Hello, all! I hope everyone on the East Coast is enjoying the fabulous weather. If you’re on the West Coast, I’m sorry about your drought. Recently, my friend and I were watching some horror movie or another when we started thinking about thrillers, horror movies, and why the hell there are even two separate genres. We debated, trawled Reddit searching for answers, etc, but found no real answer to what is perhaps the most important question of our decade: what is the difference between a horror movie and a thriller? Today, I’d like to propose my highly scientific hypothesis that when it comes to deciding whether a movie is a horror or a thriller, it’s all about perspective.
First, let’s set our guidelines. Let’s say that a thriller is like a rectangle, and a horror movie is like a square. All horror movies are thrillers, but not all thrillers are horror movies. A movie like Insidious is undeniably a horror movie because a) it contains supernatural, horror-genre lore and b) because its sole purpose is to scare the viewer. I think that if you add an unstoppable, supernatural element like Freddy Kreuger, zombies, or demons to a movie, then that movie becomes a horror movie. So when we talk about whether a movie is a horror or a thriller, we’re not discussing the movies that easily fit into one category or the other, we’re discussing the movies that aren’t so easily boxed in.
1. The Strangers
This is your classic home invasion movie, but since it’s rated R, full of nasty gore and a brutal ending. Home invasions are often classified as horror movies since they’re considered to be slashers, but in a movie like The Strangers, I think more consideration needs to be given. First off, The Strangers has a fairly realistic premise. There is no supernatural element to the film: the “strangers” are normal humans, albeit horribly deranged ones. The use of masks gives them an appearance of other worldliness, but it’s all a facade. If either of the three protagonists had managed to skewer one of their attackers, then that attacker would have died. The unrealistic element is that the protagonists never manage to get a hit on their attackers. Even if their attackers were professional fighters, which they aren’t, the protagonists should’ve at least given them a scratch.
So, fairly realistic, even though the antagonists have a hint of the unbeatable evil to them. But then there’s the ending. One aspect of a horror movie that sticks out to me is the inevitabiltiy of it all. The feeling that even if the protagonist claws their way to hell and back, there will still be a miserable ending. Granted, this isn’t true for all horror movies, but it is for the truly scary ones. The Strangers has a horribly upsetting ending. It’s the antithesis to all of those movies about heroic cops or final girls. In The Strangers, the bad guys win and they never get caught. That’s about as horrific as you can get, but even more realistic for the fact that it’s so horrific. The line between thriller and horror is thin in this one.
The Denis Villeneuve movie is labelled a thriller, but I’d say that the plot lacks any realism and could basically be considered a horror. Two children kidnapped in broad daylight, hidden in plain sight, and the police so inept that they question the kidnapper multiple times and search her house without finding the kids? Not very likely. The little-old-lady / evil mastermind is too much of horror cliche to pass muster in a thriller. She’s a modern Hansel and Gretel!
Prisoners doesn’t have overt horror themes, but it does feature a significant amount of torture. Paul Dano gets messed up in a way that you can’t come back from. Torture is a staple of horror. Another horror staple is the ineptitude of the police force. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, supposedly one of the best missing person’s detectives in town, can’t even find the culprit when he stumbles right over them. Instead, he does all of the actions that cops in horror movies usually do, including entering buildings alone, searching dark basements, opening mysterious crates, ignoring innocent old ladies, etc. He’s your typical bumbler. They found the RV the girls were taken in, for god’s sake, and they just give up on that suspect?! I still can’t believe that movie. Anyway, even though Prisoners is marketed as a thriller, I think the unrealistic plot, unbeatable evil, and torture scenes make a good case for it being part of the horror genre.
3. Zodiac and Seven
Both of these films are traditional police procedurals/ thrillers, but there’s a dash of something that could, to the right viewer, make these movies preternaturally frightening. To me, it was the extreme violence in Seven that made it more of a horror movie than a thriller. I’m aware that there are real people in this world who are evil beyond imagination, but the way that the Seven killer destroys his victims, and the level of control that he has over their deaths, is taking it to a level beyond thriller to absolute horror. All of the deaths in that movie are horrific. Every. single. one. The killer fits the mold of unbeatable evil. He’s such a super-genius that he can commit meticulous, conspicuous murders without anyone noticing. Highly illogical, Watson.
*Side anecdote: The first time I watched Seven, I was on a plane, so I wasn’t at my highest level of awareness. Even though I knew that Kevin Spacey was going to be in the movie, somehow I’d forgotten, so by the time he showed up, I felt like my mind had exploded. All I could think over and over again was “of course, Spacey, of course it was you.” It probably didn’t help that most of my exposure to Spacey was in American Beauty, where he was a gross mega-creep. So now I can only think of him as a psycho or a lech and I can’t watch any movie he’s in without being creeped out.*
And Zodiac, even though it’s based on a true story, is frightening because the truth is so much stranger than fiction. While Seven is outlandish, Zodiac is mundane in its violence. All of the situations in the movie are plausible and the fact that any one of us could run into a man like the Zodiac Killer makes the movie a chiller. Thrillers are designed to keep us on the edge of our seats, but horror is designed to raise the hair on our necks and to make us really think about what we’re so scared of. Seven and Zodiac will never be reclassified as horror, but you could argue that they run with a scarier crowd than your average police thriller.
In some films, the line between horror and thriller is up to interpretation. Ultimately, the classification depends on what scares you, the viewer. The Silence of the Lambs will always be a thriller to me, but for some reason, Zodiac and Seven are horror movies. Other viewers might consider the movies I mentioned above to be straight thrillers and that’s perfectly fine. That’s why movies are so magical, dudes. They can be interpreted in so many different ways!
In closing, if you’re ever having a pointless debate over whether the movie you’re watching is horror or thriller ask yourself: are you scared? If so, is it is the suspense of the movie that is scaring you, or is it the very idea of the movie itself? If it’s the latter, it’s probably a horror movie. And if that fails, remember that when it comes to horror, you’ll know it when you see it.
Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is one of those movies that I’ve always thought of as pure horror. I would feel queasy when I watched that movie because it scared me so much. I’ve never met any other person with such a visceral reaction to the film. Most people with whom I discuss it find it to be just another science fiction movie…but something about that movie terrified me, and still terrifies me to this day. Like I said, it ain’t a called a horror movie, but I know it when I see it.