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Sunday, March 06, 2011

What's The Difference Between Thriller & Horror?

Lots of Bang2writers *know* there's a difference to the genres of Horror and Thriller, yet confess they're not sure how to pin that difference down. It was something raised at last night's Scriptchat too about "Horror Vs. Thriller: The Monster Vs Suspense", so I thought I'd have a go.

On the surface, Horrors and Thrillers can seem rather similar and it's easy to see why. Both can take advantage of shock value via murder, ghosts & haunted houses and the like. Both often involve characters' lives being in danger in some way, usually at least for extended periods if not the entire narrative. Both very often have large body counts. Both often take into account the idea of "flight" in the first instance, followed by "fight" and both often use the "prepare to fight" montage to take the audience through the change of context in the narrative. Both often exploit the short timeframe, with the action taking place very often between 12 and 24 hours, the most typically being four days - and the notion of a "deadline" of some kind:

"We must solve [whatever issue the antagonist/s presents us with] before [this happens] and /or time runs out".

So realising what is the SAME between the genres is pretty easy - and audience perception appears (to me at least) to go rather like this:

"I choose Horror for the scares. I choose Thriller for the chase."

So let's try and pin down exactly how the two differ:

Lack of vs. Too Much. Horror gets a bad rap because it's often seen as the genre where character does not matter, because audiences just want to see splatter, torture, gore and other imaginative ways of characters dying. This is not helped by the number of Horrors on the market that follow this route to a tee. However, if we look at all the classic Horrors - ALIEN, HALLOWEEN and THE EXORCIST the most obvious - then whatever you think of those films personally, we can see immediately that character is far more important in these than mere body count. In direct comparison then, Thriller gets a bad rap when it's too convoluted: it's either overloaded with plot or character motivations or occasionally, both. The best Thrillers are like the best Horrors - simple.

Survival of The Fittest: One vs. Many. Sometimes it's said Horrors are about survival, whereas Thriller is about the wider implications of that survival. Whilst this is a good start, I don't think this definition goes far enough and is fraught with problems: eg. the "woman in peril" thriller more often than not deals directly with PERSONAL survival against a usually inherently male threat, just like characters may go up against the Serial Killer type in classic Slasher Horror. But that's the key to realising the difference here: in the Thriller, we are more often than not dealing with a LONE protagonist who is "up against it": ie. a woman against a psycho Ex; a man who's been accused of a crime he did not commit against the police; a lone banker/lawyer/whatever against THE BIG CORPORATION. In direct comparison, the Horror usually deals with a GROUP of people in the first instance, who will usually get picked off one by one by The Serial Killer, The Creature/s or The Ghosts, hence the various movie fan tags of "Final Girl" et al.

Plausibility Vs. Implausibility # 1: Serial Killers. One of my fave ways of defining the difference of Thriller and Horror is by saying Thriller premises very often *could happen* (in real life), whereas Horror premises are usually "larger than life". However this too is fraught with problems: many writers will immediately point to the existence of REAL serial killers and some of the sick things that have happened in real life that have never even made the silver screen. In answer to this, my argument is always: how many of us will know someone, even via someone else, who has been killed by a Serial Killer? Of those serial Killers, how many are as flamboyant to enough to perform "The Monstrous Other" function - complete with masks, fish hooks and huge mechanical traps? Unfortunately most people who are murdered are murdered by someone they know or even love - and usually with weapons of opportunity.

Plausibility Vs. Implausibility # 2: Ghosts. Then of course there is the issue of The Supernatural Thriller which on the surface mucks up the idea of "could happen", especially if you're an atheist and/or don't believe in life after death. However, in direct comparison to the Serial Killer question - "How many of us know someone, via someone else, who has had/thought they've had a GHOST in their house?" - I'm willing to bet the number is MUCH higher, for how many people have at least had a CHILD worrying about this? Haunted houses in particular are UNIVERSAL - we all know exactly what one is and usually can relate a story of one in our local area or lives, whether we actually believe it or not. But even if you think ghosts are a load of guff, the Supernatural Thriller involving them is more often than not about the CHARACTERS' REACTIONS to these ghosts WITHIN THE WORLD OF THE STORY, than scaring us *with* the ghosts, like a Horror would. Consider Bruce Willis' character within Supernatural Thriller The Sixth Sense, whom we're asked to take as a mortal man via the child Haley Joel Osment's acceptance of him, for 90% of the movie. Or Kevin Bacon's character in STIR OF ECHOES who would rather drive his wife and child out of the family home as he strives to find the ghost within it. Now think of the Horror TH13TEEN GHOSTS, where we are asked to see twelve of the ghosts as a spectacle, one of violence and threat. Or SILENT HILL, where the imagery of dead burning babies and men tied up with barbed wire are supposed to prevent Radha Mitchell from rescuing her daughter by making her turn back and leave the damned town.

