Terror vs. Horror: A Scarily Big Difference

, Staff Writer
Updated May 6, 2022
Girl Afraid With Terror vs Horror Definitions
    Girl Afraid With Terror vs Horror Definitions
    Girl: PCH-Vector / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Background: Tolchik / iStock / Getty Images Plus
    Used under Getty Images license

You hear a door creak open even though you’re home alone. You wake up to the sound of footsteps. You’re in the basement when the lone bulb above you burns out, drowning you in darkness. These are scary moments, but do they fill you with terror or horror?

What Is Terror?

Terror is a feeling of intense, overpowering fear. A person, place or thing can also “be a terror,” meaning they instill a sense of intense fear in others. In a more casual sense, a terror can refer to a generally troublesome or annoying person.

Terror is also tied to terrorism, which involves violence or threats of violence as a means of coercion and intimidation.

Origin of ‘Terror’

The word terror comes from the Latin root terrere, meaning “to frighten or fill with fear.”


What Is Horror?

Horror refers to overwhelming feelings caused by something scary, shocking or revolting. In more casual or informal applications, something can also “be a horror” if it’s tasteless or ugly.

Origin of ‘Horror’

Horror comes from the French word horreur, which is rooted directly in Latin horror, meaning “dread, veneration, religious awe.”

Terror vs. Horror: How To Tell the Difference

Going by the above definitions, you can see that terror and horror are difficult to untangle because they’re both related to fear. It’s a fine line, but the difference comes down to timing.

Terror comes before the action. You feel terror from anticipating something dreadful that you believe might happen. Horror comes after you have experienced the thing that has happened.


Examples of Terror and Horror

To see your own fears in action, here are some examples to help you differentiate between terror and horror:



You are waiting at the dentist’s office and hear the distant sound of a drill.

You see the exorbitant bill from your dentist visit.

A strange shape moves in the water under you.

You see your purse — containing your phone, your wallet and your favorite ring — quickly sinking into the ocean.

In the middle of the night, you wake up to strange sounds coming from the living room.

You carefully walk into the living room to find your toddler completely covered in peanut butter and mashing jelly into the carpet.

Horror As a Genre

Most people know horror as a genre in literature, film and other media. Scary stories are deeply rooted in oral traditions that are centuries old, though some people cite Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto as the first published horror story in 1765.

The horror genre includes countless subgenres, from slashers to paranormal fiction. The intent is to cause fear, disgust or dread, much of which comes from terror and anticipation.


The Horror! The Horror!

Horror and terror play integral roles in art, literature and everyday life, and sometimes it’s just plain fun to get your socks scared off. But it’s okay, you can calm your nerves with some soothing articles: