“Horror”, “terror” and “dread” are terms often used interchangeably, but it is important to remember there are no true and total synonyms in any language, let alone the enormous and endlessly supple English lexicon. As we dig deeper into the problem of horror in theatre, it behooves us to tease out the differences among these concepts so that we can better understand what we as theatre artists can reasonably hope to engender through a live stage experience.
Despite what you might think of Orson Scott Card’s social politics—and they are pretty reprehensible—he is at times capable of important insights, especially when it comes to story-telling. In his introduction to his collection of short fiction, Maps in a Mirror, Card illuminates his perspective on the differences and interdependencies among horror, terror and dread. Technically, according to the vaunted sci-fi scribe, I should list “dread” first, since this is the anticipatory emotion, the harbinger of fleeting “terror”. Thirdly comes “horror”, terror’s lingering residue. Says Card:
Dread is the first and the strongest of the three kinds of fear. It is that tension, that waiting that comes when you know there is something to fear but you have not yet identified what it is. The fear that comes when you first realize that your spouse should have been home an hour ago; when you hear a strange sound in the baby's bedroom; when you realize that a window you are sure you closed is now open, the curtains billowing, and you're alone in the house.
According to Card, terror is what happens when the dreadful unknown becomes known: when the vampire finally bursts out of its coffin, when the airplane finally plows into the building, when the proctor says pencils down, and you realize you haven't written anything. Terror is powerful, but transient. It only lasts as long as it takes to fight, flee or die. As Card points out, ". . . At least you know the face of the thing your fear. You know its borders, its dimensions. You know what to expect."
Horror happens after the fact, and thus, says Card:
. . . is the weakest of all. After the fearful thing has happened, you see its remainder, its relics. . . . with repetition horror loses its ability to move you and, to some degree, dehumanizes the victim and therefore dehumanizes you. As the sonderkommandos in the death camps learned, after you move enough naked murdered corpses, it stops making you want to weep or puke. You just do it. They've stopped being people to you.
So Card’s schema of fear in a nutshell:
Dread / pre-cursor / powerful in cumulative doses / ductile
Terror / cursor / extremely powerful / transient
Horror / post-cursor / weak / easily degrades to apathy
I quibble a bit with Card's definition of horror. I think he is jamming it into a semantic slot for the sake of neatly rounding out his schema. Horror to me is a larger thing, not just following upon, but also encompassing, terror and dread. After all, it's significant somehow that we don't call them "dread stories."* Nonetheless, Card's theory is undeniably powerful in breaking down what does and does not work in some of the most famous examples of the genre.
Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House offers a quintessential serving of well-constructed dread which ultimately lacks the particular punch of terror at the climax that would make it an unquestionable classic. Jackson builds the menace of the house nicely throughout the bulk of the book, and gently allows readers to discover for ourselves Eleanor's psychic deterioration, with deviously gentle hints, such as having the poor girl remember prior fancies as fact, etc; but Jackson's handling of the terror piece of the puzzle right near the end does not rise to meet dread's hand-off, and the nearly non-existent denouement offers no meaningful lingering touch back to the cancerous anxiety that had us, as connoisseurs of the form, so horribly hopeful during the buildup. H. P. Lovecraft is another vaunted master of the form for whom evoking dread is easy money, but spicing it with actual terror when the right time comes proves elusive.
For a pitch perfect example of Card's theory in practice, I submit for consideration Stephen King's early novel, 'Salem's Lot. Here King instinctually employs all the right tricks to pull these three important pieces together in a literary symphony of fear. First, instead of ending with horror, King begins with it, placing the reader in Mexico, at the end of the action, where the protagonist Ben Mears and his boy sidekick Mark have fled as far they practically can from the evil Maine town that gives the book its title. Clearly both are shattered by whatever happened to them, though the boy seems a bit more resilient.
Upon returning to the narrative proper, King's next trick, or more accurately, running series of tricks, is to dribble in small chunks of terror as he simmers the stock of dread. This makes sense from several points of craft. First, it serves to amp the dread as he builds it, leaving readers ratcheted up another quantum notch of anxiety from which we cannot return until the book is done. Second, it places less structural weight on the final climax, so King does not have to resort to breathless rushing like Jackson, or vague insinuations like Lovecraft to meet his mark. When our reluctant vampire hunter Mears has to climb down into that infested basement armed only with wooden stakes, you feel along with him his dogged determination as well as his near-certainty of doom. Pockets of terror catch us off guard, and leave us reeling. Terrible things happen when we least expect them, perpetrated by the most unusual suspects. It's a fascinating testimony to King's canny genius that the most terrifying moment (using Card's definition) in a book about a town literally crawling with bloodthirsty vampires is when a perfectly normal woman punches a perfect normal infant in the face. (Though, agreed: I'm using the term "perfectly normal" in the loosest of senses.)
Card's tripartite schema, slightly strained as it is, proves an excellent guide to those of us who are trying to figure out new ways of frightening the fuck out of people. But he digs even deeper as he concludes his introduction to Maps in a Mirror:
[This] is the artistry of fear. To make the audience so empathize with a character that we fear what he fears, for his reasons. We don't stand outside, looking at gory slime cover him or staring at his gaping wounds. We stand inside him, anticipating the terrible things that might or will happen. Anybody can hack a fictional corpse. Only a storyteller can make you hope the character will live.
So as with all great story-telling, and indeed, great art, the trick lies in cracking the nutshell of the other-- to climb inside and drive them around for a ride. This happens so rarely that billions of human beings have never experienced it, or if they have, barely realize they have. But it is incumbent upon us artists to keep hammering on that shell. This is a trick which is both more difficult and easier in the theatre. Easier, because “climbing inside and taking someone else for a ride” is the very definition of acting; but in a modern American theatre stuck revving representational realism, an audience can very quickly lose connection so completely that there remains no chance of instilling genuine terror, horror, or even dread, beyond the dread of sitting in a cramped seat and wondering how long and how bad the show you are about to see might be.
*It's also telling that we don't call terrorists "dreadists." Human beings can, and often do, tolerate long comfortable lives lived within an ambient state of dread.