In 2016 I spent a year writing and revising an action-packed YA book that I queried to literary agents as a horror novel. I received lots of feedback, both good and bad, but the most surprising feedback that entered my e-mail inbox, from two separate agents no doubt, gave me the same advice: I’m incorrectly pitching my novel as horror, when it’s actually a thriller. This advice astounded me, and made me reconsider everything I knew about the genre I love. How could I possibly confuse a genre I thought I understood so well with another?
This got me to thinking how similar the genres actually are, how in many ways they both try to deliver scares and surprises and page-turning suspense to the reader. And so I decided it was time to explore in depth these two genres and study how they are similar and different, what audience expectations there are of the genres, and how I should move forward in exploring the genres in my own writing. I will begin by defining the horror novel and the thriller novel and exploring their histories, and I will next examine two important works in each genre and discuss why each belongs to its specific genre. Ultimately the two genres are incredibly similar, enough so that I would suggest that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, although not all thrillers are necessarily horror.
In her book, Horror Fiction: An Introduction, Gina Wisker defines horror as “located in both the real and the nightmarish imaginary, and an important ingredient in its success is the ability to entertain, terrify, problematize […] horror is a taste acquired by those with sufficient imagination to see beyond, beneath, and through what we take for granted as normal and familiar” (2). In effect, horror has been popular for so long not just because of its chill factor, and not because it can make a person jump in terror out of his or her seat; it has the ability to touch on the dark elements of our lives in ways no other genre can.
In his masterful 1981 non-fiction book about the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King says, “novels dealing with horror always do their work on two levels. On top is the ‘gross-out’ level […] the gross-out can be done with varying degrees of artistic finesse, but it’s always there. But on another, more potent level, the work of horror really is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search. And what it’s looking for is the place where you, the viewer or the reader, live at your most primitive level” (17–18). King is saying that horror can often just be the gross-out, the jump scare, the monster behind the curtain who yells “Boo!” But he is also describing what I love best about horror, that it can go deeper and probe the dark parts of human nature that is so often left off the page in other kinds of fiction.
What I’ve always loved about horror is the way it can creep under my skin and make me question my own morality in the face of death or evil. The best horror writing should make me question myself. As King says, “Why do you want to make up horrible things when there is so much real horror in the world? The answer seems to be that we make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones. With the endless inventiveness of humankind, we grasp the very elements which are so divisive and destructive and try to turn them into tools to dismantle themselves” (26). In essence he is saying that horror is helpful, and that facing fictional fears from the comfort of my own home allows me to work through inner demons that may not be able to come out in any other way.
Horror novels have taken many shapes over the years, always evolving to both audience’s tastes and the changing landscapes of the real world. Thought to be the first real horror novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto was published back in 1764, where “Gothic’s representations of extreme circumstances of terror, oppression, and persecution, darkness and obscurity of setting, and innocence betrayed are considered to begin” (Lloyd-Smith 3). Much of the famous early works of horror deliver jolts and scares that are more intellectual to readers than what most will find in novels of the horror genre today, but many of the same themes hold true today. This early Gothic period focused on subjects like taboos, sexuality, violence, injustice, and social fears and anxieties, and these elements have appeared in horror fiction throughout the centuries.
Consider the most famous horror novel released in the 1800s: Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s novel is about one of the ultimate taboos — creating a living, breathing human being from the body parts of dead people — and seeing the horrifying consequences in its sad, explicit detail, touching on “deeper psychology” and “complex motivations in characters divided against themselves” (Lloyd-Smith 134). This classic novel continues to be highly regarded and studied in the modern era because it touches on dangers and ideas that remain frightening to this day.
Of course horror evolved considerably over the decades, particularly in the twentieth century. One of the granddaddies of the genre that became the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie is the 1959 Robert Bloch novel, Psycho, about a motel owner who dresses up as his mother and murders innocent women who stay at his establishment. This classic book is an example of non-supernatural horror, a story set completely in reality that is terrifying for the reader because it talks of despicable human actions that could potentially happen to him or her. As opposed to the safer supernatural horror, which allows readers to “control the horrors […] evoke your vampire out of the grave, and at the end drive a stake through his heart and pull him back, [a] way of handling evil,” the readers are thrust into a situation that offers no safe escape (Schweitzer 16).
