I’ve been thinking about the genre of horror lately (hence the clever title of this post), and more particularly why it’s so poorly defined in most dictionaries. I defined horror in BNW as “a genre of fiction, film, etc in which the object is to instill a feeling of fear in the reader or viewer”. One could probably quibble about whether or not fear is the only feeling involved, but I think it’s pretty good, as far as it goes. But most dictionaries fail to define “horror” as a genre at all, which I find puzzling, since it’s been used in this way since at least the early 20th Century. (BNW includes a 1900 citation for “tales of horror”, which could be interpreted as being simply descriptive and not referring to a genre or category, and a 1917 citation reading in part, “those who enjoy horror, tales overflowing with blood and black mystery”, which is pretty clearly referring to a category of fiction.) I should also note that I’m limiting my criticism to dictionaries aimed at native speakers; learners’ dictionaries obviously have different inclusion criteria.
What they do (usually) include is either an adjective (i.e., “calculated to inspire feelings of dread or horror : bloodcurdling <a ~ movie>” [Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition]) or compound form (i.e., “horror film”, “horror comic”, etc.). Either way is a perfectly fine way to treat this usage, but neither choice correctly treats horror as a genre. It’s like having an entry for “science fiction novel” but not “science fiction”. (It’s worth mentioning here that the American Heritage Dictionary is the only major dictionary I checked that doesn’t define horror as a literary mode in any manner, although I haven’t looked at the latest version of the 4th ed.) The exceptions to this sad state of affairs are the Oxford dictionaries. The New Oxford Dictionary of English and New Oxford American Dictionary both define horror thus (example sentences and irrelevant subsenses elided): “1. an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust. […] a literary or film genre concerned with arousing such feelings.” And the Shorter OED, 5th Ed., which defines it as “a genre of literature etc. designed to excite pleasurable feelings of horror by the depiction of the supernatural, violence, etc.” (This def. was first used in the New Shorter OED, aka the 4th edition, in 1993.) The other exception is Wiktionary, the dictionary sibling of Wikipedia (their definition is “A literary genre, generally of a gothic character”, which I don’t think quite captures the essence).
So why is this? I don’t know. One possibility that occurs to me is that the word “horror” is used in this way primarily within SF/F/H circles, although I’m pretty sure it’s also used this way by publishers and booksellers, but maybe the generic sense is perceived as being too confined to certain realms of discourse to meet most dictionaries’ requirements for inclusion. But because some of the best-selling authors in the world write horror (not to even get into films and video games), and therefore get notice in the mainstream press, I would be surprised if this were really true. (That 1917 quote I gave above is from the New York Times Book Review, for example.) It would be interesting to see how other genres are treated, and whether there’s a pattern of omitting genres in general, or whether it’s just horror that’s being slighted thus. But that’s another project for another day.