The Invasion From WithinToday's Tune:
First, let's talk about what distinguishes a horror novel from a
thriller novel, though they may seem similar. Really, it's in the name
-- "horror" is intended to illicit feelings of horror (duh) and terror,
while "thrillers" illicit thrills and suspense/anticipation. Now, this
isn't completely cut and dry, as many horror novels rely heavily on the
aspects of a thriller to function. Things like unexpected plot twists,
fast-paced action, heightened suspense... all aspects of a thriller.
There's just a difference between, say, a spy thriller and a horror
People enjoy horror for a number of reasons. Sometimes we just like
the rush of adrenaline we get. Sometimes we want to explore things we're
afraid of in a relatively "safe" way (through a book or a film in the
safety of our living room). Sometimes it's a certain fascination with
the gross or the macabre. Or sometimes a tale about fear is linked
inextricably to deeper elements we want to explore about ourselves and
the world around us. It's a very powerful emotion, fear.
So let's talk about a few different styles of horror!
- This type of horror definitely borrows from the thriller line of
thought. It's about creepy ambiance and slowly building terror in the
reader without actually letting them see the thing they're so afraid of.
It makes them question what's real. These are stories where there may
not be much blood or death, but people are terrified out of their wits
by something they don't necessarily face head-on. This is the type of
fear that's inside your head. A lot of writers use psychological horror
as a metaphor for people who are afraid of things much closer to home...
or even afraid of themselves.
Paranormal Horror - This is about ghosties and spirits and
things that go bump in the night! Ghost stories often fall in line with
paranormal horror. These are tales about the things that still haunt us
even after they're dead and gone. It usually involves anything that's
Not Of This World.
Creature Horror - Kind of a sub-section of paranormal horror,
but more specific. The antagonist for these stories is a creature. A
monster. The Thing, It, Cujo, Alien, giant toothy worms, you name it.
It's an actual physical (non-human) being that's stalking and killing
the characters, and it must be defeated. This can range from very
superficial (scary, gross critter must be destroyed!) to a complex
metaphor about the monsters inside ourselves.
Demonic Horror - Another sub-section of paranormal horror. I
separated this one out because stories like these typically involve a
person, or people, who have been possessed by some sort of demon.
Perhaps even the Devil himself. There's a duality between wanting to
save the possessed person and banishing/destroying the being inside
them. There's an element of fear that even the people we love may hurt
us or change beyond our control. These stories tend to be heavily
steeped in religious imagery for obvious reasons. Demon pregnancies are
also a popular (and problematic) trope.
Gothic Horror - Ah, good old gothic horror. A classic style.
This type of horror relies heavily on ambiance and romantic ideals
(though not necessarily romance). These are the literary stories full of
gorgeous prose and tortured souls. Heavily steeped in Victorian flavor,
you'll often find themes of descending into madness, dark family
secrets, and confronting literal and figurative demons. Think Edgar
Allan Poe, Mary Shelly, Dracula.
Slasher Horror - If you imagine the stereotypical horror
movie with a teenage girl running from a guy wielding a big knife, you
have the basic idea behind a slasher. This is a (usually) human
antagonist, typically a serial killer with a fixation on the
protagonist. It's a pretty standard plot -- killer is on the loose,
characters start dropping like flies, big showdown with protagonist,
killer is destroyed or put out of commission, protagonist lives, hooray.
This standard model can be played with in an infinite number of ways
and lots of the massively cliche (and sexist/racist) tropes can be
turned on their heads.
Body Horror - This sort of horror is about a person's body
being Enemy Number One. Their own flesh and blood turns on them,
transforming them into something else, slowly degrading, or otherwise
causing horrible mental anguish. Body horror is also known for being
kind of, well, gross. Flesh melting, bones breaking through skin, nails
falling off, all that fun stuff. You know when you read something
happening to a character and it just makes you want to curl into a ball
and cry because you don't want to feel the empathetic horror and pain at
what they just physically went through? Body horror. This is stuff like
killer diseases, chemical warfare, The Fly. The psychology here is in
expressing our fear over our own fragile and ultimately decaying bodies,
losing ourselves, or being trapped inside something that will cause us
pain and eventually die. Of course, there's also the idea of our body
becoming a weapon to protect us from harm, which can be another form of
Gore-Shock Horror - Hypothetically, body horror could be tied
into gore-shock, but gore-shock is not really about focus on the body
as the antagonist. Gore-shock is pretty much exactly what it sounds
like: gore so vivid and visceral that it shocks you. Horror and gore are
not synonymous, but when it comes to gore-shock, it's all about the
gore. Gore to the point of it practically being paint on a canvas.
Blood, guts, flesh, limbs, eyes... you name it. It's here in full,
over-the-top glory. I often think of it as "comic book-style" gore, or
the type of gore that's obviously done for artistic flare instead of
reality. You typically find this in film rather than fiction, as it's
very visual, but that doesn't mean there aren't some mind-boggling
attempts out there in the literature world, graphic novels in
Comedic Horror - Horror doesn't necessarily have to scare you
or gross you out. It can also make you laugh. There's a small
cross-section of writers who use horror as a medium for comedy --
playing with tropes, poking fun at convention, or being plain silly.
This can be anything from a horror-esque plot with its teeth taken out
to openly lampooning tired horror tales. It's all in the voice and the
characters. Character reaction can make or break a story like this.
Think of Shawn of the Dead and the way character reactions are
very matter-of-fact. Oh, there are dead people out there? They're trying
to eat us? Are you quite sure? Let's throw things at them.
There are a variety of other horror options to explore, but these
are the ones I'm most familiar with. They don't have to be kept
completely separate, either -- they're often blended to great effect.
The very best writers can illicit multiple reactions in one book: fear,
suspense, laughter, surprise, sorrow.
Are you a horror fan? What's your favorite type? Anything else to add?