Lovecraft's stories as well as fiction by other writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffmann Price, Seabury Quinn, C.M. Eddy, Jr. and Robert Bloch. At a lower intellectual level were the weird menace or "shudder pulps" such as Dime Mystery and Horror Stories, which offered a more visceral form of horror.
Some stories in highbrow "literary" fiction could arguably be regarded as horror narratives: examples include Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" (Die Verwandlung) and "In the Penal Colony" (In der Strafkolonie) and William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily.
Horror in Early Cinema
As mentioned above, there have been "countless" horror films made. Many consider the Edison Studios version of Frankenstein, made in 1910, to be the first, though Georges Méliès' 1896 film Le Manoir du diable ("The House of the Devil" or "The Devil's Manor") is considered the first horror film by others. In the silent film era a great many films were made in the United States and Europe, particularly Germany, with such legendary directors as Fritz Lang, Robert Wiene, and F.W. Murnau. They, and other members of the German Expressionism movement, produced such classic films as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M. In Hollywood, Carl Laemmle's Universal Studios produced silent film classics with Lon Chaney, including The Phantom of the Opera. Universal, with such celebrated directors as James Whale and Tod Browning went into the "sound" era, making some of the most archetypal horror films of all time, including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man and many others (see Universal Monsters). By the 1950's in the United States, horror or "monster" movies had become so popular, especially among teenagers, that most major studios were producing horror and/or science fiction films. Some small, new studios were apparently created solely to produce films of the genre.
The Horror Film page goes into more details on the subject.
Contemporary horror fiction
Some modern practitioners of the genre use vivid depictions of extreme violence or shock to entertain their audiences, often recalling Grand Guignol theatre (see splatterpunk). This development has given horror fiction a stigma as base entertainment devoid of literary merit. Other writers, such as Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti, are cited as rejecting the portrayal of violent acts in favor of more psychological writing.
Nevertheless, popular contemporary writers such as Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, and Stephen King will sometimes bring off the horror effect without the extreme violence that characterises much of the current mainstream of this genre.
Horror fiction does not confine itself to literature, however. Countless horror-themed movies have been released in the 20th century, notably Dracula, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th, and Night of the Living Dead. There have also been many horror television series, such as Dark Shadows, Kolchak: the Night Stalker, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural.