Semantics, Syntactics, Pragmatics, Oh My!
Methods of Comparison Within a Genre Text

by Warren Rogers, Journalism and Mass Communication

This essay explores the intersection of semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic approaches to the study of film genre. Drawing from theory, it examines how these three analytical frameworks offer distinct and oftentimes complementary lenses in which to explore the complexities of a singular genre. Semantic analysis derives from the visual cues that shape our understanding of a particular genre. Syntactic analysis, on the other hand, provides clarity on the structural elements of a film genre such as narrative conventions or themes. Pragmatic analysis centers around the way in which a genre functions in society, and the desired effect of the media presented. Through synthesizing these approaches, audiences can develop a more comprehensive understanding of genre’s dynamic role within the world of cinema. Through the analysis of two examples of “horror” media, this essay uses the three approaches to film genre analysis as a means to compare and contrast the ways in which both productions communicate with the conventions of the genre. This essay highlights the significance of these methods as a means of understanding the full message a director tries to convey and as a way to enrich the audience’s intertextual viewing experience.

film, genre, media, television, entertainment

From the twists and turns of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining to the tear-inducing jump scares of James Wans’s The Conjuring, the horror genre has existed for over one hundred years as a means to scare and mystify audiences. Over that period of time, the expectations and conventions of the genre have shifted and evolved to match the current cultural climate. Yet, at its roots, the genre has remained relatively the same. But what makes a genre tick? One way to explore this concept is through the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic approaches to studying genre, first coined by Rick Altman. In his essay, Altman poses the question, “Why bother to theorize,[…], where there are no problems to solve? We all know a genre when we see one” (Altman 6). Though these methods are simply lenses through which to view a genre, they allow for comparison from within the genre itself. Take two examples of media that would be considered in the horror genre: American Horror Story: Asylum created by Ryan Murphy and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do in the Shadows. Both programs communicate with the horror genre in similar and opposing ways by adhering to or contradicting the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic expectations that preexist for the horror genre. 

Sematic Approach

American Horror Story and What We Do in the Shadows both maintain the universal semantic expectation of what the horror genre looks like. Thomas Shatz describes semantics as the visual manifestation of the rules of genre (Klein 199). In other words, the semantics of a genre include common iconography, conventions, and visual cues that culture has ascribed to a particular genre. American Horror Story maintains an aesthetic that an audience would typically expect from the horror genre. This includes blood, unnatural physicality of characters, and dark and foreboding settings. In his essay “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Rick Altman calls these the “building blocks of genre” (Altman 10). The central location for the show, Briarcliff Manor, lines up with an audience’s preconceived notion of what a mental asylum would look like in the horror genre. With maze-like hallways, creepy background characters, and dark lighting and coloration, the set of American Horror Story fits neatly into a preconceived box of what the genre of horror is at its most tangible level. Additionally, the principal antagonist of the series —aptly named “Bloody Face”— is large, foreboding, and wears a terrifyingly brutal mask of human skin. These on-screen elements at play do not defy audience’s expectations, thus making the semantic conversation between American Horror Story and the horror genre as a whole very clear.

What We Do in the Shadows also adheres to the typical semantic styles of horror. If an audience were to simply look at the visual surface of What We Do in the Shadows, they would see a show that is very similar to American Horror Story. Semantic style is often the easiest to recognize due to its surface nature. At the same time, these perceptible expectations can be contradicted for a more sinister effect —making the killer a friendly looking child or setting a jump scare in the daylight— tricking audiences into believing the scene is safe for their eyes. Both shows build a cohesive aesthetic based on the expectations of what horror should look like. Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo are all vampires in What We Do in the Shadows. Their clothing, makeup, and behaviors reflect conventions of horror that audiences have associated with vampires since they were established back in 1929 with the release of Nosferatu, which film experts coin as “the original vampire film” (Scally “Nosferatu”). The same visual consistency is seen in the production design of the show. Lowkey lighting, strange coloration, and Middle Ages Eastern European decor coincide with audience’s expectations of horror, meaning a glance at the screen alludes to audience’s preconceived notions of what will come next. Both American Horror Story and What We Do in the Shadows exist neatly in the horror genre under the lens of the semantic approach.

Syntactic Approach

In comparing American Horror Story and What We Do in the Shadows within the genre of horror, an additional approach in which the two shows share similarity is through the syntactic approach. The syntactic approach deals with consistencies in themes across a genre, or as Rick Altman puts it, “meaning-bearing structures” (Altman 11).  The study of syntax in relation to genre is the study of a piece of media’s greater thematic structure and how that theme either adheres to or contradicts what Klein describes as the “basic conflict at the heart of the genre” (Klein 199). While this question can change from one show to another, the typical syntactical expectation for the horror genre is the principle of good defeating a seemingly insurmountable source of evil. Even from the early days of horror, the central conflict has stemmed from a need for a “hero” to overtake a “monster” that has threatened the order of society.

