What is a Horror Trope? Meaning and Examples from Film.

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A horror trope is a commonly used theme, plot device, or character type within horror fiction that audiences readily recognize. These tropes help to establish a sense of familiarity and expectation, shaping the genre’s conventions over time. Examples include the haunted house, the final girl, and the unsuspecting group of friends. Historically, horror tropes have evolved, reflecting societal fears and cultural issues, which filmmakers and writers exploit to enhance suspense and provoke fear in their audience.

If you’re a fan of horror movies, you know that certain recurring elements are as predictable as a jump scare in a dark corridor. These are called horror tropes.

Below, I’ve curated a list of common horror movie elements, each demonstrated with some classic examples.

Common Horror Trope Examples

The Jump Scare – Classic technique to get your heart racing. Think of that famous scene in Jaws (1975) when the shark suddenly appears while Brody is tossing chum into the water.

The Creepy Child – Kids in horror aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Films like The Omen (1976) showcase children as embodiments of pure evil.

The Final Girl – This trope involves the last woman standing who confronts the killer, like Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978).

The Haunted House – A central element in films like The Amityville Horror (1979), where the setting itself is a source of terror.

The Promiscuous One Dies First – Often, characters who engage in taboo behaviors like sex die early in horror films, as seen in Friday the 13th (1980).

Don’t Split Up! – Despite it being a terrible idea, characters often split up, making it easier for the monster or killer to pick them off. This happens all the time, including in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).

The Unstoppable Killer – No matter how fast you run, the killer, even limping, always catches up. Michael Myers in Halloween is a prime example.

The Sinister Séance – Attempting to contact the dead never goes well in horror movies. Remember The Changeling (1980)?

The Skeptic – One person always refuses to believe in the supernatural threat until it’s too late, much like Dr. Loomis in Halloween.

The Exorcism – Battling demonic possession often requires an exorcism, a horrifying ordeal depicted in The Exorcist (1973).

The Urban Legend – Horror films often capitalize on urban legends to drive their plots, like in Candyman (1992).

Technology Gone Wrong – Whether it’s killer robots or haunted videotapes, technology brings doom, as seen in The Ring (2002).

Isolation – Being cut off from civilization, like in The Shining (1980), heightens the sense of dread.

The Twist Ending – A good horror movie often throws in a twist that changes everything, like in Saw (2004).

The Cursed Object – From haunted dolls to cursed jewelry, objects in horror films often bring death, such as the puzzle box in Hellraiser (1987).

The Survivor’s Guilt – Characters surviving a horror ordeal might face guilt, as depicted in Final Destination (2000).

The Mysterious Town with a Dark Secret – Towns like Silent Hill in Silent Hill (2006) are central to the creepy atmosphere.

The Vengeful Ghost – Spirits seeking retribution make for terrifying stories, such as in The Grudge (2004).

The Monster Within – Exploring inner demons or transformations, like in The Fly (1986).

The Return of the Dead – Whether zombies or resurrected loved ones, they’re a staple, seen in Night of the Living Dead (1968).

The Misunderstood Monster – Sometimes monsters are more tragic than evil, like Frankenstein’s monster.

The Ancient Curse – Unleashing curses from antiquity spells disaster, as in The Mummy (1999).

The Warning Ignored – Ignoring warnings from locals or experts leads to horror, a key element in Jaws.

The Body Horror – Transformation in grotesque ways plays a central role in films like The Thing (1982).

The Psychological Horror – Delving into the mind’s horrors, with films like Psycho (1960) leading the charge.

The Invisible Threat – What you can’t see can hurt you, as shown in The Invisible Man (2020). See also acousmêtre.

The Discovery of Old Footage – Finding old recordings that reveal horrifying truths, like in The Blair Witch Project (1999).

The Doomed Road Trip – Road trips gone wrong are a horror favorite, seen in Wrong Turn (2003).

The Inescapable Location – Being trapped in a single location, like the grocery store in The Mist (2007).

The Apocalypse – The end of the world setting provides a backdrop for ultimate horror, as depicted in 28 Days Later (2002).

Summing Up

Horror tropes are common themes or devices in horror cinema that elicit fear or suspense by tapping into our primal fears and cultural folklore.

Examples include isolated settings like haunted houses, the presence of supernatural entities such as ghosts or monsters, and the final girl trope, where the last woman standing confronts the killer.

Some of these have become cliché because they’ve been overused. However, that has meant they’ve made their way into parodies, such as horror comedies, giving them a new life.

Up Next: Why the horror genre is great for first-time filmmakers.

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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