If you think you can hear someone prowling around in the dark outside, for God’s sake, don’t go and investigate, stay here and read this handy guide to the biggest horror movie cliches instead.
Horror films need cliches like red roses need the rain and a poet needs the pain. You may think it’s the unexpected and unexplainable that puts the horror in the movie, but if vampires weren’t strangely charismatic blood drinkers, killers didn’t come back to life, boogeymen didn’t terrorize the babysitter, women didn’t constantly take showers, and zombies weren’t driven by an insatiable and mindless appetite, then the horror genre would fall flat on its face.
Before you run away and stumble at the last minute, come take our hand as we calmly lead you into our dimly-lit basement room to take a behind the scenes look at some of the biggest and most successful horror movie cliches in the business. Just be careful not to fall asleep.
Children who are evil
Horror filmmakers love to take the popular public conception of children as the very embodiment of everything angelic, innocent, and pure and smash it into a million and one jagged little pieces. There’s something very sinister and unsettling about a small child who reeks of evil because it is the ultimate form of corruption. Who can ever forget the revolving, obscenity spitting head of Regan in The Exorcist or the bug-eyed, pale-faced, Damian in The Omen? Admittedly, he is supposed to be the son of Satan, but even if he wasn’t, this little trike-riding scamp would make you nervous in his presence. In Japan, creepy little girls with strange eyes who come back from the dead are almost a film genre in their own right.
Moving into a new house
Whenever a happy family or loving couple moves into a new house, flat, or apartment at the start of a horror film, you just know it’s going to end badly. In Rosemary’s Baby, for example, a woman and her husband move into a New York apartment block to start a family, only for the woman to end up being raped by the devil and giving birth to the anti-christ. In Amityville II, the Montelli family moves into what they believe is the house of their dreams, until their oldest son becomes possessed by demonic forces and kills them all with a shotgun. In the case of The Shining, the family moves into an abandoned hotel before things go pear-shaped and Johnny boy decides it would be a rare old idea to pick up an axe and go crazy.
Location, location, location
It may be nice in the country in real life, but in horror films, it’s the place where inbred, murderous monsters who wear masks and are afraid of their mothers live in basements and bathe in blood. Rural settings are favored in horror movies because, in hillbilly land, there are no pesky neighbors to hear you scream, so the torture sessions can be that much more indulgent and sophisticated. Never trust a farmer in a horror film, especially if he lives in Texas and has a chainsaw-wielding brother who he affectionately refers to as “old leather-face.” When a bunch of merry teens set off on a jolly camping expedition at the start of a film, there’s only ever going to be one outcome.
The self-righteous psychopath
Self-serving psychopaths who see it as their appointed task to teach people the error of their ways with an imaginative array of unholy and vile methods love to pop up and terrorize everyone in horror movies such as Seven and Saw. Because their victims are not usually likable people, the psychopath is given carte blanche to punish with impunity. This cliche works so well because Lucifer, who is traditionally the eternal tormentor and punisher of the damned and forsaken, is an ancestral archetype who stalks everyone’s fears like the common cold.
We all know how women like to keep clean, but if a female goes anywhere near a bar of soap, shower-head, or bath tub in a horror film, we know some sort of savage and sordid slaughter is just around the corner, or as was famously the case in Psycho, just behind the curtains.
The saint and the sinner
Horror films love to round-up a group of teens from all walks of life before systematically and routinely butchering them. In most horror flicks involving groups of teens, there is usually characters along the lines of a spoilt brat, a loner from a troubled home, a promiscuous girl, a joker, a jock, a geek, and a serious and saintly female figure who usually narrowly escapes the bloodbath. Why? Who knows! Perhaps the filmmakers are trying to teach us something about morality, but as sure as eggs are eggs, the lady with the “loose morals” will die quite early on in the film in a horrendous fashion. Just ask Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees.
Things are just not working like they should
The car won’t start, the phone line has gone dead, the door is never locked, you can’t run without falling, and the killer is a cop. Yep! A lot of things conspire to go simultaneously and terribly wrong in horror films as the prey tries to escape from their predator and runs headlong into another well-used and worn-out cliche. But always remember that cliches only become cliches because they’re true, and horror movies will continue to use and love them until hell itself freezes over.
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