Hellraiser and Horror vs Terror

Above: the character popularly known as "Pinhead", a Cenobite from Hellraiser (1987).

On Thursday I watched Hellraiser for the first time, a 1987 horror film directed by Clive Barker, and based on Barker's book, The Hellbound Heart (1986). It is about a murderous resurrected zombie trying to escape the Cenobites - sadomasochistic demons from a hellish dimension. And it is honestly one of the most horrific films I have ever seen. Don't get me wrong, growing up in this generation I'm rather desensitised to horror, and I wasn't puking on the floor or anything close to it; but it was a bit grim, wasn't it? And because of that I'm not sure I like it - it went a bit too far for me. Maybe it's just because I have an inherent distaste for sadomasochism, especially to the degree that it is depicted by the Cenobites in the film. I just think there's something deeply unnatural about it - pain is supposed to be unpleasurable. That's its entire purpose.

Conversely, I didn't find Hellraiser particularly scary. I counted about two good jump scares (the latter being the only "Jesus jump scare" I have heard of). Hellraiser horrified me, but it did not scare me. And there is a difference.

I sometimes wonder if "horror" is really one genre at all. Some horror seems to want to horrify, like Hellraiser - to invoke feelings of disgust. But some horror wants to terrify - to invoke fear - which is not necessarily the same thing. One can be disgusted at something, like bloody gore, while not being frightened of it. And one can be fearful of something, like a ghost, without necessarily being disgusted by it. For example, while Hellraiser horrifies rather than terrifies (for me, at least. I'm sure it terrified plenty of people in the '80s), Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010)* terrifies more than it horrifies (it doesn't really have anything disgusting in it, but it is very scary). Therefore, I would call Hellraiser a horror, and Whistle and I'll Come to You a "terror". They're two different genres.

However, it's rarely so easy to divide "horrors" from "terrors", as the emotions of horror and terror are often interlinked, and those who go into a cinema or turn on the television or open a book to get a horror-based thrill, are often the sort of people who would be quite happy getting a terror-based thrill as well, or vice versa. This is why horror as a genre is usually both horrifying and terrifying. One of my favourite films of all time, Ring (1998)**, is an example of this - though it mostly leans towards the terrifying, it has certain horrific moments, such as the scene in the muddy black well.

I think it's important to note that it is easier to horrify someone than it is to terrify them. Terror seems to get dated more easily than horror; I've been reading Dracula (1897) lately, and although it has some artfully accomplished horror in it, it does not scare me (and I must say that frankly I've found the book terribly boring, perhaps in part due to how clich├ęd the tropes it popularised have since become in the last 121 years, although that alone can't take all the blame). Likewise, while A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), a film I also watched for the first time this week, has some brilliant horror moments, it also did not scare me. The horror stands up to this day, but not the terror.***

While many pieces of horror, like those in the aforementioned Dracula, take real artistry and skill, it is nonetheless true that any old hack can horrify someone just by including a bit of grizzly gore. But terror is a different matter altogether. It always takes a real artist to suspend the disbelief effectively enough in order to make someone terrified of an obvious piece of fiction. Think about that next time you're scared by, say, a book with the author's own name on the front cover - the illusion is staring you in the face, yet you fear regardless. It really is an art.



*I have fond memories of watching BBC adaptions of M.R. James stories with my father. I actually went into M.R. James' library while doing work experience at the Fitzwilliam Museum. At the same place the writer Mark Gatiss was making a documentary about James, and he apparently passed me while I was in the toilet, so I didn't get a chance to meet him (d'oh!). Anyway, I have also watched the original Whistle and I'll Come to You from 1968, which is not quite so scary but still entertaining.
**I have not watched the 2002 American adaption of this and do not plan to. Part of what makes Ring so creepy is the fact that it's foreign and Japanese - Eastern culture is so distant and alien. And the Japanese have always been naturally brilliant at horror. I don't need an American adaption; I'm not too dumb to read subtitles, and neither are you.
***I am not well-acquainted with slasher movies; Psycho and A Nightmare on Elm Street are the only ones I can presently name that I have yet watched. I generally find ghost stories more scary, as malevolent spirits can be anywhere, anywhen, and can do anything. They're unpredictable and hidden, and that's what makes them so terrifying. I also find them frightening because I think they're real, but that's a story for another time...

P.s. Hellraiser is living proof that the ratings system needs to exist. Don't show this film to your kids at any cost. I'm not really sure I'd advise showing it to adults!