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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Horror vs. Thriller: A Conversation

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!


Theron said...

Ah, the age-old question. Also see: "The difference between horror and terror."

Jen said...

I was going to say the same thing as Theron: Horror vs. Terror-keeps me up at night. I would love to see that as a debate. Spot on about every film mentioned but I would still have to classify BWP as horror.

RayRay said...

I generally agree with B-Sol in this argument, that typically a thriller is real life and horror is often supernatural. However, I also think that a hallmark of horror is a monster, even if that monster is a human being. Case in point: Michael Meyers.

I think that, in my humble opinion, a better test for the horror/thriller question is the resultant emotions in the viewer. If the film gives one a shock which lasts during the movie, but is over once the film ends, then it is a thriller.

On the other hand, if the film results in a continued sense of dread [or just tries to result in this] - if it continues to scare you after the lights come back on, then it is a horror.

To that end I have to disgree with the both of you regarding Jaws being a thriller. It scared the crap out of me as a kid and still affects me to the present day. Blair Witch Project, at least for me, had a similar, though much shorter lived affect.

On the other hand, no one has nightmares about Buffalo Bill or Hannibal Lechter. While there are scary parts to Silnce of the Lambs, it doesn't stay with you, even though Lechter escapes.

I also cannot really understand how The Shining is not a horror movie. It is scary through and through, and continues the scare after the credits. It is, after all, essentially a ghost story, and if a ghost story isn't horror, than what is?

Also, The Shining is not all in Jack's head, as both Wendy and the son experience terrifying weirdness. Ergo: horror.

In any event, great post, and I look forward to more like it.

AK said...

Great conversation! People go back and forth in this debate, I think one thing that defines a movie as a horror film is that audiences WANT to see the bad stuff happen (violence, gore)to the characters, like F13 and all it's followers, and the NOES series. But I'd place the original Halloween as a thriller, because I didn't want ANY of the characters to die in that (which I know wouldn't have made much of a movie) but it lacks that mean-spiritedness that so many horror films have. Anyway, good article!
(WV: "boywo"

Theron said...

"Halloween" is a weird case. It's a guy stabbing people, which I would label "Thriller." But Michael Myers (aka The Shape) was supposedly the existential personification of Evil (uppercase "E"). So, for me, that throws it into Horror Land...

Highly Caffeinated said...

Nice debate! Just three days ago I posted about this very subject, but here is how I see the difference between the two.

It is about 'who's story are we in?' Silence of the Lambs is a thriller, because it's Clarice Starling's story. If it was a horror, then we would have been seeing the movie through the eyes of Buffalo Bill's victim(s).

Halloween is clearly a horror, as we follow Laurie as she is relentlessly pursued by Michael.

I don't think supernatural elements make it a horror either, as The Others and even The Sixth Sense are both thrillers, not because of their stars, but who's story it is. Nor does the amount of blood and gore define it so much, as Se7en and The Cell both have gore and some scary moments, but again, it's about who we are following and what they are doing.

In a thriller, we follow the pursuer, in a horror, we are with the pursued.

Anonymous said...

And this is why I love B-Sol. Always encouraging intelligent thought about horror and not getting wrapped up in all the fuss that surrounds us bloggers (lately).

Great points all around. To me, it all comes down to the person and not any one particular classification. To me, Jaws was a thriller as well. But to scores of others who avoided the water for some time, it has and continues to be a horror film. Isn't that what a true horror film is all about? And some great points by Ray Ray that I wholeheartedly agree with.

Excellent post.

MarilynMerlot said...

Yes, Highly Caffeinated, I agree with you 100%. You have stated exactly what Im trying to say perfectly. I must say we all have to agree it does come down to the persons personal preference on how the movie is affecting them. Now that I re-think things. I found JAWS to be a thriller, but, I am still somewhat scared of the ocean and think of that damn shark as I look out onto the water. So, if I am terrifeid, does that make JAWS horror to me, hmmmmm...

B-Sol said...

Thanks guys. Glad to see this post is provoking some interesting discussion.

Caffeinated, I think you best hit the nail on the head in terms of how I think the two subgenres should best be delineated.

Rob, I beg to differ a bit on your horror definition, because I think it's only in certain subgenres of horror, or certain eras, that there is such contempt for the characters that we're encouraged to root for bad things to happen. Certainly this is the case with most slashers--but I wouldn't, for example, say that it is so in the classic Universal flicks, for example. Yet Frankenstein and Dracula are undoubtedly horror.

MM, it looks like I'm just gonna have to cancel our big beach getaway...

RayRay said...

Mmmmmm.............uppercase "E" Evil............

RayRay said...

Mmmmmm.............uppercase "E" Evil............

AK said...

Oh gosh, Theron and Highly and B-Sol, you're right! I LOVE the classic horror films of Universal, Lewton, all that ilk. But I was definitely focusing on slashers, which skews the answer I gave. Slippery though all the definitions given may be, in different cases they do apply in varying ways. Fascinating suff!

Missy Y. (formerly A Case of You) said...

Hmm... I tend to disagree with your lady friend, B-Sol.

First thing.... I think it's very dangerous territory to suggest that women are more easily frightened than men. In fact, I find myself rejecting this premise rather violently. I am an example of the exact opposite. Virtually nothing scares me. However, I am totally aware that my reactions to the films I see do not make for everyone's reactions. But if anecdotal evidence means anything, most of the women I know who watch these films are, in fact, very difficult to "horrify."

On the notion of non-reality immediately pushing something into the realm of horror, I don't agree with this either. Though, I think it tends to be true that supernatural stories are horror (but causation and correlation are not the same thing after all).

I think you are both right on the money with the buildup and focus bits of this conversation. Thrillers are about everything but that which is actually horrible. And horror movies are about showing us that horrible thing.

Michael Myers is horror. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And this is why I love him.


MarilynMerlot said...

So my case in point, that it comes down the people's personal preference on how they are gonna take & handle a movie. Which to me your coming across with no emotion at all, since you stated NOTHING scares you at all. I'm not saying ALL women are scared or creeped out, but, I can probably come across more women who get scared more easily then men do.

Michael said...

So let's say you take the attributes that the Taschen editor said constitutes a thriller, "...the buildup...the expectations... the terror of wondering what's going to happen," and then actually show what's going to happen with an unflinching eye. Now that's a (expletive) scary movie!

B-Sol said...

Yeah, that would make for one hell of a scary movie, Michael. I think once it moves from that buildup into actually delivering something unflinchingly terrible, it crosses that boundary from thriller into horror.

Gene Phillips said...

I wrote a recent essay commenting on your definitions, here:


B-Sol said...

Thanks Gene, I'm glad our little conversation could spark such debate!

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