Week 3 (Question 1)

King (2010) describes horror as being defined through three basic elements. Explain, using references, what these three elements are. Think of a horror story you have read/watched/heard recently that makes use of all of these elements and show how King’s definition is at play in that narrative.

King describes horror as being defined through three basic elements that are on a scale of least to most disturbing. Disgust, Horror and Terror are the three emotions that are derived through King’s three basic elements of horror. (King, 2006) Using the 1976 film Carrie (De Palma, 1976), these three emotions will be explained to their core level, and show King following his own rules in the adaptation. Specifically the iconic prom scene will be looked at for all three aspects of King’s definition.

Disgust is the emotion that is incited by the gore aspects of horror (King, 2006). In the prom scene of Carrie (De Palma, 1976), the obvious ‘gross’ aspect of the scene is the bucket of pig’s blood falling on Carrie after she is falsely crowned prom queen. Disgust is considered the least fear-inducing of the three elements. We see the blood slosh around in the bucket for a full minute before it is dumped on her, and the audience can tell what is coming well before it actually happens whilst Carrie remains oblivious. In The Anatomy of Disgust, (Miller, 1997) Miller suggests that disgust plays such a role in horror due to the visual nature of the genre – even if not taking place in a visual medium. Disgust is similarly linked to what we can see – and the imagination takes over from there as to what the other senses are feeling when we are exposed to something visually disgusting. 

The second element of horror is vaguely titled ‘horror’. In this instance, King is referring horror to mean the unnatural things one can see (King, 2006). This is shown in Carrie (De Palma, 1976) with the effects of her telekinesis upon the school gymnasium – the locking of the exits, the crushing of the teacher, the stage lights all turning to a terrifying red colour and the eventual fire – all of this seemingly happening with no prompting. It is interesting to note that the other prom attendees given that they are unaware of Carrie’s telekinesis will be experiencing the third and most extreme element of horror (terror), but as audience members who are aware of why the events are occuring, are subjected to look upon Carrie’s horrifically blank face as she subjects her tormentors to her revenge. This somewhat undercuts the point of Noel Carrol in The Philosophy of Horror (2003), in that audience members are to an extent supposed to be feeling the same emotions as characters in the show, but given that Carrie is played as a somewhat sympathetic character throughout the film, and her actions whilst not justifiable are certainly understandable. It is understandable that there is a disconnect here between audience emotion and character emotions. 

Sissy Spacek as Carrie (Brian De Palma 1976)

The final element of horror is described as that of the unknown, the feeling that someone is watching you in the dark but when you turn the light on there is no one there. This is what King describes as ‘terror’, and the most intense emotion that the horror genre can evoke from the audience members. In Carrie, (De Palma, 1976) the argument for the most terror inducing aspect of the story is tenuous at best, but it is the concept of telekinesis itself. The supernatural, and supernatural powers are unknown to and cannot be explained by science or logic, and therefore are capable of evoking great fear from audiences.


Palma, B. D. (Director). (1976). Carrie [Motion picture]. United States: United Artists Corp.

Carroll, Noel. (2003). The philosophies of horror: or, paradoxes of the heart. New York, NY. Routledge.

King, Stephen. (2006). Danse Macabre. London, UK. Hatchette Livre UK. 

Miller, William (1997.) The anatomy of horror. Boston, MA. Harvard University Press. 

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Twenty-three year old, perpetually single. Committed to dressing like a librarian and crying in any movie.

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