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This week I want people to again look at the horror genre. This time instead of trying to define the genre I want to examine common plots and tropes. Take some time to think about it. Then answer the two questions below:
  • What are your favorite horror plots/tropes?
  • What are your least favorite horror plots/tropes?

  • What are your favorite horror plots/tropes? I call this trope “No Safe Haven.” But basically it's a very careful setup where there's really no place to go to get away from the horror, and no matter how you push to try to solve things, it's going to make something worse. I'll give an example from my favorite horror movie, The Thing (the 1982 film, not the 2011 remake). In the movie a shape-shifting alien is killing off people at a research base in Antarctica. The characters in the movie are trapped between problems: If they split up it makes it easier for the Thing to pick off individuals. If they stay together, it could be any one of them and kill one as soon as they turn their back to it. And if it's not one of them it could be sabotaging their ability to continue to survive in Antarctica while the group is elsewhere. Finally, if they try to run the environment itself will kill them. Another example of a movie that does this well is Triangle, which takes place on a ship in the middle of the ocean and which does a very good job of making time paradoxes into something that are genuine's scary (not in the hokey “it will destroy the universe” sort of way, more the fields of your own corpse from the failed time loops that came before this one sort of way). But the looped topology of time in the movie makes the horror in feel very unescapable, as the bloody event loop over and over again, with subtle variations.
  • What are your least favorite horror plots/tropes? This one, thankfully, is less of an issue in RPGs, but very, very common in slasher/monster horror movies. Basically, if you're savvy to the genre you can pretty much guess who's going to die next. Is the character promiscuous? They're gonna die. Is the character black? They're dead meat (unless they're played by Will Smith). Dope user? Dead. Gay? Dead. You can also generally predict who's going to survive to the end. Probably female, and if there's more than one female character in the film, it's generally going to be the more traditionally feminine one (the less traditional or tougher female characters are going to die mid film.) Why don't I like this trope? Well, there are a lot of worrying social issues implied here. But it's also just predictable and boring.
I think my favorite horror trope is the unknown monster. When people know what they're facing, everything becomes predictable. They're facing a demon or a ghost? Yeah, that creepy doll is going to do something. Ax murderer? Somebody's getting impaled on that fire poker. But when the monster is unknown, nothing can be predicted.

And some movies can keep this up after the monster is revealed. The best example I can think of is John Carpenter's The Thing. The monster can look like anybody it's touched, so even after the monster is revealed, you never know what's going to happen next. Few monsters can stay unpredictable after they're revealed because they are so well-known, but while they're still unknown–or, if they are something not encountered before, even after–things aren't predictable.

Least Favorite
Jump scares. A jump scare isn't a real scare. There's a difference between scaring someone and startling someone.

A jump scare is just a sudden movement and a loud noise. It's cheap.

And what's more, jump scares undercut the suspension of disbelief. When something startles you, you immediately take your bearings so you know exactly where you are. If you're watching a horror movie, that means that you suddenly become keenly aware you're sitting in a movie theater watching a movie. You are no longer experiencing the movie; you're just watching it again.

Much, much better than the jump scare would be something subtle, but terrifying. My favorite example of this is in the movie The Strangers. In one scene, Liv Tyler's character is in the kitchen smoking and staring off into space, thinking. Behind her, never in focus, the Man in the Mask walks into the shot behind her and just stares at her for a second, then walks away. You're paying attention to Liv Tyler in the foreground, and you just suddenly notice that there's a guy with a bag on his head watching her, and it's terrifying. There's no sudden noise, no flicker of movement. Just a slow, subtle reveal that sets you entirely on edge.

If that were done as a jump scare, though, it would be terrible. A dude with a bag on his head just jumps out from behind a corner and yells? That's a cheap startle. It's not scary at all.
What are your favorite horror plots/tropes?

1. Creepy Foreshadowing - You know bad stuff is going to happen and even how, but it is still a surprise when it happens. I enjoy the bad omens and signs that things aren't safe and sound. They add a lot to the tone. I think this one can be too heavy-handed (e.g. creepy guy talking about doom and death), but it can also be subtle.

2. Empty Spaces and Silence - Some movies were actually scarier before the monster started hacking people up. “What happened to the crew?” “Where's Dave?” “Why can't I hear any crickets?” Mysteries make people fill things in, and that is usually worse than what actually comes.

3. “Nowhere to Run” and “In the Dark” - Building on the “No Safe Haven,” building on human fears like claustrophobia and fear of darkness/blindness can make things worse. I had a nightmare the other night where I was trapped in a small bathroom in an old house and I couldn't turn on the lights.

4. commandeer Allies - Zombies, vampires, alien parasites, shapeshifting aliens, etc. all turn those we trust into those trying to kill us. These elements can create paranoid fun which allows for more problems: “Is Bill breathing a little hard…” “You don't remember my mother's biscuit recipe, you alien horror!”

What are your least favorite horror plots/tropes?

1. I will agree with beholdsa on the “monster hit list” with all of its problems.

2. Excessive Gore and “Torture Porn” - I don't like it. I don't equate excessive mutilation and snuff films with horror. Some amount of corpses, blood, etc. is ok, but there is a point where it becomes excessive.
2. Empty Spaces and Silence - Some movies were actually scarier before the monster started hacking people up. “What happened to the crew?” “Where's Dave?” “Why can't I hear any crickets?” Mysteries make people fill things in, and that is usually worse than what actually comes.

I would have to agree with this one. Most of M. Night Shyamalan's movies seem to have this mystery quality to them but then you find out what it is and there is a big let down.
My favorite horror trope come from a movie called House on the Hill. There is a moment in it in which some guy is exploring the basement. He has a camera with him. While looking through the camera, he sees ghosts, a surgical staff operating on a patient. He freaks out a little, but thinks it's kind of cool … until all the doctors and nurses stop operating, lift their heads and look straight at him.

It's that “Oh crap, they noticed me moment.”

I'm going to agree that surprise scares are my least favorite. Dread is more interesting than shock value.
Dread is more interesting than shock value.
I think you've said it better than I could!
What are your favorite horror plots/tropes?

A Monster is You: I love fiction where the real scary thing isn't the zombies or aliens that have overrun society, it's the paranoia and xenophobia of humans at their worst. Scenarios where survivors are tempted and pushed at every moment to turn on each other despite the ostensible presence of other antagonists are very interesting to me, and I enjoy stories that acknowledge the primacy and importance of human will. I think the most terrifying thing in the world is not an unknown force of absolute power that you cannot hope to fight or even comprehend. It's the thought of your friends and loved ones consciously choosing to beat you to death with a lead pipe…and the chilling notion that the only way to prevent it might be to get them first. See “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

A Plague on Both Your Houses: I find diseases especially terrifying, for some reason. Airborne communicable pathogens are invisible, silent, totally undetectable…until someone manifests symptoms. As soon as someone is discovered to be infected, the former trope often comes into play in interesting ways. A disease also makes an excellent “villain” to my mind because it has no morality or thought process and can mutate as needed to evade countermeasures. Best of all, eradicating the disease almost always requires eradicating some number of still-living infected persons…and victory in a horror setting should always be costly, where it is attainable at all. See Contagion and The Hot Zone.

What are your least favorite horror plots/tropes?

They've all been touched on already - monster hit list (see Cabin in the Woods for an interesting lampshading), torture porn, and jump scares are all low and unworthy inclusions in horror storytelling.
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