Good horror is about more than making your reader afraid to walk through their house in the dark (though that’s fun, too). It’s about addressing the unknown, examining your worst fears, and grappling with the concept of death, all in the hopes of finding new perspective … and detoxing your system with an adrenaline high.
Horror subgenres are some of the least defined, but if you plan to submit your horror novel to publishers, they’re still going to want to know where exactly your book fits in the market. To provide that answer, you need to be familiar with the common terms.
In general, this refers to horror that involves supernatural creatures, mythical beings, or classic horror monsters like vampires, werewolves, witches on broomsticks, swamp monsters, etc. The protagonists are fighting off a wicked beastie who doesn’t actually exist in real life (or do they?).
The setting doesn’t have any hard and fast rules, necessarily, but to keep this in the horror category instead of slipping into straight fantasy novels, you typically want to set a dark fantasy in the modern world, or at least a real historical period/place on Earth.
Dark fantasy tends not to be as violent. Not to say blood and killing don’t appear on the page. Far from it. But this isn’t slasher territory. The gore is not the star of the show here.
One of my favorites? Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
You knew this one was coming. Hauntings are a classic staple of the genre. In these, we’re dealing with ghosts, ghouls, and poltergeists wreaking havoc in the place they died. There’s also occasional possessions, though those are typically perpetrated by a departed spirit rather than a demonic entity. Of course there are always exceptions (think the Insidious franchise, which blends the two), but we’ll get to demons later.
Again, violence and gore aren’t necessarily the show runners in this classic subgenre. The violence level varies by extreme degrees depending on the author’s preference, but a common factor is that in Hauntings, your star scare-tactic is suspense and fear of the unknown and unseen. You give creepy hints, maybe make a rocking chair creak in the night or have a music box come to life on its own, and let the reader’s imagination do the rest. Ghosts, who are not entirely tangible, often have to lead others into misfortune by tricks and fear, rather than actually committing physical violence against them. Thus the non-gory trend of the genre.
When you slip into the world of Supernatural/Occult horror, you’re coming face to face with ultimate evil. The stakes, the terror, and the violence just jumped up to eleven.
This is not a poor woman who lost her child or was murdered on her wedding day and has developed a nasty temper in the afterlife. This is the stomping ground of beings who’ve clawed their way out of Hell itself, or folklore-based beasts whose only aim is to consume and maim the innocent. This is where ritualistic satanists roam free, witches bathe in babies’ blood, and demons come out to play, wearing a little girl like a human suit. This is the genre where The Exorcist was born, and your characters are in for a truly horrifying and deadly ride.
This is the genre where you want your readers to get that crawling, dirty, uncomfortable, “Should I be reading this?” feeling, because looking directly into the eyes of pure evil, and perhaps seeing a bit of yourself there, tends to have that effect.
This is the subgenre where gore reigns supreme. We’ve entered slasher territory, where blood spews with abandon and entrails splatter walls. But “slasher” is a film industry term. The reason you’re likely more familiar with it is because this subgenre is far more popular in film. Why? A story that focuses on gore is visceral, and thus works best with a visual medium.
However, that’s not to say there’s not a market for splatterpunk books, but if you’re heading this direction, make sure you take a cinematic approach to your writing. And unless you’re writing straight torture porn (sorry, we can’t be friends), you’re probably going to want to amp the characterization factor higher than the classic slasher film takes it, or else a reader isn’t going to have as much to hang on to as a film goer would, due to lack of the visual element.
I personally prefer my splatterpunk/slasher with a heaping side of self-awareness and some comedy for dessert. So I’m of a fan of things like the Scream franchise (except number 3; let’s not talk about number 3), The Cabin in the Woods, and the original Nightmare on Elm Street.
In this subgenre, you hold a mirror up to humanity. Here, all the monsters are people. Whether you want to dive into the mind of a serial killer or follow a middle-class father as he descends into madness and ultimately murder in suburbia, the point is to examine human depravity and what happens when morality and empathy go out the window. And make the readers feel like they’re the victim, stranded alone in the parking garage in a car that mysteriously won’t start.
What separates psychological horror from psychological thrillers (think James Patterson’s cop procedurals or almost anything by Ted Dekker)? Mostly the violence. In Patterson’s books, you mostly see the aftermath, not the deed. In Dekker’s books, you see into the mind of the killer and all his sick inclinations, but blood and guts aren’t the focus, and are mentioned as an afterthought. In psychological horror, it’s less about catching the killer and more about letting him loose and seeing how far he’ll go … while simultaneously asking the reader, “Are we all capable of this?”
Best example out there? Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris. A few more excellent selections that stray from the norm are King’s “Apt Pupil” (witness the birth of a serial killer instead of his sophisticated years), and Golding’s Lord of the Flies (examine the savage lurking inside us all).
Instead of beasts and supernatural beings, in technological horror, your protagonists are fighting against technology run amok. It doesn’t matter if it’s a malignant AI à la 2001: A Space Odyssey or more innocent creations like the dinosaurs in Jurrassic Park, so long as man is going head to head with technological advancement. A lot of times, the theme is man reaping the negative aftereffects of taking the power of advanced artificial creation too far. Or, you could go the route of invading alien technology, more in the vein of War of the Worlds.
Technically, Juvenile and Young Adult Horror can adopt any other subgenre; the difference is the age of the protagonists. You want your leads to be around the same age as your readers, so 8-12 for Juvenile and 12-18 for YA. However, I’d highly suggest steering clear of Splatterpunk if you’re writing for younger audiences. If you’re trying to traditionally publish, you’ll have a hard time placing an extremely gory YA book, and you’ll never land a Juvenile deal. If you’re self-publishing, be prepared for a barrage of nasty reviews from your readers’ parents.
Other than that, the subject matter can cover classic monsters, human baddies, or evil robots.
The key with Juvenile is making the scary parts more “gross” than violent. R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series, anyone? I devoured those as a child. Think buckets of green goop instead of buckets of blood.
In YA, you have more wiggle room. Blood and guts are allowed, but the worst of the violence usually takes place off screen, and the language never lingers on the gory details.
Is That Really All of Them?
Pretty much. Horror is not as strictly defined as other genres, and there aren’t as many concrete subgenres in place. With such loose boundaries, crossovers and exceptions abound, of course, but if you’re submitting a horror novel or trying to decide what categories to select on Amazon, the above list is all you need.