Horror movies have become subject to some of the most predictable devices and tropes in cinema. While unique filmmakers like Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, and Jordan Peele continue to innovate the genre, new horror films are riddled with horror movie tropes. Although they can still be effective horror storytelling devices, they can also become unremarkable cliches in a film. Let’s take a look at fifteen common horror movie tropes. Fair warning, spoilers ahead!
The Mirror Trope: How to Make Mirrors Scary Again
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Iconic Horror Movie Tropes
Movie tropes & why they're not all bad
It’s important to understand what qualifies as a trope before we dive into the most common horror movie tropes in film. These days, the word "trope" comes with a negative connotation. But what people are usually referring to are cliches — anything that gets overused.
Tropes are just recurring elements that constitute a type of story. All movie genres have tropes. Tropes are one of the main qualifiers that help us categorize genres in the first place. That being said, certain tropes get overused or they become stale and unoriginal. That's when we need to rethink or reinvent them.
Let’s start with a definition, then we'll get to the list.
MOVIE TROPE DEFINITION
What is a movie trope?
Film tropes are thematic storytelling devices that communicate something figurative to an audience. They can be something as simple as an object with symbolic meaning or something as complex as an action with referential meaning. Essentially, film tropes are anything that allude to something other than their literal meaning.
Common Horror Film Tropes
1. Jump scare
Perhaps the most common movie horror trope is the jump scare. A jump scare occurs when a sudden change in sensory stimulation, visual, auditory, or both scares the audience. Jump scares can be a cheap scare when done poorly, but they can also be effective at keeping an audience engaged. Check out our list of the best jump scares of all time.
Scary Movie Tropes in Cinematography
2. Found footage
Some of the best horror films in cinema have utilized the style of found footage. Found footage is a style of cinematography that intentionally photographs a film to appear as if the footage was found on a recording device.
This style is rather immersive. When handheld camera shots are used, they give an almost point of view perspective for the audience. This was the case in the haunting Blair Witch Project. Other times, found footage can be styled from CCTV cameras such as the iconic Paranormal Activity.
Horror Movie Character Tropes
3. Creepy clowns
The creepy clown has become one of the more common horror movie character tropes in the genre. While clowns can undeniably be incredibly creepy or even terrifying characters, it has become quite difficult to pull off one that is unique from the rest. However, brilliant work in make-up art, prosthetics, and visual effects have created some terrifying clown imagery in the recent It films. Don't miss our review of "It Chapter Two"!
Ending Horror Movie Tropes
4. The twist ending perspective
Speaking of horror movie tropes that are difficult to make unique, the sudden plot twist due to a shift in perspective has become common in psychological horror movies specifically. Under the umbrella of this trope would be “he was dead all along,” “he’s really a patient in the asylum,” or “they were just a figment of his imagination.”
It can be difficult to pull off this trope without it seeming like a cheap cop out for the ending of a story. However, great filmmakers utilize subtle foreshadowing to make the twist hit a bit harder such as the iconic scene above from The Sixth Sense.
Horror Movie Cliches
5. Let’s split up
Some of the tropes on this list are horror movie character tropes, recurring themes in horror movies, but this falls under the “stupid decisions they tend to make in horror moves.”
Choosing to split up in a horror film is a key indication that someone or a few will die all too soon. It’s a horror movie trope best avoided.
Horror Movie Character Tropes
6. The cute, creepy child
Why is a cute child all alone in an eerie setting so unsettling? Whatever the reason may be, it has become one of the common horror movie character tropes in the genre. The threat of a child that is seemingly possessed, a ghostly spirit or one that cannot be harmed poses an unsettling juxtaposition in a horror movie. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in The Shining, one of Stanley Kubrick’s best films.
Horror Movie Cliches
7. Don’t go in there
“Don’t go in there” tends to be the words we say right before we see a character disappear or die in a horror film. This can be the abandoned house on the end of the street or the dark basement of the new house. It typically becomes a source of suspense or anxiety for the audience as characters begin to become more and more curious about the place until it is too late.
Horror Film Tropes
8. A clumsy escape
At some point in the film, the monster or demon has exposed themselves and now they are in pursuit of the victim. The victim manages to just get ahead until suddenly, they trip and fall down. Sound familiar?
This horror movie trope is designed to get your heart racing while screaming “Get up!” as you feel the monster getting closer. It’s a trope that has been effective in the past, but has become one of the most iconic horror movie cliches in film. Some of the better uses of this trope have been replacing the fall with a struggle to escape such as in the example above from Pan's Labyrinth.
Demon Horror Movie Tropes
9. Left with bruises
Within the horror genre, spirits and demons are often the subject of antagonistic force in a film. In leading up to the reveal of the demon, we often see markings like bruises and scratches made on those the demon or monster preys on. Many have said this is inspired by true events in which people have claimed to have been marked in a haunted house with bruises or burns similar to the injuries the spirits of the haunted house have faced.
Slasher Horror Movie Tropes
10. The Final Girl
Many horror films typically start with a group of people. These are usually the friends from high school, the group going out on a camping trip, or simply a family moving into a new but clearly haunted house.
Toward the end of the film, all have either died, gone missing or afflicted in some other way except for one. This is the last girl standing horror movie trope because in the iconic 80s slasher horror films such as Scream or Halloween, the final girl is the one to take down the monster.
11. The car won’t start
Similar to falling down when running away from the antagonist of the film, a car failing to start is a common horror movie trope designed to create suspense in the audience. The keys turn and all we hear as a click click click as the car fails to start and the killer closes in. Like the trope of falling while running, a car failing to start has become one of the most common horror movie cliches
Haunted Horror Cliches
12. A house with a history
The haunted house has been a staple in the horror genre for many reasons. For one, it is an all too relatable feeling and fear that the home you reside in has spirits or demons come alive at night.
There are many historical cases of haunted homes that people can tour and visit. Past murders, family history, and gruesome tales of homes have allegedly left spirits in these homes. This has become a great inspiration for some of the best horror films such as The Conjuring, The Shining, and Poltergeist.
Thematic Horror Cliches
13. Humans are the real monster
While this trope has evolved over time in the horror genre, a recurring themes in horror movies is that humans are the real monsters. Sometimes this may be what may seem like an otherworldly monster revealing itself as humans. Other times this may be more philosophical such as in Alien when human start to turn on each other.
Perhaps the most notable and most recent example of this can be found in 10 Cloverfield Lane where the backdrop and plot have all components of a horror film where man is truly the scariest foe.
Horror Movie Character Tropes
14. A doll possessed
Like the haunted house, haunted dolls have become one of the common horror movie character tropes. Most notable uses of this would be films like Chucky, Annabelle, and The Boy. Similar to the creepy clown, it can be difficult to find ways to make a haunted or possessed doll unique within the genre.
Horror Movie Tropes Endings
15. One last scare
Once the monster is defeated (or seemingly defeated) and all of our anxiety has dissipated, filmmakers love to fit in one more scare to get us when we are most vulnerable. There is often a moment where we think the threat of the monster, or killer, or demon is gone until they come back for one last scare.
This leaves us with such an ambiguous ending that we are left with more questions than answers. Is the killer still on the loose? Is the demon still roaming the house? Did the monster survive? It’s a great horror movie trope that leaves the unsettling nature of the film with us even after the credits roll.
Character Tropes Explained
Interested in learning about more tropes outside of the horror film genre? Check out our next article where we dive into character tropes and where they appear in cinema.