Exploring the Diverse Subgenres of Horror Literature

Do you enjoy stories that leave you hesitant to take that 2 a.m. trip to the bathroom? Whether you have nerves of steel or just enjoy a huge adrenaline rush, you likely know that horror is a genre that people either love or hate. 

For those who love it, have you ever asked yourself why? What is it about horror that is so alluring? Turns out, it’s in our biology. To understand a scary story’s effect on us, we must get down to the root of what horror is all about, fear. 

(Don’t worry, this isn’t just an homage to Stephen King) 

The Power of Fear

To reimagine and play around with fear is an intrinsic reaction to the human condition. A good horror story is often a full-body, immersive experience.  Fear triggers our fight-or-flight responses which, in turn, produces adrenaline and provides an emotional release. Ultimately, there are many reasons to love a good horror story, whether it be examining the human body’s complexities and fragility or simply having excellent fodder for the next time you gather with loved ones around a campfire.  

A Journey through Horror Subgenres

The true horror story for our librarians is trying to categorize horror fiction into the enormous number of subgenres that exist under the scary umbrella.

Gothic Horror

This is generally considered to be the earliest category of horror novels. Gothic horror stories involve elements of haunting, witchcraft, or Satanic presence, mixed with plenty of symbolism and often a dusting of romance as the blood-red cherry on top. Some classic titles of this subgenre are The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Dracula by Bram Stoker, but less well-known and more recent titles include White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi and Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield. 

Paranormal Horror

Vampires, monsters and zombies! Oh my! Paranormal horror involves anything that does not exist in the scientific realm of possibility. It differs from gothic horror mostly in that it relies less on symbolism and tends to follow much more straightforward plot lines about the horrors these monsters produce. Popular titles of paranormal horror would be It, opens a new window by Stephen King and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (although this one could also be argued to be a gothic horror novel too – see what I mean about the nightmare this creates for our librarians?). Some newer titles include Tell Me I'm Worthless by Allison Rumfit and Wonderland by Zoje Stage. 

Psychological Horror

This category is sometimes also called non-supernatural horror because it is firmly rooted in the realm of possibility. The plot lines in this subgenre are usually incomplete until the last few pages of the books, if they ever wrap up at all. Fear of the unknown plays a huge part in this subgenre. Classics include Psycho, opens a new window by Robert Bloch and some newer titles are The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood and Such A Pretty Smile by Kristi DeMeester.   

Social Horror

This subgenre relies on either an augmentation of or a direct focus on a specific part of society to highlight social oppression.  Queer and BIPOC authors bring a unique perspective to this genre and usually flip narrative tropes on their heads to comment on society and leave the reader with something else to ponder besides how terrified they are. Jordan Peele’s movies Get Out and Us are perfect examples of this as well as White Horse by Erika T. Wurth. 

Body Horror

Body horror is generally about gross or creepy things happening to the human body. This could be a gruesome torture scene, but it could also be a weird transformation or disease inflicted on the body, usually to comment on how fragile the human body is. Some classics of this genre are Uzumaki by Junji Ito (which is a manga series) and Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin (although again, this could be under paranormal horror as well). Some fresher finds include Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric La Rocca and Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin.   

Beyond the Basics and Hidden Literary Gems

These are the five MAIN subgenres of the horror umbrella, however, there are way more listed on EPL resources like Novelist. One of my favourites not included in the list above is Folk Horror, which takes a folk tale or traditional lesson and flips it into a horror story (think Midsommar or The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones). If you feel like you have only scratched the surface of what horror is, you are right! It is truly a huge and diverse genre with super cool novels, manga and movies to really give you that heart-racing, eye-squinting, body-completely-tensed-until-your-toes-are-numb feeling.  

We’d love to hear from you, what are some of your favourite horror novels? What made you get into the genre in the first place? What tropes get you going and which tropes make you want to slam the book shut?