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Mary Robinette Kowal – Is Carrie Horror or Dark Fantasy? Depends How Easily You Scare

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Let me start with a confession: Despite the fact that I write horror and sell it, I can’t read or watch it. Let’s just say I’m a screamer. Popcorn flies. But the distance I place between myself and horror puts me in an ideal position to talk about the fine line between supernatural horror and dark fantasy. The genres cross more often than you would think, and sometimes, the distinction comes down to a simple question: How badly does it scare you? But in addition to that subjectivity, there are a few factors that can help you decide which genre a fantasy/horror hybrid best clings to. Let’s look at some candidates.

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Edward Scissorhands (1990)
One could make a strong argument for Tim Burton’s movie as a horror, partly because it’s a take on the Frankenstein story and partly because Tim Burton is always dark. But Edward’s scissor-hands introduce tragedy to the tale — he can’t touch anyone he cares about without hurting them. As such there’s an element of sadness and longing that runs through the whole movie, so it tends to lean it more towards fantasy.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
On the other hand, so to speak… this movie features a character like Edward, in that Freddy Krueger has blades for fingers, but he stands firmly in the realm of horror. What’s the difference between Freddy and Eddie? Body count: Freddy Krueger maims and kills throughout the franchise, making it painfully obvious that no one is safe. With Edward, there’s the risk he might hurt someone; with Freddy, it’s a promise.

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Body count is a good start, but that alone does not a horror make.You can fill a movie with the walking dead, kill the hero’s mother and zombify his best friend, and if the movie is funny enough none of that will scare you. The real key to horror is being terrified. Diffuse that terror with humor, however, and people will happily watch the world end. Shaun of the Dead may deal in zombies, but it’s straight up fantasy.

Night of the Living Dead (1990)
And then there’s the movie on which Shaun of the Dead is based. Here we have pretty much the same body count, and even a little bit of humor. What makes it horror? The gore. Night is a much more visceral movie than Shaun, and even though the two are dealing with the same subject matter, to quote Jason Sizemore of Apex Digest, “Horror is all about the visceral.” If you’ve got more guts than any (sane) human could laugh at, you’re dealing with more a fright flick than a fantasy.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
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In Pan’s Labyrith, we start with the death of Ofeila’s father and continue through a war that eventually claims the young girl’s life. The movie has visceral images aplenty — such as the Pale Man, and the toad is terrifying at times — and yet we still don’t tip into horror. What saves it? Even though Ofeila dies at the end, Guillermo del Toro manages to deliver a happy ending for her. And as I’m sure you know, anything that ends with “Happily Ever After” is probably a work of fantasy.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
Similarly, the end of this movie is what saves it from a strict horror label. Though the special effects in Something Wicked are dated, the movie is strikingly effective at delivering tension and fear: The dangers are clear and the story inexorably moves towards doom at the speed of a freight train. Only screenwriter/author Ray Bradbury’s brilliance manages to swerve it back to a happy conclusion, and turn a potential creepshow into a charming coming-of-age story.

Carrie (1976)
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Stephen King’s take on teenage angst is just the opposite. The young girl struggling to fit in scenario is rife with life lesson potential. And had the movie ended with, say, a shopping montage instead of a bloodbath, this would have been strictly fantasy. Instead we have a high body count, visceral images of gore and a tragic outcome for everyone involved. If you’re of the opinion that Carrie found some redemption in death, this might qualify as a really twisted dark fantasy. Otherwise, without any sort of release it’s just straight horror.

All right, here’s a tricky one for you to argue about on your own: Firestarter. Taking into consideration the basic elements of body count, visceral images, and tragic ending, do you think Drew Barrymore’s thriller is supernatural horror or dark fantasy?

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Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is being published by Tor in 2010.

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