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Oh, The Horror!: Common Horror Themes & Tropes

Genre guide to horror.

Common Horror Themes & Tropes

What are some common horror themes and tropes?

Readers of the horror genre are often very passionate about the genre and they expect to see certain themes and tropes present within each work of horror. Below you will find some of these characteristics, appeals, themes, and tropes, and how they relate to the horror genre.

Characteristics of Horror

Nightmare Tone

  • A nightmare tone dominates these novels and creates a feeling of menace, evoking a strong emotional response from the reader.

Monsters

  • Monsters of some kind frame these stories, along with supernatural and paranormal phenomena. Graphic violence, strong language, and explicit sex often enhance the effect of the supernatural. A sense of foreboding characterizes these novels.

Cliffhangers

  • Endings are unresolved. Although it may be beaten down temporarily, the horror lives on.

Rich descriptions

  • The language of Horror is rich in adjectives and descriptive phrases, detailing the settings of the novel and the evil that threatens. These sharply imagined images intensify the reader’s reaction.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

  • Protagonists are often haunted, shattered individuals. Antagonists are always sinister and often monsters in some form, whether real or imaginary.

Jump Scares

  • Unexpected appearances and attacks, designed to jolt the reader, keep the story moving quickly, even as these books showcase an erratic style of pacing.

Wyatt, N., & Saricks, J.G. (2019). The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction : Third Edition: Vol. Third edition. ALA Editions.

Elements of Appeal

Tone and Mood

  • Gives a voice to our fears and is one of the most important appeals that horror readers look for. The tone and mood should be dark and leave readers feeling uneasy even after closing the book.

Vivid Imagery

  • Descriptions are full of detail that is meant to create a terrifying picture in the mind of the readers. Many adjectives and descriptors will be used throughout to really convey the terror.

Provoking Terror

  • Scaring readers, exploring dark emotions and themes, voyeuristic thrill. Some horror authors may use graphic descriptions of sex and violence, but never scare enough to cease reading.

 Atmosphere 

  • The world feels real, evocative, more important than plot.

Characters

  • The character should be sympathetic and the reader should want to root for them.

 Darker Elements of Humanity 

  • Interest in evil or heinous acts, violence.

 Facing Fears 

  • Vehicle for channeling innermost fears and confronting them indirectly. No experienced horror can ever be as terrifying as facing a menacing evil.

 Provide Escape from Real Life Horrors 

  • Experience at a safe distance through fantastical elements. Readers can overcome the mundanity of their own lives through supernatural events or a terrifying situation.

 Similarities with Fantasy 

  • Character-driven and filled with actions - character’s struggle and their growth are essential to the conflict/resolution. Setting may not be real, or the story may include monsters or magical realism.

 Validates Belief in Supernatural 

  • Feeds natural curiosity by creating situations where unexplained phenomena and unearthly creatures are the norm. Supernatural is a solution to unsolvable problems in the reader’s life.

Spratford, B. S. (2012). The readers' advisory guide to horror (2nd ed.). American Library Assoc. 

Current Trends

Horror Fiction is Making a Comeback

  • Readers have had a resurging interest in horror fiction since the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Horror titles such as Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones have emerged on bestseller lists.
  • Publishers are establishing new imprints such as Tor's Nightfire, which launched earlier in Fall 2021. 

Diverse Authors and Perspectives

  • Jordan Peele's 2017 horror film Get Out influenced and established a need for more diverse voices in the horror genre 
  • Diverse authors explore common horror themes and tropes to reveal the real-life horrors of social inequality, prejudice, and ignorance regarding race, gender, sexuality, and ability.

 

Cybil (2020). Bookish Trend: Horror Returns From the Dead. Goodreads. Retrieved November 15 from https://www.goodreads.com/blog/show/1954-bookish-trend-horror-returns-from-the-dead

Themes & Tropes

  • Coming-of-Age Stories
    • The main character usually has to battle inner demons as well as other dangers, causing them to overcome their difficulties.
  • Strong imagery 
    • A common theme among horror works is the graphic details of gore and settings to make the readers feel uncomfortable.
  • Unexplainable Worlds
    • All horror works contain elements of the story that are unexplainable to keep the reader in a state of disbelief. This is a central theme to all works of horror.

Spratford, B. S. (2012). The readers' advisory guide to horror (2nd ed.). American Library Assoc.