As Terry Heller says in his book The Delights of Terror, “though most people will never be trapped in a belfry or in a contracting prison cell, many will find themselves in analogous situations: traffic accidents, muggings, fires and diseases. […] We seek out such stories [as Psycho] to explore the psychological extremes that arise from physical danger” (29). This is not to say that supernatural horror novels don’t provide this kind of mental exercise from readers; Stephen King’s The Shining is a prime example of a work that shines a light on both fantasy horror and realistic horror, giving readers a chance to feel control over the outlandish situations of the narrative, while at the same time dig deep within themselves to approach their fears over true physical and psychological crises.
As this overview of the horror genre proves, people have always loved to be terrified — but they’ve also always loved to be thrilled. The thriller genre has been around as long as or potentially even longer than the horror novel, and although the two genres share similar traits, the thriller is different in many ways. A thriller goes beyond trying to scare the reader and trying to fill the reader with dread; it relies entirely on suspense every step of the way. In his book Writing the Thriller, author T. Macdonald Skillman says, “Suspense is emotional. It’s surprise and confusion and fear and anticipation. And suspense is danger. Immediate danger. It’s worrying about what’s going to happen, not about the action taking place at that moment. […] [Therefore] a true [thriller novel] is a book about characters who find themselves trapped in a series of increasingly frightening incidents that force them to take extraordinary steps to survive” (7). What Skillman is saying here is that while there may be frightening moments the same way there would be in a horror novel, the thriller is more interested in filling the reader with anticipation toward the state of the main characters and the increasingly complex plot.
In his book Thrillers, author Jerry Palmer says, “In the thriller, suspense derives from the adoption of a single perspective that is associated first and foremost with a [hero]. This is what differentiates thriller suspense from other forms” (61). Unlike horror, which is often written in third person and utilizes multiple points of view and can even be told from the point-of-view of the villain, thrillers generally put readers up close with the hero for every suspenseful step of the narrative. They can often be more generic than horror in a way because they offer more predictability, the journey with a central protagonist who the reader often knows will defeat the villain and live to see another day.
The thriller novel is in many ways much more broad than the horror novel, and this in return allows for the thriller to spread across to many more subgenres, including action, spy, and more. Believed to be the first true thriller is Homer’s The Odyssey, with a story of great excitement about a man trying to find his way home. A thriller needs great tension throughout, as Skillman says, “every scene [in a thriller needs to] generate both conflict and tension at some level” (43). There needs to be thrills, there needs to be suspense, but a thriller doesn’t necessarily have to terrify the way a horror novel does. Great thriller novels provide suspense and constant excitement, not necessarily terror.
One of the most famous thrillers of the twentieth century is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which became the equally compelling Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tale of a man wrongfully accused of a crime and on the run lends itself to tremendous excitement from beginning to end, particularly in regards to the pacing. Skillman says, “The pacing demands of a [thriller] are less forgiving [than other novels]. Readers who pick up a thriller expect to be kidnapped by fear and action and dragged along on a wild ride. They’re looking for a breakneck journey that rarely slows down long enough to explore dead ends or enjoy a plate of fried chicken served up with a side of flirtation” (138). Readers of thrillers expect to flip through the pages ferociously, while readers of horror expect more fear and dread on the page and not necessarily this kind of breakneck speed to the narrative. Lastly, thrillers can exist in specific subgenres that horror wouldn’t necessarily be found in. The James Bond novels by Ian Fleming fit in the spy thriller subgenre; Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity is also a well-known spy thriller. Other subgenres include the legal thriller, the military thriller, the medical thriller, and lots more.
In the last few months I have studied a novel that I believe to be strictly horror, and a novel that I believe works solely as a thriller. To start with horror, let’s examine Joe Hill’s 2013 novel, NOS4A2. This book tells the story of a child abductor who harbors children in a creepy place called Christmasland and the girl who managed to escape him who grows up to be a strong woman ready to take him down. It features a few specific elements that make this a strict horror novel. First, this is a supernatural novel, one that includes an entire alternate world that the protagonist finds herself stuck inside for a huge chunk of the narrative. Generally thrillers are set in the world as we know and understand it, while horror often features ghouls and goblins and takes the main characters to unknown places. Second, Hill uses the normally celebratory aspect of the Christmas holiday season as a source of fear and dread throughout the book, turning the reader’s warm and nostalgic feelings for the holiday into a menacing kind of terror. Hill writes, “He leaned over the stool, both hands on its edge, and took a long, trembling breath — and smelled the Christmassy odor of gingerbread again. He almost flinched, the fragrance was so strong and clear” (273). The smell of gingerbread often fills one with pleasure, and the maniacal villain of NOS4A2 knows it, making it one of his prime weapons to seduce children to their doom.
Hill also goes for the gross-out from time to time in a way an author of a thriller would rarely approach in his writing, specific gory details that feel only appropriate for a horror novel: “Mr. Manx had changed. He was missing his left ear — it was tatters of flesh, little crimson strings swinging against his cheek. […] A great flap of loose red skin hung from his brow. His eyes were gone, and where they had been were buzzing red holes — not bloody sockets but craters containing live coals” (415). Notice how this description of Mr. Manx’s grisly new appearance goes on and on, Hill delighting in the disgust of his imagery. Even if Mr. Manx were a human being who had some kind of a trauma occur to his face, the thriller writer would not take a paragraph to describe every aspect of his horrid face — he would keep the narrative chugging along to keep the reader flipping through the pages.
An author of horror is allowed to take his time, setting up scenes of terror and repulsion in a way that doesn’t necessarily have to be moments of non-stop action; of course, horror often does have non-stop action, with scenes of great tension and suspense, and NOS4A2 features many terrific moments that could exist under the thriller model, like this one: “She began to push herself up once more, and Charlie Manx came down with his silver hammer again and hit her in the back, and she heard her spine break with a sound like someone stepping on a cheap toy: a brittle, plasticky crunch. The blunt force drove the wind out of her and slammed her back to her stomach” (351). This tense scene still provides one or two minor descriptions that may aim for shock value more than one would find in a standard thriller, but Hill’s prose still offer the kind of suspense that carries over to both popular genres.
Now let’s discuss Scott Smith’s 1993 thriller A Simple Plan and see what Smith does differently. A Simple Plan tells of three men who discover four million dollars in a crashed airplane and do everything in their power to keep the money a secret, resulting in unthinkable tragedy. Let’s start with the suspense aspect, which Skillman discussed in his craft book. Between the opening scene of the men finding the crashed plane and the four million dollars and the scene of Hank causing havoc in a middle-of-nowhere mini-mart, this book offers nearly non-stop suspense, with even the quietest moments filled with constant tension. Smith gets us to love the characters early on and relate to them well, so when they’re put in perilous situations, when any one of them could be captured by the police or killed, we stay on the edge of our seats. Smith’s suspense prose is simple, elegant, never too show-offy. He writes, “I took off my jacket, unbuttoned my shirt, and slid the pistol into my waistband, barrel first, fiddling with it until it felt secure. It was in the center of my belly, sharp and cold against my skin, its grip pointing to the right” (337). Smith works like Alfred Hitchcock in a way, delaying the shocking moments, because he knows, like all the best storytellers, that it’s the anticipation of the gunshot that’s more suspenseful than the gunshot itself.
Unlike Hill, who will often relish the gory details, Smith is more interested in the suspense of a scene the way a thriller writer should be. I think one telling moment is Scott’s description of a dead body early on in the novel: “His eyes had been eaten out by the bird. Their dark sockets stared at me, his head rolling a bit to the right on his neck. The flesh around his eyes had been chewed completely away” (20). Compare this description with the one Hill gives of Mr. Manx. Both feature grisly details and glimpses of gore, but Smith’s is more subtle, more attuned to how an average Joe would describe a dead body he discovered in the snowy woods. Smith never goes for a gross-out moment because he thinks it might scare the reader; any moment of terror, like when two central characters are shot and killed at a farm house, is written as realistic suspense that feels set up and earned, never grisly and exploitative.
