The Three Emotions of Fear

Fear is one of the fundamental emotions not just of the human condition, but of animal life in general.  It has fundamental ties to the evolution of awareness.  Being such a basic emotion, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that upon closer analysis it can be divided into more precise descriptions of the feelings involved.

I am, of course, not the first person to make such a distinction.  Stephen King has made his own analysis of three kinds of fear.  I don’t want to suggest that he is mistaken, and I would be rightfully laughed out of the room if I suggested that the Master of Horror didn’t understand his genre.  But, my analysis leads me to draw the categories differently.

If we understand fear as a product of an incongruity (a break in an expected pattern) and a threat, Mr. King’s types of fears can be described as resulting from different kinds of threats.  

When it comes to assigning Mr. King’s categories of fear to the kinds of threats they pose, the Gross Out is the easiest to describe.  This represents visceral threats.  These threats pose an immediate threat to life, limb, and/or health.  When someone is brutally killed, dismembered, diembowled, poisoned, decomposed, etc. it reminds the audience of the fact that the same could happen to them.  There’s no rationalizing it away because the end of life is a fundamental part of life existing in the first place.

What Mr. King calls The Horror represents the cerebral threats.  These are threats that might not pose an immediate visceral threat, but they are established as concrete threats in the mind for other reasons.  Perhaps the viewer as witnessed them in conjunction with visceral threats in the past and now has an association.  Perhaps the viewer simply sees them as too great of an incongruity to reconcile.  Whatever the reason, these are things that a person can point to and go “I am afraid of this thing.”

Mr. King’s The Terror represents the exitensial threats.  These threats are no longer concrete things to be feared, but rather forms of incongruity that make the audience question their understanding of themselves.  They question their role in the universe.  They question if the reality they perceive around them is even real.  There is no longer a monster to flee from or a concrete threat to confront.  Instead, the threat is a concept that once presented cannot be taken away.

This is an excellent system to divide the horror genre from a standpoint of literary classification.  It means that every horror work can be placed in a different category.  It makes it a useful tool for writers, critics, and readers to say “X work is in Y category.”

This is not what my classification system is designed to do.  Instead, I am trying to look at the science behind the psychology of fear and compare it to my own experience with the horror genre.  To that end, I have realized that when fear is invoked in a literary context, it goes through three distinct phases.  Almost all horror works feature all three phases (there are exceptions which I will get to later).  This system is then a useful tool not for comparing works to eachother, but for understanding the individual parts of a single work.

From a psychological standpoint, fear is much like many emotions in that it can be subjected to the process of Antecedent, Behavior, and Consequence.  Usually, this process applies to actions an individual takes.  First, they anticipate taking an action.  Then, they take the action.  Finally, they process the consequences of that action.  In this case, the action is not something the person actually does but rather the “behavior” part is “be exposed to a threat”.

Unfortunately, the English Language only has so many words to describe fear.  I would prefer to not repeat the terms that Mr. King used or the name of the genre itself (even if Mr. King hadn’t used it in his descriptions).  But, since I cannot think of a better way to describe these phases I will have to repeat terminology with different definitions.  To that end, for my purposes, I will be calling the three phases Dread, Terror, and Horror.


Dread is what someone feels when an incongruity has been presented and the fact that a threat is present has been established, but the threat has yet to manifest.  During this phase, the audience is anticipating being exposed to the threat and tension is building.  The threat itself remains either hidden or at a distance from the audience.

This is where fear of the unknown lives.  By clouding details about the threat from the audience, their imagination is allowed to fill in the gaps.  When done correctly, this means that the audience is personally tailoring the threat to themselves and making it more frightening than anything the writer could have come up with.  The writer needs to be careful though, if the audience is not sufficiently convinced there is a threat or the incongruities are underwhelming this could fail to build tension.

There are ways to activate it without fear of the unknown as well.  During *Jurassic Park* (1993) multiple scenes show water rippling as heavy footfalls shake the ground.  The audience has no doubt that a *T. rex* is approaching and there is no unknown involved.  However, this announcement that the dinosaur approaches before it is revealed serves to build the suspense of the scene.

It is that suspense that is the key.  Without it, the dread vanishes.  The suspense is at the core of holding the dread in place.  Many horror works recognize this fact and you will see some that attempt to focus the bulk of the fear they generate into dread.


Of course, if you try to hold the audience in dread for too long, the threat will eventually lose credibility.  Eventually, the threat itself must be shown.  This will bring the audience to a new phase of fear, terror.

