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.
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.
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