Horror tropes get a bad rap. Heck, tropes in general do. But, it’s important to realize some tropes just can’t be avoided. Usually, tropes exist due to genre requirements called “conventions” or expectations by the audience to have certain things in a story.
For instance, horror tropes demand a killer have some kind of scary weapon. You wouldn’t have a killer use a butter-knife because psychologically it doesn’t elicit as much fear as, say, a steak knife.
Horror tropes, however, can be over-used and blatantly copied. If a hundred stories are all about a chainsaw-wielding murderer, it’ll eventually lose its edge and become lame. How you creatively utilize them will make them interesting.
That’s not to say all horror tropes should stick around. There’s a laundry list of tropes that need to hit the road and never come back, either because they’ve been exhausted of all creativity or they were never good in the first place.
The horror tropes that deserve to stay are the ones that have lasting appeal, a psychological angle, haven’t been fully utilized, or are still in demand. Here are some of my favorite horror tropes that shouldn’t go away.
The Car Stops Working
This trope isn’t solely exclusive to the horror genre. Think Marty McFly. Still, it sure does happen a lot in horror books and movies. It doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to cars, either. Cell phones, computers, doors, heck even people’s legs seem to give out on them at the wrong moments, and it’s all a glorious storytelling trick to up the tension and instill a known sense of frustration in the audience. The things not working storytelling trick is a classic and nigh perfect. I’d much rather everything around a character seem like it’s working against them rather than everything going perfectly and nothing working like clockwork. Obviously, the storyteller should use restraint and make sure the trope isn’t used poorly. But, if everything is working in a horror story, then it isn’t being done right.
As far as real-life evil groups go, you can’t get more evil than Nazis. They’re top shelf evil. So, it’s natural for writers to want to utilize an already built-in history and context. Audiences get it. Nazis are monsters and are freaking scary. And to be fair, I don’t think this trope has been milked for all its worth. It could easily become a sub-genre unto itself. Plus, in light of recent current events, it feels even more timely than ever.
I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of something living inside me, like a parasite, gives me the serious creeps. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be pregnant. But, I can at least imagine women must have anxiety and fear about the whole thing, from medical emergencies to the health of their child. So, writers taking those real anxieties and flipping them on their head is pretty ingenious. It makes for a great horror trope. There’s just something terrifying about an evil, killer fetus living inside you. From Rosemary’s Baby to Alien, the trope never gets old because it points to real anxieties.
Books need not apply here (though it might be interesting to try to describe or convey the Kubrick Stare within literary terms). The Kubrick Stare is a film horror trope through and through, and under no circumstances should it go away. It’s a near perfect way to convey diabolic intention, anger, evil, or a creepy look. All you have to do is tilt the head down and look up. Usually, the character has a wry smirk. Probably my favorite use of this is The Dark Knight when the Joker is in police custody and looks at the police officer.
The Mad Scientist trope goes back a long way. The first book that comes to mind is Frankenstein. Doctor Frankenstein is the titular mad scientist, symbolizing how science without a conscience can go horribly wrong. Many argue this trope doesn’t make any sense and that in real life technological achievement is usually by a team of scientists. Sure, that might be true, but in the literary world, sometimes it just makes more sense to combine that whole team into one raving lunatic.
The Killer’s In Your Backseat
The killer is always in the backseat of a car. Where else would he be? The trunk? The front seat? To some degree, I get why people might be irritated by this horror trope but if you need the killer to be somewhere in the vehicle, the backseat is the ONLY option for a writer unless they are a ghost or the invisible man. I like this trope because it’s classic and touches on deep-seated fears people have about their car sitting out in a dark parking lot. It’s too good not to use.
Axes. Chainsaws. Knives. Rusty crowbars. Pick your sharp-edged weapon of choice for the killer because they really shouldn’t have a grenade or a colander. Tropes are, more often than not, pure psychological trappings. The audience will perceive certain weapons differently than others. Guns and knives are both terrifying but in their own different ways. The knife is more visceral and intimate. The sharp-edged weapon, though somewhat limiting, isn’t going to go away and it really shouldn’t.
Look, basements are just scary. There are no two ways around it. It’s an over-used horror trope but it’s hard to blame horror writers for using it. A lot of people are scared of basements especially the dark, dank, and smelly ones. Sometimes it’s all about how you use the basement. I love how the movie The Babadook used the basement to symbolize how the main character didn’t want to deal with past trauma. Stephen King also does the same thing in the book IT. If you like scary stories about basements, I also have written my own short story concerning them.
Of all the authors overusing this trope, Stephen King is public enemy #1. He loves the boogey-man, big bad villain, and does a great job utilizing it in his books. The biggest problem with this trope is the hollowness of it. These kinds of villains end up just being “evil” because the author said so rather than explaining how they became evil or what motivates them to be evil. At the same time, the mysteriousness and ominous feeling you get reading about things that go bump in the night works like a charm. It would be a shame to throw this one aside.
Body Turning Against You
Out of all the horror tropes, the “body turning against you” one is a personal favorite. Your body is your body. It’s all you have. Once it turns against you, it’s like an unseen evil taking away your freedom and making you something you don’t want. Recently, I saw this one done so well in the film The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I think more can be done with this horror trope. Much more. I wouldn’t want it to go away anytime soon.