7 Classic Horror Tropes and Why They Work
by Aaron Seminoff
December 20, 2016
Horror movies rely on something called “tropes” more than any other film genre, even romantic comedies. What’s a trope? Simply defined, it’s a plot device or character type that is commonly known and familiar to the audience watching the movie. Are horror tropes always stale and overused? Many times they are, but in good hands, tropes can be effective and even surprise you if they are presented in a new way. Here are some classic examples:
The Scary Cat
Sure cats are cute, but every horror fan knows they have a sinister side, too…what with the way they sneak up on you, can see in the dark, and associate with witches…to name just a few creepy cat qualities that have been used over the years. Movies with “cat scare” tropes include The Uncanny, Pet Sematary, Strays, Cat’s Eye, Uninvited, and of course Cat People.
There was a creepy Twilight Zone episode called "Night Call" that scared the crap out of your parents when they were little. It involved a telephone line that fell on a grave. Guess who started called his old fiancé? Unknown callers on the other end of the phone can be really scary, just check out Halloween, When a Stranger Calls, Scream, and The Ring.
What’s in the Mirror?
Mirrors are great horror tropes because there’s nothing scarier than seeing someone (or something) creepy over your shoulder while you’re looking in the mirror. When you turn around it may or may not be gone! There are tons of horror movies with the “mirror scare.” Check out Candyman, Oculus, The Shining, Paranormal Activity 3, and even the music box in The Conjuring.
The Indian Burial Ground
The Indian burial ground is such a classic horror trope that it’s been appropriated by comedy shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park. Many people think Poltergeist is the classic Indian burial ground movie, but it’s actually just a regular cemetery. What horror films DO feature the dreaded Indian burial ground? Try The Amityville Horror, The Shining, and Pet Sematary.
Abandoned Hospitals and Mental Institutions
The creepy ruins of abandoned hospitals, and especially abandoned mental hospitals, are the perfect setting for a horror movie. The souls of people who have been tortured, suffered, and died in these places can’t ever be at rest until some intrepid investigators discover buried horrors from the past. Check out Grave Encounters, Session 9, The Hospital, and Boo.
Sex = Death
…Especially teenage sex! What’s more tempting to a serial killer than a couple of teenagers making out in the woods or in a car parked in a remote spot? A lot has been written about this particular trope, from theories that it’s some kind of moralistic warning to the audience, or commentary on the sexual fantasies of murderers. Whatever the reason, the “sex = death” trope is a very common one. See: Don’t Look Now, Friday the 13th II, American Psycho, Cabin Fever, and It Follows.
Science Gone Wrong
A brilliant scientist has a great idea about how to improve the human race. Sometimes he’s just evil but usually he has the best intentions….and then the scientific experiment goes very wrong and monsters are unleashed on the earth. The lab experiment gone wrong trope has been around for decades, just ask Dr. Frankenstein. Besides Frankenstein, check out The Fly, The Human Centipede, 28 Days Later, Splice, and Re-Animator.
Images via IMDb.