The criteria that come to mind are not exclusive to horror novels, so I'm a little confused and annoyed (annoyed because I find horror novels scary, and yet just cannot define it logically when I try to distill the reasons in words). Some of the criteria that come to mind are:

Blood and gore (also found in war novels)

Death and destruction (war novels)

Fear of the unknown (Crew of a nuclear submarine)

The Supernatural (Beautiful Creatures)

Monsters (Twilight, Warm Bodies).

The powerlessness of the protagonists (crew of a nuclear submarine)

Isolation and loneliness (Count of Monte Christo)

Protagonists who die along the way

Societal chaos and disorder (novels set in a post-apocalyptic world)

Does anyone have any criteria or books to suggest?

  • 1
    This is really a discussion question; there is no one right answer. (You ended with "Any ideas?" which is pretty bluntly an invitation to discussion.) People have varying sensitivities and triggers. Not every Stephen King novel is "horror," and you could argue that not every Tom Clancy novel is a "thriller." Stack Exchange is about concrete, answerable questions with essentially objective answers, and this is too subjective. Mar 20, 2014 at 11:24
  • You're right. I'm starting to doubt whether there is an answer to this at all. I don't know; this issue has just been nagging at me, and I thought I'd post it here to get some good advice. Is this better or should I remove the post entirely? Mar 20, 2014 at 11:31
  • A related what's-the-distinction question: Is my serial-killer novel horror or crime? .
    – Standback
    Mar 20, 2014 at 11:44
  • 2
    IMHO, distinguishing between adjacent genres can be a practical, on-topic question. The primary issue is managing, and responding to, reader expectations - which affects style, marketing, classification, and other practical issues. That said, genre boundaries can be fuzzy, and so answers are likely to be guidelines rather than a clear-cut taxonomy.
    – Standback
    Mar 20, 2014 at 11:49
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    All that being said, I think this question would be improved by editing for conciseness. As phrased, the question raises several possible answers and shoots them down in great detail; this makes the question much bulkier and more discussion-y. I would summarize to: "Many of my intuitive distinctions, such as (X, Y, Z), have obvious exceptions to them." (Possibly the text as-is would make a good answer.)
    – Standback
    Mar 20, 2014 at 11:54

5 Answers 5


My pet theory on this is that horror is about irrational associations between things, while thrillers are about logical connections between things.

In a thriller, a character is usually in danger because of some (at least vaguely) logical and knowable set of circumstances. They play on halfway rational fears (though often exaggerated to the point where they aren't really rational anymore).

In a horror, however, danger usually comes from things that aren't (in the real world) actually dangerous, but unnerve us nonetheless. For example, if several people die in accidents shortly after buying the same painting, we are unlikely to assume it's the painting that did it, but we are likely to associate the painting with these deaths. In a horror story, this association will turn out to have real consequences for the characters.

Often the association is left unexplained, and this failure of reason is a big part of what makes it frightening. It stops us being able to rationalise away our fears.

Of course, plenty of stories do combine aspects of the two, but I think it ultimately comes down to different ways of dealing with fear.

I certainly don't agree with the other answers that say it's about death. I think both genres are possible without any death (or immediate threat of death) at all.

  • +1 I also agree with you that it's not necessarily about death, but, in my experience, death tends to be the most used tool to bring out the horror, which is a pity. Mar 24, 2017 at 13:50

I was intrigued about the question, so I surfed around and came up with the following notions:


The villains control the plot: they create obstacles/problems that the protagonists must overcome against the clock and while overcoming a personal difficulty/problem. There are usually high stakes.

It's not necessarily clear where the obstacles/problems come from, that is, it isn't clear who the villain is. The villains may even be the protagonists themselves.


It produces a sense of excitement or, more to the point, it produces a 'thrill'. There is hope it will end well for the protagonist while there is anxiety/fear about whether they will fail or, more likely, what they'll have to sacrifice to be successful.

In the end, the 'good' will likely win and, if it doesn't, the fiction will bring about a sense of being too close to the general concept of reality's unsatisfying justice.

The important thing is that, by the end, reason and logic pervail in keeping society stable and well-structured. People know the rules and know that breaking them will bring about consequences. If the villains manage to escape those consequences, the fiction becomes closer to reality, but the rules of the society and the world are not endangered.

It produces a sense of fear. There may be hope it will end well for the protagonist, but it's less certain whether it will.

If it ends well, there will be this sense of the world having been shaken but it's still possible to come back to normalcy, or a semblance of it. If it ends badly, there will be this sense that the world is shattered and there's no going back to normalcy.

