The Difference Between Horror and Thriller Movies and TV Shows

Horror vs. Thriller heading
What is the difference between the thriller and horror genres?

Learning how movies and TV shows are classified into genres will help you with your writing, your pitches, and even convincing people why your projects are worthwhile. While it might be easy to tell a comedy from a drama, there's nuance in the way some stories are classified. 

Today I want to look at the difference between horror and thriller movies and TV shows. 

Each is a specific drama with unique tropes, conventions, expectations, and story beats. While they can be mashed together, there's a reason their main components are separated. There are also movies and TV shows that tread the line by being classified in one genre or the other. 

With all this noise, I think this is a good time to really look at both and pull back the curtain to get a clear picture of both the horror genre and the thriller genre. 

So, sharpen your knives and prepare to be stabbed.  

Table of Contents

Define Horror Genre
Where does the word "horror" come from?

Horror subgenres
Horror conventions or tropes
Define Thriller Genre
Suspense is key to the thriller genre definition
Thriller subgenres
Thriller movie conventions or tropes
Examples of Thriller vs. Horror
What's a Horror-Thriller movie or TV show then?
Summing up the Horror vs. Thriller debate 


The difference between horror and thriller movies and TV shows

When you're comparing one genre to another, you have to get kind of nitpicky, especially when the genres are so similar to one another. So, prepare for an argument of horror vs. thriller where we get into the semantics of each. 

It will feel petty, but when it comes to marketing your ideas, you'll want to be as exact as possible. 

Define horror genre 

Horror is a genre of film and television whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, disgust, and terror in the audience. The primary goal is to develop an atmosphere that puts the audience on edge and scares them. 

Where does the word "horror" come from?

The term actually came from the Old French word "orror," which meant “to shudder or "to bristle.”

Horror filmmaking has roots in religions across the world, local folktales, and history. It's a universal genre. Every culture has its scary stories and fears. These elements are meant to exploit the viewer's fears and engage them with the possibility of death and pain. 

Most importantly, to be a true horror project, your story must deal with the supernatural; death, evil, powers, creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft, and other diabolical and unexplained happenings must be at the story's center.

There is some debate over whether this stuff needs to be supernatural to divide horror from thriller... but we will let you work that out as we dig deeper.  

Horror subgenres

Horror is such a malleable genre that you can mash it up with almost anything. There are subgenres that involve different kinds of monsters and there are subgenres that pull in other elements. You can see movies and shows that involve comedy, body horror, folk history, found footage, Gothic elements, natural elements, slasher killers, teenage characters, psychological horror, gore, and many others I'm sure you'll tell me about in the comments.

Here's what you really need to know. There are four main horror areas:  Killers, Monsters, Paranormal, and Psychological Horror. 

Everything else kind of fits underneath them. 

'Ma'
'Ma'Credit: Universal Pictures

Horror conventions or tropes 

People go to these movies and shows because they want to feel their heart beating out of control. They want the scare but also the relief and enjoyment that comes after.

What are some basic elements they might expect? General elements include ghostsextraterrestrialsvampireswerewolves, demons, Satanismevil clowns, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, giant monsters, zombies, cannibalismpsychopaths, and serial killers.

The final girl, the "not dead yet" scare, and the dystopian endings. Horror is famous for having story beats that we come to expect, like jump scares. Filmmakers must lean into them, but also find ways to subvert them. You have subsets of these tropes like haunted houses, slashers, zombies, evil creatures, and others. Each comes with a set of rules.

So, what does thriller mean? 

Define thriller genre 

The thriller genre in movies and TV is characterized by the moods it elicits.

Thrillers are about the feeling of thrills! They are movies and TV shows that keep you wondering what will happen next. They give viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation, and anxiety.

In thrillers, you often have a protagonist who is totally isolated and fighting against huge, organized forces. Think George Clooney in Michael Clayton or Gene Hackman and Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Jason Bourne is another big thriller character.

'Enemy of the State'
'Enemy of the State'Credit: Buena Vista Pictures

Here's the most important part of the thriller genre... what's happening on screen can be explained by the natural world. 

