Horror literature: what it is, how it was born, characteristics and important works


What is horror literature?

It consists of any literary text that intends to produce fear, terror and other associated sensations in its readers, emotions that lodge in the deepest part of the human being and that are generated by fear of the unknown, death, demons, diseases, among other factors.

What is horror literature

That is, we speak of horror literature to refer to a type of literature that is part of the narrative genre, mainly the novel, although it can also appear in other formats such as the short story, whose main distinguishing feature is to produce fear, which also becomes the main objective of their stories.

Horror or terror? Although the discussion about finding distinctions between one or the other persists, many experts mention that the difference lies in the fact that in horror, the monstrous creature is the key element in the development of the story, while in horror this role can be represented by a human being, without any problem.

How was horror literature born?

It is considered that the first indications of this type of literature emerge from the religious traditions of antiquity, where there were already references in relation to the demonic, but also death and evil. At this time, evil, for example, began to manifest itself according to the folklore of the populations in figures such as ghosts or witches.

Now, if we start from the birth of strong feelings related to fear, we must consider that these exist attached to the human being, being one of the oldest identified emotions, especially the fear of the unknown.

However, in Ancient Greece and Rome, we can find traces of horror fiction in works. One of them in Greek mythology with Prometheus, which later would be the source of inspiration for the creation of Frankenstein, written by Mary Shalley and which is considered one of the most important works of world literature and precursor of horror. Thus, towards the Middle Ages, with the consolidation of Christianity, a new moment began for written works with accusations such as Satanism, which worships Satan, and practices of various kinds will be pointed out with the name of evil. However, this did not manage to reduce the popularity of other stories such as the werewolf.

Development of horror in literature

The creation of such texts suggests a narrative structure with a certain axis. However, in the writing process, variants may appear that have triggered the emergence of different aspects of this type of literature, giving rise to three categories of horror that we can identify today. Among them we find the following:

Psychological horror

Includes all types of texts in which the reader has difficulty identifying what is real from what is not. In this way, the author presents a work in which it is not expressly clear whether the supernatural that develops in his story is found in reality or in the mentality of his characters. This is an aspect that in many cases is not resolved, which increases the reader’s uncertainty.

Uncanny Horror

This category refers to the sinister and mysterious. Thus, here we can find all kinds of texts in which terror is produced from elements of everyday life at specific moments in which it is discordant. Figures such as dolls appear frequently. In short, these are texts that, although they are everyday, acquire a mysterious quality in specific situations.

Fantastic horror

We end with this category, which includes texts that produce terror, this time based on irrational elements that come from the supernatural world. Thus, figures such as werewolves, the living dead, the presence of supernatural powers, vampires, among others, often appear.

Characteristics of horror literature

To understand to a greater extent how this type of texts are composed, as well as their most distinctive approaches and features, it is time to review the most important characteristics of this, as well as some key points that should be taken into account if we plan to write a work of this type. Let’s see:

Reaction approach

Distinguishing this type of literature implies taking a look at the reactions on which it is based. Accordingly, horror texts seek reactions of uncertainty, deep tension, but also anxiety. To achieve this, horror literature uses descriptions of desolate spaces with archetypal characters, among other resources.

Narrative genre

One of the main characteristics is that this type of text is developed in the narrative genre, which par excellence has been the space in which it has been disseminated throughout history, especially in the novel, but also in short stories. Undoubtedly, this is a key element given that the structure of the narrative, together with the possibility of using descriptions, makes it a suitable format for the development of its terrifying stories.

Possible arguments

We know that being an artistic work, combinations and innovations can easily vary, which is why there are many possible plots within its development. However, we can identify some recurring plots such as the discovery of treasures, hidden messages or secrets, the search for justice, the desire for revenge, among others.

Frequent characters

Another of the most important aspects of horror literature is the use of characters that usually appear in its stories. They are often supernatural characters, creatures or figures, among which are those associated with the paranormal world, although figures from mythology such as monsters, ghosts, demons, witches, vampires, werewolves, among others, also appear.

However, it is necessary to consider that this type of texts also have other types of influences and from whom they also take characters, such as fantasy literature and science fiction literature, which we have already discussed in detail in another section.

Characteristics of horror literature

Actions in the plays

This is one of the most important points of horror works, since it is usually structured around the suspense generated by several situations that occur before or during the moment. Many of these actions are very distressing or surprising and create tension within the story and, therefore, in the reader.


As mentioned above, in terms of influences from fantasy and fiction, horror literature takes up elements such as the consequences of environmental pollution, extraterrestrial creatures, scientific and/or technological threats, among others.

Intensity and appeal

One of the factors that most attracts the public’s attention has to do with the fact that in this type of literature emotional stimuli emerge that usually awaken their interest and curiosity, such as the strange, the intensity, unusual events, among others that are not usually present in everyday life. Thus, at a physiological level, they produce another series of stimuli such as respiratory and nervous acceleration.

Most important horror works and authors

We end this tour through horror literature with some very outstanding works throughout history that have set the standards of creation for posterity, being works that have managed to survive and transcend with the passage of time. Among them we find works such as: Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde written by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Shining by Stephen King, ‘Books of Blood’ by Clive Barker, also ‘Carrie’, ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘It’, by Stephen King, ‘Implausible Narrations’ written by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, ‘Randolph Carter’s Cycle of Oneiric Adventures’ and ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ written by H. P. Lovecraft, ‘The Rite’ by Laird Barron and ‘Uzumaki’ by Junji Ito.

Other titles are: ‘Here Lives Horror’, ‘Animal Cemetery’, ‘Lady Number Thirteen’, ‘Carmilla’, ‘The Dunwich Horror’, ‘Frankenstein’, “The Horla” and “The Night” by Guy de Maupassant, “The Merry Corner” and “The Spectral Rent” by Henry James, “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” written by Algernon Blackwood, “The Specter” and “The Feather Cushion” written by Horacio Quiroga, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, among others.

Among the most outstanding authors, we find: Edgar Alla Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, Clive Barker, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Ann Radcliffe, Thomas Ligotti, Henry James, Anne Rice, Horace Walpole, Horacio Quiroga, Ira Levin, among others.

Particularly, horror literature has remained with the passing of time, which is why nowadays we can find a great amount of works that, in fact, have survived the cultural changes, but also the modifications and evolution of literature, thus producing more literature of this style in our recent generations.

If you want to know more about other types of literature, remember that in our section dedicated to this type of art you can learn much more about the literary world and all its evolution, authors, genres and more.