The Difference Between Horror and Thriller

Have you seen the new series The Following from Fox?


I saw it previewed on Hulu and thought, I’m game, as I’ve always been down for some Kevin Bacon.

That night my husband was working late and so I cozied up on the couch with some M&Ms after I put the kids to bed and decided to see if this show was really worth my time.

After watching the first episode I was hooked to this twisted, creepy, freaky little, awesome show, but in addition to being hooked I also vowed not to watch it by myself at night ever again. I like to have pleasant dreams not filled with men in Edgar Allen Poe masks chasing me with knives.


In talking with friends, I’ve heard some people call The Following a horror show, while some just classify it as a psychological thriller and well that got me thinking. What is the difference between horror and thriller?

Looking at the surface, horror and thriller are very similar genres. Let’s look at what is similar first:


1. Both are deadline oriented. You know the drill: 48 hours to find the bomb, you have till sunrise to escape the cabin in the woods, 4 days till the end of the world, etc.

2. Both have their protagonist in imminent danger throughout the book. His car breaks down and he has to rely on a stranger for help who so happens to be a creature from the underworld. A CIA agent who is undercover with a terrorist group. Bottom line is the good guy needs to be in a lot of trouble, the kind that you as the reader aren’t quite sure he can get out of.

3. Both have a high body count. In both genres they like to kill off their colorful cast of characters and they both like their shock value.

So what is it that tips a book from thriller to horror?

  • It can’t just be blood.
  • It can’t just be a body count.
  • It can’t just be a monster vs. a man
  • I think the difference lies in the motivation behind the madness.
  • Horror focuses on the Antagonist and his world view.
  • A thriller puts more of an emphasis on how the antagonist’s actions affect the world/people around.


For example, in a horror book you are wrapped in the story of the killer (even if it’s not from his POV) and trapped in a setting of the killer’s choosing. The hero is largely reactionary. Mainly the hero just wants to escape with his life and anyone else he can bring with him, but the bottom line is survival and if they have to kill the antagonist to stay alive then so be it.

With thriller, we see things mainly through the hero’s point of view. He must be reactionary in some cases, but in many situations he is working to thwart the antagonist not just so he will live, but for a greater good. He is more willing to sacrifice his life (or limbs) in order to stop the antagonist from ever hurting anyone else again.

An over simplified way to look at it is a thriller is focused on the BEFORE the bad happens – most of the time trying to stop the bad from happening – while a horror book tends to focus on WHILE the bad is happening and how the hero escapes with his life.



So if we use this as a basis, then The Following is in fact a thriller and not a horror show. #goodtoknow

In my reading I’ve found that most books (and many movies) are actually crossovers of these two genres, which I enjoy. I think a horror/psychological thriller duo makes for an exciting read.

Although don’t discount the real deals as there are some great books out there in so many different story settings.

A few of my favorites are Phantoms which is a horror book by Dean Koontz

and for thriller I have fallen in love with Patrick Lee’s Breach trilogy.


Both these books will keep you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.