Have you ever wondered what separates a thriller from a horror story? Well, the first clue is in the title. A horror story intends to horrify the reader, whereas a thriller wants to thrill and excite the reader!
A horror film/book sets out to make you feel afraid. Really afraid! If you think of yourself on a roller coaster, you are shot to the top before plummeting at hair-raising speed, only to fly off the rails and be left bloody and injured. It is not a gentle ride!
The director or writer’s intent is on scaring their audience as much as possible in a short space of time. The antagonist is usually far more evil and violent than they would be in a thriller and the storyline feels inevitable and moreover unstoppable. This sense of inevitability nearly always ends with death.
The thriller, by contrast, is a slow ascent which will give you slight butterflies in your tummy. After reaching the peak, you slowly descend with a thrilling ride that ends back in a place of safety.
Whilst some thrillers can be very scary indeed, my intention with ‘The Hoax’ and other thrillers that I write, is to make you feel a little unsettled, intrigued, and wanting to find out where the story goes. There is an element of suspense and uncertainty which will (hopefully) keep pulling you into the storyline eager to discover how things resolve.
Thrillers do not tend to deal with the supernatural (I’m thinking Exorcist here!) or physically gory details (I’m thinking Saw, or Zombies). Psychological thrillers (which is my favourite genre) tend to come from real-life settings. They often incorporate elements of mystery and include themes of morality, mental illness, crime, multiple realities, a dissolving sense of reality, and unreliable narrators.
The aim of the writer is to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by creating tension, suspense, and excitement. Often there are high-stake situations, such as crime or danger to the protagonist. They typically involve a plot with twists and turns and explore themes like conspiracy, intense conflicts, survival, and betrayal.
The antagonist often returns in future releases. Examples are: Freddy Kruger in ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, Halloween, or Scream. The monster tends to return, whereas, in a thriller, it is usually the antagonist (the good guy) who returns in future stories. A corny example that comes to mind is that of James Bond.
There are, of course, many areas where the two genres cross over. The Shining incorporates both thriller and horror. There is a supernatural element in the story, as well as a psychological one, offering insights into the inner worlds of the main characters. We journey with Jack Torrence as he lets the madness take over.
Tension is another crossover. Thrillers tend to rely on mounting tension, which is the same with horror. However, in a thriller, it is far more important that the reader can’t tell what’s about to happen. This is not the case with horror; have you ever noticed how horror films make it painfully apparent that the character is about to meet a gruesome end? No, don’t go into that empty house…. he’s in there! Or don’t look out of that dark window! (You already know something there will make you jump). There is a clear sense of ‘he’s behind you’!
Horror may sometimes deal with dark subjects like a thriller, and both can provoke anxiety, excitement and suspense.
When reading a thriller, the audience like to feel they are a participant in the quest to solve some mystery or feel like an accomplice who helps in bringing down the antagonist. In horror, however, they are treated as victims!
I personally don’t like the things that make you jump out of your skin, and have embarrassed myself many a time in the cinema by screaming, at the same time as flinging out bodily parts that hit anyone sitting beside me! Neither do I like to finish a film or book feeling drained, exhausted, and unable to go to sleep!
Blood and Gore
The shocking jolts of horror are often followed by equally shocking gory and violent scenes involving graphic details of the murder. I had to look away in many scenes of ‘The Walking Dead’ despite really enjoying the storyline – especially if I was eating dinner at the time. I even find it hard to watch medical programmes since I am extremely squeamish.
Because I’m a bit of a wimp and don’t like to be triggered by certain subjects, I always vet horror films these days. I find some are just too disturbing. I was, however, rather brave recently and watched ‘The Shining’ again – a film that terrified me as a child! It wasn’t so bad the second time.
They usually focus on the darkness. Especially in relation to the protagonist or some other character. The biggest questions usually revolve around the minds and behaviour, with the protagonist often familiar but always flawed.
The ones that get me the most, have mind-bending plots and some jaw-dropping twists. The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl are two of my favourites.
What really sets a psychological thriller apart from other thrillers, is its commitment to exploring the darkest corners of the human mind. They are often written from the point of view of an unreliable narrator or a psychologically stressed character. Characters can be driven by obsession or violence, with internal tension and conflict. The core mystery is often the inner workings of a disturbed mind.
My new book, ‘The Hoax’, is a Domestic Psychological Thriller. This means it takes place in a setting which is familiar to readers, and the characters lead everyday lives – but something happens that throws all the dice up in the air.
In my next blog, I will talk about the different types of thrillers in more detail, with some further information on ‘The Hoax’.