Fears internal, Tropes eternal: Themes in horror

An effective horror story should grip its reader’s attention, increase their sense of dread and then twist them in order to elicit the fear of more.

Horror is good at grabbing our attention—but it just stops there. What catches our attention at first no longer scares us later because we’ve encountered this same premise or scene before. We gradually grow into hardened veterans of ghouls and gore while popularized horror becomes a list of clichés. We rationalize the horrors we encounter and turn once-frightening conventions into elements we can anticipate: tropes.

The short-term effectivity of horror strategies is a quandary in the genre. So let us discuss some tropes that are still employed and consider whether these have the capacity to frighten us.

The Rise of the Dead!

This trope draws from the fearful prospect of our own deaths. Popularly employed in the television series, The Walking Dead, and other contemporary films, undeath has come to be associated with zombies. But there are other creatures that can be considered part of this trope. Traditional vampires come back from the dead and ghosts live on by haunting us.  You may already have the sense that this trope has been done to death. The “Rise of the Dead” trope has lost much of its capacity to frighten, but is still popularly employed in contemporary culture. Undead creatures are cool to watch and often present no danger to us. For shambling zombies, we know that a good ol’ fashion hole up is the key to survival. Ghosts and vampires are often relegated to dark places, and their territories are usually very specific. And with today’s representations of vampires, being recruited seems like joining an elite club: I wouldn’t mind being bitten and gaining some super speed or strength.

Tropey and Non-Tropey Titles – You decide!: Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Twilight, Zombieland, Interview with a Vampire, Blood: The Last Vampire, Underworld

spec - horror tropes
Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi

The Haunting of Anything

“The Haunting of Anything” reveals the banality of ghost fiction; it is the subject of all those recurring horror flicks featuring same spirit over and over again in different spaces. But ghosts have appeared in most settings, by now, and writers are constantly finding new things for them to haunt. The problem is, ghosts have appeared in so many places that it’s easy for a person to encounter these spaces in their real life, pass by them safely, and dismiss their fear.

Hauntings shouldn’t be obscure or vague. Terror should be insighted through association with daily routine or something commonly encountered. Everyone has mirrors, and so many people fear the temptation to chant Bloody Mary’s name. A haunting should be a haunting; escape should require sacrifice, like getting out of one of Saw’s traps. A haunting should also be slow like a torture, not quick like an assassination.

Tropey and Non-Tropey Titles – You decide!: (Practically all of the first season of) Supernatural, The Ring, The Others, The Haunting of Hill House, The Woman in Black


Cannibalism is successful because we can’t reconcile it easily. It’s already a taboo, and it’s not an impossibility. In contemporary settings, cannibals pretend to be normal citizens; the possibility of human flesh being in the place of mystery meat at a dinner makes this a horrific trope indeed. Meanwhile, its use in Apocalyptic settings reminds us that we can wind up as a food source under the worst conditions. This connection to hunger, and the knowledge that the perpetrator must contemplate the act, that inspires terror.

Tropey and Non-Tropey Titles – You decide!: Hannibal, The Hills Have Eyes, Sweeney Todd

– Contributed by Eric Harrell


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