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A Look at the Origin of Horror Tropes

Posted on March 14, 2009 by Monica Valentinelli

As a horror and dark fantasy writer and fan of the genre for years, I’ve noticed certain horror tropes that are used time and time again. For example, in supernatural horror you will almost always see the pentagram used as a satanic symbol and the story will typically revolve around the Catholic religion. In slasher flicks, typically there’s always one modelesque female who ends up getting slaughtered viciously in a gory bloodfest. Vampire stories range from the horrific to the romantic, but almost always center around a Master Vampire who is deathly allergic to sunlight. I’m sure you can name several horror tropes that you recognize, but do you know where these tropes began?

If you’re a fan of horror, you probably know that the genre has been saturated with conventions that have helped to shape and define “what” horror is since the middle ages. Interestingly enough, the horror timeline shows that Dante’s Inferno was really the first definitive work of the horror genre, but I would argue that that was the first recognized “Western” work for two reasons. One, because up until that time certain publications may not have physically survived the passage of time. Keep in mind the first “recognized” printing press wasn’t developed until 1440. Two, the historical record in literature, art and film tends to be fractured between East and West. It’s very rare to find a timeline that ignores geographical boundaries.

Of course, it’s pretty easy to take a horror trope and trace its origin to a point in Western history, not only because we’ve been ingrained with Western culture, but also because there are fewer cultural and language barriers than there are with Eastern. However, as Japanese horror films have shown us (Ju-On, Doll Cemetery), there are marked distinctions between Eastern and Western horror that stem from cultural, philosophical and religious differences. Take something as simple like a ghost. In Western horror movies, the team almost always has to find out “what the ghost wants” to help it find peace. You might not see this in Eastern horror, simply because some ghosts cannot be redeemed.

Time and geography have both played their parts on our social consciousness, answering the question “What is horror?” in unique ways. During the days of the Inquisition, there was nothing scarier than being accused of heresy, because you might lose your life as a result. Fast-forward hundreds of years, and the effects of the Inquisition are evident throughout history in the form of “witch trials” that took place in Europe and in the U.S. Truth be told, many modern horror tropes originate not from the Middle Ages, but from Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost published in 1667. That legendary “war in heaven” has been used as a key concept in a wide range of literary and cinematic words, including properties like The Devil’s Advocate, Murder Mysteries (Gaiman), Constantine and The Prophecy.

Although there have been other major developments since the 1600s in the horror genre, most of what we consider “classic horror” really originates from the 1800s. Shelley, Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Wells, Stevenson and several other authors helped shape the horror genre (and science fiction as well) through the ages of Industrialism and Spiritualism. (If you love ghosts, read up on the history of the Spiritualist movement for some very fun reading.)

Through the twentieth century, even though there have been evolutions in the horror genre from decade to decade, certain themes have remained prevalent from those days of the Inquisition. Although our culture is arguably not as “religious” as it was in the Middle Ages, there are some horror tropes which have been more prevalent in today’s modern era than in the past. Physical and sexual abuse is a trope that has crept its way into horror since the turn of the Century. Many “new” writers to the genre default to descriptions of abuse for women or children, because in their mind that is what makes horror horror. Even though violence is a small part of the horror genre, its presence tends to put any “weaker” characters (i.e. women, children, emotive types) in a bad light.

Horror tropes have been used to “tag” creative ideas as part of the horror genre, but they’ve also been used to develop plot and create fascinating characters. What horror tropes can you identify? What sub-genre of horror do you enjoy?

Monica Valentinelli

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2 Responses to “A Look at the Origin of Horror Tropes”

  1. Ashwin Melwani says:

    Hi Ms. Valentinelli,

    My name is Ashwin Melwani. I’m a student in Jakarta International School and I’m taking a Higher Film class. Our current topic is the Horror Genre and it’s tropes. I have an Oral tomorrow on the film “Twilight” directed by Catherine Hardwicke and I was wondering if you would like to lend a hand?

    Thank You,
    Ashwin Melwani

    P.S. Your article has really intrigued me and given me a better picture of the Horror genre! Thank you 🙂

  2. william o'brien says:

    twilight isnt horror

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