My Top 5 Horror Tropes and Why They Work So Well
By: Rose Atkinson-Carter
Horror literature is not for the faint of heart. It’s a genre that exploits and explores our deepest, darkest fears, painting terrifying and unsettling images in our minds. And while these chilling narratives can take various forms and shapes, there are some well-established tropes that authors and readers keep coming back to — for better or for worse.
These tropes exploit some of our most commonly held fears to keep readers in a vice-like grip, always turning the next page despite having their hearts in their throats. Chances are your favorite horror stories include one of them too. Perhaps even more than one, as many of the best tropes play well with each other.
While some have become clichés, others still send shivers down our spines, especially when skillfully implemented or subverted. In this post, I’m going to delve into 5 of my personal favorite horror tropes and why I believe they work so well.
Let’s dive into the abyss together.
1. Haunted places
I know, the haunted place, how obvious. Perhaps one of the most popular horror tropes, I always find it intriguing (and unsettling) when a character visits a haunted place that serves as the backdrop for some likely terrifying encounters — or at the very least gets your heart racing. From gothic horror to paranormal stories, locations like old castles, abandoned asylums, or cemeteries haunted by ghostly echoes and sinister feelings, haunted places are a great way to build that satisfying horror atmosphere we’re all looking for when we pick these books up. You might even get goosebumps just thinking about them!
While I love a good jump-scare or possessed creatures as much as the next horror fan, this trope works particularly well with more atmospheric and psychological horror, in which the eeriness of the place is used to bring forth a character’s motivation and psychological profile, and explore the delicate and enigmatic nature of the human psyche. For example, in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the mansion where Dr. Montague and his guests stay seems to have some supernatural malevolence, but it is ultimately one of the main characters’ paranoia that leads to tragedy. In a way, the story subverts the haunted house trope by revealing that the foretold horrors are exaggerated and it’s our minds that sometimes play the cruelest tricks of all.
Another interesting way to spice things up is by making the haunted place a holy one, like a sanctuary or a meditation center, and then gradually transform it into an eerie one as characters discover its secrets. Especially in more recent times, with the rise of mindfulness practices, spiritual retreats, and wanna-be gurus, I think it could make for an interesting setting for horrific tales. Just think of the movie Midsommar, where a seemingly idyllic Swedish countryside becomes the setting for disturbing cultish activities, even if the place isn’t per se haunted.
Let’s now move to another trope which is often combined or juxtaposed with the haunted place. One that doesn’t revolve around a spooky physical location, but the intricate inner labyrinth of the human mind…
2. Lunatic characters
Following up on tropes that work well with psychological thrillers, one of my all time favorites is the seemingly-normal looking characters that turn out to be lunatics, like delusional psychopaths or homicidal maniacs. There’s something about the mental instability and unpredictable behavior that creates great tension, especially when everything slowly unravels.
For example, in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie Wilkes is a former nurse and devoted fan of novelist Paul Sheldon. But after she rescues him from a car accident, she holds him captive in her house, torturing him ever more as a result of her delusion with his work. The reason these characters are scary is that they seem to operate without realistic or predictable motives, unlike other villains who can at least be understood through the lens of their characters’ backstory.
A similar but opposite trope is one in which the mentally unstable character somehow saves the day or helps others see or understand things in a way that they previously couldn’t. This approach to horror explores the blurred lines between sanity and madness, and invites us to reconsider how we approach and treat mental illness.
Taking a bit of a turn, let’s explore another trope that is common especially in the horror niche of the science fiction genre, and particularly relevant to these days of rapid technological advancement…
3. Scientific geniuses/hazards
I love it when scientific experiments turn horrific, and humans are left dealing with the monsters they created as a result of their own greed or hubris. I’m referring to crazy ambitious scientists who push the boundaries of “progress” and conduct unethical experiments, the classic example being the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These types of scientist characters often have a messianic complex and believe that they are capable of bringing about a “greater good” through their experiments.
