Visceral vs. Cerebral Horror

As a child I was terrified of horror movies and avoided watching them. Two of my favorite movies were Jurassic Park and Independence Day, and while they were not directly horror, there were certain scenes in each film that I had to close my eyes during because I was so terrified. (They were when the raptors popped out and when they showed the alien body in the Area 51 base). Though I avoided explicit horror, I enjoyed spooky movies and TV shows intended for children, such as Disney’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?. I liked PG horror because it was merely spooky and creepy, not outright terrifying. The first true horror movie I remember seeing was Scream, which came out in 1996 when I was ten years old. Though that movie was meant to be somewhat comedic, the Ghostface mask nevertheless remained burned in my mind and gave me nightmares for months after.

As an adult I started getting more into horror and watched many of the movies that I was too scared to see as a kid. Horror has now become tied with science fiction as my favorite genre. Even more than horror movies, I prefer horror literature, specifically H.P. Lovecraft’s style of weird fiction and cosmic horror. In studying the genre more deeply, I’ve come to realize there are essentially two types of horror: cerebral and visceral. Visceral horror is most common in movies. It targets the viewer’s raw emotions through scary sights and sounds. Cerebral horror, on the other hand, does not target your emotions but your intellect. Cerebral horror tries to scare you, not with sights and sounds, but with concepts and ideas. In essence, visceral horror makes your heart race while cerebral horror makes your brain race.

This is why there is a stark distinction between horror books and movies. Because of the inherent nature and limitations of each medium, movies tend toward visceral horror while books tend toward cerebral horror. Movies are based on sound and images which are used to create jump scares, screams, loud high-pitched noises, violence, gore, blood, and hideous monsters. With no sounds or images available in books, however, writers are forced to make their horror more conceptual—more psychological and philosophical. In literature, the horror must always take place in the reader’s imagination.

Horror movies can be cerebral too, but it is less common. Popular audiences complain that cerebral horror movies are “too slow” and “boring” because they lack the visceral scares in each scene that they’ve grown accustomed to. They dismiss cerebral slow-burn horror because it “isn’t scary enough”—as if horror movies should be judged by how scary they are rather than how good the story is. To be classified as horror is to have a certain mood and atmosphere, not a certain degree of fear or number of scares. Slow-burn cerebral horror movies tend to rely on suspense and atmosphere with very little visceral horror until the very end of the movie (such as Rosemary’s Baby).

Of course there is plenty of horror literature that favors visceral scares over cerebral by describing gore and other gruesome images in the text, but generally the visceral horror in books is less visceral than movies. Sound especially (including music) is key in attacking your senses to induce fright. So if it is visceral horror that you seek, why read a book when you can watch an R-rated horror flick with the extra sensory perceptions it provides? Survival horror video games like Dead Space can be even more visceral than movies, and virtual reality will no doubt push the visceral horror genre further in the future. For the more squeamish horror fans, one benefit of books is the reader can control how vividly they choose to imagine any horrific scenes.

Although I prefer cerebral horror, when done well even pure visceral horror can be fun (such as a straight slasher movie like John Carpenter’s Halloween.) Cerebral horror is often done better in books because you can really get inside a character’s head and experience their horrifying thoughts as they are driven insane. But what makes film unique is its ability to combine both visceral and cerebral horror. The movies that manage to do this are some of the best, such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or the more recent The Empty Man. (That scene with the cult by the bonfire is one of the most haunting I’ve seen in years.)

Breaking the horror genre down into cerebral versus visceral made me realize why I liked certain “spooky” stories as a child. They were often stories about scary subjects but without using visceral elements to try to scare the viewer. It was the type of horror reminiscent of old campfire tales (a la Are You Afraid of the Dark?) where someone must tell a scary story with their voice alone—that is without the viscera of scary images and sound effects. Horror movies/TV shows targeted for younger audiences were not able to show blood and gore, so they were forced to make their horror more conceptual in nature by leaving the scares off-screen, in the viewer’s imagination. As with books, the viewer is then able to control how gruesome they envision the horror in their mind. Part of the “problem” for me as a child was I always had a vivid imagination; therefore horror affected me more dramatically.

