Differences: Psychological Horror and Horror
Question: I have a great idea for a horror novel but I am confused about the genre categorization. Is there a difference between a Psychological Horror story and a Horror story? Is a Psychological Horror story the same as a Psychological Thriller?
Just to be clear, these terms get used interchangeably...
In all cases, they refer to stories in which the main character's perception is skewed by the fact that he is losing his grip on reality. The reader (who is seeing the story through the main character's eyes) has the problem of determining what is happening and how much of what the main character perceives is a symptom of his madness.
If we were to make distinctions, we could say that in psychological suspense, the main character is being stalked by a villain or walking into a trap at the same time as he is losing his grip on reality. A psychological thriller is less about suspense and more about the main character finding himself in fights or other dangerous situations as he is losing his grip. In psychological horror, the main character is in conflict with a villain who could be described as a monster but is not actually supernatural.
In a genuine horror story, the main character is sane. However, he is threatened by a very real supernatural threat or monster that is attacking him and others. The fear comes from the monster's ability to
defy the normal laws of reality. For instance, ghosts can walk through walls. Vampires can't be seen in a mirror. Zombies are corpses that come to life.
In psychological horror, the monster has no supernatural qualities. The laws of nature are not being violated. They only seem to be because the main character is losing his grip on reality, which can be a frightening experience. He may be falling into paranoia, obsession, or madness. He may be hallucinating or psychologically traumatized.
As the story progresses, the main character may become uncertain whether he is going mad or the world has. The reader accompanies the main character on his descent into madness, and must likewise try to figure out how much of what the main character perceives is real and how much is a delusion. Suspicion, paranoia, and self-doubt on the part of the main character are common.
A psychological thriller may also combine a psychologically scary experience with a more typical thriller plot. For instance, you might write a spy story in which the spy may be suffering from a mental breakdown or becoming paranoid. He may grow increasingly uncertain about who are his friends and who are his enemies. Or you might have a murder mystery in which the evidence and suspects are so strange that the detective is forced to question his sanity or what is real.
However, these categories are not rigid and you may see many stories in the gray area between them.