Cliches, Horror Writing

Horror Cliches


Today I want to talk with you about something that drives me crazy.

A cliché is an idea, form of expression, or element that has become overused to where it has lost nearly all meaning. It has become irritating, or amusing, especially when, at its original conception, it was novel or meaningful. Certain clichés can still work when done well or twisted in an original (ish) way, but many are so overdone that getting them to work originally is very difficult, if not impossible. 

Every genre has clichés, every medium has them, and every form of art and expression has them. The horror genre is no exception and as an avid consumer of horror, in its many mediums, I have become accustomed to certain clichés out there. 

Over the Christmas period, I had a whole eight days away from my day job and a large portion of that time was spent watching movies, reading a collection of short stories (people always know what I want for Christmas) and playing part of the way through a certain creepy game franchise. This means that I was exposed me to a multitude of clichés and today I want to talk about six that I find particularly irritating.

Overused creepy locations

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Locations are perhaps the most obvious clichés in horror, so many films, games, stories (either audio or written) are set in abandoned hospitals (bonus points if it’s a mental health hospital), creepy woods (a novel I’m working on is set in the woods, go figure), old houses or an abandoned mine or warehouse.

I would like to see a creepy horror story set in an original location, a park maybe, or a zoo, how about a modern apartment building (it won’t count if it’s built on cursed land). I know stories like this exist, and I wish there were more. I’m also aware of the limitations of horror. There has to be a reason something is creepy, and the location is as good a reason for some types of creepy.

I’m not saying these locations are bad or that you cannot set good horror stories in these places, I mentioned above that I’m writing a novel set in a forest. I enjoy creepy forest stories (I strongly recommend We’re Always on the Air on YouTube; it is an awesome series) even though it is a cliché setting. But it’s so overdone, the mental hospital and the old house, in particular, drive me nuts.

One day I’d like to see something set in a puppy adoption centre or some such just to be different.

Clumsy Protagonists 

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Ok, this one is mostly in movies, at least I notice it more in movies. But do so many protagonists need to fall over so much? Or drop something at a critical quiet moment?

I know there needs to be an element of vulnerability to the principal character for the audience to feel the empathic fear. A good example of this failing is Batman Arkham Asylum, it’s a great game, but it irritates me when people describe it as a horror game due to the fact your Batman and how can anyone feel vulnerable or afraid being Batman? 

But do we need our chief characters to be clumsy, to feel vulnerable? Can’t we have a more emotional vulnerability? Or beef up our antagonists a bit?

I can’t be the only person who’s sick of watching people fall over when being pursued or making a racket accidentally when hiding. 

Pointless Jump Scares 

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I love horror for those tense moments. Those times when you can feel the tension tangibly rising and it reaches its peak and… oh wait it just a kitty.

I’ve noticed this being used across all mediums and it makes me want to scream. If you’re going to raise tension and have that work, then you need to have a satisfying payoff. If you don’t have a satisfying payoff then your audience is going to feel cheated and then next time when you try and raise the tension they will not engage. 

This always feels like the writer or director, is cheating the audience. It puts me in mind of those scenarios when you’re invested in a storyline that turns out to be a dream or a coma hallucination, etc. I watched a certain film (which shall remain nameless) recently and it held me two-thirds of the way through then dropped me like a brick as I figured out this was all a dream in the protagonist’s head because he was in a damn coma. It removed all consequences for everything I had previously seen. Again, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for these kinds of stories, they work remarkably well as character studies.

But fake jump scares irritate me for similar reasons as “it was all a dream” cop-outs. As I said above for tension to work there needs to be a payoff. 

That being said the pay off does not have to be immediate. I’ve seen films etc where the tension is raised then dropped when the threat turns out to be nothing, only for the protagonist to turn and the real threat is there. Those subversions of expectation work well because the pay off is still there, it’s not what you were expecting but there was a very real very quickly provided pay off.  

Creepy kids

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Creepy kids, who doesn’t love a creepy kid? Me, that’s who.

I love horror for its subversion of expectations. Taking something that is universally seen as one thing and turning it on its head. Unfortunately, this subversion can still be overdone, and the horror genre loves to subvert children. Children are innocent and vulnerable, but horror genre turns them on their head and suddenly their evil and a genuine threat. This is a cool concept, but as I said it has been done to death now, to the point where it feels more subversive to have a nice kid in a horror film. 

Leave kids alone and start subverting something else.

When I see a kid in a horror film, I immediately know there’s an 80% chance the kid is evil or possessed, or something terrible disguised as a kid. It’s like creepy dolls, the minute you see a doll in a horror film or book you know that damn thing is going to come to life at some point and kill someone. Either that or it’s a vessel for a demon or some such.

Like before I will not say this can never be done right, there are classics which have done it well (They did it well because it was still fairly new at the time and they were breaking new ground). There are some modern stories where children are used well, Orphan was a new-ish (or at least less common) take.

The Expert 

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This is slightly less overdone, but only slightly.

That being the expert, well not so much the expert himself, a talking head aka something there to explain to the audience what is going on; but rather the expert fleeing because things are so intense! Or dying suddenly.

I don’t mind experts, I can see their purpose and usually am quite pleased when they turn up as it means things are going to get explained to an extent. Sometimes it’s sad to see the mystery sucked out but often I enjoy understanding what’s happening.

But I hate it when an expert is called and then legs it or gets instantly killed.

As before I think I have an understanding of why this is done, to big up the threat. It’s an opportunity to show how terrifying the threat is, by having even the best in the business be afraid to confront them. But this only works if we have an idea of how awesome the expert is. If we see the expert being a badass expert, then this can occasionally be a good way to build up your threat. 

I remember seeing this in Paranormal Activity, where the expert barely stepped foot in the house before running away in fear. However, the expert hadn’t been established as an expert beyond the main character saying “oh this chap is an expert” we had no context and so the attempt failed. I’ve seen this done over and over again and it is getting boring. 

Kill me before I turn

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Right, last one.

I hate the whole “Kill me before I turn” nonsense. It’s commonly seen in zombie or werewolf situations. When someone, usually a love interest (not always sexual love, but can be paternal love etc) is bitten or infected and has to be killed to stop them from becoming a monster.

I’m so fed up with this, it goes on too long and I hate it.

Once again though there are expectations, we can do it right when the character relationship has been done right. If there’s a genuine connection with the characters, then this can be a tragic moment. But these are few and I’m happier when they don’t exist at all or if they have to exist are dealt with fast.

Maybe I’m heartless? Who knows?

In the alternative, I am also fed up of seeing the opposite happening, where someone is bitten or infected and hides it. We know what’s going to happen, we know they are going to turn and then they will have to be put down, maybe they’ll take out another minor character with them, maybe they won’t. Either way, it’s overdone and tedious. 

Those are my six top clichés in horror movies. As said above I know there are lots more but those are my pet peeves and can turn me off a story very quickly. 

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Perhaps there’s a worse cliché out there or you think I’m being too harsh on one of the above? Maybe you hate these just as much as I do! 

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