You know me, I love my horror. Creepy hallways, spooky noises, all that good stuff. But the horror genre has hit a snag as of late. It’s true that every genre has its tropes, those little things that keep popping up from story to story. But horror seems like it has become overrun with these tropes. It is stuck in a rut that is very hard to get out of.. So with that in mind, I present to you my list of five horror clichés that I think the genre would be better off without for the time being.
1. Let’s Split Up!
I put this one first because it’s not especially prevalent in modern horror movies, but it’s still an incredibly dumb little trope. You know the setup: spooky things start happening and the cast of characters needs to find a way out. So they decide to split up, usually coming up with some silly excuse like “it’ll help us cover more ground”. Come on man, everyone knows that’s just code for “it makes it easier to pick us off one by one”.
I don’t particularly hate this trope as much as I just find it funny. It’s the common thing people poke fun at where horror movies are concerned. An old episode of Malcolm in the Middle had that, where the three boys get stuck on a carnival ride. When they get out, they find that the carnival is closed for the night and they’re trapped inside. Malcolm looks at the screen and says to the audience “this is like the beginning of every horror movie I’ve ever seen”. Reese then chimes in with “let’s split up”, and Malcolm stares at the screen with a terrified look on his face.
So overall, not the worst cliché, but still a nonsensical one that does little more than make the main characters seem incredibly inept.
2. Demons…SO MANY DEMONS…
If you’ve followed my blog for long enough, you probably know that I’m sick of demons in horror movies. It seems like every major horror movie that comes out involves demons in some way or another. Someone gets possessed, someone makes a deal with the devil, some old house has a curse on it, you know how it goes. Even the movie about the catacombs in Paris seemed to hint at demons, at least in the trailers.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of demons. They make for good spooky tales. But there is a problem when it becomes overused. There’s really only so many different kinds of tales you can tell with demons. After a while, they all start to run together, and it gets really boring. Demons this, demonic possession that, it’s all the same after a while.
I like horror because of its potential to tell stories about the flaws of humanity, about the sides of ourselves that we don’t like to acknowledge exist. The capacity for human evil is an interesting subject, because despite the fact that I prefer to see the good side of humanity, there is no denying that darker side of ourselves, that side that promotes murder, chaos, and all manner of unspeakable acts. Supernatural stuff is fun and all, but having a good human aspect to it is what gives those stories their power.
3. Obvious jumpscares
Extremely long hallways…windows peering into incredibly dark rooms…a sudden cut in the music…these things all say one thing: a jumpscare is coming. It’s so obviously telegraphed that you do one of two things: you either tense up because you hate loud noises, or you roll your eyes and groan. But in neither scenario are you particularly scared. And aren’t horror movies supposed to be scary?
Let’s take a look at a scene in Paranormal Activity 2. In this scene, a woman walks into the kitchen and sits down at the table to read a newspaper or a magazine. She sits there for about twenty seconds with nothing happening, and right as you wonder what the point is, all the kitchen drawers and cabinets come flying open with a bang. It’s an incredibly jarring event, made more so by the fact that the scene takes place in broad daylight, whereas most of the spooky stuff tends to happen at night. It’s effective because it breaks the convention, and it gets us when we’re least expecting it.
That is when jumpscares work best. They are not effective just by being loud. They are effective by being unexpected.
4. Musical Stings
These tend to go hand in hand with jumpscares. But unlike jumpscares, I find musical stings to be plain annoying and never useful.
I remember playing Slender, the video game where you have to find eight pages in a dark forest while a creepy white figure in a black suit chased you around. He has now face, and he’s known as the Slenderman. In the game, every time you spotted him a loud musical note (like someone banging on a piano) would sound in your ears. Instead of being scary, I found it to be really annoying. It might make me jump, but that’s not because it’s scary. It’s because it’s loud, and I really don’t like loud noises.
Loud noises in horror are a great way to startle someone, but when you rely on it as your main method of scaring people, it becomes downright aggravating. It’s like someone walking behind you with a huge drum and smacking it every so often. It might make you jump, but would it scare you? Not really. More than likely you’d find yourself pissed off. You’d turn around and punch that little drummer jerk right in his smug face.
At least, that’s how I’d imagine it would happen. Because it would be cool.
5. One-Dimensional Characters
There are two basic ways to drive a story forward: through characters or through events. But, it becomes hard to do either when your characters are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes from a bygone era.
This is how I feel about such character types as the “dude bro” alpha male, the popular cheerleader who wants to have sex with everyone, the nerdy kid, and the virgin. They become defined not by their personality, but by this weird archetype, this sort of blueprint handed down from pop culture. And so many horror movies and games still rely on these types of things. Have you ever watched a movie and predicted how the story was going to go for a particular character? Usually that happens because those character types tend to have the same few story arcs that show up over and over again.
The cheerleader and the alpha male are the ones who tend to die first in typical horror movies. And the virgin is always the last to survive. It’s boring, it’s been done so many times before, and it’s devoid of any substance. Stuff like that is one of the primary reasons I feel that the horror genre has gone downhill. It’s too predictable now. It’s like “ooh a spooky abandoned house! I bet it’s not haunted at all!” It becomes like a bad joke, something you tell people to elicit a groan rather than a laugh.
For horror to feel new again, characters have to be more than just stereotypes. They have to feel alive. They have to feel real. They have to be believable people, someone you could see yourself meeting in real life. The alpha male character doesn’t really exist in real life. There are people with that type of personality, but that’s not all they are. There are many different aspects to a person, and while it is admittedly difficult to create a layered character, especially for a two-hour movie, that doesn’t mean storytellers shouldn’t try.
Good characters drive a story forward, and keep the audience interested in their plight.
A lot of this will probably overlap with my “5 things I would Change About Modern Horror” post I did a while back, but I feel like it needs to be said again and again. Change is necessary for a form of expression to survive. Stubbornly adhering to the ways of the past will not pave the way forward, but weigh you down instead.
And that’s all I have for this week. Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a great week everyone.