The Difference Between Horror and Terror

The horror genre fascinates me, not just because it aspires to scare readers, but because it’s so difficult to write. I spent a year reading exclusively horror and I studied how the best writers in the genre tried to scare people. I came away believing a scary tale should combine the sensation of terror with horror. Here’s how the two emotions are different.

Horror combines fear with disgust. Horror might make you feel sick to your stomach in extreme cases, and may leave you feeling disturbed for awhile after reading. Horror elements deal with the macabre; torture, death, and mutilation. The whole novel won’t deal with disgusting displays of death, but at least part should. Horror relates to the sublime; events and deaths so horrible that the reader feels a sense of shock and awe. Horror lends itself to gore, but I think gore porn is a lazy and ineffective way of inspiring fear in a reader. The more important element for inspiring fear is terror.

Terror is an extreme sensation of fear. The sense that something bad may or will happen to the character. Terror will make your muscles tense up. It’s the feeling of being creeped out, like someone you can’t see is watching you. Terror is important because it draws on the base emotion of fear rather than repulsion to gore.

Here’s an example of the difference using the same scenario:

Let’s say you come home and discover the front door is open. Terror would be not finding any sign of any intruders. You convince yourself it must have been a gust of wind (but you think you locked the door). You’re lying in bed about to fall asleep when you hear a squeak. The front door’s hinges are rusty, you haven’t oiled them in a while. You go downstairs to check and the door’s open again. There’s no wind, though. You look out into the dark night and can’t help but feel there’s something out there.

With horror, the emphasis lands more on shocking the reader. Let’s say you come home and discover the front door is open. Your husband’s lying dead on the kitchen floor. There are puddles of blood under his hands. Someone ripped his fingernails out. His mouth’s wide open in a rictus of a scream, so you bend down to investigate. The fingernails ripped from his hands have been piled neatly on top of his tongue.

If you write a book with entirely horror elements and little in the way of terror, your book won’t be scary. It will just be disgusting. A book with terror alone can work quite well actually, but adding a measured dose of horror will amplify the fear factor. The fear of the unknown mixes with revulsion and magnifies the stakes if something bad happens. The character won’t just die, they’ll get their face eaten, for example.

Drop in the comments and lets talk horror novels. Have any favourites? I find it so difficult to find a truly scary book. I recommend Hell House by Richard Matheson. Follow for more thoughts from a daily discovery writer.

One thought on “The Difference Between Horror and Terror

  1. I read Hell House a while back. Loved the atmosphere Matheson created regarding the old Belasco House and the evil within it. One of the better haunted house stories out there, along with Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

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