There are four pillars (or four categories, however you wish to see it) to writing within the field that is horror, and those pillars should not be misconstrued as just subgenres of horror. There are countless subgenres of horror, too many for me to list off the top of my head, mainly because horror goes well with every other genre in existence.
Examples of subgenres of horror: Classic Horror, Comedic Horror, Dark Fantasy or Fantasy Horror, Eldritch Horror, Paranormal Horror, Psychological Horror, Science-Fiction Horror, Slasher Horror, etc.
These are just a few examples of subgenres of horror, but you’ll notice soon enough that the four pillars of horror are well represented as subgenres, too.
The four pillars of horror are described below.
The Four Pillars of Horror
The four pillars of horror that hold aloft the world of horror are:
1: Traditional/Classic Horror
2: Gore/Splatter Horror
3: Psychological Horror
4: Eldritch/Cosmic Horror
These four pillars encompass any type of horror story and are not mutually exclusive to each other. A single story can reach multiple pillars, and a subgenre of horror can reach multiple pillars as well.
So what makes these types of horror different from any other old subgenre? Well…it’s the way they’re written and what they focus upon that makes the difference.
Let’s start with Traditional Horror and go from there.
Traditional/Classic Horror is all about the story, and the parameters of the story generally “stay within the lines” of what can be explained and defined. Furthermore, though description, mood, atmosphere, setting, and character motivation/thought are important, the story and the plot take precedence.
Traditional horror typically focuses on piecing together a definitive plot through cues and hints earlier within the story that lead to a disturbing climax, a coup de grâce that finishes the story with an astounding ending.
Let’s look at an example of Traditional/Classic Horror:
A werewolf is terrorizing an early 1900s town during the full moon.
Cody, a young man coming of age, a young man whose mother was killed when he was young, is determined to destroy the creature that killed his girlfriend. He organizes his friends to go on a hunt, though his father warns him not to, the man citing what happened to Cody’s mother, that the woman was killed by a werewolf, herself. Cody knows that his father killed the original werewolf, which is why the man has wolfsbane and silver bullets. The older man does not want to lose anyone else in his life. Cody tells his father that his father is not going to lose him like the older man lost Cody’s mother. He ignores his father’s warnings and gathers his four best friends.
Cody and his friends arm themselves with wolfsbane from Cody’s father’s garden and silver bullets from Cody’s father’s ammunition box, and they set out to hunt outside of town.
They take a horse and cart and enter the nearby forest to hunt the beast. The five only have lantern light at night and swiftly become lost and separated. The full moon comes out, and Cody is the first to fall (literally). He trips, falls, hits his head, and is knocked out. Cody’s friends, lost and separated, are picked off one by one after that.
Cody wakes up at dawn and finds one of his dead friends slaughtered and lying on top of him. Covered in blood with his clothes somewhat shredded, Cody discovers his other friends’ remains, and then he spends the day burying them with a shovel he brought in the cart. With his horse slaughtered from the night before, Cody has to walk home without the cart. Eventually, he returns home just before nightfall.
His father is waiting for him at home. Cody tells him what happened. His father proceeds to tell him how his mother actually died, a revelation that Cody had not expected.
Cody’s father killed his mother. The reason his father has wolfsbane in the garden, a plant native to Italy and the Alps, and the reason his father has silver bullets, is not just because of the original werewolf, but also because Cody’s mother had been a werewolf. Cody’s father explains that Cody’s mother was already a werewolf before Cody was born. She was bitten by one while she was still pregnant, and though the older man had shot and killed that one, the damage had already been done. The older man has been keeping the wolfsbane and silver bullets in case Cody becomes the beast.
The full moon rises, and Cody turns into the werewolf just before his father shoots him dead with several silver bullets.
As you can see above, we’re using a definable horror creature, a werewolf, as our antagonist. We learn in the story that the werewolf is a person that changes into a wolflike monster during the full moon, can be warded off by wolfsbane, and can be killed by silver bullets, laying down a set of solid rules as to how to defeat it.
