Storytelling

Five Horror Cliches Waiting to Be Broken

Like any genre of storytelling, horror has certain rules and techniques that make it more effective. That isn’t usually a problem. Otherwise, we might play Yakety Sax during the chase scene. But sometimes, these conventions get overused and become predictable. That’s not scary. Other times, they’re harmful to a group of people in real life. That is scary but not in the way you want. Breaking these cliches will make your story more horrific in the right way.

1. Darkness

Pop quiz: how many horror movie climaxes happen in broad daylight? I don’t know the precise answer, but it’s pretty damned low. The same is true for horror in prose or roleplaying games. Even though we can’t see the light levels in those stories, the author/GM is usually careful to let us know it’s dark.

This makes sense. Humans can’t see well at night, while many predators can. It’s an environment where we’re at a natural disadvantage. If we had better night vision, this trope probably wouldn’t exist.

While there’s nothing wrong with playing on a biological quirk to create horror, our fear of the dark has clearly crossed into cliche territory. The audience can tell if something scary is going to happen based on the time of day. Stories tie themselves in knots making sure important events only happen at night.* Worse, we feel safe in the daytime. We should never feel safe in horror stories!

Humans are also good at creating light, and we’re getting better. Any story set in the modern day has to break a lot of technology to credibly create darkness. It’s doable but doesn’t work for every story.

So what’s the alternative? A horror that’s most dangerous in the light. Perhaps a creature so twisted that seeing it clearly is a death sentence. A creeping plant menace that needs photosynthesis to snare its prey. A vengeful spirit that was killed at night but manifests in the daylight.

The key is to make the horror too strong to defeat in the light. In order to take it on, characters must cloak themselves in darkness. They’re forced to rely on senses other than sight. This creates its own kind of horror. Even if the monster isn’t as powerful, a character trying to home in on it by the sound of its rasping breath is still pretty damned scared.

2. Isolation

Again, we have a trope based in reality. Humans are social creatures. We find safety in numbers. If a lion ambushes you alone, you’re in trouble. If a lion ambushes you and your ten friends, doom isn’t so certain.

This is true with a lot of horror threats as well. No matter how strong Jason Voorhees is, a large enough group could tie him down and wait for the authorities to arrive. Even threats where numbers have no bearing, like Lovecraft’s color out of space, are usually experienced in isolation. It’s hard to get scared when the characters are surrounded by people.

The cliche here is obvious. How often have you groaned at “Let’s split up, gang?” When a character proclaims they’re about to wander off on their own, we know they’re a goner. Stories quickly lose credibility when the protagonists go their separate ways without a reason. Even though this is universally acknowledged as a problem, writers still do it because the expectation that characters will be alone in their moment of terror is so strong.

At the same time, audiences can be sure nothing too terrible will befall the main character when they are among friends, and that kind of security is antithetical to horror. To shake this trope up, conjure a threat that’s worse when in the company of others.

Suppose a malevolent being of great power broke into thousands of pieces in the skies above Scary-Town, USA. Each of the townsfolk, including the main character, is infected with a shard of its intelligence. Alone, each shard is limited, but as they grow closer, the being’s mind begins to dominate. The more people, the more deadly it is.

In this scenario, the protagonist must avoid large groups at all cost. Even two or three trusted friends is a risk. At the same time, they need help to bring the being down. They must face the threat in order to prevail.

3. Atypical Appearance

Even someone who never heard of Lord of the Rings can watch the battle at Helm’s Deep and tell you who the bad guys are. We automatically code the good guys as attractive and the bad guys as ugly, even when it doesn’t make sense. Look at Beauty and the Beast. The evil Gaston is so muscled he appears grotesque, while the Beast is well groomed and good looking.

On the rare occasion a horror bad guy is good looking, it’s often the “wrong” kind of good looks. Male villains are described as effeminate, while females are highly sexualized.

