Genre Basics - Horror - article


The word “horror” comes from a Latin verb meaning "to bristle" or "to shudder." Horror writing makes the reader’s hair stand on end due to fear, disgust, or dread. Typical elements of a horror story include serial killers, otherworldly figures, and graphic violence, though these are not required!   


While the horror genre is closely related to thriller and suspense, there is a distinction among the three. A thriller excites the audience with high tension, huge stakes, and a fast pace. The excitement is not necessarily created from fear, unlike horror.

A suspense story also leaves readers on the edge of their seats, but with a slower pace and larger sense of foreboding. While a thriller’s protagonist is in an almost constant state of danger, the protagonist of a suspense novel is largely unaware of the dangers that await them (but the readers are very aware). In a horror story, the protagonist faces danger, fear, or evil much more directly and earlier on. 


The horror genre can span many categories; these are four of the more common types of horror writing.

• Gothic horror: focuses on the dichotomy between the natural and unnatural, usually in a bleak landscape with medieval Gothic architecture. A classic example of Gothic horror is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the novel, Frankenstein’s monster is an unnatural creature that embodies the human spirit.

• Supernatural horror: includes elements such as ghosts, demons, or the afterlife. Notable horror author Stephen King’s first published novel Carrie is an example. The bullied main character possesses telekinetic powers, which she uses to seek gruesome revenge on her classmates and mother.

• Non-supernatural horror: does not include supernatural elements, meaning the story could plausibly occur in real life. The serial killer novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is a non-supernatural horror.

• Psychological: creates dread or distress by exposing universal human vulnerabilities or fears. An example is The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, which follows an FBI trainee conducting interviews with serial killers.


  1. Surprise: a plot twist or deviance from the cliché startles an unsuspecting reader.
  2. Foreshadowing: instills a sense of dread. Readers feel uneasy because they know someone or something undesirable may appear at any moment.
  3. Relatability: the more familiar a reader is with some element of a horror novel, the more fearful he or she may become, because the story hits closer to home. Stephen King took the familiar, usually loving character of a dog and turned it into a monster in Cujo.
  4. Appropriate tone: choosing the right words, point of view, and level of formality will also contribute to the horror of your story. The way you arrange words and sentences, or describe a certain scene or character, can make your writing that much scarier.
  5. Blood … or not? A horror story is gruesome and frightening, but that doesn’t mean you have to write grisly murder scenes and disgusting deaths. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson is a classic horror novel that is scary with no gore – ghosts, strange noises, and mysterious writing on the walls make it a horrifying read.

For more guidance on writing in the horror genre, check out these ALC video interviews with horror authors Kirsten Imani Kasai, Neil V. Young, and Jay Bonansinga.

To learn more about genres, whether you need them, and how to choose the right one, make sure to check out our comprehensive article on The Basics of Genre.

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