American Horror Story is a more structurally complex show than What We Do in the Shadows, containing several sources of what would typically be considered the source of evil in the horror genre. The Bloody Face Killer and Briarcliff Manor are the two main “monsters” of the show. The main heroes are journalist Lana Winters and suspected killer Kit Walker. Within the text of American Horror Story, the conventional horror theme of good surmounting evil is present in most of the screen action and dialogue. The syntactic relationship between American Horror Story and the traditional premise of conflict in horror creates very clear channels of communication between the show and the genre as a whole. In other words, the central conflict of American Horror Story and the plots surrounding it do not defy audience’s expectation of what belongs in the horror genre.

What We Do in the Shadows follows a similar thematic structure in which the characters Nandor, Nadja, and Laszlo exist as “heroes” trying to coexist as vampires in the human world. Baron Afanas represents what audiences would consider the “monster” of the series. He wishes for the vampires to take over the human world and establish the dominance of the vampire race. Even though What We Do in the Shadows frames this as a comedic element of the plot, at its core, the basic theme of the show is reflective of the overarching theme found across most of the horror genre. Despite its alternative representation of the theme, the text of What We Do in the Shadows at its core does not defy audience’s preconceived expectations of what the dominant conflict of a horror show should be.          

Pragmatic Approach

While American Horror Story and What We Do in the Shadows remain consistent semantically and syntactically, the two differ in terms of pragmatics. Pragmatics is the third method of analyzing genre and is defined as the way in which the expectations of a genre are used to manipulate audience’s reactions (Klein 200). Traditionally, the horror genre has been used as a means to scare and shock audiences. In American Horror Story this purpose still remains true. Through the use of horrifying imagery, intense music, and hectic pacing, the show effectively keeps audiences on the edge of their seat, terrified of what might happen next. Through the scope of pragmatics, this consistency between American Horror Story and the horror genre solidifies it as pure horror. In other words, the purpose of the show does not exist outside of the traditional expectations of the horror genre.

What We Do in the Shadows takes a different approach to its pragmatic connection to the genre. This is a comedy show, primarily meant to make audiences laugh. By drawing attention to the ironic juxtaposition of semantic and syntactic horror elements to the pragmatic elements of the comedy genre, the show establishes its purpose as being funny rather than scary. Much of the dialogue and action in the show does not meet  how audiences expect characters in a pure horror show to behave. For example, the human character Jenna showing up to the den of vampires lacking any awareness or apprehension of her situation creates irony which reflects onto the audience as a joke rather than a fear tactic. This irony forms the basis for the show’s humor and textually connects it to the comedy genre.  While both shows consistently maintain the visual and thematic elements of horror, What We Do in the Shadows utilizes the purpose of comedy as its purpose. 


Both American Horror Story: Asylum and What We Do in the Shadows communicate effectively with the horror genre through their use of semantic and syntactic elements. Both shows adhere to the expectation of what a horror show should look like. With iconography and conventions typically associated with horror, both shows maintain a strong visual connection to the genre. Additionally, both shows center around themes consistent with the horror genre: the age-old tale of a hero defeating a monster. American Horror Story and What We Do in the Shadows differ on their pragmatic connection to the horror genre. American Horror Story maintains the primary purpose of the horror genre, to scare and shock. What We Do in the Shadows, however, uses its text to change its purpose to making audiences laugh. This is not a purpose commonly associated with horror and represents a way in which What We Do in the Shadows extends itself beyond the genre of horror. The reductive view that a genre is a genre and nothing more is simply false. Genre is a communication of expectations, and the molding and framing of those expectations are what keep media constantly changing. As Altman puts it, “It is simply not possible to describe Hollywood cinema accurately without the ability to account for the numerous films that innovate by combining the syntax of one genre with the semantics of another” (Altman 12). These methods of analysis allow for diversity within a genre. Directors and writers who understand elements such as those from the example TV shows innovate storytelling by using audiences’ own expectations to lead the narrative.

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” Cinema Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 1984, pp. 6-18.

Klein, Amanda Anne. “Genre.” The Craft of Criticism, Routledge, 2018, pp. 195-205.

“Pilot.” What We Do in the Shadows, directed by Jemaine Clement, FX, March 27, 2019.

Scally, Derek. “Nosferatu and the Fangs of Copyright Infringement.” The Irish Times, March 5, 2022.

“Welcome to Briarcliff.” American Horror Story: Asylum, directed by Ryan Murphy, FX, October 17, 2019.

Citation Style: MLA