Ugh, horror is filled with stupid characters making dumb decisions. It’s always the same old tired tropes!
Yes, horror fans, we’ve heard this before. To be fair, some tropes are overused and some aren’t pulled off well. However, just because something is a trope doesn’t mean it’s always bad.
First off – every genre has its own set of tropes and clichés. Who doesn’t love the snarky dialogue and burgeoning tension in an enemies-to-lovers romance? How do your eyes stay dry when the nerdy underdog finally has their day, proving to everyone and themselves that they are indeed capable and amazing? And I always cheer on the hardcore, reluctant action hero who steps up to save the day even though he/she apparently hates everyone and everything because of some gut-wrenching personal tragedy.
We spot our favorite tropes from a mile away, familiar plot lines that lead to a standard conclusion. But sometimes that is exactly what draws us to a movie, show, or book.
And even more fun is the reverse trope. Think of George R. R. Martin who makes us believe certain characters are essential heroes only to be killed off with no warning. Or, he has characters who clearly appear villainous, only to reveal through backstory that things were never what they seemed. A realistic twist to fiction, upending all of our expectations relating to the fight between good and evil. Ahhh, that’s not supposed to happen! But, when done well, such a twist pulls you in even deeper.
For the fun of it, I’d like to mention some of my favorite and least favorite horror tropes. It’s just my opinion, for whatever that’s worth. But, it seems a relevant discussion topic in October when even lukewarm horror fans will treat themselves to some dark fiction scares in the spirit of Halloween. But before you complain you’ve seen this character type or plotline before, think about it. Was the trope on you loved, drawing you to the specific piece in the first place? Did they pull off the trope well or butcher it? Or, what might’ve made it better? Sharing is caring, friends!
I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up – We see this a lot in teen slasher flicks, often as the brave Final Girl stumbles towards the end of her nightmare. She’s running from the killer, young and terrified but capable enough to have lived this long. Then…whoopsie daisy! It’s so predictable, that one clumsy moment we anticipate but dread seeing. Surely they won’t do this same move again, but we groan with disgust when we’re sadly proven correct.
The pointless fall has become so overused, a dash of cold water during a story’s climax that’s just begun to blaze into a bonfire of anxiety. And it’s the worst when this happens to our Final Girl, the one heroine who daringly outwits the seemingly unstoppable killer. Please, stop cheapening her magic by making her seem like a total klutz.
Can You Hear Me Now? – Cell phones weren’t always a standard item, and when they first came out there were a multitude of service issues especially out in the wilderness. But now? Seriously, even with my crappy discount android, I can always manage a call or text even without wi-fi.
Modern movies cannot keep using this as an excuse, the victim wandering in some desolate place weepily pleading for one lone service bar. If you don’t want your character to be able to call for help, then do something else. They could lose or break their cell phone, or maybe they’re poor and can’t afford even a cheap one. Anything is better than pretending the technology will randomly fail on a basic 911 call – Get with the times!
Baby, You Can Drive My Car – The killer is on the prowl. Can the character escape? Oh perfect, there’s a car right there! They sob, struggle, seemingly forget how to put a single key into the ignition – something even a small child is capable of pulling off. After a painful stretch of seconds, the key is in and the character breathes a sigh of relief…until the car won’t start.
Oh. Come. On.
Creators, if you don’t want your character escaping the killer so easily, then don’t even have a car as an escape option! Or, give the killer a chance to somehow disable the vehicle. Again, this is so overdone that it becomes pointless filler in a story that should be building tension instead of smothering it with such a waste of time.
Jumpstart my Heart – This is one of the more controversial tropes, the jump scare.
Sometimes it can be done well. The final scene in Carrie (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best jump scares ever. That calm, soothing music we approach the grave of a bullied young girl pulls us right in. We sympathize over her tragic downfall and wish things had gone differently for poor Carrie. Until the hand reaches up for one last grab, and we end the film with Sue Snell’s maddened screams.
But for every good jump scare, countless others totally suck and unceremoniously rip you from the story – a super-sonic ringing phone, a cat jumping out of nowhere and hissing, a door or window slamming for no reason, a tap on the shoulder from the goofy sidekick, and so many more.
As a viewer or reader, your heart almost stops from these abrupt interruptions. Could be awesome, right, a herald for more scares? But sadly sometimes those are the best the writer/director has to offer. Then we feel cheated, manipulated by the creator whose work we paid good money and valuable time to see. So please, if you use a jump scare, then do it right and don’t toy with us. All scares should have a purpose, dammit!
Never Gonna Get It – What is more frustrating than any other trope? We make it through 90 minutes of terror, or however many hours or days to read a book, and the killer is finally vanquished by the weary hero. Or are they? Suddenly they spring back up for one final attempt, a reanimated body that’s been shot, stabbed, set on fire, and/or blown to pieces.
Of course, there is an exception to a villain’s invincibility. Monsters and supernatural entities all have a variety of special rules and/or a link to magic which can be used as an exception. But, if the Big Bad is a human just like his/her victims, then they should be allowed to die after a certain amount of trauma. I’m looking at you – Jason, Michael, and the dozens of infamous fictional human killers who are apparently indestructible.
The Bad Seed – What’s the surest way to convince me to give a scary movie or book a try? Invite some realistic evil little kids to creep everyone out.
I don’t know why this is so unsettling for me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a parent, just an auntie who typically sees only the best sides of the kids in our family. Or, maybe it’s because children are standard examples of innocence which makes their turn into villains all the more terrifying. In my case, it might also be that some of my earliest and most iconic exposures to horror involved downright scary children (i.e. Regan in The Exorcist and the Grady Twins in The Shining).
