How do you decide if a movie is horror or not? This is so subjective I almost didn’t write about it, but it is fun to interrogate this question a bit. Even if the discourse on it tends to get contentious really quickly.
I’ll just spoil this now: while I will lay out some of the criteria I use to decide if a movie is a horror film by my personal standards, genres are just loose boxes at the end of the day so I don’t really come to any groundbreaking conclusions here. Nor do I state which films I feel don’t qualify as horror films.
I think the reason horror film fans mostly do not nitpick what is and is not horror is because we understand it is so subjective. I’m not going to knock someone for calling something horror that I wouldn’t. Horror blends with a lot of other genres, and while writing this post I realized defining horror is an endless rabbithole of pointless “what ifs?”.
At the same time, I think the reason horror film fans tend to get frustrated when a movie is dismissed as not being horror it is usually because it feels like an ulterior motive is attached. The times I’ve heard people argue a movie is not horror have often been instances of non-horror fans implying it couldn’t be horror because it wasn’t a sleazy slasher or gory splatter film. It feels like an out-of-hand dismissal of the genre and all its different styles and approaches.
Why is it so difficult to define horror?
Not only is fear subjective, but what scares us seems to be a moving target that changes and evolves over time. Early horror films were typically monster movies, but most of these films and their scares feel incredibly quaint by today’s standards.
Monster movies like Frankenstein and The Wolfman seem to share DNA with Jaws which is ultimately a monster movie itself. Or at least one that creates feelings of fear and dread. But at the same time, Jaws also feels too grounded to be a horror film. It focuses on protagonists who are at least somewhat equipped to deal with the danger. Much like Clarice feels capable of handling the danger in The Silence of the Lambs despite the horror elements of the film. The Silence of the Lambs also feels like it tricks you into watching a horror film, constantly putting you as the viewer in Clarice’s perspective while she constantly deals with the threat of danger. The use of perspective shares DNA with slashers, and certain moments of the film feel just like moments of giallo or proto-slashers like Psycho and Peeping Tom. And those are most certainly considered horror films, unlike The Silence of the Lambs which seems to slip through the cracks of being automatically considered horror.
I’ve seen supernatural elements used as the standard for classifying something as horror, but that would exclude classics like Friday the 13th and Halloween. For better or worse, slashers have become the defacto subgenre most people picture when they think of a horror film. I would venture to say if you asked someone on the street, “describe a typical horror movie” they would say “some guy wearing a mask going around stabbing people with a knife.” Many slashers aren’t as scary as they are shocking or subversive, but it would be silly to not think of them as horror even if they do not scare you personally.
Trying to define horror
So now the definition of a horror movie has stretched to include monsters, ghosts, and psychos. We can probably say a horror movie is a movie that revolves around a villain that is trying to actively harm or kill the protagonists throughout the film. Of course, other genres can also include that, but horror films definitely involve a persistent, active threat that can be a human but is often imbued with some sense of otherworldliness. Which I guess might mean Jurassic Park would be a horror movie? But that doesn’t seem right given the sense of adventure and wonder present in Jurassic Park as well.
A horror movie also has a pervasive tone and atmosphere meant to create fear or shock. It is meant to literally horrify you. Even if it doesn’t succeed, we can often recognize that as a goal of horror. Likewise, other movies can occasionally scare or disturb us, but they aren’t persistently trying to do this. This might also be why The Silence of the Lambs has arguments for and against its place as a horror film. It depends on how scared we feel for most the film.
But if horror movies need a persistent villain and a pervasive atmosphere of fear or dread, how do we account for horror comedies? Horror often injects so much comedy into its formula, it becomes self-aware and more of a commentary on the tropes we strongly associate with horror. A movie like The Final Girls is a comedy, but it’s also a slasher. It isn’t meant to scare us let alone create an atmosphere of pervasive fear.
So it is complicated in part because horror is often blended with other genres. And when it blends with a thriller or suspense film, if it softens the pervasive fear and violence too much it seems to slip out of the horror box.
So what makes a movie a horror movie to me?
So if I was to create a loose box of what makes a movie “horror enough” to me, here’s what’s in the box:
The sense of danger for the protagonist OR seeing people they are meant to protect in danger
The protagonist is an everyday person trying to survive a frightening situation. They are not a professional trained to handle the horror. Or the situation is so unworldly their training does not matter (e.g. Last Shift, Baskin, Hellraiser: Inferno, Terrified). Or they are trained to defeat the villain, but their quest to do so is intercut with moments of pure horror meant to shock, disgust, and/or disturb us (e.g. the Saw & The Conjuring franchises). In these cases, they may not be in direct danger themselves aside from the climax, but we are still getting that sense of fear from the characters they are trying to protect or rescue.
If the horror film’s protagonist is also the villain (e.g. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer; The Driller Killer), then this would apply to the sense of danger the other characters around them are in.
Use of horror film tropes and conventions
The film uses horror film tropes and conventions. This can include having that persistent and seemingly (but not always literally) otherworldly antagonist, a creepy atmosphere, or spooky music. It can be in a meta or humorous way, but as long as it is pervasive. This ensures horror-comedies like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and The Final Girls still fall under the umbrella.
This also leaves a wide berth for things like Hocus Pocus, The Bad Seed, The Purge, and Alien. It also leaves room for the genre to mutate and grow over time. Much like the genre became synonymous with slashers for many people my age, horror has now grown to include slow burn dramas like Midsommar and The Monster which continue to stretch boundaries and genre blending.
And that’s really it.
But what makes a movie unequivocally horror?
Sometimes a movie is just horror. Its box is packed tight. The difference in this case is the pervasive atmosphere of fear and dread and/or use of gore and violence. It may have occasional comedic relief, but it is clear the movie is trying to disturb you by creeping you out, startling you, or grossing you out with an excess of violence. The violence may occasionally be glorified or so ridiculous it transcends being scary into being silly, but it is still more explicit than most other genres.
Like a comedy or melodrama, straight horror is focused on generating a visceral, physical reaction. Many horror films might have you thinking about them late into the night, but pure horror is often aiming for you to gasp or jump or wince in reaction to what you are seeing. Sometimes, like with slashers, this can also include making you laugh to relieve some tension before making you tense up again in preparation for the next scare (no matter how cheap it is).
The main conclusion is that it really doesn’t matter. We just want to love the genre, and we shouldn’t gatekeep its fans or its boundaries or we risk sucking the fun right out of it. Purity tests are something straight out of a horror movie after all.
At the same time, it is fun to think about where those boundaries might fall for you. I find mine sometimes change day by day, or based on the context in which I first watch a movie. Next time you think “that’s not horror!” it might be fun to examine why you feel that way.