Home Industry Thriller vs. Horror Films: What’s the Difference?

Thriller vs. Horror Films: What’s the Difference?


Want a heart-pumping thrill when you go to the movies?

Well, it’s most likely you have settled down with your popcorn and supersize soda to watch a thriller or horror.

Most movie-goers can be forgiven for mistaking one of the other, keeping you on the edge of your seat (or squirming in it)!

But just what is the difference between the two?

Join us as we dive into what exactly makes a horror, a horror, and a thriller, a thriller. It’s time for thriller vs. horror!

When it comes to crafting the perfect horror or thriller screenplay, having the right tools can make all the difference. That’s where Celtx comes in. With its intuitive interface and comprehensive feature set, Celtx makes it easy to bring your stories to life. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, try Celtx and take your writing to the next level!

Exploring the Unique Traits of Horror and Thriller Genres

The thriller and horror genres, like every other genre, span all forms of media.

Novels, comics, stage plays, screenplays, video games, you name it. You are bound to come across a thriller or horror one way or another.

As with all genres, like drama and comedy, thrillers and horrors have their own traits, although these are to varying degrees. As Robert McKee points out in Story, “…each genre has its unique conventions, but in some these are relatively uncomplicated and pliable.” (pg. 87, 1998).

The ‘pliability’ of genre traits can make things tricky for consumers of media, no less for writers and other such creatives. A clear example of this is mixing genres, taking traits from each and combining them. dramatic comedy, action thrillers, black comedy, we could go on!

So how do we define the traits found in the single genres of horror and thriller? Just how flexible are they, and how can we differentiate?

How much overlap is there? Let’s find out!

What is Horror?

Brigid Cherry begins the book, Horror, by highlighting the many faces of horror. Notably, that “…the function of horror – to scare, shock, revolt or otherwise horrify…” (pg. 4, 2009). Any one of these audience reactions can be achieved in several ways, the goal to unsettle viewers in any way possible.

And it is these seemingly unlimited possibilities that lead to the confusion surrounding what makes horror, horror!

If we look literally, as Jason Colavito does in the opening paragraphs of Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre, we often associate the genre with “…monsters, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, witches, and things that go bump in the night…” (pg. 5, 2008).

However, horror goes much deeper than the visible nightmares we see on screen at the movies. There is always a psychological undertone, a character seemingly struggling with their sanity in one way or another.

McKee divides horror into three sub-genres, a useful insight into how horror works and the different angles from which the genre can be considered.

First is the uncanny, “…in which the source of horror is astounding, but subject to ‘rational’ explanation, such as beings from outer space, science-made monsters, or a maniac…”. Think Alien (1979) or the Halloween franchise (1978-2022)

Second is the supernatural, “…in which the source of horror is an ‘irrational’ phenomenon from the spirit realm…”. Films like The Exorcist (1973) and the Paranormal Activity franchise (2007-Present) are all great examples.

Finally, the super-uncanny “…in which the audience is kept guessing between the other two possibilities…” (pg. 80, 1998). A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Get Out (2017) fit into this bracket nicely.

Despite their differences, all three sub-genres of horror work to intentionally scare an audience, a constant feeling of impending doom for the characters they’re following. Creators of horror content want you to be cowering in your seat, ideally hiding behind it.

Learn more about the elements of horror with our article, How to Scare People: The Elements of Horror Movies!

What is a Thriller?

So, if the intention of a horror film is to scare you, a thriller is there to do what it says on the tin: to thrill you: to get your heart pumping.

Kate Watson perfectly defines what it is to ‘thrill’. “Typically a thriller is connected with a visceral response and frisson.” (pg. 3, 2018). This of course can be in a positive or negative way: to excite or to cause anxiety and fear.

Charles Harris defines the thriller as more of a style, adding high tension to a story. He goes on to say that they “…will generally be realistic, often city-based and modern.” (pg. 46, 2014).

Harris continues to describe the writing style that would identify the thriller genre; “…clipped and short, to add to the feeling of pace…” (pg. 46, 2014). Indeed, this style of writing combines with a writer using rational fear as the plot’s centerpiece. A protagonist could be battling with their fear of height or dealing with claustrophobia, for example.

Thrillers should always leave an audience guessing, with plot twists, cliffhangers, and red herrings strategically placed throughout. As writers, our biggest challenge when writing a thriller is to ensure that we can put the audience into a false sense of security, or of knowledge.

Then it’s a case of surprising them with the least expected outcome, planting misdirection in as many places as possible.

The mortality of the protagonist is key in thrillers, “…the hero must be vulnerable and capable of defeat, or the film will change into an action film like those of Indiana Jones or James Bond.” (Poger, 2001). In short, there should always be the possibility of failure.

As with any other genre, world building is essential to developing a great thriller. Think “…run down city streets with unsettling characters, guns, drugs, hospitals and so on.” (Harris, 2014). Chinatown (1974) and The Fugitive (1993) are two such examples of what we would identify as the bog standard thriller using these elements.

As with horror, we can divide thrillers into sub-genres. The crime thriller, suspense thriller and detective or mystery thriller are just a few, each usually pertaining to a specific protagonist.

The protagonist in The Fugitive (1993), played by Harrison Ford, tells the story of a doctor falsely accused of murdering his wife. He tries to find the real killer while he’s being pursued by a national manhunt. We know that a crime has been committed, allegedly by the protagonist, so we could identify it specifically as a crime thriller.

