Occult 101: An Introduction to Horror’s Most Terrifying Sub-Genre

Occult horror explores both the paranormal and the human condition is ways which terrify. Let’s take a look at this creepy genre and add some books to your TBR.

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The covers for "The Haunting of Hill House," "The Year of the Witching," and "Ninth House" against a dark red ombre background.

Horror is an ancient genre that has existed to scare, disturb, and astonish humans, tapping into our instinct to fear the unknown or the morbid. There are several recognizable archetypes in horror: witches, ghosts, vampires, murderers, serial killers, and cult leaders. These common figures can be traced to the beginning of the genre, which sprung from myths and folktales told to frighten their audience.

Like any genre, horror has several sub-genres within it that describe different types of stories. One of the most popular of those sub-genres is occult horror, a type of horror that revolves around the paranormal. Occult horror can explore astrology, paganism, witchcraft, or psychic phenomena and often has elements grounded in reality, like religion or superstitions. The beauty of occult horror is that it takes beliefs from reality and twists them into dark and over-exaggerated shapes in order to reveal the worst humanity — and beyond — has to offer.

The presence of the mystical and supernatural have existed in horror for centuries, but occult horror wouldn’t gain commercial prominence as a genre until the late 20th century when The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby would become successful. With demonic possession, supernatural beings, and a healthy dose of religious leaders, these two represent frequent motifs in many contemporary occult horror novels. 

Want to explore this harrowing corner of horror but not sure where to start? Check out the list below for some ideas on how to begin your next reading obsession.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is a horror cult classic. In this 1959 novel, a group of strangers participate in a paranormal study at the notorious Hill House. During their stay, all the visitors begin to experience strange and unexplainable events. Part of the book’s popularity stems from the fact that the supernatural occurrences are either vaguely described or told through a character’s perspective, leaving the reader wondering if the event ever really happened.

Book cover for “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson.

Many authors, like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, herald The Haunting of Hill House as one of the most influential horror stories from the 20th century and the ideal model for a haunted house story.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson

Book cover for “The Year of the Witching“ by Alexis Henderson.

Immanuelle Moore is a living reminder of her mother’s actions, which sent their once-reputable family into disgrace. To make up for her existence, Immanuelle dedicates her life in Bethel to being the perfect example of an obedient, devout woman. But her quiet, subservient existence is disturbed when one day, she stumbles into the woods, meeting the spirits of four powerful witches who were killed by the first prophet. These spirits bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, which reveals a shocking connection between her mother and the witchcraft their settlement hates. The journal reveals even more devastating truths about the Church and its history that convince Immanuelle Bethel is in danger. But the only way to save the settlement will be to confront the darkness that lurks within it.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book cover for “Mexican Gothic“ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

In 1950s Mexico, Noemí Taboada is enjoying a life of parties, suitors, and flitting from interest to interest. When her father asks her to investigate a strange letter from her recently-wed cousin, Noemí plans to use her father’s debt to attend university and thinks nothing of a quick trip to her cousin’s new home in the Mexican countryside. However, upon arrival, Noemí is met by a cold and menacing family, an ancient patriarch, and a house called High Place that seems to have a mind of its own. The family lives in anonymity thanks to their lost fortune and obsolete mining business, but the deeper Noemí digs, the more sinister and bizarre their history appears to be. If Noemí wants to escape High Place and bring her cousin to safety, she will have to play a dangerous game that has her falling into the center of the house’s madness.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

This series by Six of Crows author Leigh Bardugo is an exciting mix between dark academia and occult horror that is full of twists and turns.

Book cover for “Ninth House“ by Leigh Bardugo.

Galaxy “Alex” Stern has been through a series of unfortunate events ever since she was a child. By the time she’s twenty years old, she has a string of bad boyfriends and dead-end jobs to her name and not much else. But when she is the sole survivor of an unsolved homicide, a detective offers her a tempting deal: attend Yale on a full-ride in order to infiltrate the university’s world of secret societies. With nothing to lose and determined to get answers, Alex dives into this dark underbelly that is full of secrets, sacrifices, and forbidden magic.

What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Book cover for “What Moves the Dead” by T. Kingfisher.

In this reimagining of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Alex Easton is a retired soldier who races to the ancestral Usher home upon learning of his childhood friend’s illness. When they arrive, Madeline Usher is acting oddly, even for a dying woman: she sleepwalks, speaks in strange voices, and has a brother afflicted with nerves. Even stranger is the House of Usher itself, which crawls with fungal growths, possessed wildlife, and has a pulsing lake lying in wait on the premises. Alex must find out the truth not only to save Madeline’s life but to keep all of them from falling victim to the house of Usher.

Little Heaven by Nick Cutter

Book cover for “Little Heaven“ by Nick Cutter.

Ellen Bellhaven is a concerned aunt who wants answers about the well-being of her nephew, who has been living in a New Mexico settlement called Little Heaven. The settlement is run by a strict religious cult that Ellen fears is holding her nephew against his will. Ellen hires three mercenaries to infiltrate Little Heaven and find out the truth. But the mercenaries quickly find themselves trapped as the settlement descends into paranoia, distrust, and chaos. A sinister force is invading, cutting off all routes to freedom. If any want to make it out alive, they must stand and fight the Hell that’s come crawling into Little Heaven.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Book cover for “Geek Love“ by Katherine Dunn.

The matriarch and patriarch of the Binewskis are obsessed with the circus, to the point that have bred their own exhibit of human oddities through less-than-legal and pleasant means. The Binewskis take their show through the backwaters of America, inspiring awe and disgust in equal measure. The fervor of their parents launches the siblings into a brutal rivalry and sets them down a path that will surely lead to the family’s demise.

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