The story focuses upon the plot, which has the twist ending of the protagonist actually being the antagonist at the same time. The clues, hints, and cues are set up early within the story, from the strong lead of the nature of his mother’s death, his father’s growing of wolfsbane, a foreign plant, in the family garden, and the fact that his father also owns silver bullets, not exactly something the older man could easily obtain. Cody’s survival and his lack of memory during the ambush from the creature are also strong hints to the ending. Everything ties together at the end with the full explanation of Cody’s mother’s death.
Note that traditional horror may also have a resolved or more traditional ending. A good example of traditional horror is Bram Stokers’ Dracula. The novel is not exactly short horror (it’s a novel), but it displays the traditional elements of classic horror as is.
Now let’s move on to Gore/Splatter Horror.
Gore/Splatter Horror relies heavily on description, as the horror inherent within it is all about the shock value of visual effect, whether that effect is in your mind’s eye while reading, or whether that effect is a scene in a movie or TV show. Subsequently, plot, character motivation/thought, mood, setting, and atmosphere aren’t nearly as important in this type of horror. They take a definite backseat to the explicit gore.
The goal in Gore/Splatter Horror is to horrify and terrify its readers and/or audience through vivid visual effects that tap into primal fear. If you see it clearly in your mind’s eye, it shakes you. If you see it clearly on a TV screen or big screen, it shakes you. Detailed, visual description is key here.
Let’s look at an example of Gore/Splatter Horror:
Joleen and her friends are college students in the late ’70s.
They get together at an after-finals party, drink, dance, and have fun. Late that night, everyone goes back to their apartments and dorms except for Joleen and three of her friends, David, Amy, and Joseph. They decide to play with a spirit board and summon spirits in a séance. Her friends want something scary, so they summon the spirit of Red Bob, a serial killer who was executed in the 1940s. Red Bob manifests for a second before disappearing. This scares the group, who vow not to play around with the board again.
That night, Joleen dreams of Red Bob slaughtering people in the 1940s. She tells her friend Amy about the dream, but Amy laughs it off. The next night, Joleen dreams of Amy being brutally and viciously murdered. She awakens to find that her friend Amy has actually been murdered in the manner described within her dream.
Joleen immediately connects the murders to the séance and tries to warn David and Joseph about Red Bob. Both David and Joseph believe Joleen is mad with grief and ignore her warnings.
The next night, Joleen dreams of Joseph being murdered in a gruesome way. She awakens to find that the murder is real.
Joleen rushes to David to try to convince him that they are both being hunted by the evil spirit of Red Bob. Joleen discovers (most unhappily) that it is actually David who is the one possessed by the spirit of Red Bob. David tries to kill her, but Joleen escapes and runs for her life. She crosses some train tracks at the last second as a train is bearing down on them, and David is run over by the train instead.
The next night, Joleen dreams of Red Bob slaughtering more people, and she wakes up in the kitchen with a butcher knife in her hand.
The story above shines more emphasis on the gory murders than the actual plot. Detailed description is put into each murder and dream in order to horrify yet captivate the reader.
Gore/Splatter Horror is designed to evoke a primal feeling of fear simply from visual description of that gore. If you can imagine the image or actually see it in a picture or on screen, you can be afraid of it.
I could give you a detailed description of a gory death here, but this is a PG article, so I’ll let you figure out how to do that on your own. Just remember that details make the scene, and you’ll do fine. In fact, if you want a good description of how to write a gory scene, just watch any zombie movie ever.
A good example of Gore/Splatter Horror is the Friday the 13th franchise, starring Jason Voorhees. These movies have little substance in plot, but they are good at showing off multiple violent deaths.
Up next is Psychological Horror.
Psychological Horror creates fear by evoking doubt, paranoia, and anxiety. You can have, of course, real deaths, supernatural occurrences, and a number of other more traditional horror elements within Psychological Horror, but the main premise of this type of horror is to evoke a lingering dread that settles down upon the reader and will not leave.
