What’s scarier: supernatural horror or science fiction horror?

What’s scarier: supernatural horror or science fiction horror?

Literature can take us to impossible places…and they aren’t all feel-good fairy lands.

In fact, some of them are scary…very, very scary. I have no doubt that the vast majority of “impossible” fiction contains an element of fear-generation. Fear suggests risk, and risk is the very (rapidly beating) heart of drama.

I’m leaving purely psychological horror out of this discussion. If you read a book about a person whose cruelty is within known human behavior, who doesn’t use extra-reality techniques, it isn’t an impossible fiction…horrifying, yes, and by definition horror, but not what I consider small “f” fantasy or what I consider geeky**.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of impossible horror fiction.

In one, the thing that creates fear is presented as being based on science. We the readers are to believe that it could at some point happen within the “laws” of physics (and other science). It could be an alien invader, like the Martians in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. It might be from experiments in biochemistry, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. It may be a social dystopia in the future (anything set in the future is by definition impossible for the reader), or artificial intelligence, or a new disease.

In the other, the thing that creates the fear is “supernatural”. It’s not based on science. It’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Jacob Marley in Charles’ Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s not something that is just waiting to be invented.

They both can be scary. While it might seem like science fiction horror would be scarier, because it could happen in the real world, there are two things arguing against that.

One is that something that is created by science can hypothetically be fought by science. The tools that create it are here…the weapons to stop it must be as well. What can be made can be unmade…at least, the possibility exists.

The other thing is that many people believe in the supernatural. They may call it different things, and their beliefs may vary wildly and they may be accepting of one type of the supernatural and condemning of another.

Roughly one third to one half of Americans believe in ghosts, according to polls. Does that change ghost stories into science fiction? There are science fiction ghost stories, where the ghosts are explained by science. However, belief in non-science based ghosts is clearly sizeable. It’s possible, again based on polls, that more people believe in ghosts than in the Big Bang theory.

Interestingly, supernatural doesn’t usually mean without rules. The rules can be very clearly defined…we certainly see that in vampire literature, even though the rules may not be the same from one vampire “world” to another. Can a vampire enter a home without being asked? Can they walk around in the daytime? Do they have to sleep in a coffin with some of their native soil? No…and yes. 🙂 Depends on the book.

I think it could be argued that supernatural systems can have more precision in their rules. The real world is messy…it’s much harder to define a rule in reality than it is in fiction.

Perhaps supernatural horror is scarier if you don’t believe in the supernatural…and science fiction horror is scarier if you do believe in science. 🙂

There’s another whole subset that uses science to create the beings we know from the supernatural. One that I enjoyed was

World Enough, and Time by James Kahn (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

but there are many.

For me, bad science fiction is still in the science fiction category. By that, I mean science fiction based on bad science…if someone said, “I combined aspirin and lemonade and it created an invisibility formula because it blocked out visible wavelengths,” that’s not going to happen based on commonly accepted science, but it’s suggested that it happens based on known science, not on magic. That makes it “bad science” fiction, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s not a big deal to me: I don’t clearly separate science fiction from the supernatural, although I know it’s a passionate argument for many. I’m a “lumper” not a “splitter”. I look for elements that justify that something is fantasy, not that it isn’t.

It’s much harder to find a “classical” author who hasn’t written any “impossible” fiction than many of the literati might want you to believe. Dickens, Shakespeare, Jack London, on and on.

Well, what do you think? Do you find that horror based on science is scarier or that horror based on the supernatural is…or that it just depends on the book? If it does matter, why? What novel has scared you the most? What would recommend? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

** At TMCGTT (The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip ) I consider any “impossible fiction” as geeky. The Lord of the Rings, non-science based, is geeky in my book.

2 Responses to “What’s scarier: supernatural horror or science fiction horror?”

  1. jjhitt Says:

    I would say the defining element in both is the slow realization that things are not as they seem. This Count is not a normal client. This is not a normal hotel. This computer does things it shouldn’the be able to. It’s the slow removal of our security blankets, scientific or supernatural, that makes it horror.

    It’starts in the timing, reveal to much too soon and you’re meekly shocking, too slow and it’s melodrama.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, jjhitt!

      I think that’s a good definition of horror…although I think some people would use the term “suspense” for what you describe.

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