The Different Sub-Genres of Horror

by henshaw_13

<< All Articles | Print

So you're writing a story, and you have this terrifying image in your head. You put it all out on paper, and... it's boring. How many times has this happened to you? Zero? Okay, then you don't need this article. If you are plagued with this awful occurrence, though, then this article should help.

To start, decide on what kind of horror setting you want. Horror is filled with delectable sub-genres that can dramatically alter the tone of the story you're trying to convey. Let's go through a few.

Survival: Survival horror is a horror genre that capitalizes on our very human fears of limited resources, stalking predators, and defenselessness. Essentially, anything that would apply in a real world survival situation should apply in survival horror as well.

Survival horror should follow a few themes. The protagonist becomes trapped in a foreign location; the protagonist is faced with a foe they are unable to fight back against; the protagonist is stalked by this foe throughout the story; the protagonist has limited resources, and finally; the protagonist finds some way to fight back against the foe in the final act of the story.

Looking at survival horror games will give you a great idea of what I mean. Almost all of them follow this basic guideline:

In Outlast, the protagonist defeats the Walrider, the main antagonist, by disabling his host's, Billy, life support. In the final moments, Outlast's protagonist becomes the Walrider himself when he's attacked during the final moments of the game, cementing his new ability to fight back against his enemies.

In Alien: Isolation, Ripley acquires a flamethrower in Act 3, allowing her to scare the Xenomorph away for short periods of time. Later, she ejects the Xenomorph through the airlock, and in the final act, she detonates several Xenomorphs with a bomb, thereby fighting back once more.

In a more action-oriented survival horror game, Resident Evil 7 allows the protagonist to fight against the enemies throughout the game. However, when faced with the final boss, only the timely intervention of the Umbrella Corporation and their gift of an experimental handgun manages to save the protagonist, as the gun is powerful enough to damage the seemingly invulnerable boss.

Squamous: A genre typically associated with Lovecraftian or Cronenberg elements. Squamous stories should, at their core, convey a feeling of helplessness. This is usually where writers fail at when writing horror, as they decide on happy endings and ways to defeat the big bad. The key trick to making a Squamous story function is bringing out that feeling of helplessness;, lead the reader on throughout the story or storygame, convince them there's a chance to beat the villain, then crush all their hopes in the end.

A great example of this is in the end of Call of Cthulhu, the story by H.P Lovecraft. The protagonist, faced with Cthulhu, rams his boat directly through the creature's head. The vessel seems to defeat it with ease, but moments later Cthulhu reforms as if nothing happened, leaving the protagonist faced with the knowledge that he can't defeat it.

Psychological: Frequently crossing with Squamous, a Psychological horror is any horror story where the main villain is actually the protagonist's psyche itself. These are usually characterized by unreliable narrators, heavy metaphor, and unexplained gaps in storytelling. This genre probably allows the most plot-holes since most readers will be too focused on decoding what the hell you were actually trying to write about. Keep in mind that a psychological story must be psychological in nature; if the antagonist crosses over into the physical world, such as due to the result of a psychic, it is no longer psychological but rather traditional (or a hybrid of some sort) horror instead.

Something important to note is that psychological horror almost always ends with the protagonist's success. It is related to squamous only in that they both deal with the threat of a seemingly unbeatable threat, with psychological taking the opposite approach. Whereas a good squamous story would lead the reader on to believe they have a chance, then crush their hopes at the last second, a psychological horror should lead the reader to believe there is no chance, then shatter their expectations with a surprise dose of human willpower that triumphs the antagonist. A great example of this is in the movie The Babadook, where the titular character is portrayed as unbeatable throughout the entirety of the story til the end, where something as simple as the protagonist confronting her issues revolving around her husband's death causes the creature to become submissive and fearful, easily beating it.

Dark: Anytime a story has horror as a secondary genre or just a main theme, it's considered Dark. A story about feudal vampire kings and their complicated politics is Dark Fantasy, a story grounded in a traditional fantasy setting but focusing on races or themes more closely related to the horror genre. Any primary genre can be Dark. Dark Sci-Fi, Dark Romance, etc. The main theme is that it's much more graphic, violent, and evil-filled than the primary genre would normally be.

Dark is typically action-filled, though this is not a necessity. More than often, the protagonist is a creature of darkness themselves, thereby eliminating a feeling of hopelessness or fear from the reader and cementing the horror aspect as a secondary genre, rather than a primary one.

Traditional: Traditional horror is something that capitalizes on the human fight or flight reflex, and typically that's it. Scream, Friday the 13th, and Halloween are all examples of this. Usually the foe would be easily beaten if the protagonist used their head, which forces the writer to come up with creative ways to invoke that sense of helplessness, and force panicking situations onto the protagonist to ensure they're in a scenario where they would be unable to think rationally. Not much more explaining to do here. Horror like this rarely works in writing, as it primarily generates fear from jump scares, something that's completely impossible to do in a written story.

So yeah, those are the different sub-genres of horror, and the basic outline each of them use. Before I go, I'll leave you with a few final tips that are applicable for every horror story.

1. There's an old saying spread around by screenwriters that states, "Cellphones killed the horror industry." Basically, it means that the introduction of cellphones made it harder and harder to suspend your disbelief that these characters aren't able to get help. That's why stories are usually set in areas where cellphones wouldn't get reception, where phone lines could be cut, etc. Come up with creative, but believable explanations for why the protagonist is unable to receive help.

2. Subvert movie cliches. Written horror is different from screenwriting, there are a lot of things that don't apply in a horror story but do in a horror movie. Jump scares, dramatic music, etc. It's a lot harder to trigger the fear response in a reader than it is for a viewer, so you need their fear to come from a deep love of the characters and a fear that you might actually kill them off.

3. Action kills. No, I'm not joking. The more action there is, the harder it is to be scared. It gets your adrenaline pumping, it triggers the reader's fight reflex rather than their flight reflex. This is generally why Dark Horror prioritizes horror as a secondary genre; action sequences associated with one genre, such as fantasy, destroy the tension-building of horror.

Anyways, that's all I had to say. I hope you take these tips to heart, and make a kick-ass horror game. Happy writing! Or should I say...


SpOOOoooOOOOkkyyyy writing!