Psychological Horror blurs the line between what is real and what is not, and it focuses more on thoughts and feelings than anything else. It pulls the reader in several different directions in order to cause confusion until a conclusion can be made at the end of the story.
We’ll study an example of Psychological Horror:
Nova has just graduated from college, and her uncle owns an IT company. He gives her her first professional job there.
She happily works her first day without incident and makes friends with an older woman named Jada. Jada admits that she had applied for the job but hadn’t gotten it, even though she has been working there for twelve years, but that was okay, because Jada jokes about Nova’s new position in the company being “cursed.” She tells Nova that multiple new hires have been chased off from that position by “an evil force.”
The next day Nova discovers disturbing messages within her work on her work computer. These messages include: “We are watching,” “We are Legion,” and “A new sacrifice has arrived.” She also sees the random symbol of a pentagram in different places around the office. Nova tells her boss, but the messages cannot be found within the work, so she isn’t believed. Jada tries to help, convincing Nova that the younger woman is just stressed over having a new job.
Nova goes home and takes a hot bath in order to relieve her own anxiety. Exiting the bathroom after her bath, she finds a pentagram drawn upon her bedroom wall in what looks like blood. She then receives a threating phone call with a demonic voice on the other end claiming, “Your soul is ours.” She finds the whole head of a pig and what looks like a heart inside her refrigerator. Shaken, Nova calls the police, and the police file a report.
Nova quits her job the very next day and seeks the help of a priest. Her uncle is disappointed but looks for a replacement for Nova’s position.
Jada receives a phone call on her day off from Nova’s uncle and immediately accepts the position on a temporary basis until the man can find a replacement. Jada smiles as she closes out of a screen on her computer that showcases pictures of a butcher shop and the outside of Nova’s apartment door. Jada picks up a notepad and pencil and crosses Nova’s name off of a list of previously crossed-out names. At the top of the list of names is the title “New Sacrifices.”
As you can read from above, Psychological Horror takes the opposite turn from Gore/Splatter Horror in that it focuses upon the mental and emotional rather than the visual and physical.
Psychological Horror excels at twisting and turning the plot through mental dictation with an emphasis on emotional breakdown. We see the protagonist squirm and fall apart in front of us as we try to put ourselves in their position.
The fear in Psychological Horror is generated through the unknown and uncertainty of what is actually going on, causing the reader or viewer to come up with many different theories as to where the plot is going. Good psychological horror will keep readers and audiences guessing until the end.
A great example of Psychological Horror is the movie Perfect Blue, directed by Satoshi Kon, based upon the novel by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. Like my other examples, this movie isn’t a short story, but it’s one of the best examples of Psychological Horror out there, so if you haven’t seen it, you should take the time to watch it, but that’s just my advice, not an assignment. I won’t go into detail about the movie here because that would ruin the plot.
And last, but not least, let’s finish this article with Eldritch/Cosmic Horror.
Eldritch/Cosmic Horror was created by Howard Phillips Lovecraft in the early 1900s. This type of horror takes the opposite direction from Traditional/Classic Horror and focuses upon the unknown and unexplainable rather than the previously mentioned set and described folklore.
The fear generated by Eldritch/Cosmic Horror comes from the threat of unknown, malevolent forces bent upon human destruction. This type of horror showcases stories of indescribably horrific beings that (typically) attempt to destroy and or deconstruct the protagonist in some terrifying way.
Eldritch/Cosmic Horror often crosses into the territory of Psychological Horror (madness), and Gore/Splatter Horror (brutal depictions of mutilation and gore) for a complete feeling of alienation and xenophobia that wreaks havoc upon the reader’s and/or viewer’s psyche.
Let’s look at an example of Eldritch/Cosmic Horror:
Lenny is a smalltime crook in the 1950s.
Lenny cases a well-to-do professor’s house looking to rob whatever he can take. He sees a car leave the house, but he doesn’t realize that it’s just the professor’s maid. He breaks into the house, puts some valuable goods into a bag, and enters the study on the 1st floor, only to find that the professor is still at home in the study.
