The Horror Stigma


I doubt the fact that horror comes with a stigma will shock any LitReactor readers. I doubt it shocks anyone, really, but sometimes I wonder how many people realize how unbelievably prevalent it truly is, and how much it actually affects people’s lives. Avid horror fans can’t brush it off like the casual or occasional consumer, and creators, like myself, deal with it damn near daily in one form or another. It doesn’t just annoy me or hurt my feelings; it genuinely interferes with my career.

I’ve heard actual horror writers say they don’t like horror. (I… just… what?) I’ve seen a bestselling horror author claim they don’t write horror, despite bookshelves full of horror awards. I’ve heard a different bestselling horror author recommend to a room full of writers that they label their horror something else entirely so it will sell. I’ve had acquaintances brag to my face that they can’t stand horror. I’ve had writing organizations invite me to speak about horror and then censor the title of my presentation lest it offend someone. More times than I can count, when people ask me what I write and I answer “horror,” I’ve watched their noses scrunch. Their eyes get wide. That uncomfortable laugh. Sometimes they say well-intentioned things like, “Why would a sweet girl like you want to write about something like that?” (And given that many of these people are strangers, I can only assume that their perception of me as ‘a sweet girl’ comes solely from my physical appearance, which is a whole other rant.)

I’ve made no secret of my despair that even other horror authors avoid the word. I understand that what they really want is to avoid the stigma that comes with it (so they can sell to all those readers who love horror but hate the word – and there are a lot of those), but ultimately it serves to reinforce that stigma. Avoiding the label when it comes to quality work and applying it only to the most ‘extreme’ subgenres within the family simply confirms reader bias. To destigmatize the word, we must use it accurately, liberally, and without shame. Otherwise things will never change.

In 2014 I wrote a post on my own blog called “What Is Speculative Fiction?” detailing the definition and the many subgenres it holds, including the most popular triumvirate of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It has turned out to be one of my most popular blogs; it’s my second most-commented post. It came complete with diagram:

(You can see the further-labeled version at the bottom of my post.)

You can imagine my delight when an agent who came across my post emailed me to ask permission to use it in a presentation he was giving at a conference. But as with many things, it came with a caveat: he wanted to change the word “horror” to “paranormal” because “that is actually a less threatening term.”

Insert my face here. (And then watch it slam into my keyboard.)

The agent was threatened not just by the genre itself, but by the word for it? Holy hell, we have a whole new level of avoidance here, folks. For the record, I politely told him that no, he could not use my chart and change my terminology. He was welcome to use my chart as long as he gave me credit, but if he just personally didn’t like horror or didn’t want to accept it for submissions, he could tell the audience that, but I wouldn’t let him put my name on something that misrepresented the most accurate portrayal of the existence of the genre. Horror can certainly be paranormal, but doesn’t have to be, and paranormal doesn’t have to be horror, either, so his change was inaccurate in addition to insulting.

I could go on, but I won’t. I’m just trying to paint a broader picture, establish the pattern. So imagine my utter lack of surprise when against my better judgment I read the impressively stupid post “Do People Actually Enjoy Watching Horror Movies?” by Abigail McCoy at Glamour.

If you’re lacking your spike of rage for the day, go ahead and read it. If you’d rather not give it the click, allow me to sum up: the writer hates horror so much that she doesn’t even believe that anyone else likes it. Especially us womens. (Womens are always lying to get attention, aren’t we? Silly girls.) In the process of insulting horror fans, horror creators, women, and writers in general, she manages to insult men with small penises, people who like anime, and proponents of the word ‘moist.’ (Seriously, what is with the ‘moist’ boycott? Chill out, people. It’s a perfectly useful word.)

Everyone deserves to have things that bring them pleasure. That is literally why we have a broad array of entertainment genres and options: not everything is for everyone.

Poor writing and pathetic arguments aside – the writer openly admits to having only ever seen a grand total of ONE horror movie before deciding they are ALL utterly unworthy of her or anyone else’s time – one question remains, nagging at me: why was this published?

Seriously. Think about it. Why was this article published? Glamour obviously just wanted the click bait; that’s whatever. But why was it assigned? Why written? Why put out there for the world to read?

