Most of us are familiar with the common horror tropes used in books and movies. A good trope can get your imagination working and help you write your next horror story. If you are having trouble thinking of story ideas, try out some of these underused tropes.
What are Tropes?
A trope is simply a common convention. For example, superheroes wearing capes is a trope. Two lovers whose families don’t get along, as in Romeo and Juliet, is a trope. A showdown in the wild west is a trope. Tropes provide enough information for the reader to understand the situation without you having to slow the story down with a lot of extra detail.
Cliches are like tropes except they are overused and unoriginal. A trope is a standard in any story, a cliche is a sign of poor storytelling. A cliche is what we have come to expect will happen and a trope is what goes between the start of an event and the result.
For example, a vampire stalking a person is a trope. Digging up the vampire’s coffin and staking them through the heart is a cliche. You could have the vampire trope but in the end, the vampire is killed in a vat of acid, that way it is not cliche.
A classic trope that hasn’t seen the light of day for some time is the doppelganger. A doppelganger is a person or apparition that looks exactly like you. Traditionally, a doppelganger was a sign of trouble. Some people believed they were warnings of danger. Other people believed they were evil spirits.
There have been many stories of doppelgangers appearing right before a disaster, particularly around the period of WW2. There are several famous legends of soldiers seeing their doppelganger appear covered in blood and injuries. The soldier avoided the place they saw the doppelganger only to find out later that it had been bombed.
There are a ton of stories you could write about doppelgangers. Try putting your own spin on them and see what you come up with.
In Greek mythology sirens were bird-women who would bewitch sailors with their song, causing them to forget everything else and run their ship onto the rocks. The basic theme is of a person who is ruined by temptation.
There are many ways to use the idea of sirens in horror writing. You could take the idea of a seductive vampire that kills men, or you could go with a sci-fi theme and have astronauts led astray by psychic calls to visit an unknown planet.
The theme of sirens can be used in a plethora of horror stories.
Old dark house
There was a time when the many stories started with a couple breaking down in the middle of nowhere and seeking help at an old dark house. The house turns out to be haunted or filled with psychos or something similar.
This trope has not been used very much in the last few decades and I think it’s time it made a comeback.
You need to have a place where people are stranded, so a foreign country might be the way to go. Make sure there is no phone coverage. Then there must be an old dark house that is the only one for miles around. Your characters must have a compelling reason why they must seek help at the house, then, horror ensues.
It’s a simple premise but a great one. You can spin it in so many ways that I think it will never get tired.
Characters having to do library research is a trope that H. P. Lovecraft made popular in stories like The Dunwich Horror. In this scenario, a character is faced with an ancient curse or some kind of black magic and must do research in a library to find a solution.
This trope is good if you want themes of dark academia and archeology like the Indian Jones movies. Typically these stories will involve the occult rather than standard ghosts.
If you like slow-burn stories then try using library research as a centrepiece. A character may have only a few days left to live and must slowly unravel the truth about their curse in a dusty old library. Great stuff.
There was a time when it seemed like every horror story contained some sort of voodoo curse. It’s a great trope.
The basic pattern is that someone messes with something they shouldn’t and then suffers the consequences. In this case, the consequences involve voodoo. It doesn’t necessarily have to be voodoo though, just some sort of mysticism that is exotic and unusual.
Some variations on this trope have used American Indians and there are a lot of Asian stories that use Asian mysticism in the same way.
You can use the idea of a voodoo curse due to touching something you shouldn’t, or you can use the idea of a voodoo practitioner using their power to rob or harm you. Both ways make great stories.
A classic horror trope is a car that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. This is similar to the old dark house trope but there is no house. The horror comes from some form of danger that exists locally, and the protagonist is unable to reach out to anyone for help.
The movie The Hills Have Eyes 1977, in which a family is stalked by mutant cannibals, is a good example of this trope.
The important thing in this trope is that some person or group of innocent people become stranded in a remote location. Then they must face off against an evil threat that is unlike anything they have known in their ordinary life. Furthermore, help is unavailable due to the isolated setting.
This trope is almost like travelling to another world, Not literally, but figuratively. It asks the question, how would you survive if everything you are familiar with was taken away?
This one is particularly creepy. Imagine a house in your neighbourhood that has children living in the basement. They are never allowed out and nobody knows about them until one day disaster strikes the house and police must come in to help, only to discover the children.
There are so many things you can do with this. Are the children cannibals? Are they deformed? Are they entirely human? Maybe they are the product of incest and the real horror is the cruel parents who locked them up.
This type of story was done really well in V. C. Andrews Flowers In The Attic. In the book, a mother locks her children in the attic so as not to offend her rich and estranged father that didn’t approve of her marriage. The story is chilling, and you can borrow the trope to come up with any number of horror stories.
One of the best horror tropes, in my opinion, is strange tracks. This involves people finding tracks in the woods that are unlike anything they have seen before. This often goes hand-in-hand with people going missing one by one.
What could be creepier than finding obvious footprints that are not recognized as either human or animal? Imagine one of your friends is missing and you find drag marks next to eight-toed footprints that appear to have talons. What would you make of it?
This trope has been used by many horror writers from Lovecraft to King. Probably because it is so effective at creating the right atmosphere for horror.
Monsters lurking in the deep is a great trope for horror stories. It hasn’t been used much in recent years, except for sharks, but what about supernatural monsters from the ocean?
There are all kinds of things you can do with sea monsters. You can draw inspiration from mythology and go with a giant sea monster like the Kraken, or you can go with a civilisation of mermen that time forgot. You could write about seaweed monsters or a monstrous calamity born from a chemical spill.
There is so much that we don’t know about the oceans of the world that there is plenty of fodder for an active imagination. Sea monsters are a trope that should definitely make a comeback.