The definition of a crime thriller is broad, having been influenced by the trailblazing detective stories over the 20th Century, but that they are separate from the detective thriller.

Julian Symons explains, “…it does not often have a detective (and when there is one, he or she plays a secondary role); it is based on the psychology of characters…the setting is often central to the setting and atmosphere of the story (and is inextricably bound up with the nature of the crime itself…the social aspect of the story is often radical, and questions some aspect of society, law, or justice.”

Alternatively, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone takes its audience on a journey with two Boston detectives investigating a girl’s kidnapping while dealing with their own problems. As the protagonists’ profession is indeed a detective, in this case, we’d correctly identify it as a detective thriller.

It all seems pretty obvious, but when we’re planning or writing a screenplay, it pays to be able to pinpoint exactly what genre your movie or television show falls under, even if it’s a sub-genre. The more specific, the better!

Similarities Between Horrors and Thrillers?

There is no doubt that both thriller and horror are intended to shock their audiences in one way or another. The shock factor is key!

There are also crossover sub genres that apply certain traits to both horror and thriller. For example, the psychological thriller, and psychological horror. Or the supernatural thriller, and supernatural horror.

Let’s take the psychological thriller first. These focus on a protagonist’s state of mind and their emotions, like in Se7en (1995) or The Silence of the Lambs (1991). In contrast, films such as Psycho (1960) and Bird Box (2018) as psychological horrors use gore, jump scares, supernatural elements, and madness to explore themes such as isolation or obsession.

Supernatural thrillers tend to have some basis in the reality that we know, protagonists exploring the unknown. This could be a catalyst, such as an event, or a mysterious character who lingers in the background, such as those in What Lies Beneath (2000) and The Sixth Sense (1999).

On the other hand, supernatural horrors, including movies like 28 Days Later (2002) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), will include monsters such as spirits, demons or witches whom the protagonist is trying to avoid, or defeat.

As you can see, both horrors and thrillers adopt similar ideas, but execute them in diverse ways, depending on the effect they want to convey onto an audience.

Differences Between Horrors and Thrillers?

It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what sort of film you are watching when encountering horrors and thrillers. In essence, the intention of both horrors and thrillers is the same: to show. It is how they shock the audience that differs, and the storytelling techniques that accompany that.

In horrors, the audience usually knows more than the characters, or can usually predict what will happen next. This does not mean a horror movie is no less terrifying to watch, it is just more formulaic in its approach, focusing on emotion.

As we previously discussed, you feel the impending doom throughout the film. Characters in horror movies often meet a gruesome end and as graphically as possible. The more gore, the better.

In thrillers, the audience is just as much in the dark as the characters. You are definitely not watching a thriller if you can predict what will happen next! What makes a thriller is uncertainty.

Through this uncertainty, thrillers take the audience on a nail-biting ride of suspense, the plot tending to take precedence in driving the story. There is often a lot less gore, and more dependence on suggestion and insinuation.

Final Thoughts

So if you are considering diving into the world of horrors and thrillers and are keen to write either for your next script, here are some top tips to bear in mind:

Ensure you are clear on your intent within your story. If you are looking to thrill and take the audience on a journey of suspense, you are most likely erring towards a thriller script. If, on the other hand, you want to terrify your audience and include a great deal of gore and jump scares, a horror script is probably the direction you want to go.

Related Celtx Blog Article: How to Write a Script [Complete Guide for Screenplay Writers]

Experiment with the blurred lines of the horror and thriller genres. Delve even deeper into the genres and consider the supernatural, psychological, detective, or criminal.

Test yourself when you next watch a thriller or horror movie. What tropes and genre conventions (or breaking of convention) can you identify?

So, in a nutshell, thrill with a thriller or horrify with horror! Whatever you decide, keep in mind the tropes and conventions of each. Blend, combine and create something amazing!

Want to find out our top tips on writing horror? Check out our article: Lessons from 5 Classic Horror Scripts!

Ready to start writing your own spine-chilling screenplay?

Celtx can help you bring your ideas to life! Our easy-to-use software provides all the tools you need to craft a thrilling or terrifying film that will keep your audience on the edge of their seats.

Sign up for Celtx today and start exploring the world of horror and thriller filmmaking!

Source Citations

  • Watson, K., 2018. The crime thriller in context. URL: https://salempress.com/pdf/ciamericanthriller_samplepgs. pdf (Accessed: 15.09. 2018).
  • Harris, C., 2014. Complete Screenwriting Course: A complete guide to writing, developing and marketing a script for TV or film. Hachette UK.
  • McKee, R. 1998. Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of Screenwriting. Methuen.
  • Cherry, B., 2009. Horror. Routledge.
  • Colavito, J., 2007. Knowing fear: science, knowledge and the development of the horror genre. McFarland.
  • Poger, Sidney. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 11, no. 4 (44), 2001, pp. 465–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43308483. Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.
  • Symons, J., 1972. Bloody Murder from the detective story to the crime novel: A History. Faber and Faber.


  • Natasha Ferguson

    Natasha is a UK-based freelance screenwriter and script editor with a love for sci-fi. In 2022 she recently placed in the Screenwriters' Network Short Film Screenplay Competition and the Golden Short Film Festivals. When not at her desk, you'll find her at the theater, or walking around the English countryside (even in the notorious British weather)

You may also like