Horror movies follow specific formulas and have some widely known tropes. As any hardcore horror fan knows, these movies are filled with the same elements over and over again.
These tropes are useful just for your own amusement or if you’re a writer, screenwriter, student, or creative looking for inspiration in writing a scary story or movie. We can’t tell you how to bake a cake, but we can show you the ingredients that fans love. We bet anything you’ve seen all of these examples of tropes in at least one horror movie.
Creepy music forewarning the viewer
The trope goes like this: A young couple is walking at night and about to enter a store. Suddenly we hear the ominous opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th, and we already know that the store clerk is going to be a werewolf who decapitates them with his teeth. Incorporate music as a way to subliminally suggest something is about to go wrong.
The jump scare
This is sort of the opposite of the music that warns you to get scared, and it’s also the most common trope in all of horror movies—everyone’s tiptoeing through a haunted house trying not to make any noise when suddenly a very LOUD kitty-cat jumps out at them and makes everyone in the movie theater jump from their seats. What is crazy about the jump scare is that it always seems to work, no matter how many times we’ve seen it.
Fear of clowns is so common that there’s a word for it—coulrophobia. In many ways, this trope evolved from the real-life horror story of John Wayne “The Killer Clown” Gacy, one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. It’s also a great trope because it plays on good and bad in a very uncomfortable way. Are clowns supposed to be friendly faces that make us laugh and play with our children? Or are clowns something out of a nightmare, ready to attack? It’s become a horror-movie staple in the same way as the child who sings nursery rhymes—it juxtaposes something that’s supposed to be innocent and happy with absolutely morbid dread.
Don’t go there
This is where everyone in the audience knows that just because the lead character heard a rustling sound doesn’t mean she should explore some creepy dark room in the middle of the night while everyone else is sleeping. It’s most horrifyingly demonstrated in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds when Tippi Hedren is the only person in the house who’s still awake and decides to investigate a sound she heard upstairs — only to be brutally pecked apart by the seeming hundreds of birds who are roosting in one of the house’s bedrooms.
Girl runs and falls
It seems kind of sexist to imply that terrorized girls don’t know how to run through the forest without falling down, breaking their leg, and allowing the monster to catch up with them, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, anyway. If the movie features a girl in a forest, sooner or later she’s going to start running and fall down. It’s a great trick for building suspense.
The “crazy” girl that no one believes
In so many horror films, the heroine’s suffering is compounded by the fact that no one believes her. This is agonizingly illustrated in 2020’s The Invisible Man, in which main character Cecelia (Elisabeth Moss) is not only tortured by a psychotic abusive ex, but by the fact that even her closest friends think it’s all in her mind.
For eons, mankind has stepped on the environment with zero pushback—until nature finally reacts in righteous fury. This is seen in Deliverance—which is not technically a horror movie despite being horrifying—where the efforts to develop land up in hillbilly country go horribly awry. It’s also the theme in Hitchcock’s The Birds—in one scene we’re informed that there are over 100 billion birds on the planet, and if they ever decide to turn on humans, it will mark the end of the world. Perhaps the ultimate example of this trope is the great white shark in Jaws.
Split everyone up and try to solve the problem separately
This trope is a favorite, particlarly among slasher movies, where a group of people decide not to stick together and split up. Why? Because it would certainly be easier for one of us to kill the monster, defeat the paranormal ghost, or overthrow the serial killer — alone. Yes, it does not make sense, but hey, it’s a creepy movie, not reality. While you can incorporate this into your movie, don’t actually do this in real life.
Underwater foot grab
Dark waters are an ominous sign. What lurks below in the depths? Screenwriters and novelists love to use this murky area to subliminally signal the unknown and therefore the creepy. You can take the dark water symbol one extra level by adding the underwater foot grab. Your character is happily swimming and then—agh!—out of nowhere they’re pulled under.
Cute child doing creepy things
Like clowns, there is something horrific about taking an innocent child and making it do something weird and off-putting, like singing nursery rhymes while someone’s getting decapitated ten feet away. This a great method for unsettling your audience. Cute kids merged with morbid circumstances is a modern horror-movie staple.
Deus ex Machina: Ghost from the Machine
The “deus ex machina” trope refers to a sudden and unexpected solution to an unsolvable problem or dire situation. A famous example is in Lord of the Flies (the novel and the movies) when it appears as if the main character (a boy stranded on a desert island) has no hope of surviving his attackers, but he is saved when a Navy ship appears out of nowhere and rescues everyone.
An older demonologist with newspaper clippings who explains the evil spirit’s origins
In a horror movie, this character is usually an older woman who just so happens to be carrying a binder full of information about the fact that no one ever occupies your house for long because it’s haunted. The demonologist spares the audience a lot of tedious plot development by summarizing the monster’s origins.
