Horror movies can be basically divided into two broad categories:

  1. Where the 'villain' is a supernatural being. As in Exorcist, Conjuring etc..

  2. Where the 'villain' is a human, usually a serial killer. As in Halloween, Scream etc..

My question is this: are there any widely accepted terms that distinguish between these two sub-genres?

EDIT: I'd like to clarify that I'm not looking for specific subgenre terms like slasher or splatter. Those movies have their own characteristics, and though supernatural presence is uncommon in such films, it doesn't affect their definition. (An excellent example would be Final Destination, which has elements of both slasher and splatter, but has supernatural elements). If the first category can be called 'supernatural horror', I'm looking for a blanket term for non-supernatural horror. Or I'm looking for confirmation that no such term exists (which would be a shame).

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    Some would say that only where the villain is a supernatural being the genre is called horror. If the villain is human/natural then it is a thriller. – invalid_id Sep 2 '14 at 10:04
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    Thanks invalid. I'm among the 'some'. But a lot of American movies with horror movie tropes do not feature anything supernatural. (Which is uncommon in India, where I'm from. For Indian movies, horror is synonymous with ghosts/evil spirits). THis is basically the reason I asked the question. – Tushar Raj Sep 2 '14 at 11:08
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    From wikipedia: Horror fiction, horror literature and also horror fantasy is a genre of literature, which is intended to, or has the capacity to frighten its readers, scare or startle viewers/readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. It creates an eerie and frightening atmosphere. Horror can be either supernatural or non-supernatural. ... Horror fiction has its roots in folklore and religious traditions, focusing on death, the afterlife, evil, the demonic and the principle of the thing embodied in the person. – invalid_id Sep 2 '14 at 11:15

To give an idea of the problems inherent in your question, consider this awesome graph from Horror Screen:

enter image description here

That is their categorisation of horror. Using their terminology, you could argue that anything in green or blue is supernatural whilst anything yellow, black or red is non-supernatural. Of course, you could have a torturous zombie film, but they would categorise that as monster. But would other people?

Ultimately, that's your problem. Whilst there are some very obvious and distinct examples, many films contain elements of both and as such there is no overarching terminology that seems to be in existence to describe what is completely or partly supernatural compared to what is totally not supernatural.

The nearest I can find is this entry on Wikipedia (complete with citation), which states:

Some writers of fiction normally classified as "horror" nevertheless dislike the term, considering it too lurid. They instead use the terms dark fantasy or Gothic fantasy for supernatural horror, or "psychological thriller" for non-supernatural horror.

However, again the key part of this is "some writers". There is no consensus in the film world about this. I certainly would not associate psychological thriller solely with non-supernatural - nor would I consider dark fantasies to be only supernatural.

So to concur with @Napoleon's answer: no, there are no widely used umbrella terms in existence to distinguish between these two sub genres.

  • Thanks for the infograph. At places they've kinda split hairs, but it's still pretty comprehensive. On a side note, I'm surprised not to find two of the definitive psychological horror movies on the graph: 'Rosemary's Baby' and 'Shining' – Tushar Raj Dec 3 '14 at 6:11

I don't know how you would call a horror movie with a supernatural entity as main antagonist other than Supernatural Horror. I guess that is the most exact you can get for such a broad classification. There might probably be sub-genres of that concentrating on specific kinds of supernatural stuff, like ghosts, possessions, ..., but I'm not sure there are that established names for those sub-genres (other than obvious concatenations, like "ghost horror", "poltergeist movie", "excorcism movie").

For a horror movie based around some specific killer as concrete person (sometimes also with a slightly supernatural background, but often not) there is the common term of Slasher Movie:

A slasher film is a subgenre of thriller and horror film, typically involving a psychopathic killer stalking and murdering a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner, often with a bladed tool such as a knife, machete, axe, scythe, or chainsaw. Although the term "slasher" may be used as a generic term for any horror movie involving graphic acts of murder, the genre has established its own set of characteristics which set it apart from related genres like the splatter film and psychological thriller.

And in fact Halloween and Scream are prime examples of this genre, being the spearheads of their respective Slasher eras, with the former having to some degree pioneered the genre and the latter being a revival/homage/parody/deconstruction of the whole genre and the originator of a whole new wave of "Teen-Slashers".


So much to the specific sub-genres adressed in your question and its examples. If you are looking for a broader disambiguation between supernatural stuff and anything non-supernatural but frightening and the definition of when something is to be called "horror" in contrast to, say, "thriller", that is pretty hard to define exactly, as the borders between those genres can be quite fluent. In the same way genre is often nothing exclusive, as genres can often be mixed (is Alien "science-fiction" because of the environment or is it "horror" because of the style of filming and the atmosphere, or is it "science-fiction horror"?).

In the same way horror is likely not to be derived simply from the question if it contains supernatural stuff or not, but more by the intended effect on the audience and the employed style elements. But those things are unfortunately not as hard to define and often the distinctions between genres transcend quite a bit.

So I would say apart from the terms Supernatural Horror and Non-Supernatural Horror you won't get much nearer to an overall terminology for distinguishing between those kinds of movies.

