The Death Throes of a Paramecium

This past weekend (Aug. 19-21) I went to Horrorfind, a horror/Halloween convention billing itself as “the spookiest show on Earth.” I went for one day last year and planned to go for all three days this year with two goals in mind:

1) To provide a review of such an event for The Genre Traveler.

2) To find potential interview subjects for The Genre Traveler features.

Alas, I did neither — but that is another story. What I did do, however, is have the opportunity to speak with Richard Moore, one of the editors of Red Scream, an erotic horror magazine that launched earlier this year. He’s the fiction editor for the publication and obviously passionate about this project.

Our conversation got me to thinking about what is horror anyway? It is such a subjective genre. According to, horror is “intense and profound fear.”

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, a fairly well known author in speculative fiction, once responded to the question “How do you define horror?” with “Horror, according to the Greeks, is fear of the unknown, as terror is fear of the known.”

F. Paul Wilson, another genre author, answered the same question with “Horror fiction can shock, disgust, and frighten. But at its heart, horror fiction unsettles and disturbs.”

Wilson’s definition points to what makes horror so subjective. What unsettles and disturbs one person may have no effect on another. For example, I will share with you one of the more horrific moments of my life — an image I’ve never been able to remove from my mind and an experience that sometimes still has the power to bring tears to my eyes.

It happened while I was taking Biology 1A in Junior College. During one lab, while we were studying single-celled eukaryotes (a eukaryote is a cell that has a nucleus — human cells are eukaryotic), we were asked to watch as a paramecium (a single-celled organism commonly found in pond water) produced something (I forget what) when exposed to a certain chemical.

So, I focused my microscope on a paramecium in drop of water I had put on a slide. I put a drop of the chemical on the slide so that it merged with the water and then I watched.

The paramecium wandered about, its flagella undulating rhythmically about its body. It approached the chemical, which I remember being blue. And then the horror began. The paramecium convulsed three times, its body contracting intensely with each convulsion. Then its cell membrane came apart, producing the things I was supposed to observe for the lab.

Does this tale horrify you? Probably not. No one else in the class understood why I was so upset. This is a single cell. Why should I care that a single cell died?

On one level I don’t. I probably kill millions of single-celled organisms every day.

It was the convulsing that got to me. A paramecium may not have a nervous system, but what I saw was clearly pain — if only on a spiritual level. I’ll never forget that paramecium, nor the convulsions it went through so I could see some stupid thing for a biology class lab.

What is horror fiction? It is fiction that brings about the emotions I felt when I saw that paramecium convulse. Will all fiction that calls itself horror bring about that emotion? Yes — for someone, but not for all.

So. What horrifies you?


  • To learn more about Horrorfind, go to
  • To learn more about Red Scream, go to Warning, this publication is not for the feint of heart or stomach.
  • To learn more about paramecium and see images of one, go to
  • For more about Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, visit
  • For more about F. Paul Wilson, visit

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About the author

As The Genre Traveler, Carma Spence loves to view the world through Genre-Coloured glasses. In other words, she sees the world through a lens of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, where trash cans can be Daleks in disguise and neighborhood forests can harbor faeries and sprites. Magic realism is real! Or at least you can choose to see the world that way to add to the fun and awe of life.