I want to make one thing very clear: I don’t care if you like horror or not. And I know that tone doesn’t always come across in text, so please don’t read anger, bitterness, or snark into that statement. It’s neutral, open. Beyond human interest, I genuinely don’t care what other people like and dislike. Why would I?

I generally don’t like action movies. It’s fine. It’s not personal. I don’t have anything against people who do like them. I just tend not to, so I don’t often watch them unless someone who knows me well enough to get my taste tells me one is unique in some way that may appeal to me despite my preferences.

The difference? I don’t go around shouting about how I dislike action movies. Most people probably didn’t even know it until I used it in this example. I’m not unable to fathom how other people might enjoy them, and I don’t accuse them of lying when they say they do. I trust that other people have different tastes and desires and that what doesn’t do much for me may be thrilling for them, and I’m actually really happy for them that they have something they enjoy. Everyone deserves to have things that bring them pleasure. That is literally why we have a broad array of entertainment genres and options: not everything is for everyone.

So what would one gain from writing a vapid, click-baity article about how she hates an entire genre and has disdain for anyone who doesn’t? (Besides whatever Glamour pays, which can’t possibly be enough to counteract the thrashing this person is receiving online in rebuttal.)

I guess we can’t really know. We can guess. Attention seems likely. A false sense of superiority. Distance from the feeling of discomfort that fear brings. Distance from embarrassment or shame, maybe.

I wish I knew, specifically, without guesswork. Why does anyone feel comfortable dismissing an entire group of people who enjoy something that doesn’t affect them? The stigma that comes with horror is so strong that it not only keeps people from watching/reading it, it causes people to wear their disdain for those who do like a badge of honor.

I think that’s sad.

Horror isn’t going anywhere. Writers love it because it allows us to explore the depths of humanity, because it pushes boundaries, which is a source of growth, because it serves as a fantastic vehicle for metaphor and thematic messages, and because sometimes it’s simply the best way to tell the stories we want to tell. Readers love it because it’s fun, entertaining, thought-provoking, and smart. It’s a safe way to face and overcome fears, to experience catharsis, to embrace a facet of life we’re usually told to stifle.

Horror is one of the most primal human emotions. We deal with dread, fear, discomfort, unease, disgust, and terror in one form or another throughout our lives. It’s a large part of human existence, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. So why don’t we acknowledge that and drop the stigma? At the very least, if not for ourselves, for others who do. Horror has much to teach us if we’re open-minded enough to learn.

Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She’s a two-time Bram Stoker Award-nominated author with work appearing and forthcoming in more than a hundred publications, including magazines such as Cemetery Dance, Apex, and Black Static, as well as anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volumes 3 & 4 and #1 Amazon bestsellers Killing It Softly and Fire. She’s an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at for news, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 15, 2016 - 3:30pm

very thought-provoking piece. I haven't given the stigma of horror much thought. I work at a library, and an elderly patron asked me to recommend films for her. I asked her what she liked, she told me "anything," so I suggested American Horror Story Season 1 as it was a well written series.

She looked at me like I had insulted her. "No, I don't like horror. Not horror, but anything else."

My mistake. I thought anything meant, you know, anything.

So I recommended Hedwig and the Angry Inch and she left me alone.

I find that the horror story (most recently the novel the Ritual and the film the Witch) is one of the few that stimulates an emotional response (other than eyerolling - I do that a lot at cliched stories). They both found the means to evoke tension, and fear, trepidation, all those great responses. 

If there's a stigma, it's the same one I had to bear while enjoying heavy metal during the 1980s, and honestly, I don't mind enjoying that which others have eschewed. In fact, it's my favourite genre.

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. November 16, 2016 - 9:43am

Thanks for the analysis. I enjoyed it.

Question: How personally upset would you be if suddenly you were told you could no longer label your work as horror? That your work just did not meet the criteria? Would that bother you? What is the blood bone reason you call a work horror?

If you  surf  the sea of commerce,  you  are talented and savvy enough to make your living by the pen,  it might bother you a lot, would be my guess. I've made a hundred bucks on my work, so I am not qualified to comment In this arena. When it is about making a living or not making a living...I get it matters. Aside from that....what difference does it make? A story/novel/play/movie is either good or it's not good.  There has to be a seperation for the artist between the act of creating and the act of marketing. Some writers are more attached to their genre, than they are to the pursuit of good work.

