Writers of horror fiction can use this list of 101 horror tropes to add some frightening moments to their books.
If you’re looking for more tropes, read:
Here’s a quick refresher anyway:
What is a trope?
A trope is any recurring story element that helps shape, structure, and define a genre. For instance, you can’t have a piece of crime fiction without a crime taking place in the story. You can’t have a fantasy story without fantastical happenings and/or creatures. Make sense? Great!
Now— with no further ado—let’s get into these horror tropes.
101 Horror Tropes For Writers
Levels Of Fear:
- Horror: The feeling triggered by an unambiguous threat: a bear charging your loved one. It leads to a typical fear response. This is a middling alternative to terror.
- Revulsion: The feeling triggered by an experience of the morbid or diseased—blood, gore violence, etc. It leads to a powerful feeling of disgust: the sight of your loved one’s remains after the bear has torn them apart. This is a cheap gimmick that plays on humanity’s most basic evolutionary-biological responses. It’s best to imply this or only show a glimpse—don’t linger here.
- Terror: The feeling triggered by an ambiguous threat—you’re walking through woods said to be full of bears… when you hear what sounds like the growl of a bear close by. At its most potent, it leads to an experience of the numinous (spiritual or religious fervency) and/or the sublime (awe of greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation). This is the ideal type of fear.
- Body Horror:This sub-genre is a heightened, metaphorical exploration of the deteriorating effects of age and disease on the human body and mind — the loss of self. Examples: The Fly; The Thing.
- Cosmic Horror: This subgenre explores monstrous, (super)natural forces that are powerful on a scale beyond the realm of human understanding. Attempts to understand the Cosmic Terror drives the protagonist mad — even looking at a Cosmic Terror might be enough to drive the viewer insane. This sub-genre highlights humanity’s smallness and ignorance in relation to a vast, hostile universe. Human actions taken against a Cosmic Terror are futile. The Terror is rarely a direct antagonist; more often it is a pervasive, unavoidable presence. The protagonist’s only hope is that he might be too inconsequential for the Terror to notice him. Example: The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.
- Psychological Horror: This sub-genre places the audience in the monster’s mind, forcing them to follow the rationale for its perverse actions and confront their own capacity to commit and rationalise atrocities. Examples: The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe.
- Surreal Horror: This sub-genre relies on the heavy use of Uncanny elements and the psychological landscape as a setting. It rarely contains any obvious monsters or overt threats. Examples: Twin Peaks; Mulholland Drive.
Suggested reading: Horror Masters: 3 Spooky Tips To Write Like Lovecraft, Poe, & King
- Hear No Evil:
- The monster can control others by talking to them; It’s voice may even drive them mad.
- The monster is silent and therefore difficult to perceive.
- The protagonist is deaf and thus it’s harder for them to perceive the monster.
- See No Evil:
- The monster is invisible (or virtually invisible because it is so stealthy)— it may even disguise itself as ordinary people/everyday items.
- Anyone who sees the monster loses their mind/falls under its spell.
- The protagonist is blind and thus it’s harder for them to perceive the monster
- Speak No Evil:
- Speaking the monster’s name in a certain context summons it.
- The monster is blind, (but has excellent hearing) so characters must be silent to avoid it.
- The protagonist is mute and thus handicapped when trying to get help.
Sadly, many of the character tropes mentioned below are mere stereotypes populating the slasher sub-genre of horror. Most of them ought to be avoided, but it’s still important to be aware of them so you avoid falling into clichéd writing by either a.) not using these character tropes at all, or b.) putting a clever, thoughtful twist on a character trope to reinvigorate it.
- Best Friend/Sidekick: The wisecracking goofball no one takes seriously, but who often functions as a knight in jester’s costume.
- Comatose (during the apocalypse): The protagonist wakes up from a coma (or simple hospitalisation) to find out the world has fallen to some sort of cataclysm and is now overrun with monsters of some kind (usually zombies or demons).
- Creepy Kid: The kid whom everyone picks on; as such, in slashers, he is often the red-herring—the character we are supposed to suspect of being the killer.
- Druggie/ Alcoholic: The oddly charming, worldly-wise addict who sees through everything; still, no one listens to them because of their altered perception.
- Evil Boyfriend: Surprise! The creepy, possessive boyfriend was the killer all along. Who saw that coming?
- Harassed Mother/Wife: A woman desperately trying to protect her family from an evil entity. People often assume she’s just paranoid or crazy, and therefore ignore her warnings about the monster(s).
- Jerk Jock: The dim-witted, handsome meathead. He’s probably also the Evil Boyfriend.
- Love Interest: Any character the protagonist has a crush on/is dating. They will probably be threatened by the monster multiple times throughout the story to raise the stakes.
- Nerd: The socially inept know-it-all who often functions as a means of sharing exposition about the monster, setting, or horrifying events (possession, haunting, alien invasion, etc.)
- Nonbelievers: All those folks who treat the protagonist like they’re crazy when they try to warn people about the monster/setting/event.
- Promiscuous Girl: The girl who dies first because she’s sexually uninhibited. Please don’t use this stereotype.
- Red Herring: Any character who is obviously meant to be unlikable and suspicious. They rarely fool modern audiences—especially those well-versed in Scooby-doo.
- Scientist/Researcher: This is another character often used to communicate exposition. They may also be the one who unleashes the ultimate evil/calls on the aliens/creates some unholy monstrosity.
- Spiralling Father/Husband: The dad/husband who is seduced by the monster to do its bidding—usually sacrificing his loved ones.
- Survivalist: That wacky character with the bunker and armory whom everyone dismisses as crazy. However, everyone wants to be their best friend once the cataclysm starts and the monsters are roaming the streets.
- The Final Girl: The girl who survives (or dies last) because she conforms to societal morals. Not a terrible trope—just have her survive cause she’s competent—not just because she upholds a particular moral standard.
- Token Minority: A character who functions as a mark on the writer’s diversity checklist who often dies early on. Avoid this stereotype. Write a diverse cast to create authentic representation, not to virtue signal.
- Useless Cop/Medic: The person whom the protagonist is counting on to save the day, but ultimately, they fail. Often used as a plot device—they are the harbinger of an “all is lost moment.”
- Weird Girl: A quirky girl who represents whatever alternative subculture is most prevalent at the time of writing. If you include such a character, make her a full-fledged character who serves the story and has a genuine arc.
Items which may be sentient or simply possessed. Either way, they are one means by which the monstrous forces torment the characters.
- Amulet/ Locket
- Cell Phone
- Music Box
- TV Set
As mentioned in another post on horror, a specific type of setting is a key feature of the horror genre. Below, we’ve listed a few familiar places and features of horror settings—some need a little explanation, others need none.
- Abandoned/Derelict: No one has lived there in a long time; shows obvious signs of dilapidation/disrepair.
- Cursed: Some entity has placed a curse over the setting that terrorizes anyone who enters until the curse is broken.
- Horrifying Past/Lingering Dread: Terrible violence was done to a person or persons in the place: a cult site, mad scientist’s lab, etc.
- Isolated: The setting is far from civilization and thus far from aid/support/help.
- Possessed: Similar to a curse, only an entity is actively controlling the setting, using it to terrorize the characters. Sometimes called a “Genius Loci.”
- Around Every Corner: The setting is maze-like with plenty of right-angles and corners behind which monsters may lurk.
- Asylum/Hospital: Haunted by failed human experiments.
- Cabin: Where the protagonists are trapped and inevitably descend into madness before killing (and maybe even eating) one another.
- Camp: Terrorized by a masked killer or a monster. Maybe there is a secret cult working somewhere in the woods that wants to use the campers as sacrifices.
- Castle: Haunted by a ghost, of course. Maybe owned by a mad person who enjoys torturing visitors in the dungeon.
- Church/Temple: Probably overrun by cultists. Maybe overtaken by a celestial (angel or demon).
- Circus/Carnival: Full of crazed killer clowns and rampaging animals. Please don’t portray “circus freaks” (usually differently-abled folks) as inherently violent and dangerous.
- Dark: Obscures potential threats.
- Foggy/Misty: Also obscures potential threats.
- Ghost Town: Abandoned town—usually for unknown/mysterious reasons.
- Graveyard: Probably full of ghosts and zombies.
- Grocery Store: Wait—what? Yeah. I’m not joking. Everyone is headed here during the cataclysm and the limited visibility of the aisles makes it ripe for some “around every corner scares.”
- Hell/Nether Realm: A place of torment or punishment for wayward souls. Usually populated by demons.
- Morgue: Well, if the dead are rising, you don’t wanna be here.
- Hotel: Vast, winding corridors full of strangers doing strange things.
- Haunted House/ Mansion: Nuff said.
- Mall: This is the agoraphobic cousin of the more claustrophobic Grocery Store.
- Mirrors: Can reveal a monster creeping up on the protagonist, and/or make the space feel larger than it really is, and thus, disorienting.
- Psychological landscape: The characters internal fears are projected onto the setting, so they see/hear threats which may or may not actually be present, confusing them about which threats are real.
- Remote Research Facility: Mad scientists and aliens like hanging out here for some reason. Usually someplace pretty cold.
- Space Station: Like the above, only its even harder to get out, because—ya know—the infinite vacuum of space.
- Woods/Forest: Represents the violence and uncertainty just outside civilisation. Could be populated by just about anything. They can be dark, foggy, difficult to navigate—kind of a worst case scenario for horror protagonists. And those pesky cultists are just everywhere.
Monsters are most people’s favourite element of the horror genre and there are many horror tropes here. Feel free to mix and mash these archetypes!
