By Eldred Bird
If you’re like me, trying to figure out what genre you’re writing can be a bit of a mystery (no pun intended). I often hear the terms terror and horror used interchangeably. While both are close relatives and seek to create emotional responses, they are in fact quite different.
Terror is a feeling of intense fear or dread, whereas Horror is defined as an overwhelming feeling caused by a scary, shocking, or revolting event. To truly understand the differences, let’s take a closer look at how the two are related and what sets them apart.
Terror is all about emotions like fear and dread. It’s an intellectual thing. It deals with what’s going on inside the character’s head as they anticipate what may be coming as they move deeper into a dangerous situation.
I like to think of it in terms of the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment. As your character approaches a potentially haunted house, they don’t know what they’re going to find when they open the door. Do evil spirits await them, or just dust and cobwebs? Is the scratching sound coming from upstairs a monster lurking in the attic, or a windblown branch scraping against a window. It’s all about building that heightened emotional state.
Some of the best examples come from Edgar Allen Poe. While stories like The Tell Tale Heart are often referred to as great works of horror, terror is the engine that drives them. The anticipation of the narrator’s heinous act, followed by the constant beating of the heart inside his head, drives the pace until the anxiety level reaches a breaking point.
If terror is an intellectual concept, then horror is the opposite. It’s about the gut reaction. It’s the no-thinking, fight-or-flight response. If terror is the anticipation of what’s behind the door, horror is opening it and seeing the monster on the other side, be it human or otherwise.
When I think horror, the first authors that pop into my head are people like Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, and Anne Rice. The blood, gore, and evil beings are placed front and center for all the world to see. While there are elements of terror as well, the overwhelming emotional driver is the visceral reaction the reader gets from what they see, rather than what they don’t see.
The truth is the line between horror and terror is a bit fuzzy. Most stories that fall into these genres have elements of both. It’s hard to imagine a shocking reveal and payoff in horror without the building fear level offered by terror. Likewise, what’s the point of fear and anxiety if it was all for naught in the end.
The key is to ask yourself what is the main emotion you’re shooting for, shock or fear? Is your story about the unseen dangers, or the blood spraying off the axe that just contacted skin and bone? The answers to those questions will point you down the right path.
Speaking of paths, here’s a dark little number to get you ready for Halloween. (I've included both the spoken and written versions below.)
By Eldred Bird
Within a forest dark and deep
Along a narrow path
Shivering I inch and creep
In fear of shadow’s wrath
Evil things await me there
With eyes as black as coal
They torture me without a care
And feed upon my soul
They hide ‘round darkened hedges
Neath stones they lay in wait
They gather under ledges
Where they contemplate my fate
Caring not as others pass
For me alone they linger
As I approach the demons mass
One points an icy finger
Springing from their hiding place
With fiery breath so fowl
Seeking now to slow my pace
They scratch the earth and growl
But I fear not their teeth that tear
Or claws that rip and shred
For the monsters I have come to fear
Live only in my head
Who are your favorite horror and terror authors? What stories do you like to read by flashlight on a dark and stormy night? Let us know in the comments below. Happy Halloween to everyone!
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. Find him on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.
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I often wonder how to explain the difference between the two. Excellent article & poem.
Thanks. This was a fun one to do.
Thank you for this explanation, it seems like I can never remember the difference. I don't read much in either genre, these days, more preferring mystery or suspense if I go that direction. Once in a great while, though, I'll still read terror. Is my drifting away a product of living alone now? Maybe. Long ago, I did read Stephen King, my favorite forever being Salem's Lot. My preferred author, though, was Dean Koontz, especially Darkfall.
All that said, and even though I write fantasy (noir fantasy more recently), I sometimes draw upon those genres. For instance, Riparia entering an underground home alone where she's finding bodies. Then again, maybe I'm lying to myself. The last novel I drafted was Case of the Deadly Stroll where Talma Loyal works as a crime scene photographer while The Amputator terrorizes the city of Duskspell. All the while, she knows "One leg at a time/a deadly stroll/ten slays nine/the last the original" means she'll be the last.
I like that Dean Koontz manages to scare the crap out of me and still deliver an HEA. "Watchers" is my fave book of his, but "Intensity" scared the daylights out of me.
I love Watchers, especially the pup.
Me three. Watchers is a fave. I go back to it periodically to study & enjoy the thrills.
It's good to experience other genres even if you don't write them. So many elements of other genres end up in our works no matter what we write. That's what gives stories depth.
I'm one who constantly conflates terror and horror. Your explanation and examples of the differences between the two are extremely helpful. And I really enjoyed your reading of your poem. Thanks for sharing.
Yes! You hit on it exactly. I know it'll be (mostly) okay in the end, but I'm going to suffer on the way. Watchers was excellent, but it's been forever since I read it. I like his voice. There's a sense that these are (again, mostly) decent people caught up in horrific circumstances. They're characters I can identify with. I like to read and write ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events who are forced to become more than they were.
I'm happy it helped (and hopefully made since). As for the poem, I'm really not a poet. I've had to work a bit to figure it out well enough to write for one of my characters who is a poet.
Great post, Bob! I love hearing you speak your spooky poem. 🙂
It was a fun one to record. I did the reading as an experiment to see if I was even capable!
An interesting post on the difference between horror and terror. I hadn't thought about it before.
And I love the poem. I'm so glad to see someone else Nieves in rhyme and rhythm in poetry.
Most people confuse the two. It really just comes down to the psychology of the story.
Poe is one of my favorites. I started reading his work in the 4th grade. He got me into both horror/terror and detective stories. The Black Cat was my first taste of his work. The Gold Bug is my all-time favorite.
Perfect timing for this post, Bob!
I love your poem and the voiceover.
Thanks for explaining the differences between these genres. I imagine there's a lot of spillover between them.
Thanks, Ellen. It was a fun one to play with.
I appreciate how you dig into the differences between genres and to help us see the ways our work will be categorized.
And love the Poe-esque poetry. Thanks for the Halloween treat!
I do the research to clarify things for myself. Getting to share my findings with other writers in just a bonus.
As for the poem, I guess it's pretty easy to tell who the influence was!
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I devoured Stephen King's early works during my "horror" period, then Dean Koontz and Anne Rice. Thanks for the clear explanation of horror and terror. Your poem, written and oral, chilled my bones. Great job!