And finally:

Body Count: Thrills vs Spills. Very often body counts are very high in the Thriller and Horror, but how these people are despatched and who they are differ wildly. If we consider the likes of TAKEN and the films of JCVD, Steven Segal, etc, we have an endless stream of character-less baddies that are killed with guns, the occasional knife-wielding and cool martial arts moves. These baddies represent THE FORCE our hero is up against, so we can cheer their deaths guilt-free and enjoy the kicking of arse. Similarly, in conspiracy thrillers there are GOVERNMENT BUREACRATS or MOBSTERS etc performing the same function and sometimes our hero is transformed from "ordinary" to "extraordinary" as he is forced to kill them. Again, we can delight in this because it is self defence and "kill or be killed". In short, the Thriller is often rather like a video game in this regard. In direct contrast then, the Horror has no such JUSTIFICATION for the killing of characters, even if we don't really care who the characters are. Instead, we are introduced to the victims in more detail and asked to believe they are *normal* men and women with *normal* characteristics (honourable or dishonourable). They are then despatched and usually without guns or cool fights, but up close and personal, in horrifying, often bloody ways - whether the person or thing despatching them is a ghost, serial killer or creature.


If you're not sure what your story is and what conventions you should be following in doing so, ask yourself what is at the heart of the story and how the world of the story forms part of your chosen genre. If your script is about a SINGLE protagonist against A GROUP of an antagonistic nature (or SINGLE antagonist that represents *that group or force*), then the chances are good you're writing a Thriller. If your script is about a GROUP of people up against a SINGLE force - supernatural or human - the chances are good it's a Horror.


Genre or Die: Horror

Genre or Die: Thriller

Killer Premises: It's All In The Execution

Creature Features: Know Your Enemy (But Don't Know Too Much)

Deviation - a Brit Thriller. Join The Facebook Campaign here and follow it via Twitter here.


Nathaniel Tapley said...


I think the difference is more to do with the aim of the film. Both use awful, violent events, but horror films use them to unsettle the viewer, thrillers use them to excite them. Horror films are based on building the dread of what is going to happen, thrillers are about revelling in the visceral moment when they do.

For me, horror is a more contemplative genre, one that explores the boundaries of where we feel comfortable. It often poses the question "How would I feel if this comforting thing that I believe turned out not to be true." It questions how important, or safe we are.

Thrillers do the opposite. They are, generally, a huge statement about how capable we are of overcoming things. They reinforce our self-importance, where horror films knock it.

I think that this is the reason why we often see female protagonists in horror films, something that is less common in thrillers (with notable exceptions: Panic Room, Flight Plan, Red Eye). The horror film emphasises our vulnerability, the thriller emphasises our invulnerability.

In short, then, thrillers are there to comfort is, horror films to discomfort us.

Richard Cosgrove said...

I think this is all overcomplicating things.

To me a horror is a work where the intention is to horrify the audience at the film's most intense emotional points. The intent aims is to generate fear and terror.

A thriller aims to create nervous tension - the anticipation of something bad happening - in its audience.

Both genres are very closely linked, and can use many of the same tropes and techniques to disturb their audiences, but the intent differs. And some are extremely blurred - such as Night of the Demon or the original Cat People.

@Nathaniel: I don't agree that thrillers comfort us. If they feature a heroic protagonist who overcomes the films' challenges - such as Enemy of the State or Capricorn One - they're a comfort. But when the protagonist is beaten - such as in Seven, The Conversation and Blow Out - thrillers are very unsettling.

Also, thrillers are there to emphasis the heroes' invulnerability. If the hero is invulnerable, it wouldn't be a thriller. That's usually in an action film.

Lucy V said...

Richard - if you're working from audience perception of that intent then sure I agree with you; but this is a post about *how* writers get that intent on paper, hence the perhaps complicated breakdown of where they differ.

As for Natt's point on comfort/discomfort, I broadly agree: thrillers are typically the triumph of the "little guy" over the "bigger force", whereas there is generally more of a kind of murderous "democracy" to the Horror, in that *anyone* can go... We rarely truly believe our hero will die/be beaten in the Thriller, even when he actually is.

Helenolderbutwiser said...

Interesting article. I have seen almost no horror films because I think I know what they're like and they don't appeal - ie lots of blood and gore and completely implausible. I did see Carrie, a long time ago, would class that as a horror, but I thought the premise for that was at least interesting. Jaws - thriller or horror? I suppose it's a group of three going up against a larger than life shark.
Open Water - I saw that as a man versus nature thriller but it was pretty horrific and believable.
Aren't thrillers about someone who wants something and horrors about people who were perfectly happy until nasty things started happening to them, ie they want rid of something?

Richard Cosgrove said...

You know what I really hate about blogs? You spend a long time doing a detailed comment and then the browser crashes when you press Publish. Anyway…

I agree with many of your points Lucy, but not that body count, gore, or how well-characterised, numerous, and adept at surviving the protagonists and antagonists are, define a horror or a thriller.

