The sub-genres of horror

Where does your writing belong?

Horror fiction has one goal in mind. To evoke feelings of terror, stress, panic, loathing, anxiety, and repulsion. Writing horror embraces a whirlwind of emotions, but not all of those feelings are negative. Compassion, understanding, and empathy for the protagonist is what motivates audiences to read on. As readers, we want to see our protagonist overcome the evil that threatens them or their loved ones. We are engaged by the cliff-hangers, the plot twists, the tension, and the build-up of suspense. Horror encompasses all these elements, but how do you know what sub-genre your writing falls into?

Below are the seven subgenres of horror and their characteristics. 


Gothic horror explores elements of death, fear, gloom, and romance, and portrays the protagonist’s or characters’ struggle against their inevitable descent into madness. The settings are dark, dismal, and isolated, often taking place in large dilapidated houses, or cold, barren landscapes frequented by severe weather. Examples include Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909), and Wuthering Heights byEmily Bronte (1847).


The paranormal genre involves beings, presences, phenomena, and abnormalities outside the normal understanding of the world. The genre explores the creatures of folklore and fairy tales, placing them into the modern world or the present setting. Think of vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, ghosts, and the undead. Without these creatures, the fictional landscape would be typical of everyday life. In recent years, the paranormal genre has centred around young adult, high school/college age characters, who fall in love with a paranormal creature, or whose relationship is challenged by the paranormal. Examples of this subgenre include Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (2011), The Mortal Instruments Series by Cassandra Clare (2007), and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (2011).


Sinister rituals, black magic, sadistic murders, and ominous cults are what make up occult horror. Stories focus on ritual practices that are evil, disturbing, and downright creepy. They have no connection with religion or science, which is what makes them so damn scary. The protagonist or characters in these stories are thrown into a world that violates social norms, forcing them to confront the darker side of human nature. Novels that explore these concepts include The Religion by Nicholas Conde (1982), and Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (1978).

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy incorporates elements of horror fiction, bringing them into a landscape that is mysteries, unknown, ominous, and dangerous. Stories deal primarily with the theme of good versus evil, but entertain the possibility of the latter winning. The protagonist can be part of the supernatural world themselves, and are driven to confront, or succumb entirely, to the forces of evil. This entertains the idea that the most righteous and strongest can be corrupted, a technique that creates additional conflict and reinforces the concept that good does not always prevail. Novels of this genre include A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin (first published 1996), and The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien (first published 1954). 


Stories blending survival and horror together tap into common fears of isolation, loneliness, abandonment, and fear of the unknown. The protagonist or characters are fighting for their lives in the face of terror, which can be the supernatural, a psychopathic killer, a monster, aliens, the apocalypse, or the unexplainable. Characters must fight to survive, but even if they do outsmart the horror hunting them down, there is no guarantee of normality on the other side. Examples of novels in this genre include I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954), and The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013). 

Science fiction horror

Afraid of science? You should be. Isolated, futuristic settings are used as a source of fear in the science fiction horror genre. Subjects can include mad scientists, alien invasions, experiments gone terribly wrong, scientific advancements used for evil ends, the creation of a new and dangerous lifeform, or opening a portal to something that science cannot explain. Characters in these novels are not only forced to fight for survival, but have to impede or destroy the scientific evil that has entered their lives in order to return to normalcy. Novels in this genre include Who Goes There? By John W. Campbell (1938), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1955).

Dystopia horror

Imagine living in a world of environmental destruction and government control. Dystopia horror explores the concept of a corrupted social, political, and environmental structure in an unrecognisable, nightmare world. Characters in these universes are trapped in horrible living conditions, break the rules society has set, and seek to overthrow the regime that oppresses them, often fighting for their own survival in the process. Novels that use elements of dystopia horror include The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009), and The 100 by Kass Morgan (2013). 

So there you have it. The seven sub-genres of horror. Which one does your writing belong to?