Horror tropes become popular for a reason, but overusing them in an unoriginal way can be the kiss of death for a horror story.
All genres have popular conventions and tropes. Some of them have been used so often that they’ve lost the power to influence the audience. Just think about how many times you’ve encountered the “let’s split up” and bad cell phone reception clichés. While some clichés can be endearing for horror fans — especially when it comes to slasher tropes like sex in the woods and stereotypical characters — an overuse of these clichés can turn off the audience and spoil an otherwise strong storyline.
Some of the most popular clichés or tropes include clumsy characters who drop their keys and fall when trying to run away from a killer, characters who ignore dire warnings and major red flags, failed technology and cars that refuse to start at critical getaway opportunities, gaslighting and refusing to believe characters, bathroom murder scenes, and cats jumping out of nowhere to create a tired and lazy jump scare.
To create a fresh and original horror story that rises above the forgettable and generic masses, stay away from these five clichés — or look for a clever way to subvert them.
1. Halloween night
Sure, it’s been done really well before. Films like Trick ‘r Treat, Terrifier, Haunt, and Hell House LLC (not to mention that essential Carpenter classic that needs no mention) raised the bar for how great a Halloween setting can be in creating a compelling horror film. The problem is, it’s been done A LOT.
There are hundreds of examples of Halloween-themed movies, novels, and comics. It’s been done so much that if you intend to give your horror story a Halloween setting, you better ensure you’ve got something original to bring to the table if you hope to make your story memorable.
If you’re a student or aspiring writer, researching the history of Halloween-inspired media is well worth the time. If you need help with academic research, look up how to write my dissertation for a great resource. The aesthetics and psychology behind horror movies are extremely interesting research topics. Click here for a brief overview of some of the many properties that set horror stories on or around Halloween.
2. Scary Children
Clichés become clichés for a reason. When done well, they can be quite memorable. And plenty of fantastic horror films, old and new, employ the scary children trope to great effect. The exploitation of innocence and vulnerability is exactly what makes children so chilling in the role of vicious killers.
I bet you can list quite a few genre gems that excel in this area, including classics like Children of the Corn, modern masterpieces like The Children, and the recent must-see foreign tour de force The Innocents on Shudder.
Like all clichés, the problem with this trope is not that it’s bad but just that it’s overdone. So, again, unless you can think of a way to do something great that hasn’t been done before, it may be best to avoid this one.
3. Dabbling in Dark Magic
An absolutely obvious way to summon evil in a horror story is for one of the victims to get an excellent idea and use an Ouija board or, say, a weird incantation scribbled on the wall. Then, they will surely get possessed or haunted. We’ve seen it a million times before. And sometimes it’s a ton of fun, like in Cabin in the Woods, or downright terrifying like in the 2017 Spanish film Verónica.
Unfortunately, you can probably cite far more eye-rolling, hum-drum, “been there done that” examples of this trope than you can steller and stand-out films that feel surprising in any way.
Like a haunted house or creepy doll film, movies about the unintentional summoning of dark forces are a dime a dozen. Thus, it’s really hard to cut through the clutter if you rely on this plot point.
4. Hypersexualized Women
I’m a lifelong horror fanatic, and I don’t find the genre inherently misogynistic. But horror does get a bad rap for being exploitative of its female characters. And that’s not entirely without merit.
Unfortunately, an abundance of films feel blatantly sexist — where women are overtly sexualized, and violence against women is glorified. Many of the victims are presented as inferior characters because of their sexualization. They are meant to die; perhaps they even deserve to die, while the pure and virginal girl is the one whose survival we are meant to root for.
You know the cliché. She’s naïve, usually blonde, and wearing overtly sexual clothes. She’s beautiful, and she knows it. Some would say she flaunts it. She’s likely unlikable. She probably gets naked at least once in the film and may very well take a steamy shower. And you can bet she’ll have some hot premarital sex before she meets her untimely demise.
Many horror writers have been exploiting this same character image for victimization repeatedly. This exploitative cliché definitely needs to go away. And it’s great to see some modern horror films subvert this trope in smart and meaningful ways — films such as Evil Dead, Behind the Mask, The Cabin in the Woods, and The Final Girls.
5. Don’t Go Into the Basement
A creepy basement is an example of a “done to death” cliché.
You’ve seen it or read it more times than you can count. Strange noises are heard. Old disturbing photos are found. A single light bulb leaves the protagonist in complete darkness at the worst moment. Dark, damp basements are indeed inherently creepy. So, it’s no surprise horror writers love to send their victims down into them to meet their doom. It creates an atmosphere that is immediately unsettling and puts us on edge. But it’s also no fun to watch the same scene you’ve seen repeatedly before. And scenes like this often feel representative of lazy writing.
The professional authors from a top paper writing service DoMyEssay and many other seasoned authors suggest using settings that aren’t traditionally viewed as haunted or scary, like an office, shopping mall, or beach. They will be even more frightening for the reader as they won’t know what to expect.
Genre clichés are a comfort zone some writers are unwilling to leave. However, if you want to write a story that will actually keep the reader hooked, try to approach writing from a different angle. Old, worn-out clichés are unlikely to affect the readers and make them shiver with fear. Instead, they might even look funny or awkward, which is definitely not the effect you are going for unless you’re writing an ironic, post-modern story.