The Most Fallacious Horror Tropes (October Special #3)

Though Horror is a genre I deeply adore, there are a depressing number of deeply irritating tropes that I feel an overwhelming compulsion to complain about as much as I possibly can.

First off, my most hated cliché in the entire genre: Chainsaws.  Popularized by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie series, chainsaws have become commonplace in Horror movies. The problem with this is that chainsaws have been overdone, and they’re just boring by now. They were never any scarier than any other melee weapon, and their rampant overuse has done nothing but cause annoyance at their inclusion.

Next, blinding darkness. Darkness is perfectly fine in moderation, but there’s a very fine line between eerie shadows and vision-obscuring blackness. While the former works well in many circumstances, the latter works so rarely that it shouldn’t really be used.

Next, jump scares. This might be the single most overused element in any Horror production. The value of a jump scare is that it can accentuate an already eerie sequence with a viscerally shocking payoff. However, it cannot carry a scene on its own, and it requires intense buildup, the kind of buildup a hack Horror creator doesn’t bother with. Jumpscares without buildup are like punchlines without setup: boring.

Next is the other most overused trope in Horror: Overexposure to a monster. When you show a monster to your audience, the reaction you want is most assuredly not: “oh, fuck off”. However, this WILL be an audience’s reaction if you showcase a monster too much. Familiarity breeds contempt, and there’s no better example than the Horror genre. This trope is more common in video games, where the popularity of games like Slender has spawned a tidal wave of horrible rip-offs. And it’s SO. UNBELIEVABLY. BORING. However, a lazy Horror creator will try and avoid this by obscuring it with terrible methods, such as excessive darkness or shaky cam.

Next, there’s shaky cam. A very common and lazy way to avoid the previous trope I talked about, shaky cam involves a director obscuring the physical appearance of their monster by vibrating the camera so much that the audience gets migraines and loses the ability to see properly. If I have to explain to you EXACTLY why this is terrible, you have no business ever going into filmmaking, animation, or anything like that.

Next is one of the most egregious tropes ever spawned: assaulting your audience with vast quantities of NOTHING. While good Horror is slow in pace, it’s a mark of truly awful horror that the story begins with absolutely nothing happening. It’s absolutely vital to set up enough material for suspense before slowing the pace, or else the story will be absolutely boring to EVERYONE.

We continue on to the final mistake: Plot U-Turns. This is a problem in many genres, but Horror often suffers the most. The nature of a plot twist is that it’s subtly foreshadowed, yet that foreshadowing can be explained by alternative explanation, at least until the twist is formally revealed. The best plot twists go against what the audience is assuming, and explains events that the audience would normally assume had an alternate cause and meaning. For instance, the best plot twist ever: The Sixth Sense. Early on in the film, we learn that Bruce Willis’ wife is ignoring him, and she’s shown to be taking anti-depressants and dealing with some guy. The obvious audience assumption is that she’s having an affair, until the twist reveal at the end. Since the film deals with dead people, the final twist is that Bruce Willis is actually dead, he just didn’t know about it. What makes this twist work so well is that the audience both did and didn’t expect it. The clues to it were all there, it fits with the premise, and a shrewd viewer could notice it. However, the average viewer instead assumes the more likely explanation that Shyamalan presents, just because it fits in better with what they expect. Thus, to the unprepared viewer, the twist is a colossal shock, and thus is effective. Far too often, we get terrible plot twists in one of three ways. The first way is to not foreshadow the twist at all, or foreshadow it so little that no reasonable audience member could understand how it ties into the narrative. A variant of this mistake is to foreshadow it using “signs” that actually have very little to do with the twist, which is of course irritating. The second is to foreshadow it too much or too blatantly, so that absolutely everyone knows it’s going to happen long before it happens. This kills the surprise of the twist, so it might as well not have happened. Foreshadowing a twist doesn’t mean foreshadowing what that twist is down to the most minute detail, it just means foreshadowing the general idea of the twist, as I’ll discuss in my October finale. The third way is if the twist doesn’t particularly fit the premise. Imagine for a minute a version of Silent Hill where it turns out Harry was dead from the beginning, and the whole campaign was him going through purgatory. The problem with this being a twist is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the game, and there’s no reason for it to be there. If there’s going to be a plot twist, it needs to make sense within the given information, as well as the overall premise and tone of the series.

Thus, I have crucified seven awful Horror tropes, and hopefully my readers have learned what to avoid in their Horror stories. Join me next time when I conclude my October Specials series with a deep analysis of what I consider the greatest Horror story of all time, or at least what I’ve read of it.

Advertisement

The Lords of Horror (October Special #1)

October is a month often dedicated to Horror, a genre which holds no small amount of love from yours truly. However, the genre I love has been besieged by a ton of truly horrible works, and the insidious effects of these dreadful creations have the potential to poison the genre I hold so dearly. To counteract this, I’ll be kicking off my series of Horror analysis with a discussion on the masters of creating fear, and why their attempts work so well. Let’s begin, shall we?

