Top 10 Terrible Horror Tropes
Ah it’s the Halloween season, which means that we’re going to get the popcorn on. Let’s turn on a movie and… Oh no. Oh dear, oh my. These horror villains are so scary! No, not because they’re shocking, murderous and altogether evil beings. No, they’re so scary because even the most psychopathic of villains succumb to the most terrible of horror tropes, which is what we’re investigating in today’s Top 10!
10) Everything Is Fine, OH MY GOD
When you think you are safest when you think you’ve won, that is when you are at your most vulnerable! There’s always a bigger fish, the killer is never dead the first time you kill him/her, and you can never get away no matter how far you run. For reference, watch the Meg, Sinister… ah screw it, if we keep piling these with examples you’ll be here all day. Watch horror films.
This will pop up most commonly at the end of the film, but more and more we’re seeing a mid-roll freak out moment. While everything is calm, and nothing sinister is going on, that’s when the thing is BEHIND YOU LOOK OUT or it’s somewhere where the camera can see it but you can’t, usually accompanied by a musical sting to remind us – the stupid audience – that we should be scared. It’s nice to know that you’re never safe, not even in broad daylight.
9) It’s The Protagonist’s Fault
We’ve all seen this one at work. Our protagonist gets a strict list of instructions, things like: don’t stay after dark, don’t feed it after midnight, don’t knock twice, don’t smash the glass” and knowing this information and being reminded by a worrisome and nagging sister (always a sister too, is that just me?) our protagonist still does the stupid thing and brings all the evils of the next hour and a half upon their own heads.
I’m also a fan of the “you were warned” approach, where the locals tell the protagonist exact what bad things will happen, and despite the fact that the warnings are outlandish and insane we – the audience – will still tut and say “well, you can’t say you weren’t warned”. These protagonists are often torn down for being too intelligent and too certain of their “science” and “logic” to believe in the mystical or read their horoscopes.
8) Mobile Phones Don’t Work/Exist
It feels like it has taken us a long time to get to the point where films even acknowledge the existence of mobile phones, slightly longer for people to consider calling for help (not from the police or anyone like that of course, usually from a friend, or partner, or parent who will then prove useless and/or die). Slowly we’ve even started to see some actual involvement from mobile phones, but not without caveats.
You see ghosts are weirdly good at interfering with mobile phone signals and draining batteries. We’ve only just gotten our victims good and isolated, gods forbid they have a lifeline in their pockets. Some of the more interesting films have the victims phone altered or possessed in some way so that they end up speaking to the killer, or to illusory voices, but for the most part we’re still pretty bad at acknowledging that these life saving devices even exist past playing candy crush while rolling our eyes at warnings from local hicks about that house.
7) It Isn’t Dead!
The biggest cliché of all horror, arguably. It’s not necessarily a bad cliché occasionally, but a few characters are dreadful for this. I mean we can talk about some of the classics, such as Freddy and Jason, both of whom have died on so many occasions. These terrifying, evil villains who became synonymous with slasher movies, have been killed so many times, it’s questionable if they’re actually effective (okay, yes they are, they’ve both killed *a lot* more than they’ve died).
The point here is that it’s easy to make something more dangerous, just by having them circumvent death. Perhaps it “dies” and then comes back? Perhaps it looks like it’s died, then it just sits up. Thank you to The Undertaker for that famous sit up. Anyway, the point is, it’s a tired and terrible trope that, if you try and do in a modern film, just won’t go down that well. I swear it won’t. Oh god please tell me you won’t applaud that…
Don’t even start getting me counting Ghostface’s deaths.
6) Flickering Lights
From sputtering candles and snuffed out lanterns, to fluorescent flickering and torches with dodgy battery connections… or maybe the batteries are being drained by ghosts? Little bursts of darkness allow adequate cover for a ghost, or a serial killer, or a demon to appear suddenly and without warning… well except for the light flickering, that’s a warning sign for sure.
Actually lights flickering in response to supernatural powers is up there too. You’ve seen it, the little psychic girl screams and all of the lights start flickering then cut to either “Gasp! She is gone!” or darkness and heavy breathing. Let’s add flickering street lights to this entry too, thank gods for poor civic maintenance, otherwise we’d have never noticed that the serial killer was stood in that conspicuous hedge.
5) Abandoned Buildings
When you think about abandoned buildings, they are the perfect setting for horror. They’re typically creepy due to a lack or no electricity, meaning that light sources are scarce. You also rarely know about every nook and cranny, meaning you’re going into the unknown. Around every corner could be another corner, pretty spooky! Joking around aside, the point is that it epitomises the unknown, but someone or something else may know about the interior.
There are other reasons why abandoned buildings are used; they’re decrepit and can be filled with debris. There can be convenient items of doom, such as axes, shotguns and more. But whilst the unknown is certainly a major appeal for abandoned buildings, it’s also been done to death. Sometimes, the known can be way more terrifying than the unknown. Sometimes, the scariest villains are the ones looking right at us.
4) Jumpscare Fakeout
Okay. This one’s gonna be short.
Don’t do this. Jumpscare fakeouts, or when you get jumpscared but it’s not the end or a finality, is annoying. If anything, we’re not actually scared, we’re being jump startled. I’m a fan of it when it’s in the form of a game like Five Nights at Freddy’s, in which you’re made aware from the offset that you’ll be jumped at. So what do we mean by the Jumpscare Fakeout?
Imagine that you’re watching a film and halfway through, there’s a scene where your protagonist is in, say, a library. They pick up a book and find a note; “Don’t look up”. Naturally, the protagonist looks up and nothing’s there. They look back down to the book and suddenly a hand claws up from behind the book. You jump, because you’re startled. You’re not scared. You’re damn startled.
3) Upstairs is safe
One of the biggest bugbears on this list, and of the monkey brain in general. As former tree-dwelling beasties we have an inherent sense that being in a higher place is better, that’s why we tend to build tall defensible buildings and watchtowers, and it’s also why we have a maddening tendency to run upstairs when we’re in danger… upstairs, where we are stuck, because we are usually in buildings with only one flight of stairs, and no other method of escape but jumping out of a window.
Seriously people! Ignore that tree climbing lunacy that’s so deeply embedded into your minds, make for the open spaces and the narrow winding passages that are better suited for getting away from pursuers. Hiding under your beds, in closets, or locking yourself in the bathroom all fall under this category. You are idiots who get yourselves trapped like idiots… you idiots.
2) Musical Sting
We needn’t say too much about this, but all films have their own version of a musical sting. When we think about horror musical stings, the most famous example is of course Psycho. We all go back and think about the shower scene, where the knife comes up from behind the shower curtain. The shrill, sharp sound is a striking, you could even say piercing sound. Indeed, it’s a great representative…
… However, films took it to the extreme. Now, everyone is out there expecting sharks to announce themselves with the typical Jaws “duh dun!” sound. I may be oversimplifying the problem, but you should get the point. You have themes for characters, you have the mysterious thunder sound whenever you see a castle, you get the point. Music is amazing and sometimes makes movies. Other times, it just makes movies more predictable.
1) Spooky Little Girl
Do I even need to write this one?
Juxtaposition exaggerates the nightmarish elements of horror, that’s why so many hauntings are centered around small children. Their delightful innocence and the safety that surrounds childish imagery only serves to intensify the danger. Made popular by Ju On and The Ring, the market is now saturated with spooky little girls, including Alma from F.E.A.R and the beloved Erma comic strip.
You can go back further of course, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Firestarter, and the Shining. It’s actually a hard thing to google now, since “Spooky Little Girl” is now the title of an episode of American Horror Story, the series that literally rifles through the catalogue of horror stories and smashes them together. Hells, it’s a modern cliche that’s so thoroughly infiltrated pop culture that there’s an entire Adventure Time episode on the subject.
Considering how theoretical this list is, it wasn’t terrily hard to come up with two more theoreticals. What we went for with this week’s honourable mentions… Was a more modern interpretation of horror. Whilst both of these entries have existed for a long time, modern films have made these terms way more prevailent.
A few things that are Lovecraftian, that is to say hallmarks of the form of cosmic horror that was made popular by Howard Phillips Lovecraft:
- Intelligent life that exceeds the boundaries of physics, such as those that existed on earth long before any other life, creatures bigger than stars, or that are not bounded by three dimensional space.
- “Otherness” or anything that exists outside of normal, everyday occurrence, and how horrible these things are to behold. Also a bit of racism, let’s not mince words here.
- Hopelessness in the face of overwhelming odds and our insignificance against the vast possibilities of the universe.
- The fragility of the human mind.
Things that are called Lovecraftian but aren’t, more specifically, things ascribed to the oeuvre that can exist without necessarily being Lovecraftian.
- Scary things in the ocean
- Small towns in Massachusetts
I’ll admit to being guilty of this one too! There’s a difference between the nature of Lovecraft’s horror and the aesthetic he employed though. Way too often things are ascribed the moniker without embracing the actual themes involved, and if you’re part of any Lovecraft fan groups, you know as well as I do that arguments around what is and is not “Lovecraftian” can go on for hours and get as inflamed as… well any nerdy argument.
Mass murder, cannibalism and torture; these are three words that are synonymous with villains. We all know that a true horror villain can be utterly reprehensible, truly vile and abhorrently repulsive. Taking a rather well thought out horror villain, Jigsaw, we end up seeing that this guy is a madman, but in some ways he’s a bit of a genius. All of these puzzles to solve must take ages to come up with; let alone making the damn traps for people to get out of.
But then Jigsaw is truly the definition of a misunderstood villain. If you think about what we learn about Jigsaw, most specifically John Kramer, he’s a man who has endured a lot of hardship. Terminal cancer, a failed marriage and even an attempt at suicide that ended in failure, the man took to take out his frustrations on an even more frustrating world. That doesn’t justify his actions, but now there’s an air of sympathy about him.
Whatever happened to purely brutal and terrifying villains like Norman Bates? Hey, where’s that musical sting coming from..?
I have seen many a horror, but there have been few more horrific than the deadly sins of terrible horror tropes. For every great film, there is usually one of these tropes within them and god damn it, I just want to escape the clichés! Before I get any more wound up by terrible tropes, we’ll deliver a trope of our own by letting you help us make the choice for next week’s Top 10 list… And we’re going to remember, remember, the fifth of…
… November! There, I completed the saying. Anyway, what did you make of our terrible tropes? Did we include all of the worst tropes, or did we forget a really annoying one that gets your goat? Was our order right to put the spooky little girl to the top of the list? Is it done to death? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or on Facebook and Twitter.