Stephen King’s 3 Levels of Horror

Stephen King in front of a poster for It (2017)

For decades, Stephen King has been the mastermind behind some of the best-selling horror novels in the genre, starting with his debut (and arguably most reputable) novel from 1974, Carrie. He has been a whirlwind of creation, having written over 200 novels and short stories to date and gaining enormous popularity from book lovers and horror fans as well as acquiring the attention of movie makers, most recently in the two-part movie adaptation of his novel It

Ready or Not—The Perfect Balance of Comedy and Horror

No matter what era, King has been able to terrorize readers through words and paint haunting imagery that stays with us long after we’ve put the book down. Many writers have tried to imitate his writing style but have been met with little success. So what is it about King’s writings that captivates and torments us so much? According to the acclaimed author, there are three levels of horror: The Gross-Out, Horror, and Terror. It is these elements that allow the genre to be diversely shocking and hypnotizing in not only literature but in cinema as well.


The Gross-Out

The Shining-hallway
Scene from The Shining (1980)

This is the act of physically revolting your audience: the excessive blood you find in Blumhouse movies, the grotesque animation of The Thing (1982), or as King puts it, “the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs.” Put more simply, it’s the “ew” factor that we experience when witnessing the more gruesome scenes in movies. King has explained this to be the lowest tier of the three levels, but some may argue that it is the “Gross-Out” that has led to the success of such movies as Saw (2004) and Hostel (2005). 


The Horror

Pennywise from It (2017)

On the second tier is The Horror, or the graphic portrayal of the unbelievable. This occurs when the audience is faced with something that strikes up genuine fear, typically caused by the sight of something so implausible or unnatural that their minds struggle to grasp what they are seeing. An example of this, as Stephen King would put it, would be “spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around. It's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.” A more relevant example would be the scene for It (2017) where Pennywise shifts his form to manifest the fears of the Losers’ Club.


It (2017) re-release RPX dates

It (2017) re-release 4DX dates


The Terror

foggy street

Finally, according to King, at the highest (and as he explains, the worst) level of fear is Terror—this is where the master of horror shines the most. This is where the induction of fear is solely caused by imagination; this is perfectly crafted for literary use, as the images being created lie entirely in the reader’s mind. All an author has to do is simply suggest the unknown, and the reader will fill in the blanks with something truly terrifying. A chilling illustration of terror by King is “when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there…” 

Ultimately, the overlying theme of creating authentic horror is to provide an audience with something that they cannot completely understand. When we are faced with chaos, we become terrified. Or, as Stephen King would put it, “it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us but the lack of order which these aberrations seem to imply.”

Learn about It Chapter Two promotions

Test out your fear factor with the latest theatrical installment of Stephen King’s classic horror novel, It Chapter Two, coming to Regal September 6th. 

Get Tickets