What was that? Who’s behind that door?! Let’s discuss everything horror…
There is a creak as a door swings open to reveal a clown holding a severed head! But what is inside the head? Oh... it’s everything you could possibly what to know about the horror genre?
What exactly is the definition of horror in both film and literature, looking at the expected tropes, sub-genres, as well as the overall popularity of the genre in the current era?
What is the Horror Genre?
So, what exactly is the horror genre? According to Wikipedia–
“Horror is a genre of fiction that is intended to disturb, frighten or scare. Horror is often divided into the sub-genres of psychological horror and supernatural horror, which are in the realm of speculative fiction.”
However, sowing fear and dread among the masses isn’t the only function of horror. Horror is meant to disturb and unsettle, and show us, not only our darkest fears, but where those fears are kept and the deep and magical world beyond the normal.
History of the genre
Horror finds its place as one of the oldest genres, finding its roots in folklore and fairy-tales, used to stop curiously little kiddies from being eaten up with the things that go bump in the night.
Horror preys on one of our most primal emotions – fear – showing up in stories across cultures spanning all the way back to the beginning of human civilisation.
From oral traditions, it has made its way through literature, all the way to moving pictures, where it has become one of the most well-loved, if not niche, genres today.
The Final Girl
She is the girl with plot armour thicker than James Bond, the virtuous heroine who through (literal) hell or high water manages to escape the clutches of death to triumph over whatever evil plagues her and live to tell the tale. Example: Scream (1996)
Getting split up
People keep dying and we don’t know why, so I think the best solution is to split up and hope for the best. Whether it’s to allow us to complete a mission that we think will help us, somebody fell down a trap door, or someone is just slacking off because it’s all just a hoax anyway. It just ain’t a horror unless everyone ends up on their merry lonesome. Example: The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
They might look cute but there’s something not right about them. Surely, no-one would suspect a child of being a cold blooded killer? Example: The Omen (1976)
What is it we fear most? What is the ultimate price we can pay? True terror comes with fighting for our lives and never is this more true than in horror. Example: Halloween (1978)
It isn’t just asbestos we need to worry about in this abandoned mental asylum filled with the angry spirits of the mistreated patients, or maybe some are still here, horribly mutated from illegal experiments? Either way, this abandoned place might not be as abandoned as we thought, and the things that lurk here aren’t so thrilled about our arrival either. Example: Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
Ghosts, Ghouls & Monsters
Can’t have a horror without something to run away from, be it that a pesky poltergeist, a brain-craving zombie, a slimy swamp monster, or a codependent clown. There is no “I” in Scream, so forget about Ghostface and bring on the demons. Example: The Ring (2002)
You know it’s coming, any second, something is going to pop out, you feel it in your bones that it’s coming. Yet, you still jump without fail. It’s not horror without the jump scares, right? Example: Sinister (2012)
Dead / No cell phone
While some might find this trope is little… annoying, there is no better way to feel like a helpless kite in a windy hellstorm than to be caught without a lifeline to the outside world. Halloween wouldn’t be very fun if everyone could just call the cops, would it? Example: Jeepers Creepers (2001)
Are we crazy, or is there a conspiracy at play. Where do you turn when you can’t even trust your own thoughts, or that kind-hearted psychotherapist who has the keys to your cell. Example: Gothika (2003)
Sex = death
A callback to the virtuous “Final Girl” we have the proverbial “fallen woman”, the good time girl, who thanks to her loose morals, is fodder for whatever dark force is plaguing this sleepy town. Word to the wise, kids. If there’s a murderer on the loose, don’t make whoopee. Example: House of Wax (2005)
Gothic is a horror aesthetic characterised by gloomy settings that evoke the gothic architecture of the past. It usually contains hauntings and protagonists attempting to cling to sanity while resisting supernatural forces intent on driving them to madness. Ex. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
Anything including a supernatural element such as ghosts, vampires, witches, werewolves, zombies or demons. Something outside of the human realm that must be beaten back in order to survive. Ex. Dracula (Bram Stoker)
There’s a murderer on the loose who is fixated on stalking the townsfolk and dishing out horrible, violent demises. Usually as retribution for some slight committed by their victims, or maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ex. Kill River (Cameron Robique)
Creature features or monster horror revolve around an other-worldly monster terrorising humanity. Usually these are of an ungodly size often summoned as punishment for man’s mistreatment of nature. Ex. The Rig (Roger Levy)
Psychological horror centres around mental or emotional anguish that manifests as a person or force that torments the protagonist. The intention is to frighten, disturb, or unsettle its audience. Ex. Misery (Stephen King)
Body horror focuses on graphic depictions of violent destruction, mutations or inescapable decay of the body, usually as a product of the protagonist’s hubris or other flaws. Ex. In the Miso Soup (Ryu Murakami)
The horror equivalent of cyberpunk where technological advancement is exploited to horrifying effect, be that the unholy blending of man and machine, or losing control of technology. Ex. Dead Silence (S.A. Barnes)
Horror derived from the horrible effects man has on its environment, as a runaway train of ecological disaster takes ahold, or from the environment fighting back against the mistreatment. Ex. Annihilation (Jeff VanderMeer)
Horror that uses sexuality to derive fear, through the blending of sensuality and terror. Ex. The Safety of Unknown Cities (Lucy Taylor)
Combining comedy with other forms of horror to lighten the mood, while still delivering some thrills and bloody spills. Best combined with slasher, paranormal, or other more bombastic forms of horror that don’t take themselves too seriously. Ex Totally Killer (2023)
A more nuanced and slow-burning form of horror that often derives fear from things that are unseens rather than overt gore or graphic content. Ex. Harvest Home (Thomas Tryon)
A blend of the crime and horror, generally focusing on violent or psychotic killers performing terrible, sometimes ritualistic murders, with a mystery that must be unravelled by the protagonist. Ex. Red Dragon (Thomas Harris)
Not straight-forwardly horror, but a story set in a supernatural world that is often dark and gloomy and outside of reality. The genre will often combine fantasy or supernatural elements. Ex. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
A horror that is set in a world that has been devastated by an apocalyptic event and forces the survivors to adapt to the new normal, often fending off monstrous creatures or environments borne from this event. Ex. I Am Legend (Richard Matheson)
Similar to pulp fiction, this type of horror involves fast-paced, exploitative or exaggerated plots and gritty themes. Often deals with the decay of humanity, but with a heavy focus on horror elements. Ex. Timothy (Mark Tufo)
Is this genre currently in fashion?
While it is thought to have had its hay-day in the 1970s, due to their niche following horror movies are always reasonably in fashion, particularly around late-October when you see the halloween releases.
Though tastes shift, horror will likely always have a place in the film landscape. Horror novels, however, are a different story.
For years, horror novels tended to find themselves underrepresented in mainstream culture, save a few breakouts such as American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis) or The Woman in Black (Susan Hill).
However, with many people getting back into reading during the pandemic, horror, like many genres have gotten more popular.
As the Chicago Tribune claims we are thought to be entering a new golden age of horror literature. So, if you’re an aspiring horror writer, it might be worth striking while the iron is hot.
Thank you for reading. Make sure to leave a comment and share this with other writers.
Our aim at Obsidian Elephant is to help writers learn about the industry through practical examples without them having to spend lots of money on courses and programs.
Let us be your one-stop shop for everything writing related.
To get articles like this directly to your inbox don’t forget to subscribe and sign up to receive our monthly redux newsletter.
If you’re struggling to find time to write, come join our writing sprints stream SprintsWithSammie on Twitch every Friday @ 6:00–8:00pm (UK)