This cliche needs to stop, because it encourages us to judge others by their looks. There’s nothing wrong with looking effeminate, being sexual, or having looks that otherwise fall outside the typical range. It’s also lazy. If the audience can tell who the bad guy is because they’ve been badly scarred or have a club foot, authors can avoid showing why the villain is evil. And it ruins suspense. No one needs to guess who the bad guy is when they’re so clearly marked.

In real life, people whose appearance falls outside the norm through injury or genetics are the ones who have the most difficulty. Only in cliche fiction are they the ones causing problems for the rest of us.

To combat this, we need more stories like Terry Pratchett’s The Lords and Ladies. In this tale, the elves are truly horrifying, toying with human lives the way cats toy with mice. They are beautiful as well, and that beauty is part of their horror. Humans trust elves, because nothing that lovely could possibly be dangerous.

More stories with protagonists like Quasimodo are a must as well. While Disney’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame isn’t a horror story, the original novel certainly is. Looking different is enough to turn someone into an outsider in society’s eyes, and if that’s not horrific, I don’t know what is.

4. Foreignness

The Monkey’s Paw, a cursed artifact from colonial India. Vampires with eastern European accents. Any Lovecraft story where the horror arises from the dark exaltation of a “primitive” tribe. These tropes tell us that cultures other than our own are scary and more supernatural.

First, this cliche is pretty damned racist. It paints other cultures as dark and evil, producing twisted creations to horrify western Europeans and their descendants. Second, it doesn’t make any sense. Why would Indians make something so obviously flawed as the Monkey’s Paw? Why would remote tribes worship a dark entity that kills and drives them insane? People in other cultures are still people, they react to threats the same way you or I would.*

This cliche also depends on a level of ignorance that doesn’t exist anymore. If there were vampires in Transylvania, we’d damn well know. The world is too connected for “it came from another country” to explain why no one has heard of something.

Writing horrific threats from your own culture is super easy. The space shuttle passes through a radiation field and lands with something… else on board. An oil company’s board of executives worships a dark god beneath the sea so he’ll lead them to that sweet, sweet crude. If you want something with the weight of age, the Roman Empire is rich with terrible religious rites to horrify the modern audience. Since the days of Caesar, an eldritch cult has enriched their power by spilling innocent blood in secret rooms scattered across Europe.

Writing horror stories in other cultures is also an option, provided you do the necessary research to portray them correctly. Mythical creatures like the south east Asian penanggalan or the Navajo skinwalker are prime grist for the horror mill. An ancient evil once rose in what is now New England, before the Europeans came. The tribes put it down, but now they’ve been pushed out, and the evil rises again. Only the tribes’ last remaining descendants can seal the evil away forever.

5. Sexuality

Anyone who has sex in a horror movie, especially if they’re female, is going to die. This cliche is done to death, but it’s insidious. In every medium, we see stories that punish characters for being sexually active. Look no further than Cordelia’s mystical pregnancies* on Angel for an example from what’s ostensibly a progressive show.

Making characters suffer for breaking the arbitrary cultural norms around reproduction is terrible. For one thing, it’s blatantly sexist, as female characters suffer disproportionately from their male counterparts. For another, it demonizes sex, one of the most awesome parts of being a human. Why would we want to do that? Nothing about sex makes it any more evil than any other activity. It’s like punishing a character for being good at rock climbing.

Many authors don’t do this on purpose, but it still comes up far too often. If a character isn’t punished for sex, they’re often depicted as horrific or disgusting for wanting it. As usual, this affects women more than men. If you don’t know what I mean, check out the opening scene of Gameboard of the Gods. A woman hits on the main character, and the way her makeup and fancy clothes are described makes her sound like some kind of Lovecraftian horror.

The best way to avoid killing overtly sexual characters is to not kill overtly sexual characters, especially if the death is somehow related to their sexuality. When you’re writing a character’s death, stop for a moment and think. Are they the most overtly sexual of your cast? If so, can someone else die in their place? If they need to die for the story to work, can other important characters die as well? That way it won’t feel like they’re being singled out.