Please tell me why it matters what label you slap on a piece. I just flat out do not get it. It's like what brand of smokes you buy. Whatever delivers the goods, and yes I'll smoke Camels if they ain't got American Spirits because I want me some nicotine....and if there is no nicotine then they ain't cigarettes.  The nicotine for me is the punch and juice of the story. If there's no nicotine it makes no difference what you put on the label, it is not a cigarette. If it's got no juice it's bad writing. If it's got juice it is good writng.  You get the jolt or you don't. 

In summary.  In this article, you are talking politics of the business of writing, not the artistic substance of the writing.  Am I wrong? The caste system imposed upon the writing community is real, but much of it is self-imposed, and based in the same old bigotry and ignorance that prevails in any other niche of human pursuit.

Tiger chasing prey is visceral. Tiger dressed in chain mail and wielding a sword, and chasing prey, could be visceral, in the hands of a kick-ass writer, or it could be drivel. If I won't read the tiger dressed in chain mail, because I hate the label, and it is a kick-ass story, then it is my loss. I would like to see you address the nature of horror, rather than the politics of it. I am bored of politics at the moment. Thanks for the article.  I grapple and ponder and say again...FUCK GENRE. gsr


AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 November 16, 2016 - 10:53am

Thank you, postpomo! Yes, “anything but horror” (and maybe erotica) seems to be many people’s standard, unfortunately. And I agree about emotional response. Comedy makes laugh and smile, tragedy makes us cry, and horror makes us sweat/gasp/cringe. I think the ability draw a physically proven emotional reaction is really powerful, and probably a little underrated. Likewise, I don’t mind enjoying what others dislike, but when it comes to being a creator, that discrimination takes on a different type of importance. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 November 16, 2016 - 11:10am

Hey there, smithreynolds! You’re not wrong at all; in this post I am talking mostly about politics, not art. And man, do I feel your annoyance with genre. I feel the same sometimes. It’s an interesting issue, and as you pointed out in many ways actually two separate issues: creation and politics (or marketing). I’m with you in that creation doesn’t require genre. Sometimes creators use it to fulfil reader desire, which is fine, but I don’t feel beholden to genre during the writing part. I write what I want; sometimes that’s horror, sometimes it’s something else, sometimes it’s both. I don’t care, to be honest. I write what I want to write.

Unfortunately, genre is a practical thing when it comes to the business aspect. It truly is useful for readers. While it’s awesome that you don’t care what genre your reading material is, most people simply don’t feel that way – myself included. Good story is good story, yes, but I don’t like some stories even if they’re good. It’s just taste, like food. No matter what exquisite chef is making them in her own exceptional way, I freaking hate the taste of carrots. Always have. Not to mention that my mood and desires for material change with each book I seek out and pick up. Sometimes I want something purely mindless and fun. Sometimes I want a challenge. Sometimes I want to be scared vs. uplifted vs. provoked vs. calmed. No matter how good a murder mystery is, it’s not going to satisfy my desire for some steamy romance, you know?

So I truly believe that genre *can be* a good thing. It helps writers and publishers find the right readers who will most likely enjoy that particular book, which is great. As an author, I don’t want easily offended people to pick up my books. They will hate them. Genre and marketing help with that, so I find happy readers rather than angry ones. That said, I do know how maddening it is to be told you have to write within a certain set of rules or that you have to “pick one” genre and stick to it. I also know how complicated it is to try to choose the ‘right’ label post-creation for a mixed-genre work. That’s all noise, and I try to treat it as such. But at the end of the day, genre as a tool likely isn’t going anywhere, so I’ve decided to embrace it, call out the prejudices when I see them, and try to make the labels work for me rather than against me.

Thanks for your great thoughts.

Ashley B. Davis's picture
Ashley B. Davis from California is reading In the Woods November 16, 2016 - 11:21am

Annie, you are my cult leader, and horror is your Kool-Aid. Instead of hastily ushering me to that Great Beyond, horror has given me life. I didn't know I was a horror writer, and I never even openly called myself a lover of horror (no, really, horror and I have been seeing each other for quite some time now, and well, this led to that...) until I began stalking you. Unfortunately, I was and sometimes still am one of those judgy mcjudgersons about people liking certain things, and I'm sure it has some psychological underpinning relating to my own insecurities regarding the things that I like; but your openness, your willingness to stand up for what you like (and what other people like) is a good reminder for me and anyone else who catches themselves being a hater (i.e. Abigail McCoy--like WTF, man?) to stand down and quit being a self-important rampallian (see also: douche). So thank you, again, for the reminders and the inspiring proclamations that I can get behind.

