Horror Fiction: Elements, Themes, & Subgenres of Horror Literature

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Horror fiction writing starts with first understanding the subgenres of horror fiction so that you write better horror fiction and don’t blend the subgenres of horror fiction in one story.

Every subgenre of horror fiction has a specific quality and elements which differentiate it from the rest of the genres, so knowing the basic elements of the horror subgenres and understanding their source of fear can help you write a great horror story.

Related: How to Write a Horror Story

What is Horror Fiction?

Horror fiction, novels, and stories are meant to scare, disgust, and terrify its reader.

The main purpose of Horror fiction is to create a strong imaginative fear in its reader’s mind which can frighten and terrify them while they are in their comfort zone reading and enjoying the spooky feeling of fear and death just by turning the pages of a book.

Ghosts are the most popular figures of fear used in horror fiction, but the genre is not only limited to it.

Elements of Horror Fiction-

  • Ghost
  • Demons
  • Monsters
  • Zombies
  • Aliens
  • Spirits
  • Witches
  • Vampires
  • Werewolf
  • killers, etc

Related: 101 Horror Vocabulary

Common Themes of Horror Fiction-

These are the common literary themes which most horror fiction follows:

  • Fear
  • Death
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Supernatural
  • Illness
  • Paranormal
  • Family
  • Coming of age
  • Isolation
  • Insanity
  • Precognition
  • Revenge
  • Bravery
  • Alienation
  • Nature
  • Madness
  • Christianity
  • The Occult
  • Innocence
  • Religion
  • Growing up
  • Angst
  • Women and sex
  • Survival
  • Appearances
  • Suffering
  • Torture
  • Childhood
  • Trauma
  • Memory
  • Friendship
  • Storytelling
  • Imagination
  • Home
  • Confinement
  • Violence
  • Illusion vs. reality
  • Faith
  • Hope
  • Growing up
  • Time

Related: 9 Best Horror Short Stories

horror fiction elements themes and subgenres in literature

5 Popular Subgenres of Horror Fiction-

#1 Gothic Horror

Gothic fiction or gothic horror is a genre of literature that covers horror, death and sometimes romance. The setting of a gothic horror plays a primary role in gothic novels as the location is either set in a haunted castle or an old haunted house.

The origin of the gothic fiction roots back 18th century English author Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled A Gothic Story” is said to contain all the essential elements of Gothic fiction.

Ghosts or monsters are the primary main horrific characters in gothic novels.

The other elements of a gothic horror include:

A woman (female character) in distress, a gloomy atmosphere, darkness, ruins of buildings, awful weather, rain, thunder & lightning, omens, prophecy, nightmares, and eerie sounds are often included as a part of gothic novels.

Examples of Gothic Fiction-

  • Dracula” by Bram Stoker
  • Frankenstein” by Mark Shelley
  • The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson
  • The Sandman, the nutcracker and other dark fairy tales” by E.T.A Hoffman
  • Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas
  • The Monster of Elendhaven” by Jennifer Geisbrecht

#2 Paranormal Fiction

Paranormal fiction covers ghost stories and horror elements that can’t be explained by science. This subgenre includes beings and creatures that do not exist within the scientific realm or explanation.

Paranormal fiction includes creatures like zombies, aliens, werewolves, apparitions, and ghosts which are the primary horrific creatures found in the stories of this subgenre.

The subgenre also includes some popular phenomena like time travel and telepathy which are often included in the paranormal fiction.

Examples of Paranormal Fiction-

  • Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer
  • Moon Called” by Patricia Briggs
  • A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness
  • Immortal After Dark” by Kresley Cole
  • Interview with the Vampire” by Anne Rice
  • The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty
  • The Changeling” by Victor LaValle

#3 Supernatural Fiction

Supernatural fiction generally showcases supernatural beings like witches, demons, vampires, ghosts, devils, angels, etc., and contradicts the natural laws of the real world.

The stories of supernatural fiction also include the matter of god, archangels, and the soul.

Examples of Supernatural fiction-

  • The Black Catby Edgar Allan Poe
  • Pet Sematary” by Stephen King
  • The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James
  • The Shining” by Stephen King
  • Dead Witch Walking” by Kim Harrison
  • Dead to the World” by Charlaine Harrison

#4 Sci-fi Horror

Sci-fi horror is a subgenre of both science fiction and horror. This subgenre contains a blend of horror and science fiction.

Sci-fi horror often includes a futuristic setting outside the earth’s atmosphere in space and often showcases the story of space exploration by exploring all the possibilities of creating fear in space.

The source of fear used in sci-fi horror fiction are aliens, interstellar elements, unknown planets etc.

Sci-fi horror often describes space as a terrifying place and the story revolves around surviving and escaping.

Examples of Sci-fi Horror

  • The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington
  • The Luminous Dead” by Caitlin Starling
  • Salvation Day” by Kali Wallace
  • Blindsight” by Peter Watts
  • Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell

#5 Psychological Horror

Psychological horror exploits the mental, emotional and psychological states of the readers to deliver a terrifying and frightening story.

In psychological horror novels fear, dread and discomfort are created in readers’ minds by exploring the common emotional fears of the human mind and psyche.

Examples of Psychological Horror

  • Psycho” by Robert Bloch
  • The Shining” by Stephen King
  • American Gothic” by Robert Bloch
  • The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” by Stephen King

Pro writing tips– Read the works of the popularly known king of horror fiction, Stephen King to develop the art and style of horror writing.

Related:101 Horror Story Ideas

Popular Horror Novels-

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

The Shiningby Stephen King

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

At the Mountains of Madnessby H.P Lovecraft

Watch the below informative video by Ted-Ed on how to write a good horror story.

Neel Rana

About the Author- Neel Rana is a YA short story author, flash fiction writer, literary enthusiast and the founder of Pandora Post. Neel holds a degree in BA Honours in English Literature and has been writing since 2017. Neel’s magnum opus YA short storybook, “The Drunken Ghost” has been well received by the readers.