To subvert this cliche, let your main character have sex sometime, and then have it not come back to bite them. It’s that simple. If you want to go further, have the character’s sexual relationship be vital to solving the problem. The person they’re romantically entwined with has a key piece of information or gear, that kind of thing.


Horror is better when it’s not predictable. Even leaving aside how many of these cliches are harmful, the fact that they’re cliches is enough to ditch them. Audiences are more terrified when they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about

 

Comments

  1. Yep

    Yeah racism and sexism Bad. We got it. Course sex is often used to get a lessor charector to have a interesting situation before they are killed off. It’s a plot device same as the angry old man making funny but cruel jokes before he gets his etc.

    The new cliches that need to be broken is that White males are evil and behind the repression. Mmm it’s 2015 and a black man is in Charge,and people calling people racists/sexists so casually that the punishment/Banishment for the person is worse then the crime itself.

    Intelligent people should be able to point out holes and strawman arguments without being burned at the stake for being honest
    Richard Dawkins anyone.

    This has gotten to the point where the …oh well never mind you probably wouldn’t care to understand and this is going to be censored anyway.

    • Tyson Adams

      And this comment shows why we can’t have nice things. Not only have you missed the point, Yep, you have brought a whole heap of white male privilege to bear.

      Help, help, my privileged position is slightly less privileged!

      Oren, spot on! When you can pretty much look at the characters and know who survives, who dies, and who is the bad guy with only the character description and no story, you know that the setting is Trope City.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Glad you enjoyed it!

      • Krssven

        Actually, it is turning into quite the cliche that white males are often villainous characters. The ‘black criminal’ stereotype was thoroughly broken, but it’s still okay for drug dealers to be largely white or Mexican (the latter is probably an even more problematic cliche). I’d say there’s been a lot of progression in terms of attitudes to black characters in modern storytelling. That doesn’t mean every powerful corporate executive exploiting his coworkers/the environment or rigging an election needs to be male and white.

        One of the portrayals I found rather refreshing in recent cinema was Jamie Foxx’ character in the Annie remake. He’s a corporate CEO, a politician and is desperate for ‘his people’ (the city) to love him. He considers himself high-class despite his roots, uses Annie to get good press and approval ratings, and is generally fairly unsympathetic (of course, he changes). He also happens to be a black character, as does Annie herself. This adaptation really showed how characterisation should be in the modern world – race should be fairly low on the consideration list while still being important.

  2. Skylark

    I don’t tend to write horror, but I found the “darkness = drama” thing creeping into my cyberpunk story. I kept describing the city like Blade Runner, always dark and raining. Which is kind of an issue when I actually stop and remember that the city is IN THE DESERT. >_<

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s ok, deserts can be dark too, and sometimes it rains there! Maybe the rain isn’t water. Maybe it’s something dangerous, something you don’t want to get caught out in. You said this is a cyberpunk story? Maybe the ‘rain’ could actually be packets of deadly nanites?

      • Skylark

        The main problem is actually a cybernetic plague (and enough androids and people with cybernetic implants for this to be a major issue).
        I think my solution is to focus on the isolated/dead aspects of the desert – anything that thrives there has to adapt radically, much as those living in my city (which is quarantined) do.
        I just found it simultaneously annoying and amusing that I had so ingrained “dark and stormy is dramatic and tense” to the point I ignored my own worldbuilding.

  3. Brigitta M.

    I definitely love playing with appearance cliches.
    In one of my stories, the Big Bad is a 5’2″ petite blonde serial killer who ticks all the boxes when it comes to being “socially acceptable” while her brother is modeled after Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers (Halloween, not Austin Powers that is) in appearance as well as being mute and severely dyslexic. He’s smart as a whip though and over the course of the story ends up learning sign language to finally let his signing teacher…and then the cops in on what his older sis has been up to.
    Another one I like messing with is the daylight/darkness thing.
    So many zombie stories *cough* Walking Dead *cough* talk about how the undead are more active at night. This never made any sense to me outside of “budgeting concerns” for movies and so forth, so my undead are often unstoppably relentless regardless of the time of day or night.
    I’ve also had vampires that are daywalkers and a ghost story that has the climax start at dawn.
    Sex, well, I usually focus on a single couple in that regard. Older ones too (40s or thereabouts) and while the ghost in the aforementioned story has definitely done some uh…interruptus, at that point it’s just another dang thing this pesky spirit is interfering with as opposed to punishing the characters for. All things considered I’m surprised she hasn’t as both the ghost and the FMC have a troubled past in this area… but what the ghost wants in the end doesn’t tie into it, so it doesn’t make sense to do so. *shrugs*

