People who aren’t fans of horror movies will often lump anything that’s “scary” together, something that isn’t done with other genres—American Pie and the works of Molière are both comedies, but rarely grouped together. Similarly, just because you love Scream doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll enjoy Cannibal Holocaust—even though they’re both horror movies—so knowing horror subgenres can come in very handy.
Subgenres are often the subject of intense debate within fan communities, however, with no real limit as to how many there are. Are zombie movies a genre in themselves, or are zombies a vehicle for survival horror? Is found footage a genre or a technique? Does a giallo film have to be Italian? And so on. A vast number of horror movies could also comfortably be placed across several subgenres; the lines between horror sub-groups are often blurred (or rather, smudged with blood), making it all reasonably complicated. The villain of a slasher movie might be a supernatural monster, for example.
But as both a real-time viewing experience and a lingering aftermath, different types of horror vary wildly. You might be totally fine watching a silly monster bite people’s heads off but get really upset at more realistic butchery, for instance, or find it hilarious when people get ripped limb from limb (on-screen) but collapse in terror at the mere thought of a really big spider. It pays to know your subgenres.
1. Slasher Movies
If a movie features an assembly line of attractive but largely forgettable teens being killed in all manners of bloody fashion, it’s probably a slasher movie. Slashers were huge in the 1970s, kick-started by films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween. They fell out of favor for a while before a postmodern resurgence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, led by Scream and numerous Scream-alikes in which people say things like “I hope I don’t get killed by a scary murderer,” then get killed by a scary murderer.
2. Monster Movies
Sometimes known by the more cheerful name creature features, monster movies pretty much defined the horror genre altogether between the 1930s and the 1950s, when Universal Studios unleashed a series of onscreen terrors, from Frankenstein (1931) to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and men in rubber suits stomped over miniature cities. Though many of today’s moviegoers are all too aware of how special effects work, making them less likely to want to suspend disbelief while watching Godzilla fight King Kong, we’re also in the midst of a practical effects resurgence—thanks to directors like Christopher Nolan, Sam Raimi, J.J. Abrams, and George Miller. As a result, many modern monster movies tend to lean toward sci-fi rather than horror (see: Jordan Peele’s Nope) in order to use extraterrestrial or other-dimensional origins to explain the massiveness of many of the monsters involved.
Giallo movies involve elements of a lot of genres—an arty and often sexy mix of slashers, thrillers, and mystery tales. The style was popularized in Italy in the 1960s and ’70s, and is particularly associated with certain directors—namely, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava—but wields a continued influence in Hollywood. There isn’t an exact consensus over exactly what defines giallo, but people tend to know it when they see it. Unhelpful? Yes, probably!
Recommended Viewing: Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), Malignant (2021)
4. Supernatural Horror
Creatures from worlds beyond our own are a horror staple—ghosts and ghouls, souls returning from the afterlife, and so on. Classic stuff. A lot of religion-related horror, including stories featuring demonic possessions and exorcisms, would fall under this category, along with poltergeists, haunted houses, and good old-fashioned ghosts. Lots of Stephen King adaptations fall in this category, too. Remember: Pennywise isn’t just a scary clown—it’s a scary transdimensional demonic entity that just looks like a scary clown!
5. Splatter Films
Also referred to as “gore movies” or—fairly disparagingly—“torture porn,” splatter films emphasize the blood and guts involved in all of the violent acts that take place. Eyeballs dangling out of skulls, guts being flung about, people using intestines as ropes—anything goes, really. Happy endings are a rarity in splatter films; instead, there’s often a sense that the filmmakers are reveling in their own nastiness, showing off how much contempt (cinematically-speaking) they have for human life and competing to be as revolting as possible.
Recommended Viewing: I Spit On Your Grave (1978), Driller Killer (1979), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Audition (1999), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005)
6. Survival Horror
The phrase survival horror was initially coined for video games, but has aptly come to describe a lot of frantic, stressful movies in which a rag-tag bunch of people trying to escape a monstrous horde are picked off one by one. Survival horror films are often, but not always, zombie-based. They also tend to take place over a short period of time and frequently involve apocalypses.
7. Psychological Horror
What’s scarier than the idea that the killer might be inside the house? The idea that the killer might be inside your head. Psychological horror, which is less about spectacle and more about discomfort, plays with fear, identity, paranoia, and madness. It examines the idea that any of us might only just be clinging onto reality, or asks just how much or little it would take to push us to commit hideous acts. Scary children! Scary moms! Thinking you might accidentally have become a serial killer! It’s all possible.
8. Body Horror
Body horror movies are focused on grotesque transformation rather than grotesque injury, although there is plenty of overlap between the two. As such, the subgenre combines physical and psychological elements; it often deals with the idea of becoming less human, or having your very personhood subsumed by something horrific, whether accidentally or at the hands of a malevolent force. The king of body horror might just be director David Cronenberg, whose version of The Fly is a perfect example of the subgenre. Think stretched, distorted flesh, skin being replaced with metal, mutated sex organs, and the monstrosity that is The Human Centipede.
Recommended Viewing: Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), The Human Centipede (2009), Titane (2021)
9. Occult/Folk Horror
Folk horror—which is typically set in someplace rural and incorporates cults, forests, and/or a fear of outsiders—is known for its often bleak endings and sense of nihilism and futility. The genre is going through something of a resurgence at the moment, possibly due to the disconnected nature of modern life and the conflicted way we feel about the idea of “the old ways,” or maybe just because incorporating goat entrails into a movie is badass.
Recommended Viewing: The Wicker Man (1973), The Witch (2015), Midsommar (2019), Lamb (2021), Men (2022)
10. Elevated Horror
As much a review as it is a subgenre, elevated horror is a relatively recent, quite polarizing term that describes the crossover of arthouse and horror movies. More specifically, it refers to distinctive, vision-led works rather than assembly-line franchise projects; the distributor A24 is often used as shorthand for the subgenre. The implicit suggestion, which many fans justifiably take offense to, seems to be that horror is generally of low quality and minimal worth, and that only the artiest of death-fests are worth a look. There are plenty of films that might be termed elevated horror if they came out today, but because they spawned a dozen bad sequels are often overlooked for the original innovation.
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