Three Levels of Terror

In class on Thursday, I brought up Stephen King’s categorization of the three types of terror while we were discussing The Woman in White. I did a little more digging into it, since it had been a while since I read the article. If anyone is interested, he talks about the three levels in his book, Danse Macabre. Here is a Facebook post King wrote, summarizing the levels:

In his book, King elaborates, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion…and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”

It would be interesting to attribute our fluctuating level of enjoyment of some of the events that happen in Collins’s book onto King’s categories. The “spine tingling” or “goosebumps raising” sensation we’ve talked about is most closely related to terror. I would categorize events like Anne Catherick’s hand touching Walter or Fosco writing the postscript in Marian’s diary under “terror.” However, events like seeing Laura next to her tombstone would be better categorized under “horror.” There aren’t many “gross-out” moments in sensation novels, but I think there are some easy narrative tactics of the genre, such as repeatedly mentioning one character (Sir Percival) has a secret.

As modern readers, we have been overexposed to most elements that would fall under the gross-out or horror categories. Scary figures like zombies, bloody bodies, and crawling spiders have been used a lot in stories, and so have elements like characters switching places and the not-really-dead dead person. While those tricks are still effective to an extent, they are less remarkable because we’ve seen them before. However, when Collins is still able to create sensation and instill “the finest emotion” of terror in us, it says a lot about the high quality of his novel.

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