Those are all factors that can define what sub-genre or thriller/horror you're creating, as they form part of the audience and sub-genre expectations, but they don't form the basic split between the parent genres. That comes from the emotional impact the script has on its audience, in the same way a films that aim to make us laugh repeatedly are comedies.

On the comfort/discomfort point; thrillers can be about a little guy triumphing over a big guy, but so are many horrors - Alien, The Exorcist and Halloween being examples.

But great thrillers can equally be about a little guy being beaten by the bigger force - as in Blow Out and The Conversation, and even Seven.

To me whether the protagonist succeeds in their conflict or not, defines whether the film has a happy or sad ending.

In most horror movies today - at least in Western ones - I don't believe that the protagonist will fail. When that occurs, I view see the thriller or horror as a failure. The audience should hope the hero wins, but they shouldn't believe with certainty she/he will. If that happens, the main source of fear and tension is lost.

James said...

I tend to think of Horror as kissing cousins with Fantasy.

Thrillers seem to be much more rooted in mystery and crime tales.

Not always though. There's crossover.

For the most part THRILLERS are


HORROR tends to be --


Here's one I like...

Is PSYCHO Horror or Thriller?

Is Texas Chain Saw Massacre Horror or Thriller?

Is the Biopic of Edward Gein (who is the guy both the above movies are based on) Horror or Thriller?

I'd argue that it's not the inherent content that makes a film Horror or Thriller, but how that content is handled both in the writing and direction.

Some content seems to imply a certain genre, until you watch the film. A movie about aliens is generally science fiction -- unless it is ALIEN (Horror) or INDEPENDENCE DAY (Action) or PAUL (Comedy) or E.T. (Family Film).

Genre is largely the effect the movie has on the audience more than the content.

Lucy V said...

Intriguing differentiation Helen - though I'd argue many a thriller hero/ine gets drawn into the action accidentally, especially as a case of mistaken identity... or unwittingly, via corporate corruption, etc.

Interesting fellas but aren't we still talking film theory, rather than script craft? A script on the page has no "audience" in the classic sense, only a reader. I think it's problematic to assume they're the automatically the same. Genre *is* content when it comes to writing the script - hence so many scribes finding their spec thrillers and even horrors turn into dramas by accident, especially when they ladle on the back story too much. Also, a Horror or Thriller is not necessarily scary or thrilling on the page, just as comedy scripts are not automatically funny. A reader has to make an educated guess on whether the likelihood is they *will* be when realised as image and genre convention/content is a huge part in deciding this. Perhaps a better way of describing this genre content would be "tone" - the aliens of James' description differ wildly on that basis.

DraconianOne said...

I still take issue with your whole plausibility/implausibility theory. While it might be true that not many of us have ever encountered someone who has been directly affected (at whatever degree of seperation) by a serial killer but we will have seen or read news reports about them - and some of those may have happened near places we lived or worked.

On the other hand, we never (or extremely rarely) see news articles about ghosts or hauntings.

It's also worth noting that The Exorcist was inspired by (allegedly) true events - and I have personally met a couple of priests who have performed exorcisms.

It doesn't even have to be about people - "Cujo" is about a dog with rabies terrorizing a small town. I'm sure quite a few people know someone who has been attacked by a dog. Similarly "Open Water" and "Jaws" play on our fear of shark attacks which is not 100% implausible. (And if you're a diver, the boat leaving you behind is a very real fear and not unheard of!)

DraconianOne said...

On a side note, I'd just like to say, for what it's worth, that I independently referred to Jaws and Open Water before reading Helen's comment.

Must be something in the water, so to speak.

Lucy V said...

Well after a prolonged absence... You take issue with something *I* say in a blog post, Drac? How unusual ; )

PS. These are for you (think about it, haha).

Richard Cosgrove said...

*grumbles about crashing browsers*

@James: A film that has aliens in it may have a science-fiction setting, but that doesn't make it science-fiction.

The sci-fi genre is based on extrapolating the effects of scientific and/or social advances/changes on the characters and/or society. I'd say that Gattaca, 1984, Solaris and 2001 are proper science-fiction; while the films you listed are just using science-fiction tropes for other genres.

@Lucy: Genre is film theory. But surely the craftwork involved in writing a horror a thriller depends on the type of horror or thriller you're writing? There's a big difference between writing a Hostel and The Orphanage, as there is writing Death Proof and a Bourne.

@Drac: "On the other hand, we never (or extremely rarely) see news articles about ghosts or hauntings."
Guess you don't read the Fortean Times then.

Iain Coleman said...

You could do worse than look at H.P. Lovecraft's classic essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature":

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author's knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Splutter said...

"If your script is about a SINGLE protagonist against A GROUP of an antagonistic nature (or SINGLE antagonist that represents *that group or force*), then the chances are good you're writing a Thriller. If your script is about a GROUP of people up against a SINGLE force - supernatural or human - the chances are good it's a Horror."

Great way to sum it up