The 13 Top Themes in Horror Movies [With Examples]

themes in horror

Key Takeaways:

The most popular themes in horror movies are vulnerability, isolation, fear of the unknown, the unexpected, survival instincts, loss of innocence, retribution or revenge, psychological turbulence, the monstrosity of human nature, social commentary, death and transformation, chaos and disruption, and overcoming evil.

Read on to learn more about each one, and see a classic horror movie example of each!

Are you a fan of horror movies and books?

There’s nothing quite like a good horror story to liven things up. From classic books and films to more modern takes on the genre, there are enough stories out there to make sure you never get bored.

As a horror writer and filmmaker myself, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes a great scary story. After much thought, I compiled this list of the top 13 themes in horror movies and books.

I hope this list helps you write or create your next horror story or film or just appreciate the nuances of a great scary story!

What Are the Top Horror Movies Themes?

When you’re writing a horror book or making a horror movie, you’ve got to think about the themes you’re using. Audiences relate to themes just as much as they do the actual storylines and characters, so it’s important to know the common horror themes that are out there!

Let’s look at the best horror themes and examples from famous horror movies.

Vulnerability

horror theme of vulnerability infographic

Horror movies often seek to provoke terror by exploiting characters’ vulnerabilities and inability to protect themselves.

This can be accomplished through various techniques, such as isolating the main protagonist in a dangerous setting or creating an atmosphere of suspense through music.

Vulnerability is critical in horror movies – it establishes a relationship between the audience and the character whereby we sympathize with them, worry for their safety, and ultimately yearn to see them escape unscathed.

This type of storytelling allows the audience to feel what it is like to be threatened by an unknown menace and provides an escape from reality that isn’t available in everyday life.

An excellent example of this theme is Jacob’s Ladder (1990), where recovering Vietnam veteran Jacob Singer experiences increasingly disturbing hallucinations and otherworldly encounters that drive his already fragile mind over the brink.

Isolation

horror theme of isolation

Another powerful theme is isolation, as it taps into a deep-seated phobia of being alone and out of reach, vulnerable to the unknown.

In horror cinema, characters often find themselves isolated in some way, either geographically or psychologically.

This can add an extra layer to the plot, building tension and dread to a fever pitch as our hero tries to survive against impossible odds without help.

Additionally, settings that appear safe at first can turn sinister by having characters suddenly disconnected from their safety net, leaving them in dark, unfamiliar spaces and situations with no promise of rescue until the end.

Isolation is an innovative tool for creating some of the most terrifying scenarios we all hope we will never encounter on our own!

The Descent (2005) exemplifies this theme well in a movie about a group of friends who, while on a caving expedition, become trapped and hunted by cannibalistic subterranean creatures.

Fear of the Unknown

fear of the unknown theme

Fear of the unknown is a recurring theme in horror, as it taps into fans’ primal fears and anxieties about the unseen.

Experiencing anxiety without knowing the outcome can create a powerful dread. Whether it’s mysterious noises coming from beneath a character’s bed or the unknown silhouette stalking them in the darkness, these scenes seek to evoke terror from a lack of reliable information.

Movies often employ sound, lighting, and camera angles to create an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that allows viewers to identify with the protagonist’s plight.

This type of storytelling allows people to explore their subconscious fears without actually being exposed to them.

The fear of the unknown can also be used to build suspense and anticipation, leading to intense emotional or physical scenes.

Skinamarink (2023), an experimental horror film that’s closer to an experience than a traditional story, relies heavily on the theme of fearing the unknown through its unsettling use of fixed, lingering shots, grainy footage, disturbing sounds, and barely visible visuals, which combine to instill terror as much from the audience’s own imaginations as what’s on the screen.

The Unexpected

theme: the unexpected

Horror movies are designed to shock, scare, and make us uneasy, and the theme of the unexpected is one of the most common themes that run through any horror film today.

Just when you feel safe and think you know what will happen next, the movie takes a sharp turn in an unexpected direction.

This element helps to create suspense and anticipation among the audience as you don’t know when or how an unexpected event will unfold.

The unpredictable nature of horror movies keeps people on the edge of their seats as they anxiously await for something to appear that will cause them to jump in fright.

They can provide thrills and chills that keep people entertained and allow them to enjoy a few jumps here and there!

A great example of this theme is found in the slasher classic Halloween (1978), where Laurie Strode and the other Haddonfield, Illinois residents are stalked by an unrelenting psychopath named Michael Myers, whose only motivation seems to be on committing as much murder and mayhem as possible.

