When worlds collide: furry and horror
To celebrate this month’s most monstrous of holidays, let’s take a look at monstrosity, and how something as seemingly innocuous as furry can have more connection to the horror genre than mere werewolf movies.
An annoying autobiographical pause
For the record, I am a fan of the horror genre. As proof, I set before the jury that I am writing an essay on the subject for a fansite of a different genre. For the longest time, I never thought there was a connection between my fascination with furry and horror. Just two random bits of my personality, if anything in conflict with one another.
I first became aware of a tenuous connection while writing a ghost story. I ran into a common problem for writers of the horror genre; the reveal. I felt I had built up a decent spooky atmosphere. Now that it was time to pay off this build up, I couldn’t think of anything scary enough to do it.
So I copped out. I decided if I couldn’t make it scary, the next best thing is to make it cool. If the reveal was lame as well as unscary, that would be a double failure. So I had my ghost take the form of an anthropomorphic hyena in the climax.
When I shared my story with others the hyena was cited as genuinely scary by the majority of readers who found the story scary at all. There were, of course, a number of readers who weren’t scared at all, but for those it worked on, the hyena was a major fear factor.
Naturally, I took the credit, though I had just written a scary story completely by accident! The hyena was never meant to be scary, but to stave off boredom. It became the crucial element. This was a turning point. For the first time I looked at the very idea of an anthropomorphic animal and thought, hey, there might be something here. Something powerful. Something that can really get to people.
Isn’t it a bit early in the morning to be discussing Gothic architecture?
Let’s put that aside for now, and take a look at the two genres we’re dealing with, furry and horror. While the furry genre is under-defined and its history barely recorded (Fred Patten and Perri Rhoades at least have decent essays on the subject), the neat thing about horror is that its history is one of the most well recorded of any genre.
There are two reasons for this. The first reason is that horror has a nasty reputation. "Moral guardians" accuse it of immorality on a grand scale. Discussing, delineating and defining the genre goes a long way towards answering those accusations.
The second reason is that the horror genre is the most direct link to the Gothic genre, which is an important genre in Western popular literature. Some have called furry a meta-genre, but that still has nothing on the Gothic, which is a sort of ur-genre. Besides the horror genre, a wide array of popular genres grew out of – or were forever mutated by – the Gothic, including such diverse genres as science fiction, mystery and romance.
But is the Gothic separate from the horror genre? Well, the answer is yes and no. I should probably define a “ghost story” while I’m at it. All three genres are separate entities from each other, in theory, but in practice they hybridize like crazy, and it’s hard to always differentiate them.
A Gothic, at its most encompassing level, is a story in which the past impacts the present in a negative fashion, usually in a small, well defined area. Gothics are more about setting, both in time and place, than anything else. There are, of course, classically Gothic settings, but the main take-away is that these settings are a source of fear; the Gothic novel was one of the first genres to emphasize fear.
Horror frequently uses a Gothic setting, but it is more concerned with emotional impact. A horror story is one in which the emotion of horror, a mixture of fear and disgust, is engendered through the use of some sort of monster. The Gothic setting, if employed, is used to amplify the fear of the monster with its own atmosphere of dread.
A ghost story no more requires a ghost than a fairy tale requires a fairy; it is a story about the supernatural. It is useful to define, however, because the supernatural is a fine source of monsters who are horrific by their very un-natural nature. It is possible to write a ghost story that is neither Gothic nor horror, but in practice, is there anything less Gothicly horrific than a haunting?
The monsters in the middle of this essay
The main difference between fantasy genres and the genres I have been delineating is its treatment of the supernatural and monsters. Monstrosity is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Furry figures into all this because a furry character, out of context, is monstrous.
In a fantasy story, like the Gothic, setting is key to defining genre. In a fantasy setting, the rules of our world no longer apply; fantasy is fantastic in that it is another world entirely.
The difference between a horror monster and a fantasy monster is that a horror monster explicitly breaks the rules of its world. A dragon may be scary in a fantasy because it is trying to eat people, but it is not horrific because, in the rules of the world, dragons exist. A horror monster is scary partially because it is dangerous, but partially because it should not exist.
Furry characters, when they exist in a fantasy setting, are not monstrous. However, outside of a fantasy setting, they become monsters.
The Monster Mash
Why certain people find horror entertaining has never been adequately explained. Some people think it may be a form of catharsis, allowing people to safely let off negative emotions. Others argue that even negative emotions such as fear and disgust can be enjoyed when the cause is known to be unreal, just as sour candy is fine despite the fact sour is a warning taste. Still others think people are just sick like that.
While trying to answer the question of the appeal of horror, philosopher Noël Carroll noticed a pattern in horror monsters, explaining why furry characters appeal to certain people and just as strongly don’t appeal to others.
Many monsters are “liminal,” or made up of two antithetical “states.” For instance, a zombie is both “living” and “dead.” A zombie, Carroll argued, is at once horrific, causing fear and disgust, because he so violates the laws of reality as we see them. At the same time, he is totally fascinating, because he so violates the laws of reality as we see them! To state the obvious, a furry character is by its nature liminal; human and animal.
Closer than you think
Obviously, liminality is not the end all, be all of furry appeal. Most furry artists go out of their way to stack the deck on the “fascinating” side of the equation, just as most horror writers go out of their way to stack the deck on the “horrific” side. But all it takes is a nudge to send a furry character into the monstrous. As a fan of both genres, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing at all.
Happy Halloween! Or Bonfire Night, I guess.