The Difference Between Horror and Thriller Book Genres

Caroline Goldsworthy
August 09, 2023 | 6 mins

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Understanding the difference between horror and thriller genres is a matter of whether or not you’ll get your book in front of the right people.

Readers identify with and seek out specific genres. So it’s important to market your book correctly, whether you’re self-publishing via Amazon, have a traditional publisher and will be in bookstores, or a mix of the two.

On the long list of genres out there, two specific ones have long captivated audiences: thriller and horror. Not only are they fan favorites, but sometimes the differences between horror and thriller can be hard to decipher, making these two genres that are often confused for one another.

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Thriller vs Horror: What’s the difference?

Before we get into the difference between horror and thriller, it’s worth noting that there are a number of similarities between these two popular book genres.

Both are usually presented as fiction novels or series.

They both have common goals of keeping us on the edge of our seats, triggering adrenaline rushes, and evoking intense emotions. And they both deliver a fair dose of suspense. But a huge difference between horror and thriller books lies in the atmosphere they create and the manner in which they go about manipulating the emotions of the readers.

Let’s look into that more.

Defining the Thriller Genre

Thriller books enthrall readers by building up tension and suspense. The thriller author creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and unpredictability. But that atmosphere can be gritty and realistic or glitzy and stylish, depending on the particular subgenre in which the novel is set.

The plot itself will often be quite intricate and revolve around high-stakes situations where the main character faces danger. That danger, however, is more likely to be a serial killer or a ticking timebomb – or perhaps a conspiracy that will unravel their lives or society.

One notable difference between horror and thriller books is that, in thrillers, the protagonist is looking for who is behind the danger they face.

Readers are emotionally manipulated as the tension increases, and they become more invested in the characters. A thriller story leaves the reader with a sense of exhilaration and satisfaction; there’s often a puzzle to be uncovered, the truth is revealed, and the tension is resolved.

The aftermath of a thriller is more likely to prompt discussions around character motivations, such as morality and justice – or the fragility of trust.

Finally, it’s important to note that “thriller” is a broad term. There are several subgenres, such as: psychological thrillers, crime thrillers, action thrillers, medical thrillers, and political thrillers.

3 Examples of Thrillers to Sample

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson. This thriller is a tale of uncovering a decades-old mystery and contains themes around crime, corruption, money laundering, and politics.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is a psychological thriller about the disappearance of Amy Dunne, the subsequent investigation, and the secrets and lies which are uncovered.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. After being convicted of her husband’s murder, artist Alicia Berenson becomes intentionally mute. A psychotherapist is obsessed with uncovering the reasons behind her refusal to speak. The reader becomes obsessed with learning why he needs to uncover the truth.

Defining the Horror Genre

To fully understand the difference between horror and thriller books, you must also be able to identify horror books.

The aim of this genre is to evoke a much more visceral response in the reader than its thriller counterpart. Tapping into our primal fears, horror relies more on shock and sudden surprises to terrify readers to play on our deep-seated anxieties. Although horror does build tension and anticipation like a thriller, there’s a much greater use of jarring moments to make the reader jump. Many authors in this genre are not afraid to use grotesque imagery to provoke fear, revulsion, and a sense of dread (something that is not usually present in thrillers).

The plot of horror stories will contain themes such as the supernatural, monsters, psychological horrors, and the darker aspects of human nature.

To contrast this difference between horror and thriller books, you could say we are looking for what is behind the danger the characters face.

A good horror story can leave a lasting impact on our minds, haunting our minds and thoughts with a sense of unease long after we’ve closed the book.

As an author, if you are thinking of outright scary story ideas vs tense ones, this might be your genre. And as with thrillers, there are several subgenres to choose from, such as supernatural horror, slasher horror, psychological horror, body distortion horror, and even some Southern gothic books.

3 Examples of Horrors to Sample

Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This is a post-apocalyptic horror where society has become plagued by entities that cause anyone who sees him to go insane. The protagonist, Malorie, has to negotiate this treacherous world blindfolded to protect herself and her children.

The Shining by Stephen King. This is a psychological horror set in an isolated hotel called “The Overlook,” where writer Jack Torrance has taken a caretaker role for the winter so he can complete his novel. While Jack’s family confronts supernatural forces within the hotel, he slowly descends into madness as he succumbs to the paranormal horrors of The Overlook.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This is a classic haunted house story where a group of individuals spend time in Hill House, a mansion known for its dark history and paranormal activity.


Examples of Horror and Thriller Mixed-Genre Books

While there are certainly some clear differences between the horror and thriller genres, there are many books that don’t fall strictly into one genre or the other. These are mixed-genre books.

Here are a few examples of these:

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. This is a psychological thriller with an element of mystery, but the gore used and the terror it evokes in both the reader and the main character, Clarice Starling, places it firmly in the horror genre too.
The antagonist, Hannibal Lecter, plays with the young FBI agent’s mind, while all the time, there is the overarching threat of what he might do to her physical body.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey is a post-apocalyptic novel that combines elements of both horror and thriller. The premise is a group of characters going through a world overrun by a fungal infection. The infection turns humans into “hungries” who survive by eating flesh. The themes addressed are survival, moral dilemmas, and the blurring of the line between humanity and monstrosity.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is a psychological thriller that delves into the twisted mind of investment banker Patrick Bateman. It’s as controversial now as it was at publication since Bateman is a disturbed individual who indulges his sadistic nature in violent, gruesome acts. The themes explored are consumerism, societal alienation, and the darker side of human nature.

Authors have a choice of how to create a narrative that falls into either the main genres of fear-inducing horror or of a suspenseful, chilling, and intense thriller. However, there is also an option of combining the two into a hybrid, which will create a captivating experience for your readers.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours as an author.

But clearly defining your book’s genre will help you create a compelling book description, listing, and book positioning that will attract your ideal reader.

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