Survival Instincts

survival instincts theme

In movies with a theme of survival instincts, we’re taken on a suspenseful journey with people who are trying to outwit their opponents and survive what life throws at them. These stories are thrilling and action-packed, making us consider whether we would be brave and resourceful enough in a similar situation.

We look on with dread as some victims succumb to sinister forces, but we marvel when others fight for their lives and emerge victorious. While foreboding is no doubt our main response to these types of movies, there’s something empowering about watching those who do manage to survive versus those who don’t make it through alive.

After watching a horror movie focusing on survival instincts, you’ll walk away feeling more inclined to challenge yourself the next time the going gets tough.

Dawn of the Dead (2004), a worthy remake of the George Romero zombie classic, updated for a new generation of horror lovers, is an excellent example of this theme in action. Trapped on all sides by unrelenting hordes of the walking dead, a small group of survivors lives out their days in a barricaded shopping mall until dwindling supplies force their hand to seek shelter elsewhere.

Loss of Innocence

loss of innocence theme

The theme of loss of innocence can take many forms. It often serves as a plot device or narrative element to demonstrate the darkness that lurks underneath everyday life.

From a young person’s naïve journey into adulthood to a group struggling with unspeakable evil, loss of innocence allows horror movies to explore the boundaries between safe and dangerous experiences.

It provides an opportunity to witness characters grappling with their understanding of their domain, trying to make sense of feelings of powerlessness brought on by dark forces out of their control.

Loss of innocence as an element of horror adds layers of complexity to a horror story.

A great example is Salem’s Lot (1979), where 12-year-old Mark Petrie is forced to struggle with the reality of death and loss on an overwhelming scale, thanks to the vampiric evil that has set roots in his small hometown.

Supernatural Forces

supernatural forces theme

Supernatural forces in horror movies represent a mysterious, otherworldly power that can terrify characters and audiences alike.

These forces may take different forms, such as haunted entities, unnatural creatures, or dark supernatural horrors, and often create tension and fear by allowing filmmakers to explore the unknown.

By presenting fans with something that can’t be easily defined or understood, supernatural forces challenge us to question our beliefs about the world around us and offer an escape from the rational boundaries we create for ourselves.

A classic example of this theme is Poltergeist (1982), where a suburban family is tormented by malevolent spirits, eventually turning to spiritualists, parapsychologists, and exorcists to rescue their missing daughter from the realm of the dead.

Retribution or Revenge

retribution or revenge theme

The theme of retribution or revenge in horror stories adds an element of justice and morality to the story and serves to raise tension levels.

From vengeful spirits wreaking havoc on the living to living people determined to exact revenge on those who wronged them, retribution is often depicted as something that must be done to restore balance and order.

But, it can also take the form of wrongful vengeance aimed at innocents.

In these stories, revenge may take different forms – from slow and psychological plots involving intense personal struggles to action-packed battles with supernatural creatures.

Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) captures the theme of revenge with its tale of Freddy Krueger, a disfigured supernatural maniac who preys on children in their dreams as retribution for what their parents did to him years before.

Psychological Turbulence

psychological turbulence theme

Horror movies often use psychological turbulence to add to the intensity of the viewer’s experience.

Through plot twists and unexpected turns, characters are put in mentally disorienting scenarios that change their perspectives. These stories often explore dark aspects of the human mind, such as dread and paranoia, which can lead to twisted inner paths.

Sometimes, these plot elements create a sense of confusion by linking seemingly unrelated events.

By heightening suspense and reinforcing the idea of an unpredictable future, this heightened level of psychological horror helps generate terror and tension that keeps the audience on edge.

This approach is used to instill a genuine sense of dread while watching some truly unsettling scenes.

A prime example is found in Hereditary (2018), which focuses on a mother and son’s descent into madness following the demise of the family matriarch and the subsequent terrible secrets and tragedy it brings.

The Monstrosity of Human Nature

monstrosity of human nature theme

Over the decades, we have seen characters face their darkest fears and struggle through various monsters, creatures, and villains. But one recurring theme in horror is the monstrosity of human nature. That’s right – humans can be monstrous too!

Consider how often a horror genre character is driven mad by an experience or preys on other humans through violence or exploitation.

This theme is often played out through characters who appear normal on the surface yet become monsters when their darkness is unleashed through the right circumstances.

Demonstrations of man’s inhumanity to man can be seen in everything from the classic slasher films featuring mass murderers to modern takes on the traditionally supernatural genre.

