Horror Sub-Genres (Part II)

September 22, 2022

Horror belongs under a speculative fiction umbrella that also includes fantasy and science fiction, and while horror is identified by its ability to create intense feelings of terror, shock, or disgust in the audience, the genre’s aesthetic often infiltrates its sister genres.

These crossovers—such as dark fantasy and sci-fi horror—have joined the speculative fiction ranks of subgenres, a term that came into existence at the beginning of the twentieth century to help further define the many different types of literature evolving within larger classifications of fiction.

There are more than one hundred subgenres in speculative fiction alone, and more are being added all the time. Due to its reactionary nature, horror is often the first place where writers turn if they seek to integrate social and political commentary into their work.

This mashup often results in the emergence of new subgenres such as splatterpunk, a term coined by American author and screenwriter David J. Schow in 1986 to define a type of horror distinguished by the depiction of graphic violence and transgressive acts.

Despite the presence of specialty niches such as bizarro, found footage, and weird westerns, there are four main subgenres of horror every writer of dark fiction should be familiar with.

Gothic

In the late 1700s, Gothic fiction emerged as a literary aesthetic, featuring settings that are haunted by the past and the threat of supernatural events. In these tales of terror, the past intrudes on the present through decay and ruination, reflected in the presence of medieval-esque architecture such as castles, churches, and crypts. In addition to its claustrophobic atmosphere, Gothic fiction often features unreliable narrators, dreamlike states, mysterious omens, family curses, and restless spirits.

Supernatural

Although the uncanny can occur in Gothic literature, supernatural fiction stands as a subgenre of its own. In broad terms, supernatural describes stories that feature the presence of that which cannot be understood by  science or explained as part of the natural world. In general, these supernatural elements connect with religion and the occult, and the genre features concepts related to death and the afterlife in the form of ghosts, angels, and demons.

Supernatural overlaps with paranormal, which is sometimes identified as a separate but similar subgenre. The main difference is that in the paranormal, there is a possibility (however slim) that the supernatural elements could eventually become part of the known world. These paranormal instances and occurrences might exist under laws of nature, but they simply haven’t yet been discovered yet. Examples include monsters, aliens, and phenomena like extrasensory perception. 

Lovecraftian

In the 1920s, the pulp magazine Weird Tales started publishing tales of the strange and uncanny. Among the lineup of writers, H. P. Lovecraft emerged to create a literary canon founded on the philosophy that humankind is insignificant and irrelevant when it comes to the grand scale of the universe. The subgenre, which is also known as cosmic fiction, emphasizes the gaping abyss that lies beyond human comprehension.

The mythos in this shared universe—developed with like-minded writers such as Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith—includes alien gods and monsters including Cthulhu, the familiar cephalopodic entity known as a Great Old One in the Lovecraftian pantheon.

Psychological

There is more to horror than monster and demons. Psychological horror, which has much in common with thrillers, uses elements of mystery and suspense along with unstable and unreliable characters to create an unsettling experience meant to evoke a sense a dread. Set in the real world, these stories are marked by emotional and mental distress including suspicion, self-doubt, and paranoia.

Although not a mandatory component, psychological horror can include gore and physical violence, especially when it overlaps with other subgenres including body horror, slashers, and splatterpunk.