In both film and literature, the terms “thriller” and “horror” are often used interchangeably.
Sometimes the difference is obvious, but once in a while, you’ll come across an example that seems to contain elements of both.
In this post, we’ll break down the key differences between the thriller and horror genres so you can tell the difference between a thrilling scare and a scary thrill.
Thriller vs. Horror
Below are 3 key ways to distinguish the thriller and horror genres.
1. Intended Reaction
To thrill or to horrify? That is the question; and in our thriller vs. horror discussion, it’s an important one.
The primary goal of a thriller is to thrill readers, whereas the goal of horror is to horrify. We get that thrilling feeling when we’re walking into the unknown; we feel horrified by evil and gore.
Thrillers make us wait. We’re never sure what’s lurking behind the corner, or why certain things are happening. Tension builds as we wait for the big climax.
With horror, we probably know what lurks around the next corner. It could be a flesh-eating zombie, a disfigured monster, or a serial killer with supernatural strength—whatever it is, it’s likely grotesque.
And we don’t have to wait long for the scares to come; we watch or read in horror as the characters meet their unfortunate ends, hoping that ultimately, the evil will be defeated.
It’s important to note that the distinction here is in the intention. Thrillers can certainly scare you, and horror stories might thrill you; but those are side-effects, not the primary intention. In fact, many elements of thrillers and horror novels can overlap, as you’ll learn throughout this post.
2. The Element of Suspense
Thrillers are known for their use of plot twists and elements of suspense.
We’re never quite sure what’s going on, or what’s causing all the tension: Who really killed the new neighbor? Will the protagonist be able to stop the bomb in time? What is that husband hiding from his wife?
And if you think you know the answers early on, there’s probably a reason. Chances are, you’ve been thrown a few red herrings and deliberately thrown off the trail. Get ready for a plot twist! That’s what make thrillers thrilling.
Horror, on the other hand, plays on the fact that you do know what’s coming, and it’s gonna give it to you in all its horrifying, gory glory. The question is whether you dare to keep reading or watching.
3. Psychological Appeal
In general, thrillers appeal to our psychology to create tension and suspense. They might create a sense of urgency, uncertainty, or panic.
Plus, the use of tropes like the unreliable narrator make us wonder if we can trust anyone, which further heightens our anxiety.
More often than not, horror uses supernatural elements to produce a big scare. The supernatural can include ghosts, demons, monsters, and pretty much any evil force.
However, there are definitely thrillers that incorporate the supernatural (they’re called paranormal or supernatural thrillers), and there are some horror books and movies that include psychological elements (see our discussion on The Shining below).
More often than not, though, with a thriller you’re trying to figure things out—like a character’s motives or reliability—but in horror, you’re just trying to make it out alive.
Do Thrillers Have to Be Scary?
Thrillers don’t have to be scary, but they can be. In fact, many of the greatest thrillers create an eerie feeling that will send chills down your spine. However, the primary intention of a thriller is to thrill.
Is Jaws a Horror or Thriller?
The 1974 novel Jaws and its 1975 film adaptation may feature a terrifying shark, but they’re best classified as thrillers, not horror.
For one, the antagonist here is a shark, which is a real animal, and not a paranormal force.
Second, the thrill is achieved by appealing to our psychology and the primal fear that many people already feel toward the ocean, and creatures like great white sharks. Technically, the stuff that happens in Jaws could happen to any of us out in the water, and we know that.
And third, there are several very suspenseful scenes featuring close calls, and in the film, we don’t actually get a good look at the shark until at least halfway in.
The film’s numerous sequels, however, seem to tread more into horror territory. Like many horror sequels, these films feature less suspense and more bloodbaths.
What About The Shining?
Jaws‘ classification is pretty straightforward, but what about Stephen King’s The Shining and its film adaptation?
King is known for his brilliant horror novels, including It and Carrie, but many of his works blend elements of horror and thrillers, like Misery.
The Shining also appears to blend the genres. There’s the blood-filled elevator, creepy twins, a crazy woman in a bathtub who seems to transform, and of course, the ax-wielding father—all clearly elements of horror.
But then there’s the constant tension, the ever-present uncertainty about what “the shining” actually is, plus a whole bunch of implied backstory and unanswered questions about the Torrance family.
Nonetheless, The Shining is officially categorized as a horror novel and film, although many critics and scholars qualify it as “psychological horror.”