An Introduction to Moral Horror

Horror is as varied and multifaceted as rock music. You have your slashers, you have post-apocalyptic horror, you have zombie horror (which often goes hand-in-hand with post-apocalyptic), and psychological horror. Hauntings and possessions are two forms of supernatural horror, and they occasionally mix as with James Wan’s The Conjuring. There’s torture porn, monster movies, experimental/abstract flicks and, my personal favourite, sci fi horror. And god only knows how many of those have been shot as found footage or mockumentaries.

Each subgenre has had its moment in the limelight—zombies are popular at the moment, coming on the heels of the Saw-driven torture porn craze. Found footage has been immensely successful twice in the last decade and a half thanks to The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series. And I’m hoping—really hoping—that the good old haunted house film makes a comeback in the next few years. But there’s another class of horror you may not have noticed, in large part because it’s often disguised as other subgenres or completely different genres entirely. I wonder if their creators are actually aware they’re contributing to this largely hidden category. I call it moral horror, and it’s been on my brain the last little while.

First, a definition: moral horror is any work, be it cinematic, literary, or virtual, where the audience’s primary feelings of fear, terror and/or disquiet are derived from the wrongness of the characters’ actions and decisions. Consider generally good people doing cruel and malicious things, or scenarios where traditional, comforting ethical systems have either broken down or been supplanted by a different code. This horror may take the form of social constructs: the totalitarian Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four or the quarantined and increasingly lawless city of Undisclosed in This Book is Full of Spiders.

Each type of horror capitalizes on specific fears and anxieties, which is why some people like ghost stories, others like zombies, etc. Demonic possession movies like The Exorcist key off the fear of losing control of one’s body. Slashers like Halloween and Black Christmas are rooted in the fear of home invasions and abductions. Psychological horror preys on concerns that we’re being deceived, either by others or our own senses, and that our memories are flawed. And found footage movies frame imaginary, horrifying situations as real.

With moral horror, we’re targeted on a far, far more personal level, deeper than the queasiness generated by the body horror of directors like David Cronenberg. We’re confronted not necessarily by the bad things we’ve done to others, but our potential to do such things: hurt a friend, abandon a lover, neglect a child, or betray an ally. Some of these things we fear we might do accidentally, in the heat of the moment or if our hand is forced. But the deepest, most effective moral horror asks us what we might want to do to someone, say if consequences were out of the question.

This isn’t the first I’ve written about moral horror. I discussed at length how much the destruction of morale in YellowBrickRoad affected me, and just recently I spoke with video game critic Leigh Alexander about her short story Mona, an insidious work of moral horror if there ever was one. As I get deeper into this subject, it may seem like I’m talking about general dramas or thrillers, as those genres typically deal with difficult choices and their outcomes—again, it’s fond of disguises. But as we delve down into this fictional abyss, I think we’ll notice emerging patterns tying this overlooked and perhaps unexplored subgenre together.

I’ve included some works that I have either gotten into, or will get into at a later date.

Mona, by Leigh Alexander—Interview
This Book is Full of Spiders, by David Wong

Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola
The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent
YellowBrickRoad, directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton—Essay, Interview

Video Games:
The Last of Us, Naughty Dog
Spec Ops: The Line, Yager Development—Essay
The Walking Dead, Telltale Games

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