Defining the Horror Genre in Movies and TV

Horror Genre header
The horror genre in film and television is one of the most popular money makers. Let's dig deeper. 

If you were going to bet on an original movie to be a box-office hit, what genre would you pick? The truth is, there is only one genre that again and again provides hits across both film and television. It's horror. 

Even before Jason Blum became one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood, horror has been a valuable bet. Alfred Hitchcock dabbled in the darkness with Psycho, but prior to Norman Bates, we had the Universal monster movies and things like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The horror subgenres are aplenty, and we'll get to them later. 

Horror has been around since someone could hold a movie camera. And it's not just on the big screen. We also had shows like The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt scaring our pants off at home. 

So today I want to look at the horror genre in movies and television. We'll explore examples, look at current things on the air and in theaters, and talk about why these stories continue to terrify and entertain us. 

Table of Contents

'The Babadook'
'The Babadook'Credit: Entertainment One/Umbrella Entertainment

The Horror Genre Definition 

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 and engage them with the possibility of death and pain. 

Most importantly, to be a true horror project, your story should deal in the supernatural. Death, evil, powers, creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft, and other diabolical and unexplainable 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 in the comments. 

'Don't Look Now'
Credit: British Lion Films

Creeping Around the Horror Genre in Movies and TV

Ghouls, ghosts, slashers, creatures, and gore. Horror film and television focus on adrenaline rides for the audience that dial up the blood, scares, and creative monsters. Horror is always re-inventing old classics, like adding fast zombies and CGI creatures. It also is seen as the most bankable genre with a huge built-in audience. 

Horror movies and shows consistently do well. 

They have passionate fans, launch successful franchises, and get people excited. 

The History of Horror in Film and TV 

Even before the earliest cameras were made, people were telling spooky stories.

What was the first horror movie ever? Well, as far as we know, the first horror movie was made by French filmmaker Georges Melies, and was titled Le Manoir Du Diable (AKA The Devil's Castle/The Haunted Castle). It was made in 1896 and was only about two minutes long.

What's striking to me is that even then, we had certain tropes. That movie contained a flying bat, a medieval castle, a cauldron, a demon figure, and skeletons, ghosts, and witches. There was even a crucifix to destroy the evil. 

These kinds of movies and TV shows were initially inspired by literature from authors such as Edgar Allan PoeBram Stoker, and Mary Shelley.

Horror has existed as a film genre for more than a century. And things keep changing with the times. 

Horror films often reflect where we are as a society and are a good way to track progress and social consciousness. 

Check out the infographic below that shows the evolution of the horror film and TV shows. 

horror film genres and subgenres
Horror has come a long way as a genre. Credit: CNN

Tropes and Expectations 

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 jumpscares. Filmmakers must lean into them, but also find ways to subvert. You have subsets of these tropes like haunted houses, slashers, zombies, evil creatures, and others. Each comes with a set of rules.

Scream famously subverts many of these tropes by making its characters aware of them, in a meta sense. This keeps the audience on the edge of their seat. Anyone could die in this world, and anyone could be the killer.

Another film that subverts slasher tropes is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. In it, characters address things like the apparent superpowers slashers have. How do they always seem to be one step behind the heroine? It makes for a very different kind of horror film.

'Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon'
Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Elements of Horror 

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 ghosts, extraterrestrials, vampires, werewolves, demons, Satanism, evil clowns, gore, torture, vicious animals, evil witches, monsters, giant monsters, zombies, cannibalism, psychopaths, and serial killers.

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, folk history, found footage, Gothic elements, natural elements, slasher, teen, psychological, 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. 

horror sub genres
A list of the many subgenres in horror film and TV shows. Credit: Horror Screen

What are Horror Genre Characteristics? 

Horror film and TV shows are designed to frighten and panic audiences. You want people leaving theaters or hiding while watching shows because you've invoked our hidden worst fears, often in a terrifying, shocking finale. 

The AMC site defines horror as, "Whatever dark, primitive, and revolting traits that simultaneously attract and repel us are featured in the horror genre. Horror films are often combined with science fiction when the menace or monster is related to a corruption of technology, or when Earth is threatened by aliens. The fantasy and supernatural film genres are not synonymous with the horror genre, although thriller films may have some relation when they focus on the revolting and horrible acts of the killer/madman. Horror films are also known as chillers, scary movies, spookfests, and the macabre." 

Examples of the Horror Genre in Movies and TV 

When we look at movies and TV show within this genre it's hard to narrow down the perfect list of examples. There are so many horror moves and TV shows to pick from, but I wanted to highlight a few here. 

I think these are shows and films that you can classify as straight horror, no mashups. 

First, Netflix just dropped The Haunting of Bly Manor, a spiritual sequel to their The Haunting of Hill House. From the mind of Mike Flanagan, it takes typical haunted house stories and turns them into a series. 

'The Haunting of Hill House'
Credit: Netflix
The Haunting universe works because it develops its characters thoroughly and makes us feel horror on an emotional level, as well as a traditional level. The first season was about the horror a family experiences after a suicide. The second season followed characters feeling the horror of falling in and out of love.

Overall, horror on TV is hard, because you have to develop it in multiple episodes. Usually, mashups work best here, so there's more to talk about. Something like Lovecraft Country excels by using every episode to dig deeper into the horrors of Lovecraft. 

When it comes to the cinema, there are thousands I can pick from. 

We have horror adaptations like The Shining, or from Mike Flanagan again... Doctor Sleep

'Doctor Sleep
Credit: Warner Bros.

I think Hitchcock's Psycho was so important to the jumps and scares we see today. Or a slow burn like The Sixth Sense, which rocketed the genre forward and helped it be taken seriously again. That hadn't really happened since The Exorcist

How about Mary Harron's take on the dark underbelly of corporate America in American Psycho? There is a wealth of fresh perspectives to be found in the work of horror directors like Karyn Kusama, Coralie Fargeat, and Jennifer Kent.

Of course, we can look at franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream and even The Conjuring and see how horror takes off and becomes part of the cultural lexicon. 

Movies and shows like this take off because audiences cannot get enough of the thrills and chills. Whether it's the spooky season or now, horror can take over and keep people on edge. You can release these movies around any time of year, and they can be a hit.

You can put them on streamers and find their audience. 

And you can mash them up with every other genre and create something new and exciting. 

Mash-up Potential for the Horror Genre 

Some subgenres of horror film include comedy horror, folk horror, body horror, found footage, holiday horror, psychological horror, science fiction horror, slasher, supernatural horror, Gothic horror, natural horror, zombie horror, and teen horror.

These all open you up to mashing up other genres with horror. Creative mixes help capture the horror audience and put a spin on the tropes. 

Think about movies like The Mummy, which adds adventure. Or even something like Shaun of the Dead, which adds comedy. 

Or what about a show like Dexter? Police procedural meets serial killer. 

'Dexter'
Credit: Showtime

Summing up the Horror Genre in Movies and TV 

It's hard to look at a genre like this and not feel the awe of human terror. We have so many things we are afraid of, and we put them all out into the open for audiences to relate to. Horror is evolving as more and more people get voices. 

We read and see new stories every day. Horror is one of our most interesting genres because it continues to change with the times. It's always in flux, and it's always going to be with us. 

From the works of Jordan Peele to a movie like Promising Young Woman, horror allows you to get something off your chest and find audiences who relate. So what do you have to say? And can you say it with blood spatter? 

Horror might be for you. 

What's next? Learn every film genre

Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes. 

Click the link to learn more!     

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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