The evil doll that comes to life
If you see a doll in a horror movie, you can be sure that it’s something far worse than an innocent child’s toy. As with other tropes, this exploits the juxtaposition of innocence and malice. Evil dolls have figured prominently in films such as Annabelle: Creation, Dead Silence, and all the Child’s Play movies.
The final girl
When they started out, they were all on a school field trip. There was the wise guy, the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader, and the shy girl who didn’t talk to anyone. Everyone but the shy girl gets killed. Now this common archetype is left with no else to help; what will happen to her? She’ll survive. She’s always the only one who survives. Why? It may be because most people in the audience identify with the shy character.
The refrigerator door trick
Well, you’ve done a thorough check of the house, and there do not appear to be any burglars. Time for a midnight snack. You grab the mustard and croissants and cheese, and just as you close the door, there’s the burglar with a chainsaw, standing there and grinning at you. Sure he’s freezing-cold, but he’s also going chop you up.
The medicine cabinet mirror trick
See “the refrigerator door trick,” but substitute a bathroom medicine cabinet mirror and have a small little troll or gremlin.
A diverse group of teenagers who’ve wandered into this haunted burial ground one-by-one instead of all at once
Whereas the teens always stupidly decide to split up, the monster always decides to stupidly pick them off one at a time, anyway. He’s big and strong and scary enough to kill them all at once, but that would make for a ten-minute movie. You need the monster to at least take enough time killing the teens that the audience doesn’t feel cheated.
No cell phone service
Thank God we live in an interconnected world where, even if you make the reckless decision to explore an abandoned wheat silo thirty miles from the nearest town and a stranger wearing a hockey mask and wielding a machete is chasing you, at least you can call 911—but wait—NO BARS! This adds one extra level of terrifying frustration on top of the emerging horror.
Lost critical item, like keys
This trope is used as a sort of “straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s not bad enough that the zombie is chasing the hero—now he can’t find his car keys. It makes everything that much more terrifying.
Now that I’ve found my keys, suddenly the car doesn’t start!
Again, the car started when it was parked in the driveway. It started after you went out for dinner. But then you had to go out for a walk in the Nevada desert late at night, and even after you finally find your keys while a zombie is chasing you, you can’t get your car to turn over. Most likely, the zombie cut your battery cables.
The know-it-all archetype
This character does not belive in paranormal activity and is always so smug at the start of the film or book. They cite science. Or just brush off people as crazy, but you know what happens next. This guy who did not believe in now facing the serial killer on halloween night and is decapitated. So much for that smart brain of yours! Audiences love this because everyone knows a character like this.
The abandoned place
There’s a reason places become abandoned. It’s because they’re haunted by vengeful spirits who can’t wait to take out all their anger on you even though you come in peace. So why do groups of eager and curious youths always rush right into abandoned places? Because it’s a horror movie!
The vengeful spirit
People crave the idea of revenge and justice and retribution and punishing the wicked. Even though he’s a villain, the vengeful spiritis ironically a character that most viewers can relate to.
The weapon is just out of reach while you’re being choked
What’s amazing is that it’s only three inches out of your reach, he sees it there, but he keeps choking you instead of grabbing it and shooting or stabbing you. It’s an old and overused trick, but it’s guaranteed to make the audience empathize with your frustration.
The lights just happen to turn out one-by-one as the killer approaches
Sure, it’s over-dramatic and resembles a pro wrestler’s stadium entrance more than it does any horrifying thing that would happen real life, but people like drama.
Running down the middle of the road while being chased by a car
This is what sidewalks are for, honey. Yet in classic horror movies it always seems that our characters find themselves in the middle of the road. Or running on the train tracks. It doesn’t make any sense, but audiences eat it up.
It wasn’t really dead!
This happens in all movies, not just horror movies, but this trick is beloved by many filmmakers. The characters think everything is going to be okay because their nemesis — a killer witch with one eye for instance — seems to have been killed by something and now everyone feels safe. Then out of nowhere, the cyclops witch is back up and chasing you yet again!
Lookin’ good after the demon exits your body
In The Exorcist, the girl is nearly battered to death, but the moment the demon is gone there aren’t even any physical reminders that she was possessed. I.e., not only does the demon leave, but everything heals instantly. This quick healing, while unbelievable and silly, is still often used in the horror genre.
The kid doesn’t realize it’s a ghost
Not only does this trope play on children’s innocence; the audience is horrified when they realize the child doesn’t know what danger they’re in.
The “one last scare” after you thought everything was resolved
It was bloody and traumatic and exhausting, and everyone but you and the final girl were killed, but together you valiantly slew the Evil Swamp Monster. But as you walk away, his hand rises from the slime. This is a great trope for an aspiring screenwriter, because it leaves open the possibility for a sequel or three.