Writing Craft: What is horror?

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Horror is that chill in the night while you are walking to your front door. Horror is the fear that a hand will reach out and grab you in the dark. Horror is the feeling that something is not right when you are home alone.

But, what does this mean technically?

Recently, we defined genre as a category of text. So, what are some of these categories known as “subgenres”? Well, today, we look at one of my favorites (right up there with science fiction), and analyze it to learn about its elements and conventions.

Horror defined

It doesn’t matter your age, horror as a genre is the absolute best. Both September and October are prime months for horror movies. The leaves are dying, the chill is in the air…the wall between the living and dead is thinning out, and the old Celtic tradition of Samhain is just around the corner!

But what makes horror blend so well with these things? Why do the turning leaves always remind me of the Headless Horseman’s fateful pursuit of Ichabod Crane? Why does the crispness in the air fill me full of joy and delicious dread, such that the narrator of the Tell-Tale Heart shares with the reader?

The horror genre generates a sense of fear, suspense, mystery, and dread. Some sources define it as these feelings being created inside of the reader or viewer, including “repulsion” and terror,” which ultimately “…develops the atmosphere of horror” (Literaryterms.net).

Horror as a genre has many conventions, or elements, that make it what it is, and it’s these conventions that touch the darkest pits of our animal brains and tickle us in just the right way.

Examples of conventions at play

If we look at some prime examples from literature, we can understand how these conventions come into existence. For instance, in Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, the characters are constantly assaulted physically and mentally by an awful monster that hunts for prey by night. Dracula, of course, is a supernatural being, ranging somewhere between a wraith and an unholy blight. Stoker plays quite fruitfully on the the convention of the unknown, as it is a looming element in the horror genre. The characters don’t know what to expect from Dracula (whose powers are largely unknown to them) and that creates foreboding and suspense for the reader.

In the following excerpt, the protagonist of Dracula, Jonathan Harker, is traveling to Dracula’s castle via carriage and hears noises in the distance.

“Then, far off in the distance, from the mountains on each side of us began a louder and sharper howling—that of wolves—which affected both the horses and myself in the same way—for I was minded to jump from the caleche (a horse-drawn vehicle) and run, whilst they reared again and plunged madly, so that the driver had to use all his great strength to keep them from bolting” (Dracula).

The unknowing of this section of the story is crippling to the reader. Who are these wolves and why are they howling at the carriages approach? Yet, we also know he will be just fine because wild dogs howling in the distance is a convention of horror. However, it doesn’t mitigate the apprehension one has while reading about Harker’s journey up to the castle.

Moreover, The Judge’s House (1891) by Bram Stoker feeds into the conventions of horror AND the ghost story.

The elements are as follows:

  • There’s a learned student (or man of science).
  • There’s a long-abandoned, portentous abode.
  • The main character spends the night(s) there.
  • There is a fearful town of superstitious folk.
  • The main character ignore the warnings from said folk.
  • The main character comes to a bad end for dismissing superstition.

All of these features can be found in The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker, but they can also be found in almost any haunted house story or movie in the genre.

At one point in the story (spoiler alert), our student protagonist is confronted by a specter and looks to the many rat-holes that litter the walls of the house. There he sees the eyes of each rat peering out; and what is more, the rope in the room that goes up to a great bell alarm is also covered in rats.

“Every inch of it was covered with them, and more and more were pouring through the small circular hole in the ceiling whence it emerged, so that with their weight the bell was beginning to sway” (The Judge’s House).

What could be more disgusting (as it fits into the horror genre) than seeing a multitude of large, hairy rats hanging from a rope that is dangling from the rafters? And, also, a rope that spells certain doom for our protagonist? The revulsion that the reader feels fits right into the horror nook.


Horror, much like every genre, is simply a category composed of tropes and conventions. Yes, we can get down to the nitty-gritty if you would like. There are so many interpretations of horror and what it means to the reader and the writer.

For instance, Danse Macabre (1981) by Stephen King spells out a whole thesis on horror and its relationship to the Good and Evil sides of humanity. Meanwhile, the documentary film Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (2009) tackles the sociological manifestations present in the horror genre across multiple decades, from war and conflict to nationwide fears of technology and nuclear annihilation.

Certainly there are deeper analyses and meditations on what horror is, but at its basic roots we have a genre that intends to do one thing for its readers–scare the pants off of them!

Works Cited

“Horror: Definition and Examples | LiteraryTerms.Net.” Literary Terms, 16 Sept. 2017, literaryterms.net/horror/.

Stoker, Bram. “Bram Stoker, Excerpt from Dracula (1897) – A Guide to the GothicShare on Twitter.” Jeanette A. Laredo, 3 May 2022, oen.pressbooks.pub/guidetogothic/chapter/bram-stoker-excerpt-from-dracula-1897/.

Stoker, Bram. “The Judge’s House.” American Literature, 20 Oct. 2AD, americanliterature.com/author/bram-stoker/short-story/the-judges-house.