Today’s word is essentially the underlying atmosphere of Halloween. It’s the culmination of dark and stormy nights, foggy cemeteries, and things that go bump in the night. Aside from simply the act of giving us a good scare, this basic human condition has been adapted to film, graphic novels, works of fiction, and good old-fashioned stories around the campfire, but, throughout history, the word has had numerous applications and meanings. So, while you may know your different vampires, ghouls, and Frankenstein monsters, let’s take a closer look at horror.
Entering English from the Old French horror, our word comes from the Latin horror, figuratively meaning anything from dread to veneration, or even religious awe; however, the root of the word, the verb horreo, can be defined as ‘a shaking or trembling, likely due to a cold chill or fear’. Taking advantage of this figurative meaning to show a rough and rugged landscape, the first known use can be found in early version of the Wycliffite Bible (around 1382) where it is written in Deuteronomy 32:10: “The Lord..found him in a desert land, in place of horror, and of vast wilderness.”
In the true physical and emotional sense of horror, meaning something of loathing and fear, something that evokes terror, dread, and repugnance, the first use occurred at roughly the same time as the Wycliffite Bible, with a fine example coming from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Parson’s Tale (circa 1386), which, being, in actuality, a treatise on penance, quotes Job and speaking of those outside of God’s order states that: “at the last that horror and grisly fear shall dwell there without end.”
The idea of horror outside of ourselves, such as seeing or reading about something horrifying, can be traced back to a translation of a late medieval Old French work called The Pylgremage of the Sowle (The Pilgrimage of the Soul), which, in 1413, wrote that: “The great horror thereof may not be likened nor declared.
Aside from the ideals of shock, terror, and repugnance, horror has also a long usage in the medical field. Using the term in 1541, Sir Thomas Elyot, in his work, Castel of Helth, uses the word to define the symptom of a disease: “Horror or shivering of the body mixed with heat.” A couple of centuries later (1768), the term was also being used to denote a fit of extreme depression or suffering from withdraw, as can be seen in Oliver Goldsmith’s play, The Good-Natur’d Man, with a line exclaiming: “He is coming this way all in the horrors.”
Outside of the more macabre elements, the word has also been utilized to convey a more generalized feeling of awe or fear, as can be seen in William Fulke’s 1579 book, D. Heskins Ouerthrowne, reminding that: “That sacrifice most full of horror and reverence, where the universal Lord of all things is daily felt with hands.”
Lastly, beginning with Laura Troubridge’s book, Life Amongst The Troubridges, written in 1879, horror has been used as an exclamation to- obviously- indicate surprise, shock, or fear (“Went to Shepherd’s Bush. Oh, horror—stinking underground.”)
Here’s hoping that you experience a Halloween filled with only safe, fictional horror.