At first, Lenny is going to run, but then he spies the wall safe in the study. He draws his gun and demands that the professor open the safe. The professor opens the safe, and Lenny removes the cash, jewelry, and a book from within and stuffs them all in his bag. Inside the safe is a small figurine made of bone. The figurine is of an ugly creature that looks to be made of various animal parts and features. The professor informs Lenny that the figurine is worthless, but Lenny doesn’t believe him, especially after seeing the man’s reaction when Lenny picks it up and handles it.
Lenny informs the professor he’s taking the figurine as well, as it might be worth something. The professor tells him that the figurine must remain locked up and kept away from prying eyes, but Lenny only laughs at him. The professor attacks him in order to get back the figurine, they struggle, and Lenny accidently shoots him. Lenny stuffs the figurine in his pocket, slings his bag over his shoulder, and runs out of the house in a panic.
Lenny drives back to his rundown apartment in order to go over his haul, though he remains unsettled about the way the old professor reacted. He sits down in a chair by his radiator and flips open the book he stole. The book actually contains the professor’s field notes.
The professor’s field notes describe the older man’s journey into some lost ruins a year prior. The man’s entire team was lost one by one as a terrible misfortunes fell upon them. Lenny continues to read as he absentmindedly toys with the figurine in his pocket. He reads the professor’s warnings about the figurine, the god it represents, and the ancient god’s thirst for human blood. He pulls the figurine from his pocket and realizes it’s stained with the professor’s blood. It must have been covered with it when he shot the professor.
The lights dim as Lenny is captivated by the figurine. It twists and turns in his vision as it seemingly forms into many hideous, disfigured creatures. The lights dim as a roaring of wind and a cacophony of screeches deafens his hearing. He screams as the lights go out altogether.
Due to noise complaints, the police investigate Lenny’s apartment. They find what’s left of Lenny in chunks everywhere, and then they bag up the evidence, including the figurine. The figurine is back to its original, pristine state, and one of the officers claims it’s “the only thing not covered by blood.”
Eldritch/Cosmic horror sometimes relies on the mental (like Psychological Horror) and sometimes the visual (like Gore/Splatter Horror) rather than the story itself. It’s a grab bag of description and mental imagery that relies more on a complicated setup to showcase the overall mood and atmosphere of complete helplessness associated with this kind of horror. The reader should feel and see the protagonist’s often futile struggle against unknown forces that are completely alien to the human mind and human logic.
While Traditional/Classic Horror relies upon story and plot with established rules of engagement (such as a vampire’s strengths and weaknesses), Eldritch/Cosmic Horror leans heavily upon mood, theme (usually a warning against messing with forces beyond your ken), atmosphere, and setting in order to build a holistic world that terrifies the reader and/or viewer through the feeling of sheer helplessness in the face of abominable cosmic forces that exist beyond human control and understanding. This makes such forces unexplainable and indefinable, therefore differentiating it from Traditional/Classic Horror.
I made the summary of Lenny’s hapless fate a little longer than the others because the setting and setup of this kind of horror is so important to its success.
For Eldritch/Cosmic Horror reference, the obvious go to is to read anything in the genre by H.P. Lovecraft, but there are many modern authors whose works will do just as well. A fellow author I know, Bert S. Lechner, writes excellent Cosmic Horror that excels in prose and concise, yet detailed, brutal descriptions. His cosmic horror collection, The Roots Grow Into The Earth, is available in bookstores and online.
And there you have it, the four pillars of horror. Most, if not all, of horror falls into one or more of these four foundational categories. Figure out which one you’re best at and stick with it, or try your hand at all four. The point is to figure out where your specialization lies, or whether or not you just like dipping into two or more of them, but whatever the case, enjoy what you write. That’s the main focus. You can even cover all four in one short horror story, but that’s a complicated matter in general and not something I’ll go over right now.
In closing, I hope this information helps you on your writing journey, and my advice is and always has been: keep putting out those stories. There is no shortage of fans of short horror out there.
How to Write Short Horror #5: The Four Pillars of Horror Copyright © 2023 Matthew L. Marlott