Writing Horror vs. Writing Terror

This content has been archived. It may no longer be accurate or relevant.

From Writers in the Storm:

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.

Blurred Lines

The truth is the line between horror and terror is a bit fuzzy.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

4 thoughts on “Writing Horror vs. Writing Terror”

  1. King talks about his stuff as Terror rather than Horror, but the marketing genres forced his books into Horror.


    – Revealing what is beneath the Real.

    The Matrix would be Horror.

    Terror has to hold up under repeated viewings, actually getting more and more scary because you know what is coming. These are classic Ghost stories that scare the hell out of me no matter how many times I’ve watched them.

    The Uninvited 1944 Trailer | Ray Milland | Ruth Hussey

    The Changeling (1980) Trailer

    The example of something that does not survive the first viewing is:

    The Evil (1978) – Trailer HD 1080p

    The movie is deeply scary until the end when the Evil is revealed to be Victor Buono running around the place in a white suit. Glug. It was solid up until that point. Now I can’t even watch it.

  2. Perhaps, maybe, it depends…

    The trouble is that the definitions are subject to taste. What may provoke terror in others, is just horror for me, or vice-versa; its all down to edge cases and tastes. Just my 5 cents.

    I only add this because of a similar conversation with a YouTube book reviewer about this very same issue. He got a bit down with the pedantry of definitions, not in a bad way, I just had to say it’s all about taste.

    Pretty much my first paragraph, but people get hot under the collar about the right definition.

Comments are closed.