October is here, and it’s time to talk horror. For some reason, the horror genre is rife with trite stories and concepts. More than most other genres of fiction, horror is bursting at the seams with copycats, playing follow the leader and counterintuitively playing it safe. Hollywood has a few premises that it likes to employ for horror films, and a few story elements that are interchangeable with those premises. I am certain that you have already started making a list in your head of the various overdone premises and stories in this genre. I am also well aware that I am not the first person on the internet to talk about the repetitive problems with this genre in film, but I feel as long as filmmakers and studios keep repeating the same genre cliches, we as the audience should keep repeating our displeasure with the tropes. So, the following is unnumbered and unranked things that I wish to no longer see in the horror genre.
Rules & The Exposition Dump
A primary tenant of storytelling is that stories need to have rules and operate on a consistent internal logic, with only a few exceptions. What is often forgotten from this tenant is that the author/creator needs to know and understand the rules and logic of the story, but the audience may not. This is especially true of horror, which thrives on the unknown and unfamiliar. However, so many horror films go to great lengths to explain the rules for their monsters and ghosts. How they operate, and what he protagonists need to do to stop them are all carefully explained in the film by a library book, internet search, or some expert character. Even in stories outside this genre this is bad writing and worse filmmaking. Another of the primary tenants of storytelling is the widely known and oft repeated “show don’t tell.” If you have a character or scene in your horror story whose sole purpose is to tell the main characters and audience all about the horror element, remove it. You do not need that scene or character.
The rules are important for building the story, but just telling the audience what they are is lazy and boring. Demonstrate the internal logic of the narrative through the characters’ actions and inactions. What the monster does and doesn’t do can communicate plenty to the audience, and the same goes for the characters. Furthermore, just relying on show instead of tell can create ambiguity and mystery, two elements that are perfect for horror. Seeing an action performed does not necessarily carry with it the context or motive for that action. If executed well, this heightens the tension because the audience is learning the rules along with the characters, and removing any defined explanations will keep the audience coming back to the film time and again, putting together the pieces of the puzzle.
For example, the Babadook does not explain what the creature is, but it presents enough information through its visuals, which includes shots and performances, that the audience can come to a reasonable estimation by putting in a bit of thought. Studios are terrified of the concept, but never be afraid to make the audience think, especially in the horror genre. The mind and imagination of the individual will do most of the work, if the filmmaker has created an intriguing film for them to watch.
Stop Following the Leader
No matter how much we all wish it was, no film or story is created and released into a vacuum. Once finished, it will be released into a world that already has hundreds of horror films, both past and present. Filmmakers would do well to be familiar with all of it, but as least look at what is popular in the genre then do something else. Familiarity, does not breed scares. It breeds contempt, which will not endear the audience to the film. A family moving to a new house, a creepy hospital, asylum, or hotel, and teenagers going anywhere to do anything have all been done a thousand times. In fact, the careful observer can usually map out the general plot within the first few minutes of a horror film that opens with any of the premises. Familiarity, in addition to breeding contempt, also breeds predictability. How can a film be scary if we can sing along to its tune?
The phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun” does not end with “so why bother trying,” but that seems to be the studio mandate. A big part of the reason that the horror genre, in film, repeats itself so frequently is that the film studios funding the projects are afraid of losing any potential profits. As such, they commission scripts, or rework already written ones and furnish the filmmakers with a checklist of elements form other successful horror movies, regardless of any external contexts, like execution of those elements or the box office landscape at the time.
Unfortunately, I do not possess a solution for these studios more reasonable than, “get over it and roll the dice.” Instead, I will leave it at the following: theoretically, horror is an important genre in fiction, as it can make us confront aspects of ourselves and the world around that we’d rather forget all within the relative safety of fiction. If you want good horror films that will make a profit, hire writers and filmmakers that understand atmosphere and visual storytelling, then let them do the job for which you hired them. Do no force them to inject the popular trends of the moment into their films because the movie and your profits will suffer for it. At least I’d like it to. I’ve always been an idealist.
Horror filmmakers don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every film, but thinking outside the box would certainly benefit the film. Starting from what’s popular is not inherently a bad idea, as long as the filmmakers divert from those elements, but “people like (story type), let’s do that” is the wrong motive for any form of creation. Tell the story you want to tell, and if you tell it well it will sell.
If it doesn’t, I guess that makes movie going audiences the real monsters, huh?