A double exposure of a woman holding out her hand, taken in darkness. Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash.

Horror vs. Thriller: A Study in Stephen King

A young girl struggles to control her psychic powers. Her surviving parent forbids her from using them. Eventually, she reaches a breaking point and unleashes her powers in a deadly confrontation. Are we talking about Carrie? Perhaps, though this also applies to Firestarter, another novel by Stephen King. While Carrie is widely considered a horror novel, Firestarter is better understood as a paranormal thriller––a similar, but not identical, genre. Why? How does Firestarter––with its psychic protagonist, its gruesome fiery deaths, its sense of encroaching and omnipresent menace––differ from Carrie?

Or are they so different? Michael Jackson’s greatest hit isn’t called “Horror,” after all. Thrills & Chills magazine featured few, if any, of the tropes we associate with the thriller genre. Words change meaning, and genres change over time. Although they’re similar, something separates horror stories and thrillers, even when paranormal elements are present in both. I’ll try to tease out what separates them.

This post contains spoilers for both Carrie and Firestarter.

What is horror?

A man alone at night under a yellow streetlight. Photo by Gabriel from Unsplash.
Photo by Gabriel from Unsplash.

Horror stories focus on scaring or unnerving the reader. They often showcase the pain and fear of their characters. Grotesque and uncanny imagery are mainstays of horror stories. Characters may also behave in strange and unsettling ways, or observe things that defy rational explanation.

Some horror stories slowly build, over hundreds of pages, to a dramatic conclusion. In others, nothing outright terrifying happens, but there’s a permeating feeling of unease that suffuses the story. In others, the action starts early and never lets up until the end.

Horror does not necessarily mean supernatural. Misery, Flowers in the AtticBlood Meridian, American Psycho––all horror, none supernatural. My favorite horror movie, The Wicker Man, is preoccupied by supernatural questions––the film’s heart is the clash between the starchy Anglican Sergeant Howie, and the sinister pagan Lord Summerisle––but it features no obvious supernatural events.

Horror stories are more likely to feature characters whose behavior and reasoning is far outside normal human experience. Carrie White has completely understandable reasons for snapping (if I had telekinesis in school…), but when she snaps, her thinking is literally paranormal––separate from normality. Here’s a glimpse into her psyche, just after killing her mother:

Carrie went out the back door, staggered across the lawn, and rested (where’s my momma) against a tree. There was something she was supposed to do. Something about (roadhouses parking lots) the Angel with the Sword. The Fiery Sword. Never mind. It would come to her. She crossed by back yards to Willow Street and then crawled up the embankment to Route 6. It was 1:15 A.M.

“Plug it up!”

The cover for Stephen King's Carrie, showing a young woman with blood dripping over her face.Carrie begins with a locker room hazing, where girls throw tampons at Carrie White and chant “plug it up!” while she cowers, naked, in a stall. The scene focuses on Carrie’s emotions, the cruelty of the other girls, and the blood running down Carrie’s thigh and onto the tiles.

The opening scene sets the emotional tone for the book. Carrie White is a “frog among swans…a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color.” She’s an outsider, a grotesque, and the other girls won’t let her forget it. Especially not when they see blood running down her leg.

We can feel it all as it happens: Carrie’s pain and incomprehension, the shrieks and laughter of the other girls, the “first dark drops of menstrual blood [striking] the tile in dime-sized drops,” the tampons thrown at Carrie and hitting her in the chest. It’s visceral, disturbing, and disgusting. We’re already in a horror story.

What’s a thriller?

The term “thriller” refers to a book with an exciting story, often involving espionage, crime, or an insider’s view of a particular profession, such as medicine, law, law enforcement, or the military. In many thrillers, the main character enters a mysterious and dangerous situation, survives attempts on his or her life (or body, sanity, etc.), and must find a way to solve the central mystery and neutralize the threat.

Does this sound a lot like the plot to many famous horror stories, such as Halloween? It’s true, there are a lot of similarities, but the emotions evoked are different. While horror stories rely on evoking fear, terror, and dread, thrillers rely on anxious tension, i.e. excitement and suspense, to keep the story going. That means lots of action, reaction, and revelations to keep the reader interested. Grotesque or terrifying things may happen, but they exist to ramp up the tension and make the stakes clear, not to horrify the audience.

In thrillers, the evil characters have coherent motivations, even if their actions are horrifying. Their thought process is not outside the bounds of normal human experience; people have been greedy, ruthless, self-serving, etc. since the beginning of time. Thriller antagonists usually lack that uncanny factor that’s present in so many horror stories.

Captain Hollister (from Firestarter) might be ruthless, but his reasoning is easy to follow. When Charlie McGee grows up, she may have the power to detonate nuclear-bomb-sized explosions with her mind. One slip-up could mean millions, even tens of millions of deaths. Brainwashing her, canalizing her talents, can save all those lives. If that doesn’t work, there’s only one way to keep the world safe. Would you really leave the fate of the world up in the air like that?

There are thrillers with paranormal elements: psychics, ghosts, vampires, witches, et cetera. These may offer an “insider’s view” on a lifestyle (or afterlifestyle) that doesn’t actually exist. Many paranormal thrillers use otherworldly elements to raise the stakes. Can Jack Protagonist rescue his pregnant wife from the warlock holding her captive? How can he be sure that she’s under a spell? And can he save their baby from the warlock, before he sacrifices it to the Dark Gods? All these questions add to the suspense, and keep the reader engaged in the story.

Some novels and films fit into both genres. Silence of the Lambs is a classic example. The story follows Federal Agent Clarice Starling on the hunt for a serial killer, with help from the charming and murderous Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Both Lecter and Buffalo Bill are grotesques straight out of a horror story, and the book contains plenty of gorey and disturbing imagery, yet the plot structure is more typical of a crime thriller.

“Daddy, I’m tired.”

The cover of Stephen King's Firestarter, showing a young girl backlit by flames.Firestarter starts with the two lead characters, Andy and Charlie McGee, running from government agents through downtown Manhattan. Andy flags a cab; the agents follow. While en route, Andy uses his psychic powers of persuasion to make the cabby “see” and accept an imaginary five-hundred dollar bill, to ditch their tail and head out of Manhattan towards the airport.

The scene shows us Andy’s anguish as he tries to protect his daughter, literally (if caught, they’ll be killed) and spiritually (if she understands too much, she won’t be an innocent kid anymore). We also see Andy’s agony as he uses his powers; every time he gives someone a “push,” it hurts him more, but he has to do it or they’ll die. The McGees can’t rest until they’re either safe, or dead. We’re in a thriller.

Charlie and Andy’s psychic powers might as well be specialized weapons, top-secret documents, an ounce of Unobtanium––anything dangerous that the government will kill to get. This cat-and-mouse game continues, in different forms, for over a hundred pages; Andy and Charlie, gifted but outnumbered and outmatched, must still find ways to evade the government and stay alive.

The Monster

Most horror stories and thrillers contain at least one monster. I’m using “monster” in the most catholic sense, to include all supernatural and strange-but-natural creatures in a story. These can include, but aren’t limited to: ghosts, vampires, serial killers, serial killer killers, cult leaders, mob bosses, aliens, Presidents, Presidents who are secretly aliens, et cetera.

Most monsters have special powers, natural or otherwise. A killer might be dumb as a diaper and half as charming, but he’ll be strong, semi-impervious to bullets, and lucky. Or he’ll be seductive, with twisted but compelling logic for his actions.

In horror stories, the monster’s powers have a destructive bent, whether or not they’re intended that way. Their powers usually drive the course of the plot. The mad scientist’s creation destroys its creator; the ghosts reenact their own deaths, powerless to change the past; the videotape kills whoever watches it, seven days later. This power is often central to the story, as a source of strength and a fatal flaw.

In thrillers, the monster’s powers are more likely to be sidelined by a larger conspiracy, which uses or wants to use them for its own ends. Although Charlie McGee’s power is destructive, the U.S. Government is far more powerful and destructive than her. She and her father keep the government at bay for a long time, but even they can’t hide forever.

Marketing Terms

Horror and thriller readers have different tastes, desires, and expectations. Generally speaking, horror readers want to be frightened or disturbed, and expect sinister imagery, memorable villains, and unsettling scenarios. Thriller readers, in contrast, expect a fast-paced plot, shadowy conspiracies, and outmatched protagonists beating the odds. You can have all these elements in a single book––there’s no bright dividing line between horror and thriller––but marketing will want to focus on one genre or the other, even if your book features elements of both.

Different subgenres and sub-subgenres carry different expectations. A cosmic horror anthology contains different imagery and subject matter from a legal thriller. You might enjoy both cosmic horror and legal thrillers, but the average reader is going to be upset if she opens the latest John Grisham and gets a story about a verbose diarist exploring a lost city in the astral plane. Likewise, if you pick up a book called “Outskirts of Carcosa,” you might be upset if it’s a straightforward legal drama, without even a single cultist, worm god, or page-long paragraph.

You can tell the difference between a horror and a thriller novel just by glancing at the cover. Look, for example, at these two premade covers by Damonza. Which one is a horror novel and which one is a thriller?

No brainer, right? The first one screams “Warning: Contains a poorly-lit mansion, a backlit psychotic woman, and blood motifs,” while the second one says, “This book is about a woman going back to her hometown to investigate some mysterious disappearances, and is currently on an endcap display in your local Target.” If you like blood motifs, you’re more likely to pick up the first one; if you like Target thrillers, the second. In theory, these covers could be for the same book, but they’d be marketed very differently, even if the contents were exactly the same.

As Grady Hendrix points out, a lot of Stephen King’s books are marketed as horror even though they don’t fit in that genre. Firestarter might sell better as a horror novel than as a thriller. And if it feels more like a horror novel to the average reader, even if it technically meets the criteria for a thriller, then it belongs in the horror section anyway. Hence the very horror-ific cover art on Firestarter’s audiobook.

Rules of Thumb

If you’re dealing with a higher level of government than the local police, maybe the County Sheriff at the highest, you’re in a thriller.

If there’s more than five pints of blood, it’s a horror story.

If someone used bleach to clean up that blood, it’s a thriller.

Feature photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash.

Published by

A.O. Monk

A.O. Monk lives in the USA, drinks lots of water, and writes stories about imaginary people, places, and events.

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