First off, the literary world, beginning in America. The genre of Horror is sadly neglected in comparison to many others, but the genre has been effectively defined by Stephen King. King’s work varies from mildly unsettling (with works like It or Under The Dome) to internally disturbing (with the best examples being the likes of Pet Sematary or Misery). However, the defining work for me is Carrie. While it’s rather rough around the edges, it’s still a deeply disturbing commentary on the cruelty of teenagers (though I’ll address a book that does that type of message better a bit later). The three stories told each offer a different type of atmosphere, and that tonal shift works brilliantly in the favor of the story. The Tale of Carrie herself is a tragic narrative about a girl who’s relentlessly bullied by her peers for the slightest of differences, all while being abused by her religiously-fanaticized mother. Margaret White in particular is unsettling, with her weird religious obsession causing her to do some really unnerving stuff, particularly when she tries to murder Carrie with a butcher knife. The Tale of Sue Snell tells a completely different story, this time about a conscientious objector who recognizes their own failures and tries to atone for it in an albeit unusual way. Sue’s character arc is rather short, with her realizing her errors very quickly and trying to change the course of Prom Night within the first quarter of the story. The remainder of her story centers around the possible ramifications of her actions, and she’s the only one of the three main characters to survive the story. Third and last is the Tale of Christine Hargensen, perhaps the most disturbing of the three. Chris is the most popular girl in the entire school, and easily the cruelest. Spearheading most of the bullying against Carrie, Chris spends her story arc using her delinquent boyfriend to try and punish Carrie as much as she possibly can, in a horribly ironic fashion. All three of these stories come to a head in Part II: Prom Night. The Prom Night portion of Carrie is the stuff of legend by now, and it’s an extremely thrilling climax. Chris pouts the last stage of her plan into action, and douses Carrie in blood that she’d rigged over the stage where the Prom King and Queen would be sitting. In an instant, everything flips on its head, and Carrie goes berserk. She locks the doors and sets the entire school on fire, trapping all her classmates inside. She then goes on a rampage throughout the town, destroying buildings that she had strong connections to. In the process, she also murders her psychotic mother, who’d been trying to kill her with a butcher knife. Carrie then dies from overexerting her telekinetic abilities, though not before Sue Snell finds her and is forgiven at the 11th hour. What makes this book so good as a horror story is primarily the first half. The three stories flawlessly build up to the start of the second half, and the audience can immediately recognize the ramifications of the many choices taken by the characters, even without reading the various article clippings strewn throughout the book. Then Prom Night occurs, and it’s a phenomenal payoff. Thus, Carrie joins the hall of fame as a marvelous horror story.

I’ll revisit the world of books later, but I’d like to stay on this side of the pond for as long as I can. Next up, we have Hollywood and the world of movies. Sadly, most American horror movies are absolute garbage, as they’re all cheaply made jump scare compilations that can’t understand what truly frightens an audience. However, there was one horror movie that I remember with fondness above all others: The Ring. Though a remake of a Japanese movie, which I haven’t seen, I still qualify The Ring as an American movie, as it very clearly carries the Hollywood style. The concept is both cliché, and yet still interesting. There’s a cursed VHS tape (the things one sees in early 2000’s movies) that kills anyone who sees it seven days after watching it. While the concept isn’t particularly original, the execution is far better than I had expected. First things first, there’s almost no jump scares. There are so few that I could count all of them on one hand. I cannot begin to compliment the movie enough for not only the restraint it shows on adding jump scares, but also the skill it uses to place those jump scares. The first one that appears in the film is about 5 minutes in. Up until that point, the existence of the tape has been mentioned, one of the characters has admitted to watching it, and weird events are beginning to happen. Before the jump scare itself, the film adds a full 15 to 20 seconds of the character walking towards a door, a door with a puddle spreading out from under it. SHe slowly grabs the dripping handle, then opens the door, and then there’s an extremely quick jump scare that’s rather difficult to make sense of. Similar jump scares include one in a dream sequence (with the ghost sitting in a chair) and one in a house with a television playing (there’s no sound used and the only indication is a lighthouse). However, the most famous moment from The Ring is the finale. The secondary protagonist is sitting in his apartment, when his television turns on. The ghost slowly rises out of the well displayed on screen, and starts walking towards the proverbial camera. She then crawls out of his television and proceeds to murder him. Honestly, this was a point where the film dropped the ball. The ghost’s face is shown in full, and her makeup is awful. It looks so ridiculous that I burst out laughing when I first saw it. Aside from that rather immersion-shattering detail, the film is excellently done, with a slow pace and great atmosphere. The backstory to the ghost is interesting, the tension is handled brilliantly, and overall the film is more than worthy of praise as an excellent horror movie.