The important thing is that, by the end, reason and logic do not pervail in keeping society stable and well-structured. The rules have been overthrown. Even if they are once more imposed (eg. the villain is punished), it is clearly as a mask to hide the terrifying and unpreditable unknown (eg. a new villain - or the same - may pop up again at any time).


There's a general atmosphere of threat, but a recognisable one. This can include death or life-threatening events, but not necessarily so.

There's a general atmosphere of menace, but usually an unrecognisable one.


Both require techniques to build up tension and suspense, as well as plot twists. The difference is in the intensity of responses ellicited.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind there are two main types of horror, one of supernatural origin (also known as dark or Gothic fantasy to avoid prejudice associated with the term 'horror') and one of non-supernatural origin (also known as psychological thriller to avoid prejudice associated with the term 'horror')

In reference to H.P. Lovecraft, there is no greater fear than the fear of the unknown so, in the end, one could say that the seminal difference between thriller and horror is that one ellicits fear of known threats while the other ellicits fear of unknown threats.

The tools to create the fear (and the excitement one derives from it) are fundamentally the same; whereas the theme and effect are different.


(This is better now that it's been edited...)

It may sound odd, but I think the main criterion is how the story treats death.

If death is one possible threat among many (being captured, being tortured, the macguffin falling to the enemy, blackmail, heartbreak, public exposure, humiliation, political scandal, strategic losses, military losses, code being broken, plague being released), I'd call it a thriller.

If death or near-fatal injury is the main threat (nurse threatening to chop off feet, having to cut off your hand to get out of a bear trap, running through the woods to get away from chainsaw-wielding maniac, serial killer, rabid dog trying to break into car, psychotic supernatural clown drowning you in sewer), I'd call it horror.

  • 1
    Yeah -that plus the other elements of isolation, having friends turn on you, turning into one of them (ugh!) etc. You hit the nail right on the head - getting marked for death for no other reason than the fact that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time is scary. I'm surprised at how you managed to boil the essence of the matter down into one sentence. It's all about their emotional response to death or injury. Mar 21, 2014 at 14:53
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    But you can have a horror movie in which the victim isn't isolated (Cloverfield, maybe -- IT might qualify), your friends don't turn on you (Hell Night, IT), and you don't turn into "one of them" (IT, Misery). Those are frequently seen in horror movies, but I wouldn't call any of them required criteria. Mar 21, 2014 at 18:17
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    That's true. Horror comes in many different forms, and that's exactly why your answer made so much sense. Mar 22, 2014 at 4:01

A genre is a promise from the publisher to the reader about the kind of experience that the book will give them. The definitions of genres therefore are not technical, they are emotional. A couple fighting monsters in Arizona in 2073. Is it romance, horror, or sci fi? It all depends on the kind of experience it gives. If the experience is romantic, it is a romance. If the experience is creepy or scary it is horror. If the experience is futuristic and sciencey, it is science fiction.

To put it another way, is a Tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Technically, biologically, it is a fruit. But it tastes like a vegetable. So it is sold as a vegetable.

Your novel is whatever genre it tastes like, no matter what its technical characteristics may be.

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    Sure, but let's say you offer me fruit or vegetables, and I ask for vegetables. You make an assumption about the kind of foods I want to taste, and give some to me, including some tomatoes. I, trying to understand why you've given me tomatoes when I didn't ask for fruit, might then speculate about which selection criteria you used. This is useful to me because it helps me to know what I'm likely to get next time I buy groceries from you. It doesn't tell me very much about the foods, but it tells me a great deal about you (the grocer) and how you percieve (and think I percieve) those foods. Mar 24, 2017 at 14:26
  • What's the saying? Intelligence is knowing a tomato is a fruit, Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad? Same principle
    – user18397
    Mar 27, 2017 at 23:26
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    @Thomo: And Charisma is calling a tomato based fruit salad "Salsa".
    – hszmv
    Jun 7, 2019 at 15:49

I would say that it is how the viewer or reader treats the Death. I mean, if there is a maniac that wants to kill you shoting your head with a gun. There would be no horror on it. Because, dying by being shot is something that we are used to see in movies and read in books, even in the social media nowdays.

But if you are in a dark place, or have your senses blocked by someway or something, and you know that something never aknowledge by the masses is running after you to do God knows what and then kill you in an unknow manner and alone, then I would call it horror.

It is not the simple fear of death or anything bad that could happen to you, it is the fear of something that is not seen or heard or touched or aknowledged by the masses, something that was hidden and for an unknow motive decided to appear to you and only you or to a closed group individuals. And you feel in you very soul that it is going to do something really bad to you and everyone else. Not only kill you.

I take it by the fact that there isn't horror movies depicted in large scale areas and with many people witnessing it.

But that is just my guess, and you can clearly see that I am an amateur on this.

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