SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for the films, Ex Machina and Hush.
Horror and Thriller are the two most exciting genres in both literature and film. But honestly, I don’t think that as a society, we are willing to admit that there is not much difference between Horror and Thriller. In this article, I will give you the definitions of the Horror and Thriller genres and show you their similarities and differences by using two examples from film.
Below I’ve listed the Wikipedia definition of both Horror and Thriller:
Horror is a genre of fiction which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten, scare, disgust, or startle their readers or viewers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.
Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.
As you can see both genres are supposed to conjure up strong emotions in the reader or viewer. Truthfully, there is very little difference between feeling “scared” or “startled” and feeling “suspense” and “anxiety.” There is also very little difference between what is at stake in both Horror and Thriller.
In Horror, the protagonist’s is usually at risk of suffering bodily injury, death, the death of others, or the corruption of their soul (for works that have a supernatural or religious bend to it). This is not much different from what is at stake in a Thriller. The protagonist's life, body, relationships, financial or legal standing is also at stake. The emotional expression and the stakes might be the same in both Horror and Thriller but how the stakes are raised is where the real difference lies.
How the Stakes are Raised
For this argument, I’m going to compare two films I saw recently, Hush (2016) and Ex-Machina (2015). Ex Machina was billed as a Thriller while Hush was labeled a Horror movie.
In Hush, the protagonist, Maddie is a deaf-mute writer who lives in an isolated cabin. A masked killer appears at her window and later tells her that he wants to play with her until she finally gives up and dies. Right away, we know know that Maddie’s personal safety is at stake and she must take on a kill or be killed attitude.
Ex Machina follows Caleb, a programmer who works for this fictional world’s version of Google. The CEO, Nathan, has invited him to help test his new AI in his remote bunker-like estate. While the danger is not as immediate as it is in Hush, Ex Machina allows the stakes to be raised slowly.
Nathan throws off creepy vibes as he puts on displays of machismo from the very start. He also makes it clear that Caleb is not allowed to have any contact with the outside world and if there is a power outage, he will be locked in whatever room he happens to be in. The strangeness continues as the viewer takes a stop in the uncanny valley to meet Ava, the life-like AI, who tells Caleb in secret that he should not believe a word Nathan says. To me, this is a Horror situation. Sure, this isn’t as terrifying as being targeted by a killer in the middle of the woods but being trapped in a remote location with the most life-like robot ever invented by a creepy, power-hungry inventor is also extremely unnerving. But it’s only in the last few minutes of this movie do we finally find out that Caleb’s life is at stake.
Both Maddie and Caleb can’t leave or contact the outside world and are preventing from doing so by a stronger and controlling person. Both of their lives are at stake. But since it takes almost the entire film for us to realize that Caleb is in danger, Ex Machina comes off as a Thriller and the mad rush for survival in Hush makes it Horror.
Who The Protagonist Is
Horror is always a Thriller but a Thriller isn’t necessarily always Horror. In Hush, you are at the edge of your seat with anticipation while also feeling terrified. There are movies and novels that can give the reader or viewer that “edge of your seat” feeling while not being terrified. The difference lies in who the protagonist is.
If you compare Hush to a Sean Connery-era James Bond film you can clearly see the difference between Horror and Thriller. Maddie is the underdog; she is unable to speak or hear, she is isolated, and only has the weapons she can find around her house. It’s clear the masked killer has the upper hand.
But in a James Bond film, Bond is smarter and better trained than everyone else. Sure, he can get himself into a pickle or face a menacing villain but he is supposed to be one of the most capable spies on the planet. When the audience sees Bond in the clutches of a villain, they thinks, “I can’t wait to see how Bond will get out of this one” instead of “Oh my God, he’s going to die now, I’m sure of it.” How vulnerable or how capable your protagonist is gauges how deep into Horror your thrilling story can go.
On one of my favorite podcasts, Writing Excuses, has an episode about defining the Horror genre. One of the cast members defined Horror as putting the protagonist in a perilous situation that they won’t survive and Thriller as putting the protagonist in a perilous situation that they will survive. I don’t completely agree with that definition. I do think in most cases if you are writing a Thriller and your main character does die, then it becomes Horror but I don’t think a work of Horror requires the death of a protagonist to be a considered Horror. Like the definitions I presented to you at the start of the post, these genres are about how they make the audience or readers feel.
The ending shouldn’t necessarily dictate which genre a work of fiction falls into. A story where the main character dies but their death is avenged blurs the line between Horror and Thriller. Horror is all about facing things that are bigger and stronger than one person or even humanity as a whole but that doesn’t Horror can’t involve overcoming and surviving powerful forces.
I hope this helps you see the similarities and difference between Horror and Thriller. Check out my new post on crafting compelling villains. Best of luck in your writing adventures!
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