Next is the world of Video Games. If I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t play very many horror video games, but in my experience, there are two that stand out as phenomenal: Silent Hill 3 and Alien Isolation. While Silent Hill 2 gets more appreciation than Silent Hill 3 does, 3 will always be the more disturbing one in my opinion. I’ll do a full analysis of that one later, but here’s the basic synopsis: the player controls a girl first seen at the end of the original Silent Hill, with the conflict centering around the cult from the first game trying to resurrect their god. That premise alone should be enough to explain what the game is like. Alien Isolation is an entirely different type of horror, though still extremely effective. A common concept in horror games is the “stalker”, an unstoppable force that chases the player throughout the duration of the game. Popularized by games like Slender, the notion of a Stalker in a horror game is admittedly an interesting one. Enter Alien Isolation, a game that takes the concept of a Stalker and revolutionizes it. In the game, the player is pursued by one Xenomorph, which has a ton of advantages over the player. It’s completely invulnerable, it’s much faster than the player, it’s attack is instant death, and most importantly, it’s extremely clever. The only way to avoid it is by hiding in various places, including lockers, air ducts, under desks, etc. This ratchets up the tension to spacefaring distances, with the primary goal being to outwit a creature that’s almost certainly smarter than the player is. The story in Alien Isolation is honestly weak, but the fear is maintained because of the capabilities of the Xenomorph.

If Horror is neglected in American literature, then it’s nigh on nonexistent in the realm of anime. However, there are two examples I fondly recall when it comes to anime. Unlike some more pretentious Horror fans, an unnerving atmosphere isn’t the only element to induce fear in me. Excellent visuals and sound design can work wonders in bringing terror into an audience. And nothing exemplifies this better than Corpse Party: Tortured Souls. Corpse Party is based off a video game of the same name, and was released directly to video in 2013. Corpse Party is filled to the brim with blood and gore, and may be the single most disturbed work of fiction in the entire genre. The visual elements of Corpse Party are merely decent, but it truly shines in the element of sound design. Various characters are murdered in horrific fashion, but their deaths, while horrific, wouldn’t have half the effect without the phenomenal sound design. The Voice Actors involved managed to emit the most bloodcurdling screams of pain and fear I’ve ever heard, and they deserve to be commended for their phenomenal performances. The other anime which masters Horror is Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni, based on a series of novels from the ever-masterful Ryukishi07. Much like Corpse Party, Higurashi masters the element of fear through sound design, though in a very different way. Rather than chilling screams of pain and fear, the strongest area of Higurashi’s sound design is the voices of madness. The rules of Higurashi cause at least one character to lose their mind every story arc, which spans until everyone dies a few episodes later, then repeats with a different character. And all the voice actors turn in phenomenal performances for their insane characters. Mai Nakahara’s performance as Rena is perhaps the most commendable performance in anime history, swapping between soft and sweet, tragic and depressed, and just plain psychotic. However, the award for the latter category belongs to Satsuki Yukino for her deliciously insane performance as Mion and Shion Sonozaki. I’ve heard many variations of psychotic laughter in my time, but Yukino’s is by far the best. It sends chills up my spine every time I hear it. Beyond that, Higurashi still manages to keep a suspenseful and intimidating atmosphere throughout, with an unnerving mystery, disturbing portrayals of madness, unreliable narration making the audience question what is and isn’t real, and enough blood to paint New York red three times over.

 

Finally, we arrive at the literary world of Japan. J-Horror is, quite honestly, superior to American Horror. If nothing else, it’s far more creative and disturbing in both premise and practice. At the very top of that pyramid sits Ryukishi07, the greatest writer of all time. I hold a colossal amount of respect and adoration for his work (there’s a reason I dress up as a parody of Meta God Black Battler every Halloween), and there’s plenty to choose from in terms of creating fear. From the storyline and bloody climaxes of Higurashi to the eldritch faces of Umineko to my personal choice of his most disturbing work: Higanbana No Saku Yoru Ni. I’ll be delving further into that for the finale of my October specials, but here’s the basics: Higanbana is a collection of short stories, of which I’ve read three, about the abnormal happenings of one Japanese high school. It mostly centers around Higanbana, third-ranked among the school’s unusual beings. She possesses a Western doll mounted in the nurse’s office (the most unnerving doll I’ve ever seen), and constantly causes disturbing mischief with the students. The first story is simply called “Mesomeso-san”, and centers around Marie Moriya. Marie is a downtrodden student, relentlessly bullied by all her peers, who falls victim to abuse from a teacher. The first chapter opens with her being strangled to death, then it proceeds to explain how everything ended up so tragically. The second story, “The Haunted Camera”, revolves around a boy named Takeshi Nonomiya, who’s a member of the Newspaper club, and his unusual experience with a camera that shows things that shouldn’t be there. Of the three tales, this one is by far the most unnerving, with a downright horrifying twist ending that impresses even the most cynical horror fan. The third story, “The Princess’ Lie”, revolves around Midori Kusunoki, a rich and prideful girl who longs to be a princess, but is treated like dirt by her classmates. She then strikes a deal with a being known as “The Black Tea Gentleman” to make her dream come true. This one offers an amusing reference to When They Cry (also by Ryukishi07), in that the play Midori is trying out for is basically Umineko, and she’s trying out for the role of Beatrice. This is the only one of the three stories I haven’t finished, because I can’t find the ending anywhere, but I’m sure there’s a cruel twist somewhere.

There you have it, my favorite examples of the Horror genre in every medium I can think of. Thus concludes my first October Special, be sure to continue turning in to see more.