Oh, the Horror! How Horror Novels Compare to Movies

It’s scientifically proven that people love to be frightened, and, as Halloween approaches, people now more than ever seek a good scare. Movie production companies release more movies in October than any other month,1 a testament to film’s status as one of the most popular forms of horror media. However, to some, horror movies are just too scary. Plenty of people choose to avoid horror movies entirely, and horror video games—perhaps the scariest option—are completely out of the question for many.

Books are a great alternative for those who want to experience horror without being horrified. They feature the same suspense and heart-stopping scenarios without the elements that make horror films so scary.

Horror movies engage both the visual and auditory senses. Music, camera angles, and lighting plays with the viewer’s perception to heighten their unease and produce an anxiety response. In books, a character’s feelings are often relayed to the reader by either an explicit statement or through a description of their facial expressions and reactions. Regardless, they are explained through some sort of textual description that is then interpreted by the reader. In contrast, films employ these various cinematic techniques to subconsciously instill the character’s emotions into the viewer. Movie watchers don’t just hear about the character’s fear but experience it themselves as their own fear. Of course, reading about fear is a lot less scary then being scared oneself.

Movies, however, have their limitations. Everything in the movie—the characters, setting, and props—are presented to the audience visually, made up of and embodied by real people, sets, and objects that reflect the director’s vision and derive from their imagination. With books, every image exist in and is produced by the reader’s imagination. No one knows what is scarier to the reader than the reader themselves, and one’s own mind can be more frightening than any image shown on a movie screen. As Maris Kreizman of Book of the Month once said, “Things that are imagined are way better and more scary than things that are seen…[M]y own head…is maybe the scariest place on Earth.”2

However, the same imagination that has the potential to terrify and torment a reader is limited by “how imaginative we are, or how imaginative we let ourselves be.”3 Many people may not be able to visualize the level of gore depicted in movies or conjure a face as terrifying as some of Hollywood’s villains. Or, perhaps out of self-preservation, a reader might not imagine the most terrifying thing they can think of, diminishing in impact of the fright. In this way, books are a great alternative for those who find horror movies too unsettling, as, with their imaginations, readers can manage the level of horror the imagery produces.

Additionally, while movies are immersive, books are grounding. The act of reading the text, the feeling of the paper in one’s hand, and the environmental noise—which is more easily dampened by the volume of a movie—serve as a constant reminder that what occurs on the page is not real and the reader is safe where the fictional monsters can’t get them. If the reader’s heart happens to start racing, ending the experience is as simple as shutting the book. Meanwhile, the sounds of a movie are harder to shut out, especially when viewed in a movie theater, when the video cannot simply be turned off.

Still, while books are a great option for those who don’t love fear, they should not be discounted as ‘not scary” or shunned by those who think horror novels are boring. Books can be scary, and the reader has the power to manipulate the fear factor by altering the setting in which they read, such as by reading while home alone, in a thunderstorm, or with spooky music playing.

Books are a solo adventure. Most movie watchers do so with friends or family or at a movie theater. Meanwhile, books are often faced alone, which, especially when paired with the above suggestions, can increase the thrill of the reading experience. Also, no matter how scary a movie is, the end credits roll after only an hour or two. Books, depending on their length, can drag on for days or weeks, meaning the reader must gear up to endure the horror over and over again.

In fact, some books have been said to be scarier than their movie adaptation, though that is, of course, open to debate. According to FastWeb, some examples include The Silence of the Lambs, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Shining.4 Perhaps you’re willing to give one of these books a try to round off the Halloween season. No one will tell on you for keeping the lights on!

  1. “Monthly Distribution of Horror Movies.” Where’s the Jump? https://wheresthejump.com/monthly-distribution-of-horror-movies-during-what-period-of-the-year-are-most-horror-movies-released/
  2. Orad, Tali. “Scary Books or Horror Movies: What Will Your Brain Prefer?” Thrive Global. 18 Oct. 2018, https://medium.com/thrive-global/scary-books-or-horror-movies-9503bccd8d62.
  3. “The Horror Genre: Books vs. Movies and How They Differ.” The Literary Phoenix. 9 Oct. 2020, https://theliteraryphoenix.com/2020/10/09/horror-books-vs-movies/
  4. Hoyt, Elizabeth. “10 Horror Books That Are Way Scarier Than the Films.” FastWeb. 25 Sept. 2017, https://www.fastweb.com/student-life/articles/the-10-horror-books-way-scarier-than-the-films

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