It's the eternal question: Is it a horror movie, or is it a thriller? What's the difference? Are they two distinct genres, or is there an overlap? Fans have been debating these issues since forever, and it's not likely to be settled anytime soon. Nevertheless, I recently had a long conversation on the subject with VoH contributor and self-professed girly-girl Marilyn Merlot, which I think touched on a lot of interesting points with regard to these questions. So in the interest of hopefully adding something to the debate, here's the transcript of that conversation:
B-Sol: I think the biggest thing that separates horror and thriller is the supernatural. If a movie has supernatural stuff in it, to me it's automatically horror. Even though there are horror movies that are reality-based and not supernatural. So it's tough.
Marilyn Merlot: I don't know if I would consider the supernatural automatically horror. Sometimes you can even have a mix of horror and thriller.
BS: So what makes you consider a movie a thriller and not horror? Like you've said Silence of the Lambs is not a horror movie, and I kind of agree.
MM: Yes, Silence of the Lambs is a thriller. To me, a thriller is a movie that has some kind of mystery to the story, and a creep factor. It may have some suspense to it, and some fast-paced action.
BS: Yeah, I think Silence of the Lambs and movies like that get more involved in the crime aspect of things, in the detective work and all that.
MM: Where horror is fear, and wanting to scare and terrorize viewers.
BS: Yes. The main purpose of a thriller is not to terrify you. It's to build suspense, but not necessarily to scare the shit out of you.
MM: For example, Jaws. The ocean at night is creepy, and when she jumps in the water at the beginning, you know that shark is coming. That's where it starts to get suspenseful. Jaws is also a thriller, not horror.
BS: Very interesting, because Jaws is another one that I've never found to be a horror movie. It's suspenseful, but not horrifying. Jaws, to me, is more about the adventure of killing the shark, than the fear it's instilling in people.
MM: It can also come down to someone's personal perception, what they find to be horror or thriller. You and I may not agree. I think it can also be different for men and women. Women are generally more scared, or creeped out easier. So what I might find terrifying, you may find laughable. I've got a great example, if you want to debate the movie with me... I know we dont agree. Let's talk Blair Witch Project.
BS: You know I hate it, right?
MM: Yes. You know it creeped me out, right?
BS: But even though I don't like it, I will definitely say it's a horror movie, and not a thriller.
MM: And I was going to say it's a thriller.
BS: Wow, really? Explain.
MM: First off, I have a tendency to over-think a little, and try to put myself in that moment. I guess you can say I'm a girly girl. Yes, I like horror, but I do get freaked out pretty easily. With that movie, think of being lost in the woods, with knowing the back story, and hearing all the creepy things at night. Anyone would be a little freaked out. Then again, i think it comes down to girls being more scared.
BS: But don't you feel like since the whole thing is about making you scared, that it's horror?
MM: The movie had its suspenseful moments and creep factor, but nothing compared to what horror is. Did I find it terrifying? No. The movie wasn't violent, nor did it have a villain--that we saw, anyway.
BS: It did have an evil spirit, though. See for me, that totally takes it into horror territory. Maybe if it was something human, i might think differently.
MM: Yes, but as I said, in my opinion a movie can be supernatural and still be more thriller than horror.
BS: Yes, we disagree there. I think if there's something unreal, something beyond reality that can't be explained rationally, it's automatically horror. You're saying some movies like that can still be thrillers. So let me turn it around this way. Give me an example of what you would consider definitely a horror movie, and not a thriller.
MM: OK, let me stick with the classics: Halloween.
BS: Great example, because that's a movie that is not supernatural. It's a human killer, so someone might say that makes it a thriller. But i would agree, it's totally horror. It's not like Silence of the Lambs, because in Halloween, we're not mainly focused on Dr. Loomis and the cops trying to stop Michael. We're mainly focused on watching Michael stalk and kill these kids.
MM: Well most people may disagree, but The Shining is not horror. I really like it, but it's not horror.
BS: Totally disagree. Maybe because I'm thinking thrillers always have to make sense somehow in the real world. And Shining totally doesn't, it's like a nightmare.
MM: He's a writer, taking care of a hotel. That's real-world.
BS: Yeah, but what happens to him? Unless you take the position that it was totally in his head. That might turn it around and make it a thriller...
MM: There are strange happenings, and you wonder about Jack and the other characters. He's losing his mind. He's not all there, that's basically it. I'm not terrified, sitting on the edge of my chair. Is it creepy? Yes, all children in these types of movies are creepy, so once again theres my "creep" factor. That, for me, makes it a thriller.
BS: I could totally see that one depending on how you interpret it. Because some people (like me) see it as him being influenced by spirits haunting the hotel. Although Nicholson plays it like a lunatic from the beginning, but that's just Jack.
Here's something I was reading recently [in Taschen's Horror Cinema] about this whole thing that makes sense to me. A thriller is all about the buildup, about the expectations, about the terror of wondering what's going to happen. The suspense. But horror is about actually having that terrible thing happen, seeing your worst fear actually happen, and the effect of it. It's all about absorbing the shock.
MM: I totally agree and again, I think it's going to come down the individual, and what people can and cannot handle.
BS: True. I do think, though, that sometimes filmmakers set out to make a horror movie that turns out to be more of a thriller to a lot of people, and vice versa. But here's something else about this whole thing that bothers me. I think sometimes people use the word thriller because they think it makes a movie more respectable than being a horror movie.
MM: Good point, I agree. A lot of people shun horror movies, they automatically think all that blood and guts and torture, it's awful, who wants to see that? I think a lot of people think that way once the title of horror is thrown in there.
BS: Right. Sometimes a studio will want to sell their movie as a "thriller" even if it isn't. Although I was afraid they were doing this with Shutter Island, and I was wrong. At first, it looked like a straight-up horror movie. But in the end, it did turn out to be a total psychological thriller. Once you learn the nature of what's really going on, instant thriller.
MM: It's a fine line and will always be--but it makes for good arguments!
BS: Yes. There will always be a fine line between the two genres. And it led us to this very intriguing debate, so hopefully we made some kind of sense on this tough issue. But in the end, it's up to the viewer to decide!
"QUITE SIMPLY, THE BEST HORROR-THEMED BLOG ON THE NET." -- Joe Maddrey, Nightmares in Red White & Blue
**Find The Vault of Horror on Facebook and Twitter, or download the new mobile app!**
**Check out my other blogs, Standard of the Day, Proof of a Benevolent God and Lots of Pulp!**