Classic Horror Movie Tropes

Katie (Amber Tamblyn) stares into a static television set, inches away from the screen, in a dark, green-tinted image from The Ring (2002)

We all love a good scare—well most of us do at least—and a good horror movie can do just the trick. And if you’re anything like us, you’ve been awaiting the return of the Halloween season just so you can justifiably scare the wits out of yourself with some classic horror movies. Horror may be the most ‘tropey’ genre of movies, using and re-using concepts and familiar settings over and over, but many of these tried and true devices have resulted in some of the best scares in movie history!

Hollywood Stars That You Didn't Know Got Their Start in Horror Movies

Most modern horror movies, while bringing in a lot of new (and at times more gruesome) scare tactics, still look to the classic tropes that have been done throughout the genre’s past. In celebration of the Halloween season, we made up a list of some of the most commonly used tropes associated with the horror genre.


No Cell Service

Scream-Drew Barrymore
Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore) in Scream (1996)

Running from a monster out in the woods? Hiding from a killer under a bed? Or just out anywhere else in the world? If you’re a character in a horror movie, odds are you will have no cell service at the most crucial point in your survival. This may be one of the most timeless horror tropes ever used. Back in the day when cell phones weren’t around and landlines ruled the Earth, directors had a similar approach to the “phone problem” and simply had the lines “cut” by the antagonist. Now that our smart phones have evolved to the point where coverage is available almost anywhere, we just have to use our imaginations a little. 

Doctor Sleep—Back to the Overlook Hotel

Splitting Up

The Cabin in the Woods-cast
Marty (Fran Kranz), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), and Jules (Anna Hutchison) in The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

Just about every time you watch a horror movie, you probably find yourself thinking, “Why would anyone ever choose to go anywhere alone?” This is just another timeless theme in horror. Sticking together seems like pretty basic reasoning when running and/or hiding from a killer, yet more often than not, characters in horror movies forget this and head off on their own without a second thought. This terribly frustrating act may be one of the most iconic horror tropes ever used.

The Best Zombie Movies of All-Time!

The Vengeful Spirit

The Conjuring-Farmiga and Wilson
Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) and Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) in The Conjuring (2013)

In the horror movies focused on ghosts, it always seems that the dead have a grudge against the living. They spend eternity trying to exact revenge on the main characters for the suffering they endured in the past. Not to mention that the protagonists are usually painfully oblivious to the presence of these ghosts until it’s too late. Eventually our characters discover the truth and right the wrongs that eventually brings peace to the angry apparition. This one seems to be the most popular trope amongst paranormal movies, shown in titles like Poltergeist (1982), The Grudge (2004), and The Conjuring (2013). 

Gretel and Hansel—First Trailer for Upcoming Horror

The Abandoned House

Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) in IT (2017)

Whether it’s an old, creepy house or dilapidated insane asylum, directors of horror movies love putting their characters in abandoned places. This is likely due to the fact that the imagery depicting places people have left behind (either by choice or in death) strike a chord with the audience. Not to mention that these places serve as a terrible hiding place, yet the main characters seem to be drawn to taking refuge in the scariest places possible. Being chased by a lunatic? Forget the busy downtown streets, head to the abandoned house where nobody has gone for decades! 

Stephen King's 3 Levels of Horror

The Jump Scare

The Grudge-Takako Fuji
Kayako (Takako Fuji) in The Grudge (2004)

This trope is the king of all tropes! The jump scare has become such a common aspect of horror that some might consider it to be the best part of the genre—maybe even a necessity. When you’re watching a modern horror movie, you know it is safe to assume that at any moment something terrifying might jolt into view with a jarring sound. Bathroom mirrors, closets, and closing doors have been the go-to segues into the jump scare, but modern horror has gotten ahead of the curve and inserted them into the most unexpected scenes. When it comes to horror movies, one thing is certain: you never know when something is going t—RAHHH!