We all love a good scare, well most of us do. A good horror film can do this in a number of different ways, from a creeping sense of dread to a heart stopping moment of shock. Horror films get your heart thumping and your blood pumping.
Horror may be the most ‘tropey’ genre in film. It uses and re-uses concepts and familiar settings over and over. Humans fear the unknown, so after the 14th time seeing a main character walk through the halls of a dark house, or abandoned insane asylum coming face to face with the ghost that’s been terrorizing him it’s not really all that scary any more, to me anyway.
Most horror films in recent years feel like they are going by a checklist. A dark house, a vengeful spirit, and jump scares every 5 minutes. Here’s a list of commonly used tropes and themes associated with the horror genre. Lets take a look at how and why they are used and maybe inspire you to do things a little different.
This one is such a common trope some might consider it integral to the genre maybe even a necessity. Jump scares can be effective at getting the heart rate of the audience pumping, giving them a quick chemical injection of Dopamine and Adrenaline. We get a buzz from the release of these chemicals. This buzz can hide certain flaws in the film and might disguise weak writing or poor character development. I feel it can be ineffective and even counter productive for a film if overused. Great horror films like The Shining (1980), The Babadook (2014) and The Witch (2015) try to avoid the jump scare, instead favouring to build up the fear and uneasiness over time, letting the audience stay in that feeling longer.
Being chased by a killer through the woods? Hiding from the monster in the closet? If you’re a character in a horror film, chances are your cell phone will have no coverage at a crucial point in your survival. This trope is a product of the times. Years ago these kinds of scenes didn’t exist along with the cell phones used in them. As cell phones became more common scriptwriters had to come up with a way to explain why people couldn’t just call for help at any time. The easiest way to solve this problem? No coverage. This is a tough one to work around at this point, everyone has a smart phone and coverage is pretty good in most places.
The Abandoned Place
Weather it’s a haunted house or dilapidated hospital, horror films love putting characters in creepy abandoned places. There is something about imagery depicting places human beings have left behind that strike a chord with people. We think about what could have happened that drove the people away, what was life like before they left? who were they? These are some major reasons why filmmakers choose to set films in these types of locations. However, the scariness of your film should not be tied to the creepiness of your location. Try to write script that would be scary no matter where it took place, where the fear is based on internal factors within characters, not the external factors of the set.
The Vengeful Spirit
This one is very popular. In films ghosts always seem to have a grudge against the living. They spend eternity trying to exact revenge on our characters for the suffering they endured in the past. Eventually our character discovers the truth, solves the riddle and sets right a wrong that eventually brings peace to the angry apparition. This one seems to be the most popular trope in recent years with films like The Grudge (2004), Paranormal Activity (2007), The Conjuring (2013), It Follows (2015), The list goes on. Have you ever noticed in most of these films characters eventually just seem to accept the fact the ghost exists and that they need to help them. After they succeed everything is happy and they can go back to their normal lives, but what about the fact they now have proof of an existence after death, and a terrible, anger filled one at that. This is a world changing revelation, even if just to the person who experiences it. How would someone really deal with that?
Death by Sex
Death by sex is the ultimate 80’s horror trope. It still pops up every now and then but is mostly remembered from classic horror films like Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and it is effective because it prays upon the psyche of the young adults watching the film. Come on, getting caught in the act by anyone let alone a masked killer is a terrifying thought, especially to younger people. This trope seems to have died off I recent years (no pun intended) but it still pops up from time to time.
The Final Girl
This classic trope is more commonly found in the slasher sub-genre and usually starts with a group of teenagers having a good time together and ends with all but one girl dead and dismembered. I think the reason this trope became so popular among filmmakers is kind of due to the necessities of slasher films. The audience identifies and (usually) empathizes with the lead character so you want them to be perceived as vulnerable in the face of danger hence why the last person alive usually is a small, terrified woman instead of a large, angry man. These films usually start with a larger group of young people. Each character usually represents an archetype (The Jock, The Slut, The Nerd). The filmmaker wants the audience to be unsure who is going to live and who is going to die so having a large cast that gets picked off one by one helps with that. The final girl is usually innocent, and shy in the beginning of the film. In the end she is revealed to be the most intelligent and resourceful character and in the end usually finds the strength to defeat the killer. This trope connects with the Death by Sex trope as they were both popularized in the late 70’s early 80’s and usually in the same types of films but has appeared in more recent films like Cabin in the Woods (2012), a film that pays tribute to the horror genre and puts a twist on many of the tropes in this list.
These are just a few of the many tropes commonly associated with the horror genre. Will you use them or will you break them? Whatever you decide; if your are planning on writing a horror film it is important to know the history and conventions of the genre so to better understand how you can innovate and stand out.