- Alien: A biological entity from another world in our universe.
- Angels: A celestial being (usually summoned by sorcerers to help with some form of Magic), which may ask for brutal sacrifice or worship in exchange for its aid.
- Beast: Any terrifying creature from our own planet and/or plane of existence. May be bigger or more aggressive than usual. A bear, snake, shark, spiders, etc.
- Cannibal: A person who eats other humans, either ritualistically or for a taboo cuisine preference.
- Clown: Maybe a sociopathic killer dressed as a clown, or a monster presenting as someone’s personal phobia.
- Cosmic Horrors: Any creature or entity whose form and/or power is so beyond comprehension that it leaves those who see it in a state of existential dread. (Lovecraft is a great resource for these kinds of monsters).
- Country Folk: this may be a trope that needs to die out (remember, not all tropes are good/helpful), as it stigmatizes rural people as backwards thinking and brutal. Flannery O’Connor is one of the few writers who used these kinds of “monsters” throughout her work effectively because she fully-fleshed out her characters.
- Cultist(s): Any fringe religious offshoot that deifies its leaders and uses their teachings as justification for committing atrocities against others.
- Demon: A fallen, malevolent celestial being; functionally identical to an angel, although it may be in the service of a greater evil. While an angel may be beautiful, a demon may be deformed or bestial in appearance.
- Doppelgänger: an exact double of a character who may be better or worse at certain things; may have an opposite or drastically different personality. Usually, they want to steal the character’s identity, loved ones, or their entire life. To add a further level of uncanniness, make them taller, shorter, or less proportionate than the original.
- Evil AI: artificial intelligence that uses extreme measures (usually mass violence) to achieve its goal (usually revenge on its creators).
- Fairy Creatures/Subhuman: Humanoid creature from the world folkloric tradition. Usually they look like larger, smaller, or disproportionate humans (Trolls, ogres, elves, goblins, dwarves) and practice dark magic and/or eat humans.
- Force of Nature/Disaster: Tornados, Shark-nadoes, Knife Storms. That kind of thing. Usually these are just a means to keep the protagonists locked in the horror setting.
- Ghosts: A spirit which remains tethered to a place because of some unfinished business.
- Infection/Possession: A spirit, demon, or disease that transforms people into a violent bestial version of themselves.
- Kaiju/Colossus: A giant beast or humanoid. May wreak havoc on purpose or by accident because of its size.
- Lich: A sorcerer who has tethered their soul to another person’s body (living or dead).
- Mad Scientist: Willing to commit all kinds of atrocities and crimes against humanity to further scientific progress and/or secure their legacy in the pantheon of great innovators.
- Main Character: An ordinary, disempowered Jane/Joe Schmo who lacks the means, resources, and intellect necessary to overcome the monster and/or cataclysm, but who persists anyway.
- Mask wearing, weapon-wielding: (fill in the blank)
- Mutant: A human or beast deformed by genetic experimentation or radioactive/biohazardous materials.
- Pagan gods: Gods not belonging to the character’s culture.
- Parasite: A creature that feeds off of others—often while keeping them alive. May even be able to manipulate them into doing its bidding.
- Psychopath: A character who is so unempathetic that they are willing to commit all kinds of violence to achieve their personal goals. Avoid writing these characters as people suffering from mental illness.
- Reanimated Corpse: A (usually) mindless, bestial corpse, reanimated by a demon, magic, or some other means. May be cannibalistic.
- Robot/Cyborg/Android: a cybernetic being which may be some mixture of human and machine that seeks to hurt/destroy others. Robot: fully cybernetic entity that doesn’t appear humanoid. Cyborg: Cybernetically enhanced human. Android: A fully cybernetic entity that is humanoid in appearance.
- Shifters (Were_____): A human that transforms into a violent man-eating beast. Like a Were-kitten.
- Sorcerer/Witch: A person who uses dark, forbidden magic (usually via a celestial) to achieve personal goals. They may also be cultists.
- Soulless (Vampires): An immortal being who traded their soul for immortality. As a result, they are cursed to feed on the living.
- Hero survives: She survives the hostile setting and defeats monster.
- Hero dies: She seems to overcome the hostile setting and monster, but ultimately succumbs to them.
- Hero seems to win but fails: She does whatever it takes to survive, even if that means becoming a monster herself. OR it turns out the protagonist was the true monster all along.
The Last Word
I hope these 101 horror tropes for writers help you write your story. And read this post: Horror Masters: 3 Spooky Tips To Write Like Lovecraft, Poe, & King
If you’re looking for more tropes, read:
by Oliver Fox
Oliver earned his BFA from the University of Memphis (2015). After graduation, he worked as an editorial assistant for The Pinch (’16). Currently, he works as a manuscript analyst and is an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of The Fantasy Workbook.
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