The Shadowy Boundary Between Terror and Horror

Books from Fangorn (@booksfromfangorn)

Welcome again to another discussion on the shadowy side of literature. In the previous post, we discussed how terror and horror could function as devices for producing the sublime. But we may wonder if there is any difference between terror and horror. Today we are going to check that out by reviewing one of the most important essays on this topic that was written by Ann Radcliffe.

𝑶𝒏 𝒕𝒉𝒆 𝑺𝒖𝒑𝒆𝒓𝒏𝒂𝒕𝒖𝒓𝒂𝒍 𝒐𝒇 𝑷𝒐𝒆𝒕𝒓𝒚

Even though Ann Radcliffe is better known for her gothic novels, especially because she wrote The Mysteries of Uddolpho, she also contributed to literary theory. In 1826, three years later after she passed away, her article called “On the Supernatural in Poetry” was published. In that article, she discussed the sublime, the supernatural, and the distinction between terror and horror. Originally, it was to be part of Radcliffe’s posthumously published novel Glaston de Blondeville. What is interesting about this theoretical article is that it has the form of a dialogue between Mr S- and Mr W-.

For Radcliffe, the sublime can be understood as passions that are perceived in the soul which are provoked by different incidents in unison with nature and local scenery that heightens the effect. Those incidents have the following purposes:

“to awaken, at once, solemn expectations and tenderness, and by recalling the softened remembrance of sorrow long past, to prepare the mind to melt at one circumstance that was approaching, mingling at the same time, using a mysterious occurrence, a slight tremor of awe with our pity”.

Ann Radcliffe. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Books from Fangorn

– Ann Radcliffe. “On Supernatural in Poetry”. 1826

Therefore, the sublime is passions perceived in sceneries or incidents that heighten their effect. These passions are not as violent as Burke’s notion but more wistful, which require an additional element to grow such as seeing landscapes or listening to music. In this notion, the sublime does not necessarily manifest in words, but in actions like tears: “tears alone can speak the touching simplicity of the whole scene”. Additionally, unlike Burke, Radcliffe does not recognize obscurity as part of the sublime, it should not be associated with confusion.

On the supernatural, like Burke, she mentions that the description of scenery should not be presented as light and smooth, but unlike him, Radcliffe does not emphasise chaos but landscapes should be described under a:

“more gloomy tint [that] would invest their grandeur; dignifying, though it is softness, and magnifying while it obscures”.

– Ann Radcliffe. “On the Supernatural in Poetry”, 1826

It is necessary to describe landscapes in a melancholic form but not emphasising the brightness of sceneries.

Additionally, the supernatural is straightly related to the power of imagination and the ability to create illusions. For this reason:

“everything familiar and common should be carefully avoided… [to] excite some feelings of dreariness, or melancholy, or solemnity, or expectation, in unison with, and leading on towards that high curiosity and thrilling awe with which we witness the conclusion of a scene”.

– Ann Radcliffe. “On the Supernatural in Poetry”. 1826

Radcliffe refers to the importance of presenting something unknown to the audience to excite their feelings. There must be a veil of obscurity between the known and the unknown to awake the readers’ passions.

Now let’s focus on discussing the shadowy boundary between terror and horror. Unlike Edmund Burke, Ann Radcliffe presents her readers with a clear distinction between terror and horror.

According to Radcliffe, horror:

“freezes, and nearly annihilates [the soul and the faculties]”.

– Ann Radcliffe. “On the Supernatural in Poetry”. 1826

Therefore, horror freezes and nearly paralyzes, for this reason, she maintains that horror could not be a source of the sublime. She adds that the look of horror is usually left to the imagination of the reader when it is presented or mentioned in literature.

In contrast, terror according to Ann Radcliffe:

“expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life”

– Ann Radcliffe. “On the Supernatural in Poetry”. 1826

Terror is recognized as an element that allows the sublime, it leads to action as the main objective when terror is presented is to acquire the means of escaping it.

As we have seen so far, in her essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, Ann Radcliffe describes that the sublime can be understood as passions that are produced when contemplating a wistful scenery or landscape.

She distinguishes horror and terror. The first one paralyzes and does not allow the sublime, in contrast, terror allows the sublime for it produces action and movement to overcome those feelings.

It is important to mention that Ann Radcliffe insists that for reaching the sublime and, also, for feeling the intended terror and horror of the works we are reading, it is necessary to imagine the described scenes as if we were inside their author’s mind.

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