P.S. The 'moist' boycott confuses me too. Like...where did it come from? And why are so many people on the same page about it? Is this what our collective unconscious is being used for? I don't think Jung intended it that way.

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. November 16, 2016 - 2:09pm

I guess you are saying genre is a plumbing.  A reality. The human insistence on sorthing things into piles. I'll go with that, and I did appreciate the dalliance of the conversation. It was a fun way to start my writerly day. So, once again thanks for the good work. gsr.

AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 November 16, 2016 - 3:45pm

That is… probably the only cult I would want to be a part of, haha. Thank you so much, Ashley. I’m genuinely flattered that my thoughts have reached you like that. And hey, we’re all judgy mcjudgersons sometimes; it’s human nature. We just have to try to be aware of it and ask ourselves why, as you said. Lol to the moist comment – poor Jung!

AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 November 16, 2016 - 3:49pm

smithreynolds- Well, yeah. I guess that's exactly what I'm saying. We don't like to think about or spend time on plumbing, but we sure do need it, and if we try to pretend we don't have to worry about it, eventually we end up with shit in the bathtub. Haha!

"The human insistence on sorthing things into piles." Seriously, yes, this. Thank you again. It was fun for me too.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 17, 2016 - 8:59am

I wonder if the aversion to "horror" is the same as the dismissal of comics as for children. It's understandable for those who don't enjoy the sometimes unpleasant experiences the genre can put you through (and without such trials, where is the payoff?). For those of us plunged into the genre (and I'm in some myth/horror/spec-fic creative mess right now), the aversion seems to be perpetuating the problem. If comics only pandered to adolescents, we'd end up with idealized men and objectified women... oh... wait a second...

at any rate, thanks for tossing this ball to us. It's a very curious phenomenon. (Also, I'm terrible at marketing).

Michelle Kidd Tackabery's picture
Michelle Kidd T... November 18, 2016 - 5:47pm

I think it's important to stick by your guns when it comes to genre writing, precisely because genre stigma, like gender stigma, can stifle future writers and readers. There is no true definition of horror, really. Is Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs horror? If so, is it the same as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? What's "horrible," then? To me, horror is facing terror in its many forms--physical, psychological and more--and learning that it can be dealt with, fought and overcome. In horror stories we can test our courage, because there are many more horrors in daily life. 

Personally, I find it fascinating that this Glamour piece saw the light of the day, when the evidence clearly shows that more women like horror than men. Women simply buy more books than men, as well, and the whole stigma of the horror genre is so attached to the sexist idea that women need to be protected from the big scary world by strong, virile men. What a steaming pile! Especially if you simply turn on the television and scroll through all of the true crime programming, serial killer movies "drawn from real life," court TV shows, and more...horror is more popular than ever. Sigh. 


L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami November 18, 2016 - 7:42pm

Oh I love horror. I dislike Supernatural Horror.

I like the horror that is smack dab between science fiction and fantasy. With technology that is ubiquitous and alien, and the natural world is just as alien.

Some call it Slipstream.

What bugs me is when people assume just cause its a story about a girl with a kink for guillotine executions of woman like Corday, that suddenly makes it horror. Well no, the MC could just be loosely based on the author. ... Anyway moving on.

I used to get frusterated by genre, till I figured out my own marketing niche.

Oh there is still backlash. Every new genre does.

I write Historical Futurism.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words November 20, 2016 - 10:58am

I think that our use of genre is changing the way it did with music. It serves less as a category into which something fits according to convention and general acceptance, and more like tags, as shorthand to give an idea of what they're dealing with. It might be a result of being immersed in a wider variety and number of stories than ever, and needing means of cutting through it.

Even novel genre combinations are more descriptive. I mean "fiction" just doesn't cut it anymore.

/side note

wrt horror, it could be the reaction to that label is a reaction to the word. If you're unfamiliar with, or have never seen/read anything in the horror genre, then the word horror evokes things that are trulying horrifying. Would calling the genre terror be better or worse?