  • Thanks for your answer, but that's NOT what I'm looking for. Let me explain. I notice you quote Wikipedia. It says 'the genre has established its own set of characteristics' and cites "A Nightmare on Elm Street" as a prime example. Elm Street has supernatural elements, ergo, it falls in the 1st category according to me. But it is most definitely a slasher film as it has a stalking killer. You see my problem? – Tushar Raj Sep 2 '14 at 11:13
  • 'Supernatural Horror', I'm okay with. Trouble is to find a term for the 2nd category. A term which essentially describes 'Non-Supernatural horror' – Tushar Raj Sep 2 '14 at 11:15
  • @Tushar Then I guess your question might deserve to be reworded. You're not really looking just for the proper terminology for horror sub-genres (as that is what the answer attempted to give and gave to some degree), but actually how "horror" is defined and separated from other genres and when something frightening without supernatural stuff is actually to be called horror. This seems an entirely different question (but fortunately even a better one than the current question). – Napoleon Wilson Sep 2 '14 at 11:45
  • @Tushar I might agree the term "slasher" might be a bit overly specific (though, clearly motivated by and fitting to the examples given in your question), but I doubt there to be an overall term for "non-superantural horror", since the borders between that and other genres, like thriller, are probably quite fluent. – Napoleon Wilson Sep 2 '14 at 11:51

Unfortunately I think the answer to "are there any widely accepted terms that distinguish between these two sub-genres?" is no - simply because they are not widely viewed as sub-genres themselves in English speaking countries. To question why, in English cinema, does Horror seem to encompass both supernatural and natural antagonists requires a look at the term itself. Horror comes from Latin roots (see below) meaning: shaking, shuddering, trembling; as if in fear or from disgust. The genre is concerned with causing the audience to feel the emotion of horror at the events unfolding and you can be frightened to the point of shaking from either natural or supernatural events or antagonists.

directly from Latin horror "dread, veneration, religious awe," a figurative use, literally "a shaking, trembling (as with cold or fear), shudder, chill," from horrere "to bristle with fear, shudder... http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=horror

  • A good point. And yet, you could 'shudder' or 'tremble' when taken hostage by bank robbers; but 'Dog Day Afternoon' or 'Inside Man' are hardly horror movies. Also, etymology is a poor explainer. – Tushar Raj Oct 6 '16 at 5:19
  • True but I stand by my point that a horror movie wants to elicit that emotional response in the viewer. Movies concerning bank robbery are not usually focused on identifying with the hostages or empathizing with their horror in that situation; they're primarily focused on the crime and the response (focusing on the perpetrators or the law enforcement response) and most often end up in Drama or Action. – Brandon McClelland Oct 6 '16 at 18:08

you might do well to look into several of the sub genres. Found Footage is prominent, as are the occult, apocalyptic, and suspense-thrillers. you also may find film noir and neo-noir in the collections of horror aficionados alongside such staples as tragic horror, b-movie horror, the macabre(widely regarded as it's own genre), psychic horror, giallo, extra-terrestrial horror, disaster horror, fairy tale horror, lovecraftian horror, and grotesqueries. Try toying with your ideas of horror, as you will find fantastique, jiangshi fiction, weird fiction and it's child the new weird. delving deeper into the depths you will find gothic and it's cousins southern gothic, suburban gothic, tasmanian gothic, and urban/suburban gothic. further still you might find grind house, holocaust horror, early german expressionist films (the cabinet of doctor caligari), mutant horror, documentary horror, and serial killer stories. Down the rabbit hole you will find bizarro horror, torture flicks, historical horror, horror of personality, korean and japanese horror (see Ringu, the host, Audition, and the grudge most of the former and latter of which have been americanized for non-bilinguals), autobiographical horror, reincarnation horror, the Penny-dreadfuls, erotic horror (not suggested), and what some call Hagsploitation (Older woman in supernatural or terror-inducing peril) and blaxploitation (see the b-movie franchise blackula for examples). Crossgenre horror artists have produced such sub-genres as virtual reality horror, time and space travel horror, horror rooted in psychic powers, infection horror, action horror, horror of comedy, Drug Horror, and of course, Supernatural Romance (see examples such as let me in, or it's counterpart let the right one in, interview with the vampire) Oh, and don't forget Romance (no, not romance, but Romance) It's a very old genre which provided horror, and gothic literature with a place to grab on and fester and boil into it's current melting pot of all that it has become. Lastly, and I only mention this for people who watch every aspect of the genre, is a sub genre which critics and scholars alike have dubbed torture porn (nothing like how it sounds. for examples, look for such films as A serbian film, the Saw franchise, Hostel (parts 1-?), and the human centipede. Furthermore, I think you will find certain philosophical films, such as Begotten(1990) to be of great interest in your search for what constitutes horror.

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    Welcome to M&TV. Could you please make an effort to format your answer in a way that makes it easier to read? Huge blocks of text discourage people from reading the answer because it's confusing. – Catija Dec 29 '15 at 6:13

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