What Is Dark Fiction? AKA: What Is Horror?

A Lot of People Ask Me ‘What is Dark Fiction?’

the-witch-539683_640Wise Geek has the best definition. It’s the best because it acknowledges the fact that it IS horror.

“Dark fiction is another term for horror, a genre of fiction concerned with fear, death, and the sinister side of human nature”

Dark fiction is basically anything that’s not romance or comedy. It usually reveals a dark truth about the human condition or society at large. It can also be about finding courage in the face of overwhelming odds or about questioning the nature of reality.

Horror, most Scifi, Distopia, Paranormal, some crime, and fantasy falls into this category.


“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”

~Douglas Winter


So, have you ever had an idea for a story, but you’re not sure what kind of story it is? Not be able to classify your genre, especially when you go to publish, has long been the bane of existence for many writers. This is especially true because so many genres overlap. What one person considers horror, another person might consider dark fantasy.

But what is Dark Fiction? I use it a synonym for Horror, but am I alone in that? Wise Geek says no.

“Dark fiction is another term for horror, a genre of fiction concerned with fear, death, and the sinister side of human nature” –Wise Geek

Dark fiction is basically anything that’s not romance or comedy. It usually reveals a dark truth about the human condition or society at large. It can also be about finding courage in the face of overwhelming odds or about questioning the nature of reality.

The term can be used broadly to refer to fantastical works that have a dark, gloomy atmosphere or a sense of horror and dread.

Horror, most Scifi, Distopia, Paranormal, some crime, and fantasy falls into this category.


“Horror is that which cannot be made safe — evolving, ever-changing — because it is about our relentless need to confront the unknown, the unknowable, and the emotion we experience when in its thrall.”

~Robert McCammon


In our culture, ‘horror’ has become synonymous with gore.  I blame the movies for this. It’s cheaper for them invest in special effects than a well written story. This is why so many non-horror fans consider movies like Saw or Friday the 13th ‘horror’. While it’s true, this IS horror, it’s also a very specific type of horror known as ‘extreme’ in the literary world and ‘slasher’ in the movie world.

However, true ‘horror stories’ aren’t a type of story, it’s a feeling.  It’s about the fear of what might happen. It’s also about revealing the ugliness in the human condition. Basically, horror speaks to us because it combines our fear of the unknown with our desire to survive.

If you think this sounds like most stories, you’re right. Horror is present in most stores.  It overlaps genres and be found in everything from romance to westerns, to dystopias, fantasy, sci-fi and beyond.

In order to be classified as ‘horror’ a story simply needs to meet all three of the following criteria:

  • A loss of control
  • A fear of the unknown
  • An overall feeling of dread

Many crime stories fall into the horror genre, depending on whether or not the detective is drawn into the case.

Stories like Darkly Dreaming Dexter or Silence of The Lambs put the main character in danger by drawing them deep into their world. This makes it horror.

However, a story like Sherlock Holmes is not horror. Sherlock has an intellectual curiosity and a vested interest in solving the cases, but he never allows himself to emotionally enter the world of the case. Even the times when his life was in danger or his character was in question, he remains emotionally detached.

There is no horror with emotional detachment.

There are dozens of subgenres of horror, so it would be impossible to go through them all. So we’ll just go over the most common sub genres and some stories to go with them.  (keep in mind that horror can be more than one subgenre at once.)

This book is designed to take the question out of your genre. While it’s true many genres overlap, and many more can fall into two or more categories, there are some elements which are unique to certain genres. This book is designed to give you an in-depth look at some of the most popular genres and their sub-genres. Though extensive, this does not cover every sub-genre, especially since new ones are being created almost regularly.

In addition to showing you the genre and the conventions of that particular sub-genre, the title of the sample book or movie has also been included.  I use movies because they are more mainstream than books.

So, are you ready to learn What Genre Is That?



This is what non-horror lovers think of when they think of horror. It’s violent, gory, and has graphically described scenes of blood, gore, and even torture of both a sexual and nonsexual nature. In fact, it’s often described as  “hyperintensive horror with no limits.” It is considered as a revolt against the “traditional, meekly suggestive horror story.” (David J. Schow, originator of the word)

  • Friday The Thirteenth(Movie)
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Movie)
  • Blood House(book; Amy Cross)


Creature horror involves some kind of animal as the killer. Things in the woods, things in the water, and even monsters from mythology are all considered part of creature horror. Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws, was a master of this kind of horror.

  • Jaws; (book; Peter Benchley)
  • The Ruins (book; Scott Smith)
  • They Rise (book; Hunter Shea)


Body horror involves invasions from within. This can include a parasite, virus, or even a curse. It doesn’t matter where the threat comes from: natural causes, science gone wrong, aliens, the supernatural, etc. All that matters is that it is now inside someone and controlling either their actions or their future. Unnatural pregnancies also fall into body horror. This is one of the creepiest forms of horror, as it’s impossible to fight back once your body turns on you.

