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 clichés will make your story more horrific in the right way.
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 cliché 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.
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 cliché 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 cliché 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 cliché 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.
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 cliché 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 cliché 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.
Anyone who has sex in a horror movie, especially if they’re female, is going to die. This cliché 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 cliché, 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 clichés are harmful, the fact that they’re clichés is enough to ditch them. Audiences are more terrified when they don’t know what’s going to happen next.
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