For example, in The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, Dr. Moreau is a former physiologist who decides to perform painful and ugly surgeries on animals in order to transform them into creatures that look and behave like humans, without any consideration for the pain he causes, which he considers to be “just a side effect” of true scientific advancement. As the story unfolds, these creatures, known as Beast Folk, start to revert to their animalistic nature and impulses, and things get ugly.
There are many similar stories in which experiments go awfully wrong, like in the great classic Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. In the world of cinema, an example would be the 1985 hit H. P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, in which medical student Herbert West develops a serum to reanimate the dead, which produces horrifying side effects he cannot control.
When well-executed, these horror stories can not only make us sit on the edge of our seat, but help us explore some moral and ethical dilemmas, lending more to the genre than just cheap (but equally valid) thrills. Perhaps an interesting way to subvert this story would be to write about a scientific mishap that leads both to incredible benefits and negative side-effects…
Let’s move onto another trope that could be caused by human scientific mishaps, but also other (perhaps alien?) mysterious forces…
4. Lethal viruses
The recent pandemic didn’t curb my liking for the trope of the viral, lethal pandemic that takes the world by a storm and infects almost every person alive, turning them into some kind of monster. Whether that’s bloodthirsty vampires, contagious zombies, or violent creatures, this story line taps into our primal fears of infectious disease, loss of humanity, and the collapse of social order.
A classic example of this trope would be I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. Robert Neville is the only human left in a post-apocalyptic world in which a bacterium has turned every other person into vampires. Since they are sensitive to sunlight and only hunt blood during the night, Neville spends his days bunkering down his home against nightly attacks and trying to figure out a cure for the vampirism. In the end, his character arc culminates in him realizing that the only way he can save mankind is through a selfless act of sacrifice (and becoming a legend to the newborn species.)
There are various ways to play with this type of story plot. For example, by making the vampires sympathetic characters, ideating unexpected cures, or exploring a potential coexistence between humans and the newborn species. Maybe there’s a way to live cheek to cheek with vampires, who knows?
Let’s now look at the last trope, one which usually affects only one or few characters at a time, but can have just as devastating consequences on its victims.
5. Cursed artifacts
I, for one, thoroughly enjoy the trope of cursed artifacts. Whether that’s an antique mirror, a seemingly innocuous videotape, or a creepy doll, these items have dark qualities that seem to burden the character who encounters them. Sometimes it forces the protagonist into a damned situation from which they desperately need to escape, in other cases, it grants them great power or wealth, thought normally at a terrible cost (and unexpected horrors).
Perhaps one of my favorite examples is the 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine in (yet another) Stephen King book by the same name. Set in Libertyville, Arnie Cunningham is a bit of a nerd student who feels like an outcast. That is, until he finds and restores a Plymouth Fury abandoned in a junkyard. But the car isn’t what it seems to be. As he keeps obsessing over it, he gains self-confidence and assertiveness. Meanwhile, the car seems possessed by a malevolent spirit which leads to several tragic events. While it’s unclear why the car was cursed in the first place, what’s interesting is how it affects and impacts the behavior of Arnie and people around him, exploring the idea of obsession, possession, and evil forces.
Some twists on the cursed object trope can result in the object not being cursed at all, or only affecting those closest to the person who engages with it, for example. Or maybe the curse could be lifted by using the object for a selfless act, turning the trope on its head.
To conclude, despite being well-beaten paths, these tropes still have potential for creative takes and literary exploration. While you may think many are cliché, there’s a reason they continue to endure the test of time. Perhaps the reason is that they allow us to ask some fundamental questions about humanity and society or confront some of our darker sides within the safe and (hopefully) innocuous pages of a book. From the classic haunted mansion, to scientific mishaps, lethal viruses, and other popular tropes, what matters most is that they’re presented with literary insight, so that they can both make us shiver under the blanket, and, hopefully, teach us something about the human condition.