  • Thinner; (book; Stephen King)
  • Boomerang; (book; Oscar Cook)
  • The Thing (Movie)


Survival horror takes many forms. It can be a group of friends alone swimming in shark-infested waters with no hope of rescue,  friends at a cabin who turn on each other once the unthinkable happens, or plane crash survivors who turn to cannibalism. It can also be the type of horror that occurs during a home invasion. In all cases, the goal is to survive at any cost. How far the characters are willing to go just to live is what makes this kind of horror so fascinating.

  • Cabin Fever (Movie)
  • Open Water 2; Adrift (Movie)
  • The Most Dangerous Game (book; Richard Connell)


An apocalypse is the end the world as we know it. So, what replaces it? Something else. Chances are, humans will not die out completely. Someone will be left to pick up the pieces. That’s your story. This is often combined with survival horror. However, while survival horror can take place anytime, anywhere, post-apocalyptic horror can only take place after the end of the current world.

  • I am Legend (book; Richard Matheson)
  • The Stand (book; Stephen King)
  • Final Winter (book; Iain Rob Wright)


The psycho is a seemingly ordinary person who isn’t ordinary at all. In fact, they are serial killers In literature, this character is often more ‘human’ than they are in films. In fact, some people even find themselves feeling sorry for the psycho.

  • Psycho (Movie)
  • Sleep Deprived (book; Dawn Cano)
  • The Lonely Psychopath (book; Matt Shaw)

‎The Dark Side Of Life

This subgenre is about people’s real selves coming to the surface. These are people going about their ordinary lives until something happens to change it. At this point, they don’t rise to the occasion, they sink deeper into their true selves.  And their true selves are very disturbed.

  • Lolita (book; Vladimir Nabokov)
  • A Simple Plan (book; Scott Smith)
  • The Road Through the Wall (book; Shirley Jackson)

Descent into Madness

This is where a person starts out somewhat normal, then is driven over the edge by circumstances. In some cases, the person turns into a psycho, while in others, they are just driven mad. As long as the character starts out as somewhat relatable, the reader will feel that it might easily be them in similar circumstances. Few things are as scary as watching a seemingly normal person turn into madman right before our eyes.

  • Secret Window, Secret Garden (book; Stephen King )
  • Diary of a Madman; (book; Nikolai Gogol)
  • Dolls (book; Matt Shaw)

Wish Craft

Wish Craft is also known as a deal with the devil. Basically, someone or something comes along and offers you something really great, but for a price. Whatever you get in return usually comes with some kind of twist that makes it unusable. For example, if you wish to be immortal and admired, you could be tuned into a statue.


  • Monkey’s Paw (book; W. W. Jacobs)
  • Pet Semitary (book; Stephen King)
  • Wishmaster (Movie)


Supernatural horror is a broad category that includes anything featuring a ghost, werewolf, vampire, zombie, witch, or any other supernatural being. A great deal of horror falls into this category. It’s also known as monster horror.

  • Dracula (book; Bram Stoker)
  • Watchers (book; Dean Koontz)
  • Night Of The Living Dead (Movie)

Science Without Conscience

There’s no doubt that technology has the ability to be our savior, but it can also be our death. Scientists are very fond of saying that science is neither good nor bad. And while that’s true, scientists themselves are people, so their creations can be good or bad. This type of horror deals with those who would open a Pandora’s Box without thinking of the consequences. In their minds, there are no consequences.

  • Frankenstein (book; Mary Shelley)
  • The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (book; Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • The Island of Dr. Moreau; (book; H.G. Wells)

Not Like Us

Also known as outsider or paranoia horror, this sub-genre can be based in the world of aliens, the supernatural or even terrorists. This kind of horror revolves around people who look like us, only they aren’t. This kind of horror hits close to home and is about our own paranoia. This is especially when the “monsters” in question could be anyone.

  • The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers; Jack Finney
  • The Faculty (movie)
  • Monsters On Maple Street (Twilight Zone Episode)

Space Horror

A setting away from earth, on spaceships or other planets, is what gives this unique horror its name. Usually these types of stories have both a futuristic and gothic feel to them. They almost always involve some kind of alien monster or parasite.

  • Blindsight (book; Peter Watts)
  • Leviathan Wakes (book; James S.A. Corey)
  • Alien (movie)


This type of horror is all about the build-up of suspense. There might not be drop of blood in it. It’s also famous for its twist endings and the way the story unfolds. Psychological horror revolves around a person’s perceptions. Whatever there is to be scared of is made stronger because of the way the characters think.

  • The Turn of the Screw (book; Henry James)
  • Sorry, Wrong Number (movie)
  • Anything by Hitchcock (TV series and movies)

Weird Tales

This catchall horror sub-genre was originated by H.P. Lovecraft and describes anything that’s odd or weird in any way. Most weird tales involve elder gods, mythologies or ancient stories of any kind. Fate, destiny, and the idea of a chosen one also play a huge role in this kind of horror.

