Cliches, Horror Writing

Cliches: Cursed Items

Beware the Junk Sale!

Today I am writing to you to talk about cliches and curses. Or rather cursed cliches. Ha ha. Sorry, I’ll behave.

As always, I like to start by confirming the definition of cliché in this context. A cliché is a plot device, character stereotype, or idea that is extremely overused and betrays a lack of original thought. Cliches are predictable and often boring, though they can be used to communicate a lot of information to the audience in very few words. Because of this they can work in some, very restrictive, places. For example, a low-key minor character, you can use a cliché and immediately your audience knows who this person is and what they are about without you having to spend a lot of time on them when ultimately, they are minor in nature.

Cliches can also work in subversion, meaning you set something up to be a cliché but turn it on its head, thus subverting the audience expectation. This isn’t always easy to do, but when done well can be very effective (which also means when it fails it leaves audiences rolling their eyes).

So, in a nutshell, cliches can serve a purpose, be it to explain or subvert, but should be used very sparingly and/or very well.

Today I am writing to you to talk about the cursed item cliché.

Cursed items are a cliché in and of themselves, but even among the tropes, there are a few that are, in my humble opinion, extra tropey.

The Haunted/Cursed Doll

Do I really need to say anything here? I mean, obviously, I’m going to, but do I need to? Probably not.

The haunted doll has been seen in horror fiction for decades and for good reason, it’s a bloody effective tool and initially ticked a lot of boxes.

It easily ticked the subverting expectations box, as a doll is something we give to children to make them happy, and help with their emotional well-being and development. They are often small and seen as something nostalgic from childhood. So take that and turn it into something genuinely threatening and hell yeah, you got yourself a good horror plot device.

The haunted doll also worked as it played into our fear of isolation and madness, no one was ever going to believe that a little doll could hurt or kill people and if you did then you’d better be getting your sanity checked.

Add to all that a warped but human-ish face to emote malevolence and boom. Success.

So yeah, cursed dolls were a win, the first few times.

But these days not only are they overdone to all hell, but they have fallen into the trap of, ‘if I’ve got too long to think about this I’m going to realise how flawed it is’.

Suspending belief long enough to accept a cursed doll could move and have malicious intent, how the hell would it kill people? Realistically? Something that small might be able to injure you if it caught you by surprise or in a vulnerable situation where movement wasn’t an option. But really, what’s to stop me just picking the little asshole up, or if I’m not comfortable doing that then one good punt and dolly is too far away to hurt me.

Dolls just aren’t that threatening when you think about it, an overexposure to this trope makes us think about it.


This one has been overdone to the point where it was a Disney Cliché in 1993.

Cursed books worked as an easy way to give your characters forbidden knowledge. They work as a McGuffin effectively, being both the cause and solution to the plot. They are low effort having to motivation of their own, usually, sometimes a book can have a malevolent spirit attached to it, hence the curse. But usually, it’s just a book.

There’s part of me that wonders if this trope came from the idea that knowledge was scary, so books are something to be feared, but I’m not sure, I might just be looking for correlation where there isn’t any. But yet, my mind can’t help but throw up images of book burnings and books being outlawed when I think of this trope.

But getting away from anything particularly political, ever since the days of the Necronomicon the idea of the cursed book has been a staple in the horror genre.

It’s just gotten a tad boring now, to the point where it feels like the writer/creator just couldn’t think of a way to either get the plot rolling or getting it wrapped up.

Try harder please.

Anything from a junk sale

Now this is more a location than any particular item.

The number of films, books, games etc which start off with an innocent combing a Junk Store/Yard Sale/Car Boot Sale etc only to find something truly harrowing is … well it’s a lot.

The items themselves can range, I’ve seen lockets, mirrors, boxes as well as the above-mentioned books and dolls. But it’s always the same kind of location, bonus points if the previous owner is either a creepy old person, or has just died.

It always makes me question:

  1. Who would by something from someone so obviously creepy – it’s not an appearance thing it’s a mannerisms thing.
  2. Why was Creepy McGee able to hold onto the cursed item for so long without incident to hand it off to the Protagonist?
  3. What kind of ass sells a cursed item? Creepy McGee that’s who.

I’d be perfectly happy if I never saw another one of these locations ever again.

Bonus points if the Protagonist tries to go back to the seller, be it shop, house or car, only to find that they either, never existed or have done a runner.

That being said, this one isn’t always dreadful, Needful Things by Stephen King is a great story built around a store selling cursed items, but it works because its more of a study of human nature and the lengths we will go to in order to obtain something we think we want, as opposed to a story about a creepy cursed shop.

It was also done well for giggle in a season 2 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when the group went to a new costume shop that just opened only to find they turned into their costumes after buying them. I think this one worked for a few reasons, firstly it was a campy show that didn’t take itself to seriously (in the early seasons), secondly the shop itself wasn’t creepy, and Creepy McGee was a charming dude.

As with a lot of Cliches, this one feels like the writer/creator simply couldn’t be bothered to find a unique way to get the protagonist and the cursed item together. Coupled with a lack of respect for your audience, no one would buy things for a filthy, creepy ass place from Creepy McGee.

Do you have any cursed item Cliches you enjoy, any you love, any you love to hate? Do share 🙂

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

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