The Nightmare Playbook – Five Fearful Horror Tropes

Generic, textbook plots are often overplayed in large Hollywood horror films. Easily recognizable tropes are ones that we can predict simply from the title of the movie or within the first few minutes of the film. Typically, there are a few graphic torture scenes – with the pretty girl surviving, of course – someone possessed by a demonic spirit, or maybe a few zombies, all documented on a shaky handheld camera. Many horror movies all run down familiar paths at one point or another. Despite their similarities, they manage to keep attracting diverse audiences worldwide. Why do we keep returning to scary movies, even if we can predict their outcome?

These films give us a safe space in which to explore some of our darker fears and fantasies – just as romantic dreams might come true in a harmless rom-com, our nightmares need a place to play as well. Thus, the horror industry was born.

Let’s explore 5 common themes that run through the genre.

Explicit Graphic Death/Torture Scenes

Midnight Meat Train Massacre

Many horror aficionados choose to watch these types of films simply for their graphic depiction of death and torture scenes. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone cut off their own foot, like Dr. Gordon must do in the original Saw, and of course the campy, we-know-this-is-too-much films like The Midnight Meat Trainor Cannibal Holocaust. These films test us, daring viewers to look upon and enjoy some of the worst acts humanity is capable of. Gory and fleshy, they exploit our revulsions and feed upon our darkest voyeuristic desires.

The Pretty Girl Survives, or, “The Final Girl”


More than just an overplayed cliche, this trope comments on depictions of women both in horror and within Hollywood more broadly. Typical of “slasher” films where characters are knocked off one by one, in “final girl” films it is always the purest, prettiest female character who survives the terror that drives the film. This theme is played out in famous films such as  Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Scream to only name a few. In the first Friday the 13th film, it’s Alice Hardy who lives, in part 2, Ginny Fields survives, etc and so on. A very specific type of heroine, she is a cocktail of resourcefulness, a virginal quality, and intelligence, capable of outwitting the monster and outlasting all of her friends.

Demonic Possession


Another theme that permeates the genre is that of “demonic” or evil possession. Think The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Inevitably similar in plot, each film offers it’s own spin on the concept of evil occupying the soul of an otherwise harmless (occasionally religious) person. For example, The Exorcism of Emily Rosefocuses on the death of a young girl who had an exorcism performed on her by Father Moore, following the devil’s takeover of her body. The Exorcist does not deal with the death of a child, but rather a mother attempting to bring her child back from demonic possession through exorcisms. Eternally popular, it’s doubtful that audiences will ever tire of imagining the sensational terror of experiencing pure evil within themselves.

The Living Dead


While the concept of the “undead” has long been a trope in scary stories, they have recently experienced a resurgence in popularity. This has led to a wide range of television shows and movies utilizing the overplayed “living dead” theme. Some movies that take on the zombie apocalypse theme include the classic Night of the Living Dead, which, despite being made nearly 50 years ago, can still be watched for free on YouTube or on many local satellite TV channels. 28 Days Later, a more recent “zombie” flick, depicts aftermath of “The Rage Virus”, an infection that spreads quickly and causes zombie-like results. One of the most memorable scenes in 28 Days Later is when a London courier who had previously been struck by a car, awakens in the hospital only to find it trashed without a living soul anywhere in sight. Many movies have followed this same general theme, giving us an idea as to what the world might look like if a zombie apocalypse was to occur.

A Pseudo “Documentary” Angle


The “documentary”- esque horror movie is one that we all know well. Some great examples of these include Paranormal Activity and perhaps most famously, The Blair Witch Project. Despite being cast and scripted, they are made to appear as though they are actually documentaries being shot in real time. We assume the director’s intent lies with the fact that reality is more fearsome than fiction – if it happened to someone else, it could just as easily happen to you, too.