About a week ago, I was reading a blog article about the thriller and horror genres mixing together in novels. The article is by a David (he doesn’t give his last name) on his blog, “David’s Library”, and you can read it here for yourself if you’d like. Even though some of the books he reviews seem to be more escapist in their style, they have some good storylines and look like they contain elements of the dark fantasy genre as well. I left him a comment saying that it was funny how the meaning of the word “thriller” has changed ever since the late 1980s/early ‘90s. You can see my comment in the comments section of the article. It will be under the name Steven R.
The word “thriller” used to refer to horror films and TV shows. Back in the ‘80s if you opened an issue of TV Guide you would find listings of movies and TV shows along with their genre category. For example, in one entry you would see the title of a movie and then right next to it would be it’s genre such as “thriller” if it was a horror movie, “mystery” if it was mystery or detective fiction, “crime drama” if it was a cops fiction movie or series. (This last term was often used synonymously with the word “mystery”; in many instances, the only difference between the two genres was what seemed to be a patriotic/nationalistic one on the part of TV Guide’s writers: if the movie or series took place in England it was “mystery”, if in the “good ol’ US of A” it was “crime drama”, in which determining the genre classifications for these movies and TV shows that way made no logical sense at all.) So a Dracula movie would be listed as “thriller”. If a science fiction movie overlapped with the horror genre, which is the case with Alien, it would often be listed as “thriller”, not “science fiction”. Now we know why Michael Jackson’s song “Thriller” was not named “Horror” regardless of it involving demons and zombies.
Today “thriller” has come to refer to suspense movies and novels. Many of these are stories dealing with terrorists, spies on dangerous missions, murder cases, and assasins, among other things. Authors in this genre today are ones such as John Grisham and Daniel Brown. But because thriller (suspense) and horror stories share many of the same elements—fear, extreme tension, death and murder—these genres can easily be combined into a single story, as David states in his blog. Such a story would involve darker settings than those of most straight thrillers such as a wooded area. It would also involve menacing supernatural creatures or at least characters likened to them.
Why this change in genre labels? Genre terms evolve through consumerism. Slowly the term “thriller” has gone from labeling horror movies and TV shows to labeling novels and films involving elements of suspense and action adventure. Such a change is due to the changing of viewers’ and readers’ perceptions of these forms of story telling. The marketers and advertisers will use the label that attracts the consumers regardless of the literary elements the story contains, whether that story be in the form of a film, novel, short story or TV series. So in many ways, specific genres such as horror, science fiction, and fantasy are used for commercial intentions rather than so much for literary ones, which was how these genres originated in the early 20th century. They were made as categories to draw readers to their preferred reading so retailers could sell books and fiction magazines more effectively.
Because genres are made and applied to story telling by consensus of marketers and advertisers, readers need to decide for themselves what a story would fall under and if the elements of that story hold up to the applied genre. A novel about a psychotic killer and that emphasizes the cops’ and detectives’ search for her or him may be categorized as horror, but for someone who prefers suspenseful stories emphasizing the dark supernatural may consider it suspense or thriller and so may pass it up in the bookstore. This is why, especially for writers such as myself, it is important to read a wide variety of fiction rather than limit ourselves to just one or two genres. If we can learn the literary conventions we can know how to seek out our preferred reading more and, as writers, even write better in our preferred genres.