Don’t check the basement! With neither appreciation nor scorn, compiled are five predictable horror tropes I love to hate. Illustration by Alyson Sutherland.
Warning: Article contains spoilers for multiple horror films.
If you’ve seen enough horror films, they can begin to feel like hearing your relative tell a story for the umpteenth time: “But then, the killer WASN’T dead!” or, “As it turns out, having premarital sex in a graveyard WASN’T a good idea!” From the comfort of our couches, us viewers scold the horror protagonist(s) for repeating those detrimental mistakes every horror protagonist before them has died from.
Dan Halsted, head programmer for the Hollywood Theater, argues that what have become predictable tropes began as “pushing the genre forward.” Halsted cites “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) as one such groundbreaker for horror, recalling its originality and genuine terror at the time of its release. It’s also, notably, his favorite horror film. Much of what made this movie and others unique has now been replicated repetitively in the decades since, explaining the dull scares we see today. “It’s easy to rip-off another [horror film] and make money with a low budget film,” Halsted says.
The movie “Critters” (1986) was released two years following the success of “Gremlins” (1984), capitalizing on the popularity of tiny menaces with tiny voices; “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977) debuted three years following Leatherface’s appearance in theaters, jumping onto the bandwagon of cannibalistic hillbillies. “As these movies imitate more and more … the tropes [have] become less powerful,” Halsted says. “Those were the things that initially shook audiences, and now are just repetitive and expected.” And yet, predictability has never deterred audiences; if it did, there would be two films in the “Friday the 13th” franchise instead of a dozen. So, committed to neither appreciation nor scorn, below are five common horror tropes — with many examples, and many spoilers — that I love to hate.
Not quite dead yet
The protagonist, bloodied and primal, at last faces their attacker. Delirious with adrenaline, they grasp their weapon of choice and strike with all the force they can muster … once. Without bothering to strike again, they assume the worst is over — even better if they drop the weapon. “That one happens so often that if [the villain is dead] the audience will feel let down,” Halsted says. A final scene in “Cujo” (1983) has the mother strike Cujo with a baseball bat, only to decide against sealing the rabid mutt’s fate with a discarded pistol; guess which St. Bernard mauls her in the following scene. In “Get Out” (2017), the protagonist is attacked by the man he bludgeoned with a bocce ball moments before. If the villain doesn’t die twice, why bother? Or consider the unkillable killer — the sequel-pumping ingredient within the “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” franchises. “Nobody could’ve survived falling off the belltower into a pit of cactuses,” Franklin High School librarian Ayn Frazee explains; but of course the villain survived falling off the belltower into a pit of cactuses.
Like a virgin
Has a slasher film character ever necked with their partner and lived to tell the tale? The good natured, often virginal “final girl” — more a proxy for Moral Majority values than anything — has assumed many roles across many subgenres of horror. She’s Laurie in the “Halloween” franchise, and Sue in “Carrie” (1976) — a film in which Carrie White, a virgin, begins to discover her power and sexuality, and soon afterwards burns in hellfire. “As a society, we pin a lot on these [teen girl] protagonists,” Frazee says. In addition to the general pressures placed upon women, the lauding of virginity within the horror genre coincides with its frequent basis in Christian belief; such as “The Exorcist” (1973), or “The Conjuring” (2013), one in a franchise of films based on the demonologist power couple Ed and Lorraine Warren. The existence of a Heaven and Hell within these films deepen the ultimate horror of horror — death — by placing the threat upon immorality, rather than a masked killer. To reiterate, premarital sex is a stone’s throw away from demonic possession.
The enemy of my enemy is my … enemy
There’s nothing like the threat of death to reveal who your true friends are. Arguably the scariest trope is the trusted character who becomes the antagonist. When primal fear, or a misjudgment of character, transforms friend into foe. Consider Joan of “Hereditary” (2018), or the infuriating filmmaker saboteurs of “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), Josh and Mike. Frazee mentions “The Descent” (2005), in which a group of friends spelunk within an uncharted cave, and are killed by ancient subterranean creatures — and each other. As past deceits are revealed amongst the friends, the already present threat of death doesn’t allow bygones to be bygones. When in a cave, do as the ancient subterranean creatures do.
Check the children
To see innocence manipulated, or to be manipulated by innocence — that is the trope. While the horror film parent brushes off strange behavior as an overactive imagination, the horror film child is bargaining with Lucifer. I can’t recall how many times I’ve seen the following interaction over my horror viewing career:
Parent: “[Child’s name], what are you drawing?”
(The camera pans to a crayon drawing of a disturbing figure.)
Child: “My friend who lives in [the walls/my head/etc.]”
After which the parent, rather than explaining Stranger Danger, dismisses the interaction. In films such as “The Children of the Damned” (1964) and “The Omen” (1976), parents become victims of their own cursed children. If these films don’t persuade you to avoid having children, I’d recommend watching “Alice, Sweet Alice” (1976). Furthermore, there’s no shortage of childhood paraphernalia appropriated for horror, demonstrated by the trope of toys as vehicles for evil, like in the “Child’s Play” franchise.
Insane in the membrane?
This one’s for the ladies (mostly). The psychological thriller, in which reality is as unreliable as its protagonists, is my personal favorite among the horror subgenres. Within this category are films which distill that charming tendency to disregard women’s concerns as hysteria; seen in “A Carnival of Souls” (1962), “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” (1971) and the aptly named “Gaslight” (1944). In “The Sentinel” (1977), a woman settling into her new apartment receives a warm welcome from her fellow tenants — only to discover later on that they’ve all been dead for years. Everything, even Jezebel the cat’s birthday party, was nothing more than a hallucination. For further apartment-set delusion, consider Roman Polanski’s trio of perplexing films — “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and “The Tenant” (1976) — all of which depict the protagonists losing their grip on reality … or are they?
However predictable horror films can sometimes be, perhaps there’s comfort in predictability. “Horror movies bring people together,” Frazee says. “We’re terrified together, laughing together, crying together, jumpscaring together.” And what more could one wish for, in this lonely life, than jumpscaring together? If any of the films mentioned above piqued your interest, they and countless other trope-saturated horror films are available for rent at Movie Madness Video (owned by the Hollywood Theater) … or are they?