Horror Tropes. My Frenemy.

  • The hero’s hands are shaking so much he drops the keys when he tries to get into the locked house/car.
  • The girl that has sex dies gruesomely.  Also, boobs happen before she dies.
  • The protagonist turns a corner thinking (s)he heard a noise.  Nothing there, but when (s)he turns back around, the creepy thing is standing behind her.
  • House pets are killed in a gruesome way as a warning.
  • The black dude dies before the end of the movie. 

Every one of these is a horror trope.  These are themes/scenes that recur from movie to movie, book to book.  You can look at that list and multiple examples will pop into your head because, well, the nature of the trope is to happen again and again.  That’s sort of the point of the thing.

I’m conflicted when it comes to including tropes in my work.  On one hand, horror lends itself to “homages” well.  It’s the type of genre where you can look at the building blocks of our fandom and tip your hat and it’s acceptable to do so.  Horror nerds know our stuff, we’re a dedicated lot, and more often than not will catch the references our fellow craftsmen lob.  This is one of the reasons I love the movie Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon – it intelligently plays with tropes and makes them its own.  And when done well, like Vernon, us fans will squee with joy.  We will throw money and underwear at you because you are AWESOME.

On the other hand, it’s easy to overdo tropes.  If there’s more hat tipping and “homage” paying than presentation of new and interesting material, you’re borrowing other people’s genius.  You’re recycling old material and that gets predictable and boring.  True fact?  I had a HUGE issue with the movie The Conjuring because of how many scares they borrowed.  Now, you can argue that the Warrens are the reason we have some of these tropes and that their records were the source material for a lot of the horror we’ve seen to this point, but the fact is, other people presented the scares in the movie format before (and in most cases better) which meant I anticipated over ninety percent of the spooky stuff.  I wasn’t looking for it, it was just that blatant.   

((If you have a solid horror background, go watch that movie again and play “pin the scene.”  It’s actually alarming how few new scares there are.  And yet  everyone told me how good this movie was – go figure.))

There’s also that bit about horror movies being notoriously anti-femme and killing the token black guy – TROPES THAT DON’T CROSS ME AS ALL THAT PROGRESSIVE.  You can, after all, deliver a slaughterhouse movie that doesn’t show us ALL the nipples in the universe.  Also, you can be okay with women having sex and not punishing them with an ax in the face?  And the black guy can be the hero?  Night of the Living Dead anyone?

It’s a complicated thing, the business of tropes.  I think it’s especially tough with horror because scary is such a personal thing.  What makes one person squirm will do nothing for another, and there will be no squirming at all if everyone has seen or read the scare in question multiple times before.   And yet if you can take a trope and spin it, if you can delight the audience by giving them that little wink and still make the scene fresh?  It’s glorious.  It blows us away.  Accolades forever.  Which I suppose is the crux of the thing.  Don’t use the trope unless you can add new and exciting elements to your staple.

Easier said than done, methinks.  Tread lightly.

Categories: Writing

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3 replies

  1. Love this. Tropes in horror are so tricky! Some of them, like you mentioned, are non-progressive and will hopefully die out completely over time,(I believe they will,) such as ‘kill the slut’ and ‘kill the token dude/dudette.’ But I find myself naturally drawn to others and have seen them come out in my own work. I think the key, as always, is execution. If you’re wanting to pay homage to a favorite trope, you just need to find a way to do it ‘you’ style, straight up, otherwise it will feel less like a homage and more like an imitation.

    Tropes are complicated, but like you said they have the potential to inspire glorious fresh change in the genre, which is always welcomed. Awesome post Hillary!

  2. A perfectly executed trope is a marvelous thing. It’s just SO DAMNED EASY to get it wrong.

  3. An annoying trope to me is the victim who falls when they’re being chased. It’s like they all become clumsy once the bad guy is after them.

    I haven’t seen the Conjuring. I’ll have to check it out.

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