Unlike NOS4A2, A Simple Plan is written in first person, so the reader gets a closer look at the main character Hank’s inner musings. Since thrillers more often deal with ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations, the reader of A Simple Plan gets to follow Hank as he makes one poor decision after another, the reader becoming an accomplice who asks him or herself, “Would I do the same thing if I were Hank?” Smith writes, “I realized that I’d crossed a boundary, done something abhorrent, brutal, something I never would have imagined myself capable of. I’d taken another man’s life” (91). This connection we get to the protagonist offers additional suspense because unlike Mr. Manx in NOS4A2, who we know from the first chapter is a bad man who does terrible things, Hank is someone we can identify with, and so much of the suspense comes from wanting to see him get out of his increasingly desperate situation.
In looking at the histories of the two genres and examining two specific novels, I have come to a few conclusions as to what makes a horror novel different from a thriller novel. My thesis is that all horror novels are thrillers in a sense, while most thrillers are not necessarily horror, and I feel like this statement holds true through the following points…
First, a horror novel is intended to scare and/or disgust a reader by inducing feelings and emotions of terror, while a thriller is meant to excite and entertain a reader through the use of constant tension and suspense. Can a horror novel offer excitement and suspense to a reader from beginning to end? Yes. Although some horror novels can go as slow as they please, other famous works like Jack Ketchum’s horror novel The Girl Next Door features moments that shock and terrify, while at the same time giving non-stop suspense throughout its three hundred pages. A thriller, on the other hand, will not typically cross these boundaries, the writer not so interested in gory details and moments of repulsion as he is in offering endless tension.
Second, many horror novels are set in a supernatural realm, while thrillers are almost always set in the real world and are about ordinary citizens who get trapped in extraordinary circumstances. If one begins reading a suspenseful story and can’t right away decide if it’s horror or thriller, one easy question to ask yourself is if it’s realistic or if it’s speculative. As soon as a vampire or a ghost or a creature from Christmasland shows up, know you’re in horror territory. Having said that, though, not all horror novels are supernatural; Stephen King’s Misery is known far and wide as a work of horror, even though it’s set entirely in the real world. But if there is a supernatural element, know you’re likely in the realm of horror.
Third, the POV often gives a clue as to which genre we’re in; horror is often written in third person while thrillers are often written in first person. Third person allows some distance, which allows the author to build on fear and dread, to create a tone that will frighten the reader. First person allows a closer look into the hero’s head, which adds to the suspense because the reader is more greatly invested in his or her central dilemma. Are there horror novels written in first and thrillers written in third? Of course there are, but POV can in many cases be a tip-off to what genre you’re reading. In the end, the genres remain similar, but these three points help shed light on what often makes them different.
Although I have always been more passionate about the horror genre, the thriller genre has also played an important role in both my reading life and my writing life, and I have come to respect both genres as essential in my exploration in authoring works of suspense. Both work on similar and different levels, many of which I’ve explored in this paper, but it’s important to me as I move forward to have a clear understanding of the genres as separate entities and what readers, agents, and publishers will come to expect when I pitch my latest novel as either horror or thriller. Maybe, in the end, I can feel safe with my latest novel being pitched as a horror-thriller since the two genres overlap to such a stunning degree. Consider the relationship between the genres a subversive kind of love story, one fraught with murder and dread and tension, and most especially, suspense.
Heller, Teller. The Delights of Terror: An Aesthetics of the Tale of Terror. University of Illinois Press: Chicago, 1987. Print.
Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. William Morrow and Company: New York, 2013. Print.
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House: New York, 1981. Print.
Lloyd-Smith, Alan. American Gothic: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2004. Print.
Palmer, Jerry. Thrillers: Genesis and Structure of a Popular Genre. St. Martin’s Press: New York, 1979. Print.
Schweitzer, Darrell. Speaking of Horror: Interviews with Writers of the Supernatural. The Borgo Press: San Bernadino, 1994. Print.
Skillman, T. MacDonald. Writing the Thriller: How to Craft Page-Turning Suspense With Instruction from Best-Selling Authors. Writer’s Digest Books: New York, 2000. Print.
Smith, Scott. A Simple Plan. Knopf: New York, 1993. Print.
Wisker, Gina. Horror Fiction: An Introduction. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2005. Print.
2 thoughts on “How to Tell the Difference Between Horror and Thriller”
very informative. I’ve always bee drawn primarily to horror but since both thriller and horror do overlap in many ways, I’m not afraid to branch out and explore thrillers… 😀
Thanks so much for reading!