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Horror and Thriller: Walking the Fine Line Between Two Similar Genres

The lovely Amy Lukavics has been taking you step-by-step through the process of writing horror novels. In my opinion, there's no better Highwayer who's better qualified; she can effectively scare the plants off me in two pages or less. Personally, I'm not big on horror or writing horror - but I love me a good thriller.

There's a very fine line between the genre of horror and the genre of suspense. There are plenty of similarities, for sure - that growing feeling of dread or nervousness, the weight of every scene, the building of each sentence - but there are also plenty of differences.

I'm not an expert in either of these genres, but in my mind there are two specific things that separate a good horror from a good thriller.

1. Horror emphasizes the monster and the monster's doings; suspense emphasizes those affected by the monster.

The horror genre dives into the blood and guts of a serial killer, an alien race, or a demon. Horror wants to see the way they kill or the way they torture victims; it's the story-equivalent of a close-up camera shot.

Suspense, on the other hand, pulls the camera back to take a look at the whole picture, especially the killer or alien or demon's victims. Suspense wants you to feel the looking-over-your-shoulder, on-the-run feel of being chased, rather than being the chased. Horror wants to disturb you, but suspense generally focuses on smaller-scale fear and nervous, creeping feelings.

2. Horror is gruesome and terrible, whereas suspense is mysterious.

Horror, as I said, likes the details. The blood and guts. The terrible little things that build up feelings of dread. Suspense builds a feeling of mystery - following the clues, peeking around corners, jumping at every little noise.


Obviously, there are a lot of ways that horror and suspense overlap. Plenty of horror stories have a mystery in them, and plenty of thrillers can get quite gory; but these are my observations of the two genres.

What do you think? What else separates horror books and thriller books?

Kristin Briana Otts

Kristin is an aspiring YA author with an abiding love for her dog, ghost hunter tv shows, and rainy days.

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7 comments:

  1. I think this is a pretty good summary. In my mind:

    Thriller is BEFORE the bad things happen.
    Horror is WHILE the bad things happen.
    Mystery is AFTER the bad things happen.

    Grossly oversimplified, but a handy way to think about it.

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    1. I like that a lot! Sometimes simple is better. :)

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  2. I disagree. Horror doesn't necessarily focus on "blood and guts." Some of the best horror movies (Halloween, Paranormal Activity, etc.) would, by this definition, be suspense movies because they're mysterious and focus on creeping the audience out/causing them to look over their shoulder at every little noise. I don't think suspense is even a genre; it's just something that horror and thrillers need in order to be effective.

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    1. I think I oversimplified the idea of "blood and guts." I mostly mean that horror often focuses on the "monster" and his doings - for example, Paranormal Activity focuses on the demons. Halloween focuses on... totally forgot the bad guy in Halloween lol. But that's kind of the idea I was going for.

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  3. That's interesting! I'd never thought of the two like that before.

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  4. I agree that suspense is something that goes both into horror and thrillers, for sure, as opposed to being considered a genre. I think for me, the difference between horror and thriller is the presence or non-presence of something not of this world. Thrillers usually take place in a contemporary world, I think. (I could be wrong about this, I definitely have not read a wide range of thrillers.) (Is ALL THE RAGE out yet!?)

    But some of the best horrors aren't gruesome at all. Things like blood and guts can range from non-existent to bloodbath in both horror and thrillers. Another thing that I think goes into both of the genres, like suspense, is tension. It's really interesting to see how tension is handled differently (and the same, in some cases) in thrillers and horror.

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    1. I think this is why I have such a hard time categorizing my book - I don't know if thrillers can be supernatural. Does the presence of supernatural monsters automatically make something horror?

      And yes! Totally agree that psychological horror is even more scary than blood-and-guts horror. But I think the tension feels differently in horror? Horror focuses on making every detail a little disturbing, a little warped, a little weird. Suspense just ratchets up the tension and mystery.

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Item Reviewed: Horror and Thriller: Walking the Fine Line Between Two Similar Genres Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kristin Briana Otts