Terror is the feeling that is produced when the threat is most directly in front of the audience.  At this moment, the tension that the suspense had been building is released and fed directly into the terror at seeing the threat itself.

It is important to note that terror can be achieved without touching on dread at all.  If the first hint of incongruity is presented to the audience at the same time that threat is presented at its most clear.  What is achieved when done correctly is that the audience is processing their terror at the same time they are realizing they are feeling fear at all.  It can make the spike of emotion more potent, but this isn’t always the case.

My own work First Time does this by tricking the audience into thinking the story is a sexual coming of age story and only revealing that the genre is horror about halfway through the story.  How I have it posted online does have it tagged as horror because I don’t want to accidentally show horror to someone unprepared for it (that is seldom well-received).  However, the first time I shared this work was in-person and read-aloud.  Because I knew the group I was sharing it with, I knew I was within the kind of content they were prepared for.  The first half of the work was met with surprise that the work was more sexual than my typical work but was otherwise quietly received.  However, the moment of incongruity struck so powerfully that the room erupted in a cacophony of reactions that forced me to pause my reading.  

When done well, skipping dread and moving straight into terror can achieve that kind of strong reaction.  Be careful though, because it can just as easily mean that you miss your audience entirely if you do not present your incongruity strongly enough in that moment of revealing the threat.

The most famous version of terror is the jump scare.  Many horror directors have realized that if you mix a bit of dread with surprise, you can get a quick and easy version of terror.  However, many aficionados have vocally complained about the misuse of the jump scare.  To the point that even critics from outside of the horror genre have begun to recognize it as cheap.  The jump scare can be done well, but the issue is that the poorly done ones fail to invoke the third emotion.


Horror is the most nebulous of the three phases.  It is the only one that can last beyond the end of the work itself.  For that reason, I strongly believe that it is the most important to making a work memorable.  If you can get the horror of your tale to last for hours or even days after the story is over, your audience will keep thinking about it and it will sink firmly into their long-term memory.  Once that happens, you have them forever.

How horror works is that once the threat has passed, the audience will ruminate on the nature of the threat.  If they realize that the threat was actually not as threatening as initially thought, this emotion will fail to manifest.  That is where most jump scares fail.  They focus more on surprise than making a credible threat.  So, at the phase where the audience should be feeling horror, they instead feel relief and maybe even some humor at the lack of a serious threat.

When the threat is serious and stands up to scrutiny, the fear will persist even after the threat has left.  The mind will review the threat and try to create a defensive plan in case the threat returns.  If no defensive plan can be created or the plan is dubious, the fear will remain.  It will linger until either a plan is in place or the threat forgotten.  For some threats, neither might occur and there will remain drops of fear in the audience for a very long time.  When this happens, you are almost guaranteed to have a cult classic.

This still applies even when the threat is a monster that was killed before the story was over.  If the monster was believable enough, then it is easy for the audience to believe another may emerge.  That the monster can be killed may be some comfort, but if the monster killed several people before that happened, there is no assurance that they will survive the next encounter.

Interestingly, this is the only emotion that I have seen evoked accidentally.  Occasionally, a story that does not intend to be in the horror genre at all manages to introduce an idea that the audience realizes is a threat only in retrospect.  It’s usually only part of the audience, and it usually only occurs after careful consideration, but for at least some members of the audience, it can completely change the structure of the story.

A famous version of this happened with *Star Wars: Return of the Jedi* (1983).  Years after the movie was in theaters, a fan posted a detailed analysis of the end of the movie which concluded that debris from the exploding Death Star likely caused extensive damage to the surface of Endor.  His conclusion was that many of the Ewoks likely perished following the battle due to this devastation.  Subsequent analysis by other fans has led many to conclude with him.  Though official material refutes this theory, the horror that some fans felt at realizing it was a possibility remained.

Nearly every successful horror work moves through all three phases.  Some will move through the cycle once, while others will go through it several times.  The horror phase of one cycle can be used as the foundation for the dread phase for the next.  Some advanced writers might even take you through the phases out of order.  I know that when I first watched *The Birds* (1963) I experienced horror before I did terror.  Maybe not everyone will have the same experience with the same works, but that one was very distinct for me.  Few will intentionally skip phases and make it work (my aforementioned short story was definitely me trying an oddball technique).  Perhaps, if you consume the horror genre with these phases in mind, you will begin to recognize as the writer takes you through the different phases.


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