Several years ago I wrote a horror book of my own, Trick or Zombie Treat. As it features child protagonists, I was trying to create the type of “spooky” horror that I liked as a child. I wouldn’t call it cerebral horror, and there is certainly some visceral zombie gore, but I was not deliberately trying to make the book frightening. I did not even conceive of the story as “horror” initially—it was more a fantasy adventure set on Halloween…with zombies, a witch, ghost, vampire, and werewolf. Without consciously realizing it at the time, what I was trying to do in the novel is what Scream did: create a horror comedy that is equally funny as it is scary.

It was probably not ideal to watch Scream as my first horror movie as it was referencing and satirizing previous horror movies that I was completely unfamiliar with. Scream is still a legitimate horror movie in itself while also being satirical. I re-watched it years later and appreciated the meta layer which went over my ten-year-old head. Looking back, it is kind of preposterous that I ever found that movie as scary as I did. I now view Scream as more smart and funny than frightening—though there are some sincere scares in the movie (and that eerie-looking mask still haunts me).

While I can now watch most horror movies without getting nightmares, I still tend to avoid overly visceral horror. The tricks and gimmicks grow tired when you’ve seen them enough times. Sure, jump scares still startle me for a second (that’s uncontrollable), but immediately afterward I find them more annoying than frightening. Though when used sparingly and at the right moments, a good jump scare and other visceral sounds and images can be effective at enhancing cerebral horror.

H.P. Lovecraft is my favorite horror writer, but I don’t get physically frightened while reading his stories. My heart doesn’t race and I don’t tremble in my seat like I do when watching one of The Conjuring movies. Instead Lovecraft inspires me with ideas that are mind-expanding while at the same time dark and disturbing in their implications. As Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Steven Spielberg learned the same lesson when making Jaws. What you don’t see is often more frightening than what you do see. It is the unknown that scares us most.

The Twilight Zone is another example of horror I enjoyed when younger. Not all the episodes were “horror,” but all the horror was cerebral. Stricter content guidelines in the 1950s/60s prevented Rod Serling and crew from showing overly visceral horror on network television, but that was not the only reason I liked the show. Whether science fiction, fantasy, or horror, every episode was idea-based and conceptual. Like The Twilight Zone, Lovecraft’s stories often blended horror with science fiction, and since sci-fi is almost always idea-based and highly conceptual, the resultant horror was cerebral. In fact, I would argue that for both The Twilight Zone and H.P. Lovecraft, the sci-fi concept was paramount to the horror. In this sense Lovecraft was primarily a science fiction writer—it’s just that his dark science fictional ideas would often invoke terror.

Though Lovecraft’s stories featured monsters, his human characters rarely encountered them. The narrator in “The Call of Cthulhu” does not ever see Cthulhu, but he reads about the Great Old One from notes and articles written by others. Lovecraft’s characters are instead driven insane by the ideas behind the monsters, ancient powerful alien entities that make all of human life insignificant and meaningless. It is the idea of Cthulhu that scares you, not the way Cthulhu looks and sounds (though the tentacles are meant to be terrifying as well). Lovecraft would often deliberately avoid viscera by describing his horrors as “indescribable” and “unimaginable.” This explains why there has never been a truly great movie based on a Lovecraft story. A direct adaptation would be boring as most of the true horror takes place inside the characters’ minds.

So when I say horror has become my favorite genre, it is really only a specific type of horror—cerebral and conceptual horror. I gravitate toward cosmic horror entwined with science fiction that makes you think. I am not interested in horror as blood, gore, physical violence, or loud noises meant to startle. I am interested in horror that is psychological and philosophical, entirely in the mind. The best horror contains concepts and ideas that when contemplated sincerely may drive one mad.


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