  • Cthulhu Cymraeg (book; Mark Howard Jones)
  • The Call of Cthulhu (book; H.P. Lovecraft)
  • The Wendigo (book; Algernon Blackwood)


Religious horror includes things like the devil, possession, and exorcism. It can also include non-Christian religions, voodoo, dark magic, fanaticism or the occult. You also have the option of making up your own religion or making up a fringe religion out of a real one.

Part of what makes this horror so fascinating is the myriad of tiny details and research that goes into creating it. If you’re going for true religious horror, a great deal of research is required. Even if you make up a religion, it should have enough details to capture a reader’s interest. The best kinds of details are those that reader will recognize combined with ones they don’t.

  • The Devil You Know (book; Mike Carey)
  • The Exorcist (book; William Peter Blatty)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (book; Ira Levin)

Haunted House

Haunted House horror includes haunted houses, asylums, ships, and more. Haunted houses are different from regular ghost stories. In a ghost story, the ghost is free to move where they want. In haunted houses, they are bound to their house or building. If you leave the building, you are no longer in danger, though the ghost does wait for the next victims. Usually there is some reason that the occupants can’t or won’t leave the house. Without some kind of reason, the credibility of your story is shattered.

  • The Haunting of Hill House (book; Shirley Jackson)
  • Hell House (book; Richard Matheson)
  • The Apartment (book; Anthony Strong)

Cursed Objects

Similar to the haunted house sub-genre is the Cursed Object genre. In this case, the spirit or demon is bound to an object, not a building. In some cases, the object can give you what you want, for a price. In other cases, it’s a bad luck charm that brings devastation upon its owner. A cursed object can be a fully sentient evil being that it takes an active part in destroying the character.

  • Christine (book; Stephen King)
  • Dolly (book; Jubilee Savage)
  • Friday The Thirteenth, The Series (TV show)


As mentioned earlier, crime comes in two flavors; horror and not horror. Crime horror draws the detective into the world of the criminal while the detective makes an emotional investment they can’t escape.

  • Darkly Dreaming Dexter (book; Jeff Lindsay)
  • From Hell (Movie)
  • Silence of the Lambs (book; Thomas Harris)

Paranormal Detective

This one is similar to crime, but it focuses on the world of the paranormal crimes. The detective may or may not be human.

  • Kolchak, the Night Stalker (TV show)
  • X Files (TV show)
  • Forever Knight (TV show)


This type of horror includes ordinary people with extraordinary powers. It can be mind reading, telekinesis, pyro-kinesis or just about any power you can think of. However, these powers are usually some kind of curse that drives the character to insanity, death or turns them into a killer.

  • Carrie; (book; Stephen King)
  • The Girl Next Door (book; Jack Ketchum)
  • Touch (upcoming book; Devlin Blake)


Though isolation is a common theme throughout horror, isolation horror builds terror through isolation alone. In some cases, the isolation is very real; a character or a few characters are cut off from the rest of the world. When that happens, it overlaps with survival horror. In other cases, the isolation is all in the mind of the protagonist, driving them to madness.

  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (book; Stephen King)
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle (book; Shirley Jackson)
  • Flowers in the Attic (book; V.C. Andrews)


Stalker horror is often lumped in with Psycho horror. However, it’s different enough to warrant its own category. A stalker isn’t a psycho killer. Not at first, at any rate. At first, a stalker is someone who just wants to get close to the one they stalk. Sometimes it’s because they want to be liked by them, but other times it is for revenge. When the stalker’s true nature is discovered (or is about to be) then they become psycho killers.

  • Misery (book; Stephen King)
  • I Don’t Want to Kill You (book; Dan Wells)
  • Devil’s Pond (Movie)

Killer Kids

Kids are supposed to be sweet and innocent. Maybe that’s why stories about killer kids are so creepy. Whatever the reason, few things inspire more fear than an “innocent” child going bad. Though this could easily be a sub-genre of Psycho horror, its recent popularity has given rise to a genre all its own.

  • The Bad Seed (Movie)
  • Children Of The Corn; Stephen King)
  • Village of the Damned (book; John Carpenter)


Dark Fantasy

This kind of horror specifically focuses on the monsters themselves. Often, the character is a sympathetic monster. This type of horror can also be combined with high fantasy, urban fantasy, alternate realities or parallel universes.

  • Interview With The Vampire (book; Anne Rice)
  • The Graveyard Book (book; Neil Gaiman)
  • Being Human (TV series)


This genre is rising in popularity. This shows a dysfunctional world with a very dark undertone. Many dystopias have elements of horror that make them horror, particularly, the lack of control part.

  • Hunger Games(book; Suzanne Collins)
  • 1984 (book; George Orwell)
  • Brave New World (book; Aldous Huxley)


These are only a few of the subgenres of horror. There are many more. Plus, when you combine any of these with another genre, you still have a horror story. For example, Weird Western Tales, or a story taking place in another world, such as Storm Dancer.