Breakdown of the horror movie

In this image released by Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures, Tom Hiddleston, left, and Mia Wasikowska appear in a scene from "Crimson Peak." (AP)

Horror movies often seem to rely on a shared collection of tropes—some may even call them clichés—in order to advance their plot and frighten their audience. Five of the most common elements of these films are characters seeing something frightening in a mirror, creepy basements, families moving into possessed homes, the “final girl” and the killer who never dies. No matter what horror film a person watches, whether serious or satiric, they’re almost bound to run into at least one of these common gags or themes that seems ubiquitous in the genre.

The first of these tropes features a character looking into a mirror and suddenly seeing something frightening in its reflection. In “Paranormal Activity 3,” a young girl named Katie and her babysitter are playing the “Bloody Mary” game when they unintentionally summon a not-so-nice spirit that appears in a bathroom mirror.

Another common trait of horror films is that the basement is a dark, evil place where some of the most frightening action of the film occurs. In “The Conjuring,” the Perron family moves into an old house in Rhode Island and quickly discovers it has an old, boarded up basement they didn’t know about. The scariest parts of the movie, such as when Carolyn, the mother of the family, becomes possessed by an evil spirit, occur in this dark and foreboding cellar.

The “creepy basement” trope goes along with another typical feature of horror movies—that someone was murdered in a home, leaving it with a curse that haunts the dwelling’s future residents. One of the most famous films involving this is “Amityville Horror,” in which the Lutz family undergoes frightening supernatural experiences after moving into a house where a mass murder occurred a year before.

One of the most prevalent characters in the horror genre is the “final girl.” This girl is often sweet, virginal—because everyone who is familiar with horror films knows that sex equals death—and intellectual. She may even seem a little wimpy at the beginning, but she manages to pull through in the end.

Perhaps the most well known “final girl” is Laurie Strode of the 1978 slasher film, “Halloween.” Laurie abstains from sex throughout the film—unlike the other female characters—and spends her night babysitting, perfectly personifying the innocent, responsible traits of this stock horror character.

The final—often most frustrating—trope is that the killer of the film is seemingly indestructible and never actually dies, allowing them to return for what seems like innumerable sequels. This let Chucky, the grotesque, murderous, red-haired doll, to star in five films between 1988 and 2004. Whether he was shot, stabbed or thrown into a fire, he always managed to return.

It’s a wonder that horror movies still manage to scare their audiences when they continually recycle the same clichés. However, these tropes have come to define the horror genre, lending a sense of nostalgia and pleasure to the movie-watching experience. A horror movie that lacks any of these expected—and often beloved—elements often doesn’t feel like a horror film at all.


Helen Stec is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.