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Label Makers: The Persistent Problem With Sub-Genres

Alien (1979) The problem with sub-genres - label makers

Sub-genres are great for categorizing. In general, that’s the only real purpose that genre serves: putting films in a certain place so that they’re easier to find when you’re looking for them. In terms of discussion, they become more problematic. Half of all horror-based discussion is simply arguing about whether something is horror or not. Genre has never really been kind to the horror fan, because nobody really wants to admit when their project is a horror movie.

To look at the problems of genre as a whole, in relation to horror at least, let me tell you about some of the many discussions I’ve partaken in regarding what is and is not a horror movie. I’ve heard people say that a horror film cannot be about serial killers, because then it’s a thriller, I’ve heard people say that Alien and Event Horizon and the like can never be horror because they’re science fiction. Hell, I’ve heard people say that any realistic horror is a psychological thriller—including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and every supernatural horror is a fantasy—two arguments that if both taken as true, completely negate the horror genre from existence.

texas chainsaw massacre leatherface

Among the horror fandom, especially the casual crowd, there is a very deep-seated and widespread belief that if a movie is one thing it cannot be another. Anyone who doesn’t want horror films to exist—and there are quite a few—can easily use any of these ideas to make the argument that they actually don’t.

Horror fans get involved in this debate down to the molecular level, because discussions on sub-genres are basically all of the above arguments, only smaller. If you’re new to the horror fandom, hello, welcome, enjoy your stay. But be warned that “Fright Night is not a vampire film with comedy elements, it’s a horror comedy with vampires in it” is absolutely something you’re going to hear eventually.

You could easily say that this is something that all genres face on some level, but I definitely think horror bears the brunt of it. While it’s always discussed as the narrowest field in the world—have you ever noticed how people who hate the genre will always pick one sub-genre, or even movie, to describe the genre as a whole? That’s often because they truly do think that’s all of it—but horror is actually the widest, most expansive genre there is.

Charley and Peter dispose of BillyThere’s a reason for that, too. Horror is the only genre that’s actually an emotion. Fear is something that everybody feels and, because of that, it can cross over with any other genre at any time. Science fiction is not an emotion and, if it is, I’ve sadly never felt it. Even comedy focuses on many heightened emotions, not just one.

The truth is that every single film has an element of danger, has an element of fear that is crucial to the story. Whether it’s the fear of talking to that girl you really like or the fear that these terrorists storming Nakatomi Plaza are going to permanently separate you from your wife, it’s there.

So no, not everything is a horror movie, but every single story has some element of horror, however small. People tend to get fearful that we’ll see the genre go away at some point, that the powers that be will one day determine they’ve had enough of horror and that will be that. But that’s completely impossible, because horror is so intrinsically tied to the DNA of storytelling itself. Great genre filmmakers like the late Wes Craven and John Carpenter have absolutely understood this point, and it’s been responsible for some of their best work.

The Thing 1982Sub-genres are fun, but problematic. As great as it is to go searching for a horror movie by scrolling the sub-genre selections on Netflix, there will always be the arguments that those titles are in the wrong place. Those very heated discussions will never go away. But I’m not sure I would really want them too, either. It’s part of being a horror fan. Often, there’s not even a right or wrong answer.

The benefit of horror being such a wide and immersive genre is that it can be interpreted a thousand different ways. Whatever you feel is a horror movie, a horror comedy, a slasher, a psychological thriller, whatever you personally define them as, congratulations. You’re right.

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Written by Nat Brehmer
In addition to contributing to Wicked Horror, Nathaniel Brehmer has also written for Horror Bid, HorrorDomain, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, We Got This Covered, and more. He has also had fiction published in Sanitarium Magazine, Hello Horror, Bloodbond and more. He currently lives in Florida with his wife and his black cat, Poe.
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