Difference between Thriller and Horror

I recently read my first ever adult horror book and I was planning to do a review on it. But whilst I was reading it, I started to wonder why it was classified as a horror as I felt it was more a thriller just mixed with the ghost element. So instead of deciding to do a review on it — mainly because I wasn’t sure whether I liked the book or not (this way it saves you reading about my stress about the book) — I thought instead I would explore whether a book should be deemed a thriller or a horror.

Back for my English Literature A Level, I read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. We had the debate within my class as to what genre the book would come under. Some said horror, some said thriller, and even some said science fiction. 

Here is the quick definition of a horror:

Horror is a piece of work that is intended to either frighten, scare or disgust it’s audience. 

Now here is the definition of a thriller: 

Thrillers are defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety. 

So to me, this book I was reading — Ghost Story by Peter Straub — should have been classified as a thriller and not a horror. I didn’t find myself scared or the urge to put the book down due to the events. But more I felt anxious about what was going to happen with the suspense that kept building up. Yes, it had a ghost in it that wanted to seek revenge, but the way it was told was more about the characters anyway. I wouldn’t have guessed it was a ghost story until the last two hundred pages — and it was a hefty five hundred page book. 

Now, this is going to be completely personal. Some readers might have found the book absolutely terrifying. It’s the same as any horror film. I have known people who were petrified at a film I found boring, and vice versa. I remember going to the cinema to watch The Woman in Black and watching majority of it behind my hands, and yet the friend I went with said she felt no fear at all. Horror is subjective. It depends what one is afraid of. So perhaps  writers and publishers find it tricky to place certain books in either the horror or thriller genre. 

Horror stories normally consist of the paranormal, murder, blood, gore, but also it could involve supernatural. Examples such as werewolves and vampires were meant to be there to scare audiences. And yet, as centuries have gone by and stories about them falling in love or helping humans have taken away that fear factor. Now it is rare for a horror story to have these creatures seeing as they don’t evoke the fear they once did. 

Take zombies for example. The Night of the Living Dead petrified audiences, and yet, The Walking Dead is seen more as a drama with the characters and the zombies as a side problem. Both have the exact same horror element of zombies, and yet have completely different reactions. 

I do remember one book my mum got me when I was younger. I remember reading it with her, and perhaps because I was young at the time — either eight or nine – I didn’t pay much attention to it, but my mum remembers even to this day being scared from it. The book was called Breathe:A Ghost Story by Cliff McNish and it consisted of a ghost mother who captured ghost children and kept them from going to the other side to be with their loved ones. Sounds a bit like Coraline if you want an example, but my mum still feels disturbed by it fifteen years later. I do want to pick it up and read it now I am in my early twenties and see what she’s on about. But that sounds like a proper horror to me. 

In my personal opinion, a book needs to consist of constant threats from a paranormal being, or even a human. A threat that seems almost impossible to escape from and scares being dotted throughout the book. If you are going to classify your work as a horror, then hook me from the start. Again, fear is subjective, so whilst I might be petrified at a dark figure in a mirror, someone else might not think twice about it. But build the fear from your first chapter. Note that there is something strange going on. 

If you’re heading more for a thriller, this is where the suspense comes from. This is where you can take a long time building it up, noting down what it is that is starting to happen. You don’t need jump scares or threats immediately — if not at all. An idea of a thriller is to build anxiety and that jittery feeling. You want to be second guessing what is going on, not explained in detail. A good example of a thriller in my opinion is either One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus or The Guest List by Lucy Poley. But also think about books such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Both of these give that fear factor of a disturbing character and yet they still classify as thrillers. Even though part of the definition of horror is to disgust an audience (which is what I felt both of these novels did) yet the author knew it was more of a suspense story and should be classified as a thriller. 

It is hard to define seeing as both these genres over lap. So perhaps I am being too harsh. Fear is subject, just like anxiety is. What might put one person on the edge might not affect another. Either way, I do feel the two can be mistaken. I wouldn’t want to pick up a thriller and suddenly find myself too scared to finish it as I hadn’t expect the twists and turns to be from my worst nightmares. But I suppose, you do know the two are used to help evoke emotion from it’s reader. I don’t mind if I pick up a book and it’s not what I was expecting. I still felt Ghost Story was extremely clever even if it was a bit slow in the first half. Writing is so demanding as you never realise how vast an audience you are trying to impress. But perhaps if you are trying to write a thriller, ensure you’re sticking to what is expected in the genre — and vice versa with horror — as best you can so your audience knows roughly what to expect.

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