Subgenres of Horror Films Explained
What’s Your Favorite Genre of Horror?
Horror is one of the most entertaining and studied genres in filmmaking. The threshold to make a horror film is relatively low. It’s an opportunity for creatives to experiment with effects and revive folklore storytelling devices. Filmmakers use many methods of manipulation to heighten horror and make the viewer fear whatever is coming next. Depending on the intended reaction, some techniques include the classic jump scare, mounting suspense, and over-extended scenes to make audiences squirm in their seats a little longer. These movie techniques are frequently used in almost all subgenres of horror films. People are drawn to horror movies because there isn’t just one type of horror film—there are many.
Horror includes many subgenres that date back to the beginning of film history. Take for instance the silent era of filmmaking. Nosferatu (1922) was the first film to feature the vampire, a European folklore figure that exists on the warm blood of a living victim. Vampires are now ubiquitous in the horror movie genre and have hit the mainstream with blockbuster movies such as The Twilight series.
October is the harbinger of horror, but one does not need to wait for a certain season to enjoy a rush of adrenaline from a good scary movie. Here are the popular subgenres of horror films viewers can enjoy year round.
10 Popular Subgenres of Horror Films
Sometimes thought of as supernatural horror, this subgenre plays into the unknown of the human experience. Demons have been part of historical storytelling for centuries. They represent evil in many forms including mythical, religious and supernatural. One of the most known demonic movie examples of all time is William Friedkin’s 1973 movie The Exorcist. Pazuzu, the main demon, is never actually mentioned in the movie, but is arguably the best-known demon of today’s horror movies. As the star character in The Exorcist, Pazuzu is an ancient mythological demon in Mesopotamia who possessed Regan MacNeil played by Linda Blair. The movie skyrocketed Pazuzu to Hollywood fame and helped shape the demonic genre of horror in modern moviemaking.
Paranormal horror is closely related to the demonic subgenre in that it focuses on characters who aren’t living beings. Spirits and ghosts spook viewers and create fear without a physical presence on screen. For example, furniture moves without anyone touching it or a chill passes through the air out of nowhere. Those are elements of paranormal activity that can be from a demon spirit, supernatural power or ghost. Paranormal Activity, The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror, The Omen, Carrie, and Poltergeist are all examples from the Paranormal subgenre.
Vampires, aliens, and giant sea creatures are all antagonists in the Monster movie genre. Unlike their supernatural counterparts, monsters can wreak havoc on a community of people in one fell swoop. Monsters terrorize and kill whatever is in their path and use their strength and size to destroy. Universal Studios popularized the monster genre in Hollywood from the 1930s and ‘50s with Frankenstein, Dracula, the Creature of the Black Lagoon, and many other iconic monsters. Before Universal found success in making horror films, it wasn’t considered a big player during Hollywood’s early years. Once they discovered that audiences loved to be thrilled and simultaneously terrorized by giant monsters, the studio built a media franchise around their monster movies. Today, when you visit the Universal Studios backlot, you’ll see a giant mural with popular monsters painted on an outdoor wall.
Slasher movies focus on villains who are human. Slasher villains are usually serial killers and typically have a high body count by the end of the movie. They stalk their victims and brutally murder the film’s protagonist(s) and anyone who gets in their way. Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees (better known as Jason) are iconic slasher villains in horror film history. John Carpenter’s 1978 cult classic movie Halloween ushered in the era of masked serial killers as part of the slasher movies genre. Audiences are particularly terrified by the slasher genre because of how close to reality these fictionalized villains make viewers feel.
Zombie movies cross multiple horror subgenres. One part monster movie, one part possession, zombie thrillers make a perfect cocktail of terror. Somehow they are the most difficult villain to kill off and just keep coming back for more. These corpse-like characters are cannibalistic by nature and can infect their victims with a single bite. Shows like The Walking Dead created a cult following for the zombie genre of horror. With 11 seasons spanning from 2010 to 2021, The Walking Dead TV series showcased a horrifying post-apocalyptic story of zombie invasions. The success of the show has kept audiences interested in zombie horror that will likely continue for years to come.
Also known as the splatter genre, gore is all about the portrayal of graphic violence. Blood, guts and body trauma are classic elements in gore movies. Films in the gore category rely heavily on special effects to disfigure body parts. New filmmakers can experiment with effects and get creative with theatrical makeup. This genre is the most gratuitous of all horror films when it comes to violence and the dismemberment of characters. Classic examples of gore movies include Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever.
Witches have a long history of mischief in folklore. They use the power of magic to cast spells on their victims turning them into all kinds of tortured beings. Similar to the paranormal genre, witchcraft uses supernatural elements to create fear. Movies like The Witch and Susperia are great examples of the terror caused by witches.
English literature popularized vampire stories, which were basically just ghost stories of the dead returning to haunt the living. It wasn’t until the slowburn success of Dracula that helped launch vampire stories into the mainstream. There have been countless low-budget Dracula movies throughout the years including Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula’s Dog. One of the more successful vampire movies (besides, the Twilight Series) is Neil Jordan’s adaptation of the 1976 novel Interview with a Vampire. A young Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt play vampires. The film focuses on Lestat (Cruise) and Louis (Pitt), beginning with Louis’s transformation into a vampire by Lestat in 1791.
Psychological horror is not about what we see on the screen but how it makes us feel. This genre plays tricks on the viewers’ mind by creating paranoia. A viewers’ emotional state is heavily influenced by psychological horror. Since this type of horror can feel a little too real compared to the other genres (gore and monsters), people may walk away feeling uneasy. The main characters in these types of horror movies are mentally unstable or emotionally disturbed to the point of being violent. One of the best examples of the psychological horror genre is Stanley Kurbrick’s The Shining starring Jack Nicholoson. From the beginning of the movie you can see Jack Torrence slowly turn more mad with each developing scene.
Comedic horror is possibly the most fun of all horror movies out there. It’s a subgrene that is equally funny as it is scary. It takes the viewer to complete opposite ends of the horror spectrum resulting in a rollercoaster of emotions. Classic examples of comedy-horror films include Scream, Shuan of the Dead, and The Cabin in the Woods.