These Subgenres Bring a Chill to the Bone
Audiences love to be frightened. That feeling of adrenaline pumping through your veins in the safety of a theatre is enticing enough to keep them coming back for more. But what scares us varies from person to person. Presented below are five horror subgenres that have been underserved or underrated.
#1 Cosmic Horror
The Cthulhu Mythos, named for the most popular deity at its dark heart, Cthulhu, can be traced all the way back to the publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s most popular story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” a short story published in 1928 in Weird Tales magazine. The tale follows three protagonists who, through their investigations, are exposed to the vastness of interstellar beings far beyond their comprehension, and they come to realize how small they are in the grand scheme of the cosmos.
Sometimes known as Lovecraftian Horror (after H.P. Lovecraft) or Eldritch Horror, this genre focuses on the horror of the unknown and emphasizes the smallness of man in the unknowable universe. These ideas permeate all of Lovecraft’s stories and have become benchmarks of the genre since the time of its publication.
On the film side, the grandfather of the genre might be the cult classic Re-animator (1985). Another influential film in the genre is The Mist (2007), featuring otherworldly Lovecraftian monsters emerging from a thick blanket of mist to terrify a small New England town. In fact, small towns, specifically small towns that date back to the oldest American colonies, are the mainstay of the genre.
The films of Panos Cosmatos, which include Beyond the Black Rainbow and Mandy, take cosmic horror themes and blend them with a psychedelic,new-age element, while the work of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in The Endless has also been described as “Lovecraftian.” William Eubank, director of the 2020 film Underwater, has confirmed that the creatures of his film are tied to the Cthulhu Mythos.
Elements of Lovecraftian horror have appeared in numerous video games and role-playing games, including Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the FromSoftware game Bloodborne, which includes many Lovecraftian and cosmic horror themes. There are tons of podcasts that explore this space, too, like The Magnus Archives, The Black Tapes, Knifepoint Horror, and The SCP Experience, among dozens of others.
#2 Dark Fantasy
Dark fantasy includes many classic fantasy elements (swords and sorcery, fairy tale monsters, enchanted forests, etc.), but slanted more towards the sinister and surreal than bright and hopeful. In fact, most fables and fairy tales were darker than Disney would have you believe.
Snow White and the Huntsman leans more towards Dark Fantasy than the light-hearted fare of Disney. The Neverending Story, effectively an exploration of grief and loss, could be considered a dark fantasy, as could Roald Dahl‘s The Witches in both its 1990 and 2020 adaptations.
The works of Robert E. Howard, including the Conan franchise and Solomon Kane, are definitely considered dark fantasy, and therefore their onscreen equivalents are as well. In a similar vein of sword and sorcery, The Witcher, with its emphasis on gore, death, and just the overall lovable bleakness that is the character of Geralt of Rivia, firmly plants its feet in the subgenre.
Other notable works in this genre include Stephen King‘s The Dark Tower series and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, both of which were later adapted into film or series of the same name. Modern games from Japanese game development and publishing company FromSoftware are excellent representations of the dark fantasy genre, notably the Dark Souls series along with Bloodborne and later Elden Ring.
#3 Splatter Punk
Splatterpunk is a genre of horror fiction notable for its graphic and gory depiction of violence and sometimes sex. The term was coined in 1986 by David J. Schow at the Twelfth World Fantasy Convention in Providence, Rhode Island. Splatterpunk is regarded as a revolt against the “traditional, meekly suggestive horror story.”
Notable horror film icon Clive Barker has dabbled in the genre, which means, by extension, all the Hellraiser films can be considered Splatterpunk though they certainly linger in the doorway of cosmic horror.
While considered psychological horror, American Psycho dips its toe into this frontier, considering the gruesome nature of the violence it depicts. Other notable admissions in the genre include Saw (2004) and, by extension, the entire Saw franchise.
#4 Sci-Fi Horror
Sci-fi horror is a science fiction and horror subgenre that combines horror and science fiction elements. Sci-fi horror frequently features a futuristic location in space outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, like the cold halls of a spaceship or the isolation of a space station. Isolation is a key theme in Sci-Fi horror. After all, in space, no one can hear you scream.
Space is frequently described as a horrible realm in sci-fi horror. Alien, intergalactic elements, undiscovered worlds, and other sources of anxiety are employed in science fiction horror novels, and the plot centers on surviving and escaping.
War of the Worlds, both the audio drama and film, encapsulates Sci-Fi Horror, as does the more recent Apple + incarnation, The Invasion. Midcentury classic The Blob and John Carpenter’s The Thing, as well as its more recent prequel/sequel also titled The Thing are all good examples of the subgenre, as well as more recently silent films like No One Will Save You and A Quiet Place.
Other examples include 2001, A Space Odyssey, and cult classic Event Horizon. One might also consider all of the Alien Franchise to be sci-fi horror, as they combine literally all of these elements to great effect but are seasoned to taste by the director.
Art-horror or arthouse horror (which coined the now overused term elevated horror) relies on atmosphere building, psychological character development, cinematic style, and philosophical themes for effect – rather than straightforward scares.
These films explore and experiment with the artistic uses of horror, and perhaps more than any other subgenre of horror, can get weird. They may blend with other types of horror, including cosmic, psychological, and sci-fi. Suspiria (both the 1977 and 2018 versions) is a perfect example of this subgenre.
Other recent examples include Alex Garland’s Men, Jordan Peele’s Nope and Get Out, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, Lamb, Saint Maud, Donnie Darko, pretty much every David Lynch film but especially Mulholland Drive and Coraline.
Almost all horror falls into one or more categories, and for good reason…fear is rarely universal. While slasher films will always have a place in our horror media, there are so many other types of horror to explore. Check out a few on this list, and feel free to add your own in the comments section below.
Linked below from YouTube, stream this frightful little short called Amy’s House of Art that blends comedy and art horror in a wonderful mockumentary style. Enjoy!
Amy’s House of Art! (2023) Crimsonhandsfxstudios