This is a trope that some people are tired of, or it simply doesn’t scare them. That’s cool, to each their own. And like any trope, this isn’t always pulled off perfectly. Child actors are more often than not glaringly bad at their jobs, and not all writers can step outside the confines of adulthood to build convincingly authentic children. But when the story is well-written, and a movie showcases a talented child actor, then the results are the ultimate nightmare fuel.
True Story, Bro – This is a harder trope to pull off effectively with Google laying a world of knowledge at our fingertips, endless facts available for instantaneous consumption. But once upon a time, us horror fans were at the mercy of fiction writers and movie executives who would rope us into their creation with the simple phrase “Based on Actual Events”.
I don’t know about other people, but I am notorious for falling into this trap. A true horror story, omg cool, sign me up! And many times I love it, even if I’m later disappointed that the true story was anything but.
One of my favorite scary books of all time is The Amityville Horror, and the original movie from 1979 was pretty amazing as well. But the book…I can’t even describe my reaction to reading it as a young teen, convinced as many were that the Lutz story was quite true. After all, the DeFeo murders did actually happen so maybe the house was haunted? Much of the tale has been debunked, just one more supernatural cash grab involving the well-known charlatans Ed and Lorraine Warren. But fake or not, the Amityville story is still one of my favorites. A made-up story, sure, but so is all fiction.
Google Me This – A common complaint I’ve read in horror reviews occurs when characters take the time to research the horrific situation they’re in. One argument is that the research kills the mystery and suspense. That’s a valid critique, because maintaining an aura of fearful mystery heightens our fear.
However, I am a total nerd about researching and learning. I love when characters Google creatures and events, or maybe they take a moment to visit the local library. I’m excited when the characters find some sort of expert – maybe a psychic or a witch who’ll guide them towards victory. What would’ve happened to Carole Anne in Poltergeist (1982) if the adorable Tangina didn’t appear to offer the tormented family a solution?
And this is 2019, people. Assuming the plot of the story isn’t so fast-paced that there literally isn’t time to ask questions, who wouldn’t be instantly Googling whatever problem they’re faced with? Haunted – Google to see if anyone was killed at the house. Stalked – Google to see if a murderer is on the loose and study their MO. This may not be a strategy all horror fans enjoy, but it adds to the realism of the story.
The Mind F**K – I cannot emphasize enough my love for psychological horror and unreliable narrators. Is there really a killer or monster? Is this place haunted? Or, is the character losing their mind?
Films and stories employing this method are often the most controversial. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, creating a perfect air of ambiguity without frustrating the audience. The novel The Haunting of Hill House is a classic, and the 1963 film is absolutely stunning. It’s as creepy now as it must’ve been back then, a tale that truly stands the test of time.
Shirley Jackson is praised as one of the best horror writers ever, and for good reason, but her most famous novel still has its critics. It’s not scary enough, where’s the ghosts? Was Eleanor experiencing something supernatural, or was she just crazy? We never find out. There’s no pat explanation for the novel’s events. Could’ve been spirits, could’ve been the mental/emotional disintegration of the pathologically lonely and misunderstood Eleanor. Either way, it’s a masterpiece.
Not everyone likes an unexplained mystery. Again, we’re all moved in different ways by art. For me, the thought of a supernatural enemy is just as scary as the possibility that one is losing their mind. What’s scarier than the fear of your mind turning against you, creating a scenario where you literally become your own worst enemy? I’m sorry if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I will always be a fan of this type of tale.
Final Girl – This trope is a modern classic, usually related to the slasher sub-genre. Of course it has its detractors, but I believe the fan enthusiasm overwhelms the negative reviews. We all have a favorite Final Girl, the one who against all odds and expectations survives the Big Bad to either save the day or simply lives to tell the tale.
In traditional horror stories and movies, the Final Girl is the standard good girl. Virginal and pure, pretty but not as gorgeous as some of her friends, well-liked but not the most popular. She’s average and basic, until she’s placed in a horrific story and through ingenuity and mystical luck manages to survive.
For a world that increasingly pushes for female recognition and equality, the Final Girl is a fitting heroine. Some feminists argue horror trivializes women and turns them into objects. Again, creators who are incapable of making an interesting character will always fail at building a believable woman. And yes, women are often turned into victims in horror…but isn’t that exactly what has happened to us for millennia? Oppressed, overlooked, used for our bodies and birthing ability, then discarded when we’ve outlived the needs of a man. That is precisely why an awesome Final Girl is so satisfying. She may not be the likeliest adversary against a seemingly unbeatable threat, but she proves her worth by enduring multiple tough situations and eventually triumphing over evil.
One of my favorites is Laurie Strode from Halloween. Of course, I also adore Jamie Lee Curtis so I’m a bit biased. Laurie doesn’t necessarily leave the first Halloween as a brilliant badass warrior. Technically, she doesn’t even kill Michael. But she manages to outwit this persistent killer, saving herself and the children she was babysitting. Brutalized but she survives, becoming stronger in each sequel until she eventually gives Michael a real run for his money. In my opinion, the only Halloween sequels worth watching are the ones where Laurie Strode plays a role because she never gives up on trying to put this wicked killer down. Laurie refuses to be a victim, despite what Michael puts her through. She learns to fight back, standing up for herself and others no matter what. That’s some true girl power, my friends.
So, those are just a few of my thoughts on the incredibly complex world of tropes in horror fiction (all fiction, really). Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Would you have added a specific example for either your most loved or most hated tropes? Let me know in the comments.
And remember, horror fans – a trope or cliché is not inherently bad. We are creatures of habit, returning to our favorite things over and over again. What makes a trope bad is a lazy creator who doesn’t take the time to develop it. Don’t hate every interpretation of a cliché. Remember, they are instantly recognizable and timeless for a reason. When done right, those lovely tropes keep us coming back for more no matter how many times we’ve seen the same thing.