Macabre isn’t the word I’m looking for. Yet it presents itself, perhaps chiefly because of Stephen King’s book Dance Macabre.
The word, with a capital M, has its own entry in the OED as part of the phrase dance of Macabre, meaning the Dance of Death, which in turn represents the medieval allegory of Death leading the dance of souls to the grave.
Even if you refuse to read about pirouetting skeletons, you may have unwittingly enjoyed Camille Saint-Saëns’s Dance Macabre, a symphonic poem from 1874:
Returning to King’s book: even though I haven’t read it, I have seen it quoted and paraphrased for its delineation of three concepts in fiction: revulsion, horror, and terror. It’s a useful gradation, regardless of genre or topic, because it pinpoints the crease between the explicit and the implicit.
Here’s how King’s words have filtered down to me.
Revulsion or gross-out is when you’re told about the eye that burst out of its socket and splattered the doctor, or the parents who threw at each other the heart of their unborn child, or the woman who was walled in with the heads of her lovers, or the long-haired zingaro serenading a pile of severed body parts while admiring his reflection in a lake of blood (mostly images from Barbey and Lorrain). It’s all red and mushy, and anyone Halloween-minded can do it. The sufficiently exaggerated gross-out is grotesque.
Horror is the moment you take out a bunch of beautiful flowers from a precious historic vase and find a baby’s body providing compost feed (Barbey). Horror is the realisation before the gross-out.
Terror is the suspense before the horror that never quite happens: it’s the quiet laughter in the cellar that is empty when you turn on the light; it’s the attic that calls to you, but when you get there is only full of creaking boards and whistling wind; it’s the nightmare in which you’re chased with a chainsaw, but when you wake up, you see that you’re safe, except there’s a trail of blood across your living room carpet leading to the toolshed.
Terror is almost perpetual horror that prolongs the repulsive revelation, the way a romantic comedy prolongs the first kiss.