The ABCs of Horror Tropes

Our A-Z list of the rules of the Horror Genre.

The website for TV Tropes (tvtropes.org) defines tropes as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations”. In other words, they are the tools we use to tell stories. All genres are somewhat defined by their tropes. They are indicators to us of what is going to happen, how we should relate to certain characters and signal a greater meaning to audiences. TV Tropes is very quick to point out that these are NOT clichés, something they consider to be boring and trite.

 

Without further a do, we will explore the ABCs of Horror Tropes.

 

Almost all the tropes you find here can also be found at tvtropes.org

 

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A is For ‘Axe’
Notable Appearances: Cape Fear (1962), The Shining (1980), The Devil’s Rejects (2005)
Look out behind you! It’s an axe-wielding murderer! Being murdered with an axe probably happens a whole lot more in horror films than real life. And there is something awful and gory about the slow and blunt power of the axe. And there is nothing that’s going to get between the Axe Crazy murderer and his victim. Especially not the wooden objects that the victims always choose to protect themselves with. The high tech version of this is the chainsaw, which is often used in the exact same way to show us just how evil and crazy our killer is.

 

B is For ‘Body’
Notable Appearances: The Fly (1986), Army of Darkness (1992), Thinner (1996)
There is probably nothing quite so horrific as your body betraying you, or betraying your body. It invokes in us a fear of disease, disability and death. And the fear that our bodies are not nearly as in our control as we would like to think. That your body may wither or rot away. That your body may become diseased and cause you to turn on the ones you love the most. Or that your body may begin to mutate into something not quite human. You slowly become a monster as your body deforms. In some ways this trope ties in to science fiction as much as it does horror.

 

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C is For ‘Chainsaw’
Notable Appearances: Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Army of Darkness (1992), American Psycho (2000)
If you thought axes were dangerous in horror films, just check out the chainsaw. It has a similar affect as the axe (namely, dismemberment) but it’s so much more high tech. And loud. And in horror, chainsaws are used by both the good guys (Ash in Army of Darkness) and the bad guys (Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre). In either case, chainsaws have become this iconic weapon of choice within horror. Loud, heavy and badass the chainsaw has a spot in our imaginations.

 

D is For ‘Death By Sex’
Notable Appearances: Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Cabin Fever (2002)
If you should find yourself in a horror movie, do not have sex. We repeat this for emphasis. DO NOT HAVE SEX. Unless you want to die a grizzly death. Then by all means, shack up with that guy/girl you’ve had a crush on. If getting laid is that important to you, go for it. But don’t come crying to us when you get an axe in your back. There have been many parodies and discussions of this “rule” of the horror genre. Is it sexist? Does it reflect some serious cultural anxiety about sexuality? Or is it the fear of how vulnerable sexuality makes us? The truth is it is probably all three. Just remember our advice if you find yourself in a horror movie…
E is For Exploitation
Notable Appearances: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)
In the horror community there is a lot of talk about exploitation films. Many of the horror cult classics and midnight movies could be considered exploitation films. They tend to be no budget, gore fests with very little artistic merit. Of course, due to the budget, the gore tends to be a little bit unrealistic. And by a little bit, we mean totally. These are the horror movies your mother forbid you from seeing (unless you were Ethan’s mother and they were the perfect Christmas present).

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F is For ‘Fetus of Doom’ 
Notable Appearances: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Alien (1979), The Fly (1986)
We think that horror directors are finally listening to the horror tales of pregnant women. Fetus terrible is that awful kind of body horror where the little miracle inside of you turns into a horror show. Maybe your little precious is Satan. Or an alien. Or maybe even a monster. Either way, you should probably take down the cute little pictures of elephants in the nursery because shit just got real.

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G is For ‘Gory Deadly Overkill Title of Fatal Death’
Notable Appearances: Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), Zombie Strippers (2008), Ticked-Off Trannies with Knives (2010)
Why just settle for shooting someone once? Or even twice? We prefer to completely mutilate them beyond any recognition. And then we murder them just a little bit more. Because why not? This trope is often hilarious to watch played out. Especially in exploitation pieces where the gore is already on a fairly ridiculous level.

 

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H is For ‘Horror Doesn’t Settle for a Simple Tuesday’
Notable Appearances: The Wicker Man (1973), My Bloody Valentine (1981), Black Christmas (1974)
The name of this trope really says it all. Horror movies are so much better when they occur on a red letter day on the calendar. There is something already so stressful about holidays that when you add in a serial killer/monster/alien to the mix things start getting really shitty. We are sure that almost all the holidays are covered by horror films (except maybe Yom Kippur). So you should be careful on Christmas. And Valentine’s Day. And especially Halloween.

 

I is For ‘Indian Burial Ground’
Notable Appearances: Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980), Pet Cemetery (1989)
How do nice 3 bedroom apartments in the suburbs always end up on “Indian Burial Grounds”? This is one of the more offensive tropes in horror because it relies on both racism and white guilt in order to scare people. It assumes that Native Americans are somehow more magical and more connected to the afterlife than anyone else. And that they would bother haunting the white people who moved onto their property. It also plays on a sense of white guilt by having Native Americans haunt white people. Huh.

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J is For ‘The Jersey Devil’
Notable Appearances: The Last Broadcast (1998), The Jersey Devil (2005), Satan’s Playground (2006)
The Jersey Devil is not the name of Snooki’s baby (yet). The Devil from the Garden State is actually one of the darlings of crypto-zoology. It is thought to look like a cross between a kangaroo, a goat and a bat. And in horror movies, they are always searching out the truth about the Jersey Devil. There are a number of movies dedicated to the Jersey Devil and we’re pretty sure there is an X-Files episode dedicated to him/her. If you decide to seek out this cryptid just be really careful, k?

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K is for ‘Kubrick Stare’
Notable Appearances: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), Psycho (1960), The Shining (1980)
You know that creepy stare? The one The Joker does in The Dark Knight (2008)? That is a specific look that has its own trope attached. It has been dubbed “The Kubrick Stare” because Stanley Kubrick made it famous. But Kubrick didn’t invent The Kubrick Stare. It can be found in many films before Kubrick including Psycho (1960). If you want to learn to do the Kubrick Stare (and scare the crap out of people around you) here are the instructions. Tilt your head down. Now look up. A slight smile tops the whole thing off.  Feel free to post pics of your best Kubrick Stare in the comments.

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L is For ‘Lesbian Vampires’
Notable Appearances: Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), The Hunger (1983)
Ah. The lesbian vampire. The first thing we should point out is that many of these lesbian vampires are actually bisexual vampires. But that could be a whole other article. Queerness and horror movies have gone hand in hand since the beginning of the genre. And vampires are these evil monsters that reproduce themselves asexually. These films almost always attempt to appeal to heterosexual male fantasy concerning lesbianism. Especially in some of the 1970s “lezploitation” films. On the other hand, queer women have been able to find themselves in these horror films in a way they weren’t able to in other genres. So this trope has been used for both good and evil.

 

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M is for ‘Mad Scientist’
Notable Appearances: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920), Frankenstein (1931), The Fly (1986)
This is probably one of the most well known tropes on the list and is found in both horror and science fiction. Our cultural imagination has created a mad scientist complete with lab coat surrounded by various machines and creations. He (because he is almost always male) has taken all morality out of science. He symbolizes our anxiety about unrestrained science and technology. And he’s a trope that’s probably not going anywhere fast. He is most recently found as the Nazi scientist in the second season of American Horror Story.

 

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N is for ‘Nazis’
Notable Appearances: Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975), The Gestapo’s Last Orgy(1977), The Beast in Heat (1977)
This is a very special genre of horror films. They are considered horrifically offensive even to many hardcore horror fans. They are a subgenre of exploitation films and the genre never moved past the very low budget midnight film realm. In fact, the genre didn’t make it past the 1970s. Mostly because the idea of mixing Nazi atrocities with sex makes most people really uncomfortable. Rob Zombie pays tribute to this B-Rated movie trope in his fake trailer for Werewolves of the SS.

 

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O is For ‘Oops! I Dropped the Keys!’
Notable Appearances: Halloween H20 (1998), Drag Me To Hell (2009), The Human Centipede (2009)
You’re running from the monster/killer/evil. You make it to your car just in time. You’re home free. You’re gonna make it. And then. You drop the fucking keys. Your grand clutzery is what is going to get you killed. And we’re going to go out on a limb here that you totally deserve it. We can’t ever remember dropping our keys when we were trying to start our car. And the excuse is always “they’re scared.” Even more reason to get your shit together.

 

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P is For ‘Police Are Useless’
Notable Appearances: The Last House on the Left (1972), The Wicker Man (1973), Prom Night (1980)
If you ever find yourself trapped in a horror movie don’t even bother calling the police. In horror films, police are probably dropping the keys more often than you are. Their investigation skills usually lead them right to…nowhere. Sometimes the killer is literally in their presence and they still have no idea. Unless the police are the only good guys, the bodies end up piling up and ordinary people end up investigating the killings themselves. It is like a really dark version of Scooby Doo.

 

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Q is For ‘Queer Killers’
Notable Appearances: Last House on the Left (1972), The Hunger (1980) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Talk about some heterosexual insecurity. The horror film genre is full of monsters/killers that are homosexual. And not just lesbian vampires. We also have cross-dressing psychos and bi-sexual murderers, especially in the case of Last House on the Left. There, we have a bisexual female killer who the women expect to be merciful to them. After all, she is a woman. But alas! She is also an evil queer woman and she “betrays” her gender. There is a whole book devoted to this trope called “Monsters in the Closet” which is a very good read.

 

R is For ‘The Rule of Scary’
Notable Appearances: Phantasm (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Tetsuo (1989)
More than any other genre of speculative fiction, horror gets away with a lot of shit. This trope is about just that fact. How often have you been watching a really scary horror movie when you realized “you know, this doesn’t make any sense.” That’s where the rule of scary comes in. Basically, if it is scary enough it doesn’t actually have to make sense. Science fiction rarely gets away with this to the same level that horror does. As this list reveals, there are things that go on in the horror movie universe that make absolutely no sense. And yet, we rarely question them. Because we’re too busy crying under an afghan to notice.

 

S is For ‘Soundtrack Dissonance’
Notable Examples: The Hills Have Eyes (1977), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Interview With The Vampire (1994)
There are scenes in horror movies that use the soundtrack to make the audience uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a cheerful ballad over a gruesome killing. Or maybe it’s a normal song over something incredibly disturbing. This is found a lot in hixploitation films with dueling banjos and other “folksy” sounding music being played over killings. The point is to make us feel nervous and uncomfortable. And often, it works.

 

T is For ‘Torture Porn’
Notable Appearances: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985), Hostel (2005), A Serbian Film (2010)
Torture porn is exactly what it sounds like. A mix between extreme violence and sex. These films are often accused of being just slightly above snuff films in their artistic value. And some have even been accused of being actual snuff films. But these aren’t films that are only found in indie cinema. More and more torture porn elements are making their way into big name horror films. But there are already signs of this trope waning. Elements in horror that truly disturb people often have a short shelf life as we’ve seen with Naziploitation.

 

U is For ‘Ultimate Evil’
Notable Appearances: Children of the Corn (1984), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Super 8 (2011)
The Ultimate Evil is the evil that you never see. It remains off camera for the entire film. And this is one of the smarter tropes used by horror directors. They know our imaginations are far more horrifying than anything that can be created with makeup, special effects, or rubber. Sometimes the horrors are described in details and maybe hinted at on the screen. The ultimate evil is relegated to our own, disturbed imaginations.

 

V is for ‘Video Nasties’
Notable Appearances: Evil Dead (1981), The Last House on the Left (1972), I Spit On Your Grave (2010)
Kids, gather around the geeky campfire. We have a story to tell you of the old times. See, before the days of the youtubes and the dvds we had video cassettes. And we youngins couldn’t just tromp off to see some of the most exploitative and horrific horror films on the big screen. We were way too young. However, we could buy whatever we wanted on video. And the horror directors knew that. So often they would release their most grizzly horror films in movie stores. Parents began to campaign against these “video nasties.” Many classic horror movies started out as video nasties and still hold a place in our hearts.

 

W is For ‘What Happened to Mommy?’
Notable Appearances: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Evil Dead (1981), 28 Days Later (2002)
This is a trope that’s big in the zombie genre. Your beloved friend/family member/that guy you play video games with are struck by the evil/zombieness/virus. And you are going to have to take them out like a dog with rabies. That is before they take you out. We’re sure that every zombie attack movie has this scene. And it always goes like this:“You have to shoot me before I become a zombie!”“Nooooooo!”“You must!”“Nooooooo!”* turns into zombie, kills someone ** shoots friend/family member/ that guy you play video game with *

 

X is For ‘XXX’
Notable Appearances: Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Ilsa She- Wolf of the SS (1975), Maniac Nurses Find Ecstasy (1990)
This is a very different issue to torture porn. It is just the blatant use of sexuality that usually has very little to do with the plot. Basically it turns a horror film into a weird porno. These are some of the worst films ever made.

 

Y is For ‘Youth is Wasted on the Dumb’
Notable Appearances: Halloween (1978), Evil Dead (1981), Cabin Fever (2002)
If you watch enough horror movies you’re going to start to have a lot of feelings about young people. Those feelings are going to be incredible hate. If you are above the age of 17 and under the age of 25 in a horror movie, you may as well already be a brainless zombie. And speaking of zombies…

 

Z is For Zombies
Notable Appearances: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), 28 Days Later (2002)
Ending with one of your favorite tropes, we have zombies. Zombies have captured our popular imagination for decades and we see a resurgence in love for the walking dead. Well not really love. Like a fond awareness. Or maybe a burning desire to destroy…