Suspense vs. Horror: What's the Difference?

Horror and suspense films have become two of the most enduring cinematic genres of all time. Opponents of horror films argue that they thrive on cheap thrills and simply try to disturb their audiences in graphic, visual elements. Conversely, some horror film fans argue that thrillers simply don't have the same effect. So what is the difference between a horror film and a suspense film?

Horror shows, suspense/thriller implies

One of the biggest differences between a horror movie and a suspense film is that the former works on a much more visual level than the latter. Horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes are designed to frighten the audience through visceral, visual elements that leave little to the imagination. A suspense film, however, will stimulate the viewer in a more deeply psychological manner. A thriller may imply that something is happening or, more important, is about to happen, creating a very different emotional effect in the viewer.

Certainty versus doubt

Horror films are not very subtle. Indeed, as self-referential horror films like Scream have suggested, the genre has almost become predictable. For example, when a main character has two choices, one sensible and one dangerous, then the first option will always be ignored. In a thriller, the whole point is that you will leave the audience guessing, sometimes right until the very end. Indeed, sometimes, a suspense film will never reveal a key plot element, leaving the audience to decide how things panned out.

Fantasy versus reality

Traditionally, horror films are based around a narrative that involves a fantasy element. That could be something supernatural, such as a ghost or vampire, a monster, a super-human serial killer and more. Suspense films are generally based around reality. They exist in a world where what you see could happen. Horror films, while disturbing, gory or violent, can be dismissed as fantastical. A thriller is likely to resonate in a very different way, convincing the viewer that he or she is watching something taking place in the real world.

Blurring the lines

Some films successfully combine both horror and suspense elements, and could not be defined as one genre or the other. The Sixth Sense, for example, contains many elements of a suspense thriller while revolving around supernatural and fairly horrific events. Many writers would argue that trying to pigeon-hole films into one genre or the other is a limiting and pointless activity. In order to innovate, writers continue to blend genres and ideas into new concepts, further developing the idea of a film that frightens and excites us. Therefore, it may not even be worth trying to figure out whether a film is a horror or suspense flick.

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