An Ever-updating Glossary of Horrors


Abjection

Abjection is a process of othering often used to describe what a person rejects in order to form the self. Literally, abjection describes the state of being cast off. It builds on the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan. One of the most famous explorations comes from Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (of which you can find a TLDR here). 

Kristeva defines the abject as the human reaction (specifically horror and disgust) when there is a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the lack of distinction between subject and object, between self and other. This is often used to describe the human reaction to corpses; it is the ultimate breakdown of the symbolic order, which threatens the distinction between subject and object. Why does that cadaver remind me so much of myself? Kristeva: “the corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject.” 

“[the abject] is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that the “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence.”

Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva

Agoraphobia

Noun. The fear of public spaces. Nowhere to hide. Agoraphobia often runs in families. Women are affected about twice as often as men. The condition is rare in children, and often begins in early adulthood. Open fields. Out at sea. Endless sky. The fear is linked to claustrophobic fear: the sufferer is primarily concerned with being unable to escape.

From the Greek Agorā́, “a place of assembly” and Phóbos, “fear”

Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia is the (rational) fear of enclosed spaces. Many of these are especially dreadful. Walled tombs. Elevators. Windowless rooms. Small cars. Tight-necked clothing. The feeling of the walls closing in, the room shrinking, the key jams in the door and it won’t open. As a space runs out of oxygen, the concentration of CO2 in the bloodstream rises. This increases the acidity of blood until the point of unconsciousness or death.

The term comes from the Latin Claustrum¸ “a shut in place” and Greek Phóbos, “fear”.

Exorcism

Exorcism is the religious or spiritual practice of expelling a demon or an evil spirit from a person or place. While exorcisms have history specifically in Jewish and Christian religious practice, they have also appeared in Tibetan and Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition, Hinduism, Taoism, and Islamic practice. Though seldom used, exorcisms are still regulated by canon law in the Catholic church. They are performed on possessed persons and haunted spaces to compel spirits to rest and have been a horror staple for decades.

Examples: The Exorcist (both the 1971 novel and the 1973 film), The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the real-life case of Linda Chaniotis, who was subjected to exorcisms as a child as a (flawed) treatment for her epilepsy

Ghost

Ghosts come in myriad forms. From the ghosts of the Middle Ages and the Bible, always people, always pointing us to something, to the Modern and ambiguous ghosts that push mugs off of coffee tables and unsettle the safety of familiar spaces, ghosts follow us wherever and whenever we go. Apparitions can signify repression, madness, and regret. They are generally understood as manifestations of the dead, but also remind us of the past we cannot bury. What has been will always linger on.

 “No, no—there are depths, depths! The more I go over it, the more I see in it, and the more I see in it, the more I fear. I don’t know what I don’t see—what I don’t fear!”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Household Horror

Domestic horror picks up on an innate need or safety, the complacent assumption that social obedience and common sense will reward us.”

Gina Wisker Horror Fiction: An Introduction 2005, Continuum, New York, London

We fear that which we see every day. Household horror picks at the sense of safety we rely on in day-to-day existence. It turns the familiar into the threatening.

Immolation

Destruction by fire. Possesses particular connotations of sacrifice, as in ritual burning. One would immolate a victim as an offering to the gods. One would immolate a witch for the good of the harvest. Self-immolation can be a means of protest, an act or martyrdom, or a method of abandoning one’s body.

Immurement

From the Latin im – “in” and murus – “wall”. 

Walling in. As old as ancient Rome, immurement is a form of imprisonment. You are sealed into an enclosed space with no exits. Walled into a tomb, nailed into the coffin, Fortunato in the catacombs beyond the wine cellar. The practice was a form of execution. Children have been found immured in castle gates and city walls. Immurement may be over two thousand years old, but with modern conveniences it has never been easier to enclose someone in bricks, stone, or plaster. Permanently.

Melancholia

An affliction of black bile. The condition is characterised by depression, nervous disorders, and occasionally hallucinations.

“Melancholia….a long persistent delirium without fever, during which the sufferer is obsessed by only one thought.”

Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738, cause of death: a lingering and painful illness)

Metamorphoses

The slow or rapid transfiguration of a thing or a person into something of a different form or nature. This is generally used in insects or amphibians, but would also describe the metamorphosis of a man to a moth, a friend to an enemy, or a warm and inviting room into a cold, dank cave.

“I am dragged along by a strange new force. Desire and reason are pulling in different directions. I see the right way and approve it, but follow the wrong.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses

Palimpsest

A palimpsest, in the most literal definition, is a page (from a scroll or book) from which the text has been scraped or washed off in order to be written on again. The practice of reusing parchment was commonplace throughout history whenever parchment was scarce or costly. In horror, the notion of a palimpsest is often used to describe the ways in which the past lingers, to demonstrate layers of meaning. The passage of time is a palimpsest, with the new superimposed over the old again and again.

“Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

Pathogen

Pathogens are microorganisms that cause disease. They include viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, prion, viroid, and worms. The word itself comes from the Greek pathos, meaning ‘suffering’ or ‘passion’, and the French -génique, meaning ‘producing’. 

Pathogens are generally not visible to the naked eye, with the exceptions of large bodies of fungi and some parasitic worms. You will die with them in your system, even if they aren’t what kills you. Though definitions of life often exclude viruses, pathogens are united in the most central theme of life: the desire to live and to procreate. Pathogens seldom seek to kill their host as they rely on a host body for reproduction. Doing so is a poor survival strategy and, most often, a biological accident.

Psychosis

Psychosis is a psychological condition characterized by a difficulty in determining what is and isn’t real. This can manifest in delusions and hallucinations, inappropriate behavior, and incoherent speech. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is believed to be a depiction of the changes in light and color as they appear in a state of psychosis.

From the Greek Psyche, “soul” and the suffix osis for “diseased”.

Slow Burn

A quiet, smouldering kind of horror that fills the room with smoke long before you realize the fire has started. The statue moves on its own. The river creeps beside you. The frog languishes in a pot of cold water, boiled alive so slowly it fails to notice until the steam is already rising.

Examples: “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Hereditary, the late 2010s, the year 2020

The Uncanny

The Uncanny is the everyday made unnerving. Objects out of space and time. Doors that close on their own. The strangeness in the ordinary. Freud was one of the earliest to postulate on The Uncanny, or, in his native German, Das Unheimliche. He used it first to describe the eeriness of dolls and waxworks. 

Imagine, for a moment, that you arrive home and notice your cat by the front door. You greet him, go inside, close the door behind you. You walk upstairs and, lo and behold, your cat is fast asleep on your bed.

There is nothing horrifying about a sleeping cat. There’s something deeply unsettling about a sleeping cat when you can also hear it outside, yowling.

Uncanny Valley

The uncanny valley describes the relationship between the appearance of humanity in an object and the emotional response it provokes. When an object evokes a human superficially, it appears cute. See soft toys with smiling faces, Raggedy Ann and companion Andy, cars with lights that look like eyes. Similarly, at the other end of the spectrum, perfect human representations cause no anxiety. Photorealistic animations or video recordings. Your face in the mirror. 

In between, however, is a valley. The missed step at the bottom of the stairs. The imperfect copy. The imposter: the robot whose off-beat expressions and gestures strike us wrong. Lifelike dolls with glassy eyes and rubbery skin. The mind rejects the attempt at deceit and our affinity disappears. 

It is theorised that the aversion comes, in evolutionary terms, from a revulsion towards corpses.

The Void

The Void is defined largely in opposition, in absence. It is not light, barely space, vast and creeping emptiness. The word has continuous usage traced back to Middle English and comes from the old French vuide and the Latin vacare meaning ‘vacate’. Where there’s something, there has already been nothing. The word conjures voidness of meaning, the void of space, and the void found at each end of a human life.

“But here I should imagine the most terrible part of the whole punishment is not the bodily pain at all but the certain knowledge that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then nowthis very instantyour soul must quit your body and that you will no longer be a man and that this is certain, certain!”

Fyodor Dostoyevky, The Idiot

This is, as mentioned, an ever-expanding list. Think we missed something? Let us know at enquiries@slowburnhorror.com

Originally posted: January 7, 2021

Categories: DefinitionsTags: , , , , ,

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