Game of Thrones defies description. It's a fantasy series, set in a land of make believe imagined by author George R.R. Martin. It's an epic, with events that take place centuries apart featuring a sprawling cast of dozens. It's also a drama, romance, period piece, an adventure with dashes of war films and westerns, and don't tell me Thrones isn't funny. Have you met Tyrion Lannister? However, the one genre Thrones doesn't get enough recognition for paying homage to is the scariest one of all: Horror.
The first scene of the first episode of Game of Thrones is meant to do one thing — frighten you into the corner of your bathtub. There is a supernatural presence that haunts the men and women of the Known World and that presence is immediately introduced. Human body parts are found in the woods. Heads are mounted on pikes, and a young girl is impaled on a tree. Men of the Night's Watch see this. They're rightly chilled. Their horses scatter. Then we see the killer. A figure is shown in shadow with glowing blue eyes. He kills one of the men off-screen, but we hear it. The figure then decapitates another man, holding his head like a trophy while his lifeless body collapses to the ground. And we fade to black. Right away, the show establishes the villain, a seemingly unstoppable killing force primed to wipe men from existence forever.
Thrones fans know what happens next. We meet the Stark family, the Lannisters, and the rest of the show's characters. The drama of Jon Snow's journey, of Daenerys Targaryen's journey, of everyone's, is what makes Game of Thrones so addictive. Like all great TV shows, it's about the characters and how we care about them. Lives are constantly in peril. The Known World is a primal place of a thousand dangers and death is around every corner. The White Walkers remain the existential threat throughout the series, but horror visits every character in personal and unexpected ways as well.
Consider just some of things that happen on Thrones, all of which would be right at home in any horror movie. Ned Stark loses his head in front of his children. Daenerys is raped, forced to eat a bloody horse heart, and she watches her husband give another man a Colombian necktie. (And that's just in Season One.) Bastard babies are killed en masse, some are infants. Melisandre, the Red Witch, gives birth to a smoke demon that murders a king. Another king, Joffrey, is a teenage serial killer. Speaking of serial killer, Ramsay Bolton, spends the majority of five seasons of the show torturing another character into submission. His house sigil is a flayed man on a cross. Shall I go on? We won't even get into the nudity (a staple of the horror genre), or the jump scare filmmaking methods of Thrones's many directors. And I won't mention the dragons, or the zombie army, or The Mountain either.
Horror, in the strictest sense, is about scaring the audience. That can be done many ways, but films and TV shows that fit the genre all have that same intent in common. Thrones, make no mistake, wants to frighten you. Fear is essential to the series. It's why, among other reasons, the entire TV watching universe can't wait until April 14 when the final season begins and our heroes face the White Walkers and their Night King for the last time. Can good triumph over evil? Can courage overtake fear, and drive horror back into the darkness? It's why we watch.
Game of Thrones returns April 14 on HBO