Human monstrosity can even explore deeply psychological themes that leave us feeling unsettled and reflect our own fears back to us. It is no wonder why so many great horror films have as one of their main themes the truly terrifying nature of humankind.

Misery (1990) challenges the audience with the plight of novelist Paul Sheldon, who wakes up bedridden after suffering a terrible car crash. When his rescuer, Annie, becomes both captor and tormentor, it becomes increasingly clear that she’ll stop at nothing to ensure she gets her way.

RELATED: If you’re writing a good villain character, check out these lists of villain ideas and villain quirk ideas!

Social Commentary

social commentary theme

Horror films often use the genre to explore social issues and address important questions about our society. This includes everything from examining our dread of the unknown to critiquing government power and authority.

Horror may also draw parallels between villainous characters and real-life figures, providing commentary on political or religious extremism and its consequences for those who oppose them.

Genre movies delivered this way can show the audience uncomfortable truths about our collective history and encourage them to consider the consequences of accepting or ignoring injustice.

Get Out (2019) provides a riveting story about Chris and Rose, a young couple making the leap to meet her parents, only to become trapped in an increasingly terrifying conspiracy that could destroy them both – while at the same time providing a social commentary on racial divisions and inequality in American society.

Death and Transformation

death and transformation theme

Death and transformation are two themes that drive the horror genre.

Both can be thought of as containing a form of potential power over humanity, served up in an excitingly terrifying way for horror movie fans to experience.

Many horror films explore the nature of death and what happens when someone dies, whether through a physical demise or through some form of supernatural transformation, such as vampires or zombies.

While death represents finality and an end of life, transformation offers a resurgence into something unknown – and not always human – through scientific or supernatural forces. Both evoke unease on many levels: from physical dread to psychological shock.

An iconic example is the Hollywood classic Frankenstein (1931), which examines an obsessed scientist’s attempt to cheat death by assembling a creature from the body parts of the deceased, only for the monster to escape and wreak havoc on the innocent.

RELATED: If you are writing a horror story, you may want to check out my lists of unique monster name ideas, ghost name ideas, alien name ideas and zombie name ideas!

Chaos and Disruption

chaos and disruption theme in horror movies

The theme of chaos and disruption can play out as characters become overwhelmed by unpredictable situations and struggle to find stability in an ever-changing environment.

This usually takes the form of a strange or unexplainable event that disrupts the status quo and throws people’s lives into chaos. It is also commonly used to show the fragility of civilization and how quickly an unexpected force can destroy it.

Many classic horror films have focused on people attempting to survive chaos or disruption, such as supernatural forces, mysterious cults, or a pandemic.

It’s part of why we watch these films: to understand how someone like you or me might react in such a chaotic and dangerous situation.

A great example can be found in The Mist (2007), wherein a mysterious fog envelops a small town, trapping a father and his young son in a supermarket with a group of others. Terror mounts as deadly creatures appear from the fog to beset the people inside, while what little order remains turns to chaos as the survivors become increasingly desperate and bloodthirsty.

Overcoming Evil

overcoming evil horror theme

Overcoming evil is a common theme in the horror genre, as it allows characters to prove their bravery and heroism against overwhelming odds.

This often involves confronting a powerful force of darkness that threatens to take over the globe or cause destruction on an epic scale. But it can also be limited to a smaller scale, like a household or a single person.

It can also show how ordinary people can take on extraordinary tasks and how hope and determination are enough to defeat even the darkest forces.

One of the best examples is The Exorcist (1973), where two priests are tasked with driving out a demonic force from a young girl before the evil within destroys her completely. Faced with pure evil on a level previously unencountered, the only way to banish it is through faith and sacrifice.

RELATED: For more ideas for a horror story, check out my lists of haunted house story ideas, zombie story ideas and apocalypse story ideas!

Ending Thoughts

Horror films captivate us because they play on our deepest fears.

Death, transformation, retribution, and supernatural forces are all things that we worry about on a subconscious level, but when we see these themes played out on the big screen, it gives us a chance to relate and confront our fears in a safe environment.

It’s no wonder that horror films continue to be popular year after year. They allow us to explore the darkness within ourselves and the world around us without having to face real-life scares and consequences.

If you’re hoping to create your own horror story, check out my list of fantastic scary story prompts to get started!

Horror Themes in movies

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2 Comments

  1. I found this post to be fascinating, as I had never really thought about the different themes that run through horror movies. The examples you provided of each theme were also informative and really drove home the point. Who knew that the fear of technology was such a common thread in horror movies? I’m definitely going to pay more attention to these themes in the future, and I hope you continue to explore them in future posts.

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