A Crash Course in Horror Sub-Genres

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Image Credit: Ariel da Silva Parreira (via freeimages.com)

Image Credit: Ariel da Silva Parreira (via freeimages.com)

Due to reader requests, I’ve extended my genre series to include horror.

As I bring this series to a close, I wanted to remind you that I can’t cover absolutely every option. My goal is to give you the main categories, so you can better understand where your book might fit or what you might be interested in writing in the future. Of all the genres I’ve covered so far, horror is the least clear cut in its sub-genres, but I think it’s still helpful as writers to at least attempt to categorize what style of story we’re writing.

Back in my post on fantasy genres, I noted that science fiction, fantasy, and horror often get lumped together into the category of speculative fiction, yet there are major differences between the three.

According to the Horror Writers Association, “horror can deal with the mundane or the supernatural, with the fantastic or the normal. It doesn’t have to be full of ghosts, ghouls, and things to go bump in the night. Its only true requirement is that it elicit an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.”

Great horror will tap into commonly held fears and should evoke feelings of terror, repulsion, loathing, and stress in the reader. One question people who don’t like horror frequently ask is why readers would want to scare themselves. Why would they want to experience those negative emotions? Before we can write good horror, we have to be able to answer that question.

In her essay “Elements of Aversion,” Elizabeth Barrette pointed out that our fight-or-flight response isn’t as necessary in modern society as it once was, but that we still crave the adrenaline rush. Hence, the horror genre was born. But Barrette also argues—and I agree—that the best horror does more.

She writes, “Sometimes a story intends to shock and disgust, but the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of our complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems, which exercises our mental muscles and reminds us to keep a little healthy caution close at hand.”

Anyone who studied Dracula in university has heard the rhetoric about how the author was commenting on both the sexually oppressive norms of the time and on the corruptness and excess of the upper classes.

But all speculative fiction genres intend to force us to think and to shake us from our complacency.

Horror is unique in two ways. The first is the intensity of the warning and the second is the antagonistic force.

Horror will generally be much darker in tone and will make your heart race more frequently than will either science fiction or fantasy. Horror means to scare the reader, whereas the most science fiction or fantasy mean to do is warn them. It’s the difference between the weather forecaster on the news telling you that your area is under a tornado watch (fantasy/science fiction) and a local warning siren going off, telling you that you need to take cover immediately because a tornado is bearing down on your house (horror).

Unlike in any other genre, the antagonist in horror must always be a villain. Every book needs an antagonist (someone who stands in the way of our main character reaching their goal), but not every book needs a villain (who is, by definition, evil) as the antagonist. In horror, the villain must be, literally or figuratively, a monster.

Philosopher and film critic Noël Carroll put this best in his book The Philosophy of Horror. He said that a horror story must have a “menace” in it, and that menace needed to meet two criteria.

(1) It needed to be physically, psychologically, socially, morally, and/or spiritually threatening.

(2) It needed to be unnatural in some way. Carroll used the term “impure” because he didn’t mean that the menace couldn’t be naturally occurring in our world. He meant that the menace needed to be abnormal. A sentient car that wants to kill people is abnormal, but so is a serial killer. In some way, the menace must violate the norms of our society.

The most well-known award for horror is the Bram Stoker Award, presented by the Horror Writer’s Association.

Defining Horror Sub-Genres

Psychological Horror – You won’t find as much physical violence in psychological horror. In fact, you might find none at all. The trauma and agony in psychological horror is mental, and paranoia, suspicion, self-doubt, and mental illness are common.

Slasher Horror – When it comes to horror stories, slasher horror is the most graphic. The violence is depicted in detail, and the focus is often on the fragility of the human body. A common trope of this sub-genre is that the killer is seeking vengeance or to punish wrongs. So, for example, a community committed some horrible crime in the past and now the killer has returned to take revenge, or the (usually young) cast engages in illicit activities (like sex, drugs, or horrific bullying) and the killer wants to punish them.

Supernatural Horror – Stephen King became famous for his supernatural horror. As you might have already guessed from the name, supernatural horror contains supernatural abilities or beings—psychic powers gone wrong, vampires, the devil, demonic possession, poltergeists, and so on.

A sub-set of supernatural horror is ghost stories. Ghost stories aren’t always horror however. It comes down to the intent of the writer and the emotions they want to evoke in the reader. If your ghosts create a real threat for other people in your story, then you likely have a horror on your hands.

Survival Horror – The setting is what defines a survival horror story. Your character is separated from the wider civilization and not only has to survive the environment around him but also has to evade the terror stalking him. This isn’t the same as “teenagers in a cabin” in a slasher film. Your character is more likely the only survivor (or so he thinks) of some catastrophe or has become stranded with only a small group of other humans…followed by things going even more terribly wrong. The setting itself plays a large role in the horror because of the isolation from outside help and additional challenges it creates.

Science-Fiction Horror – You might think this one shouldn’t be included because it looks like it’s just a joining of two genres, and couldn’t we mash any two genres together this way? Yes and no. Horror doesn’t combine with any other genre in the same way that it does with science fiction. Science-fiction horror is a well-established sub-genre of horror and not of science fiction. It’s a horror story set in space, usually with alien creatures as the villains. Alien and Prometheus are both examples of this sub-genre.

Are there any sub-genres of horror you’d like to add to this list? If you’re a reader or writer of horror, what about the genre appeals to you?

I hope you’ll check out the books in my Busy Writer’s Guides series, including Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction and How to Write Dialogue.

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