  4. Krssven

    [Anyone who has sex in a horror movie, especially if they’re female, is going to die. This cliche is done to death, but it’s insidious. In every medium, we see stories that punish characters for being sexually active. Look no further than Cordelia’s mystical pregnancies* on Angel for an example from what’s ostensibly a progressive show.]

    No, not having that. Angel and it’s parent show were incredibly subversive of horror cliche. in ‘Expecting’ the subversion is not that something bad happens to Cordelia or that she is expecting demon children. It’s that she is becoming just as bad as the demons because they’re gestating inside her. It’s also a subversion because the ‘father’ was as much a puppet as the mother – the Haxil Beast uses and discards both, though it tends to cultivate the men because the mothers die during the birth. So it took a standard genre cliche (girl has sex, she dies because it’s BAD!) and subverted it (girl has sex, she almost dies because she was intentionally targeted as a host).

    Her second mystical pregnancy is also not a cliche. The creature possessing Cordelia intended all along to get her pregnant, so it could create a body for itself to use on Earth. Having sex was in fact the one part of its plan (along with who the father needed to be) that it needed to do in order to build that body. It was also treated as an unrelated event to the main apocalyptic plot going on (that it also orchestrated), its importance hidden by the apparent weight of everything else that was going on at the time, like the Beast’s fiery rain.

    • bobkat

      The problem was the supposed death (which the comics alter subverted) was itself pointless. *Every* single thing Cordelia’s return accomplished was set and sealed before the final scene; she could have just as easily walked off and advised Angel TPTB have a new task for her and he is not to try to find her. But Whedon had apparently forgotten how to resolve plot points without killing important characters..

  5. Devlin Blake

    I don’t’ think it’s fair to hold out Lovecraft or Monkey’s Paw as ‘bad examples’. Yes, they’d be bad TODAY. But they weren’t written today, and that matters. At the time they were written it was perfectly acceptable. (which is why I caution writers against relying on any book over 30 years old as an example of ‘great writing.’

    There are two kinds of isolation, physical, and social. True, much horror relies on psychical (The cell phone dies, The car breaks. Look, an isolated farmhouse) Social isolation is where you’re surrounded by people and no one will (or can,) help you. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a great example of this.

    It’s hard to create fear in the light. But it CAN be done. Insomnia springs to mind.

  6. SunlessNick

    The film Fallen is a good example of both isolation and its subversion. A possessing demon that can pass easily from one host to another – fighting it is impossible if anyone else is around, and escaping it isn’t much easier. An especially creepy scene is a conversation between the protagonist and demon where every one of the demon’s lines comes from the mouth of a different passerby.

  7. James

    In 5 you complain about them killing anyone who has sex in a horror movie, but this isn’t wholly true. Any men who are virgins (or gay and uninterested in women) are just as likely to die as slutty women, perpetuating a double standard.

    • Cay Reet

      In the classic slasher movie, any kind of drug use, alcohol abuse, or sexual behaviour would be deadly, for men as much as for women. It is ingrained so much into the genre that they could actually make fun of it and still use it in the Scream series.

  8. Tony

    One good subversion of the “things that look weird are bad” trope is “They Look Just Like Everyone Else” (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheyLookJustLikeEveryoneElse). Creepy characters are often even creepier if you can’t pick them out in a crowd. Think Robert Patrick as the T-1000, Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren.

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy.