“Terror” vs. “Horror”: Which One Is Worse?

text on green background: terror vs. horror

Forget Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Fourth of July—for some people, no other holiday comes close to Halloween. For those who are all about “spooky season,” they’re breaking out the pumpkin spice and brainstorming creepy costumes at the first hint of fall.

But are those who savor the haunting side of this holiday all about the terror that ghosts and skeletons bring? Or is it horror that makes the day so spectacular? And are these two words interchangeable? Let’s take a closer look.

What does terror mean?

Terror is a noun that means “intense, sharp, overmastering fear.” It can also refer to “the instance or cause of intense fear or anxiety; quality of causing terror.”

For example:

  • He was struck with terror as he walked to the bar exam room, as he couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if he didn’t pass for the third time.
  • Ana was originally confident about moving, but in the middle of the night, terror set in as she began to doubt her decision.

Terror can also be used more casually to describe a troublesome person or thing—especially a child.

For example:

  • The angelic 2-year-old turned into a full-on terror the moment her parents came home with her baby sister.
  • That car is a complete terror, because it’s constantly breaking down whenever we need it most.

Lastly, terror can be used when referring to terrorism, violence, or “threats of violence used to intimidate or coerce.” This can include any period of frightful violence or bloodshed, such as the Reign of Terror in France.

For example:

  • The act of terror that some New Yorkers experienced firsthand on September 11, 2001 is one that no person should have to live through.

Terror was first recorded in English around 1325–75, and it originates from the Latin terrēre “to frighten.” Synonyms for terror include alarm, dismay, and consternation.

What does horror mean?

Horror is a noun that is defined as “an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear.” It can also refer to anything that causes such a feeling.

For example:

  • While he was driving home, he watched in horror as the car in front of him drifted into oncoming traffic, causing an accident.
  • Imagine the horror she felt after first discovering that her husband had fallen in love with her best friend.

Informally, horror can also be used to refer to something that’s considered tasteless.

For example:

  • The apartment was a horror, and it was clear to everyone who came over that the roommates hadn’t cleaned since moving in.

Horror can also be used as an informal interjection. For example:

  • She hasn’t been able to shop at HomeGoods for months—the horror!

As an adjective, horror can mean “inspiring or creating horror, loathing, aversion,” or “depicting terrifying events.”

First recorded in English in the early 1500s, the word horror comes directly from the Latin horror, which is based on the verb horrēre, “to bristle with fear”—quite literally, for one’s hairs to stand on end when the get goosebumps. Learn more about the connection hair and goosebumps in our Vocab Builder section on horripilation.

Synonyms for horror include dread, disgust, dismay, and apprehension.

How to use each word

Although both terror and horror imply extreme fear or the presence of danger or evil, they have a slight difference in usage.

Terror is typically used in anticipation of a danger that’s in the future. This intense dread or panic is a reaction to something that could or is going to happen.

For example:

  • He was hit with terror as he awaited the doctor’s diagnosis.
  • Although she loves watching shows about paranormal activity, she’s often gripped by terror in the middle of the night when she thinks she hears a ghost.

On the other hand, horror generally implies danger or shock at witnessing or experiencing something, well, horrific.

For example:

  • They watched in horror as the car in front of them crashed directly into a school bus.
  • The entire family screamed in horror while watching the spooky movie together on Halloween.

What is a work of horror in literature?

In literature, the words horror and terror can be used to describe two types of Gothic works. This style is characterized “by a gloomy setting, grotesque, mysterious, or violent events, and an atmosphere of degeneration and decay.”

Many of the most suspenseful moments of fiction—within the Gothic genre or others—are caused by terror. As writer and editor Lincoln Michel notes, “Terror is the feeling of dread and apprehension at the possibility of something frightening.” He describes horror as “the shock and repulsion of seeing the frightening thing.” A Gothic novel can use terror to build suspense, while works of horror often put extreme violence on full display. Of course, some novels combine elements of the two.

If you’re down for a good Halloween scare, you might try a Gothic novel or two. Don’t shy away from the potential terror and the horror that this spooky season can bring.

 

Which creatures of Halloween season elicit the most terror from you (and possibly horror, if you’re very unlucky)? For some, it may be ghosts, ghouls, and goblins … do you know the difference between these creatures?

If you’ve had enough of dread, perhaps you would prefer to brush up on the lore and history of the day after Halloween instead. No goblins included.

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