Horror’s prevalent and enduring tropes are key parts of its foundation, for better or worse. The victim running up the stairs when the front door is right there, people fornicating or partying when there’s a killer on the loose, and an intrepid character investigating that strange noise are both maddening and thrilling. Some horror tropes make us cringe and roll our eyes while others spark joy, but either way we wait with baited breath to watch the inevitable unfold. There’s undoubtedly several motifs that run through any given horror film, especially the connection between moral sins and deadly consequences. We are all familiar with the seven deadly sins from several religious sects—pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth—and each one of them show up in the horror world in the form of a few classic tropes.
A Horror Jock’s Pride Leads to a Mighty Fall
Proverbs 16:18 of the Bible warns us that pride comes before a great fall. And boy does this sin apply to certain horror tropes, particularly in the form of character archetypes who appear in an ensemble cast. One of them is the infamous Jock, an often young, musclebound male idiot who thinks his “superior” athletic ability will ensure his triumph over a murderous (and sometimes supernatural) maniac. This is the case with Julius, a boxer in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. He believes he can defeat Jason with his “guns” (read: muscles) and tries to box with a homicidal… entity. Julius goes down by the ultimate knockout as Jason punches his head clean off his shoulders. Bravery is not a bad thing in horror but overconfidence will get you murked.
Sometimes, the jock’s pride leads them to do horrific things that make them the true villain. Such is the case with The Rage: Carrie 2 and its group of jocks that exploit and humiliate girls. They have no shame about their actions and believe that they can get away with it because they are untouchable gods. Their pride and status works for them until Carrie teaches them a righteously vengeful final lesson.
The Pleasure of Lust Begets the Pain of Murder
The deadly sin of lust is a very obvious horror trope one is with far too many examples. The golden horror rule about avoiding sex was a staple in past decades. Final girls like Alice Hardy were always the “good girl virgins” among their friend group, their purity somehow sparing them from a grim fate. Anyone who would dare bare it all risked their lives in the process, with the killer luring them to death one by one.
Some of this was writers/directors inserting their personal morality beliefs into the script. However, there’s also a direct tie with the vulnerability of post-coitus nakedness and a fear of something sinister happening. There’s a reason why we are paranoid when we are home alone and in the shower. And no, it’s not just because Psycho exists.
Thankfully, this trope isn’t prevalent anymore, especially in films like It Follows, where the concepts of death and sex are intertwined in a novel (and not-shaming) way. Many of today’s final girls (and other targets) are choosing to have sex and still obliterating killers to our great delight. But, the sin of lust will never quite fade away in horror, even if it is from a comedic perspective poking fun at the genre.
Mighty Is the Wrath of a Scorned Soul
Wrath is a driving force in many horror narratives, especially from the perspective of the villain. One frequent trope is the “scorned baddie” exacting revenge in a world where they are severely abused (Carrie) or they are seeking vengeance for their death/death of their loved ones. A famous example of the latter is Mrs. Voorhees, who goes on a killing spree against camp counselors because of her son’s death. Sure, she kills the ones responsible but she also, um, kills other counselors who weren’t even there when it happened.
But even when the wrath is righteous and from the good among us, like the parents who burned Fred Krueger in his home, it almost always results in a ripple effect of unintended and negative consequences. This all points to one message: never act out of wrath and rage, lest you want innocents to potentially pay the future price for your choice.
Envy Is the Gateway to Evil (and Murder)
This is quite the tricky sin with a lot of different examples, especially in films that straddle the line between horror and classic thrillers. It often roots itself in the trope of the voyeuristic stalker who desires what their prey has and a victim who feels like someone is watching them. Inside (2016) follows the horror story of a psychotic woman who envies a pregnant woman so much that she wants to kill her and steal the child on Christmas Eve.
We also see envy tied into the horror trope of the secret killer family member(s). In Scream 3 (2000) there’s Roman Bridger, who sees the attention and love his half-sister Sidney Prescott got after their mother’s death. His envy of Sidney’s life (along with the pain of rejection) is literally the flame that sparked the events of the entire franchise. There’s also envy in Get Out, a story where affluent white people devise a gross procedure to literally take over Black people’s bodies because they desire their traits. Envy is truly a gateway for evil.
The Soul of a Sloth Hath Nothing Good Comin’ Its Way
If there’s one rule you better follow in a horror film, it is to move your ass ASAPtually. Do not live in denial and pretend that there’s no real threat happening here. Do not allow others to do the heavy lifting on your behalf. If you do, then you may end up hopping into action when it is already too late to save yourself and others. A great example of sloth behavior typically comes from the ongoing horror trope of the lazy/incompetent police force that constantly fails to do its basic job.
We witness some baffling idiocy from two police officers in Scream 4 (2011) who gawk at a teenage girl in her bra and fail to prevent her murder. But even they don’t hold a candle to the pure overall laziness of the entire police department in Hell Night (1981). You can pretty much count on the cops to be useless and exhibit peak sloth behavior in horror films.
Be On Your Guard Against the Greed (and Gluttony) of Gentrification and Disturbing the Peace
Ahhh yes, there’s nothing like greed and gluttony, specifically in the economical sense, to set up an intense and bloody narrative. Gentrification and looting are the crux of many haunted house/city/town and cursed land horror tropes. We have seen this one before in many forms. Some rich (and usually white) person thinks they are “doing good” by purchasing property in a marginalized neighborhood. Or they build something on top of sacred land or take some object that isn’t theirs for profit and BOOM, the ancestors or evil spirits are on their ass. (Thankfully, horror has mostly moved away from the harmful ” haunted Indian burial ground” trope that somehow tried to make the ancestors evil. Just respect their land and stop messing with it!)
Sometimes, a person goes into an allegedly haunted space and disturbs the spirits for attention and profit. It never ends well for that person. Busta Rhymes learned this the hard way in Halloween: Resurrection (2002) when a group of students tried to create an internet reality show in Michael Myers’ house. Very stupid behavior, indeed.
Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020) uniquely addresses this with vampires who are sucking the life out of a Black and Latinx neighborhood in multiple ways. They are literally killing people but also killing local business and the neighborhood’s established culture. When a person, ahem, bites off more than they can chew, you can be sure that there will be consequences to their actions.
Considering the frequent crossing of horror and religion, its no surprise that many horror tropes have ties to the seven deadly sins. Like Jason Voorhees, many of these tropes will never die… and we are (mostly) cool with it.