Suspense is key to the thriller genre definition 

The main subgenre of thriller is the suspense genre. Suspense is maybe the most crucial characteristic of the thriller genre. It gives the viewer a feeling of fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, anticipation, and tension.

Suspense is what keeps us wondering where the story will go. It's why people love Alfred Hitchcock movies. Suspense is the root of unpredictability. It's a mystery and rousing turn of events. It can build as the story goes on and keep people begging for the climax. 

And it covers all kinds of thrillers, including its subgenres. 

Thriller subgenres 

To define a thriller movie and TV show, you have to understand that the general idea of "thrills" covers a number of subgenres. The legal thriller, spy thriller, action-adventure thriller, medical thriller, police thriller, romantic thriller, historical thriller, a political thriller, a religious thriller, a high-tech thriller, a military thriller... the list goes on and on. 

We have variations popping up all over. And because thrillers are so easily mashed together with every other genre, this list expands every day. 

As writer James Patterson says, "What gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job." 

Thriller movie conventions or tropes 

Some of the common themes of thrillers are crimes like ransoms, captivities, heists, revenge, kidnappings, whodunit, and dirty investigators. Other characters may include criminals, stalkers, assassins, private investigators, victims, psychotic individuals, sociopaths, secret agents, terrorists, cops, cons, and more.

Oh, and don't forget about spies. We love spy thrillers. 

Thematically, we are looking at things like terrorism, political conspiracy, pursuit, murder, and serial killings. 

When you're watching a thriller, you can encounter tropes like plot twists, psychology (see psychological thrillers), obsession, fringe theories, false accusations, and paranoia are common. The cover-up of important information is a common element. Devices such as red herrings, MacGuffins, unreliable narrators, and cliffhangers are also part of the audience's expectations.

'Swallow'
'Swallow'Credit: IFC Films

Examples of thriller vs. horror 

So let's sum up the argument here. Horror is the seemingly inevitable but predictable doom, where the climax of the movie is either getting away or stopping the evil, whereas thrillers are all about a tension-filled story that's not predictable. The thriller climax is usually the revealing of the real evil, without the characters having to deal with it directly, unless they want to. 

A straightforward horror movie would be The Conjuring. There are evil ghosts attacking people, and the elements inside the story are meant to horrify the viewer. 

And a straightforward thriller movie is something like Spy Game. It's an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller about freeing a burnt spy from a foreign jail.

What's a horror-thriller movie or TV show, then? 

Look, as we know with all genre stuff, there's a fine line between a well-defined genre and a mashup that incorporates elements from both stories. I find that my favorite "scary" movies are actually horror-thrillers, where writers and directors take the best parts of both genres to make something new and interesting.  

How about something like The Sixth Sense? 

Here is a movie about the supernatural. We have a little kid who can see dead people. And yet... ghosts are not there to scare anyone but the audience. He actually has to help them pass on. The thrills in this movie come from the suspense as Cole helps what he thought was haunting him to achieve their missions on earth. 

The events play like a thriller as he actually busts a lady who killed her child with Drano. 

'The Sixth Sense'
'The Sixth Sense'Credit: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

In the TV arena, I think shows like The Twilight Zone, Black Mirror, and The Walking Dead are great examples. While the first two are anthology series where every episode is new and strange, The Walking Dead plays with both genres. 

Zombies clearly fit the horror mold, but fans of the show know the real danger in the world is actually the humans. Humans who stab each other in the back, humans you have to spy on, and humans who hunt and kill you. 

Again, this is about taking the best of both worlds and playing it to your advantage. 

'Black Mirror'
'Black Mirror'Credit: Endemol Shine UK

Summing up the horror vs. thriller debate 

As we looked at today, there is a deep difference between horror and thriller. But as you set out to write these kinds of stories, you'll find that that chasm between them becomes much smaller, as elements overlap with one another. 

I actually think it's really hard to make a straightforward genre movie or TV show today. Audiences are so savvy, that to keep them on their toes and to make sure you're not predictable, you need to bring other genres into the play. 

I can't wait to see what you come up in the meantime. 

Let me know what you think about the horror definition and thriller definition in the comments. 

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Dig this spooky post? Then check out the rest of our Horror Week coverage for more tips, tricks, and terrifying takes.

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