I’ll admit, coming up with new ideas is not always easy. Furthermore, when it’s your job to create ideas and your performance is judged by how well those ideas are received, it’s understandable that you might use something that already has been proven to work. Horror movies are perhaps the best example if this.
For writers of horror movies, your job is to scare people. Furthermore, the medium of film as entertainment is somewhat limited in what you can do to incite a frightened response from your audience. Perhaps this is one reason that horror films, above all other genres, seem to be most guilty of reusing the same bits over and over again.
If you want to scare people, why deviate from what has worked in the past? It’s the same end result, right? Plus, even if they know what is coming, it’s often the anticipation of that frightening moment (or lack thereof) that creates the thrill. This is a list of some of the most overused tricks in the horror movie playbook. Here’s my pick of the top ten horror movie clichés. It’s up to you to decide if they really work or not…
10. The “Strange Noise”
How many horror movies feature the line, “Did you hear that?” Everyone’s freaked out and that funky noise doesn’t help the situation. Time to die….I mean investigate.
Offenders: The Haunting, Scream, Puppet Master
9. The Mirror
Mirrors are a lot like windows, their purpose is to be looked at. In horror movies though, they often play an important role because they are used to show things that may or may not be happening in real life. Part of the fun is showing you something unexpected, and what’s more unexpected than looking into a mirror and not seeing yourself there?
Offenders: The Grudge, The Ring, The Orphan
8. The Dilapidated Cabin
Everyone wants to get away from it all, to spend a couple days outside of the stresses of modern civilization. In horror movies, the common destination for these quick vacations is almost always some sort of creepy run-down cabin in the woods. It’s owned by some distant family relative or friend, and that person never uses it (for a good reason). Vacation turns out exciting, but you only have a 10% chance of survival.
Offenders: Evil Dead, Cabin Fever, Friday the 13th
7. Creepy Children
Making things that, in general, are not scary into things that are scary has been a longtime tradition of horror movies. At the forefront of this movement is the idea that children get the job done the best. Maybe it was meant to be unexpected. Not today. If there’s a kid in a horror movie, no matter if he starts out normal to begin with. There’s something wrong with that kid. You’ll see, just wait.
Offenders: The Ring, The Shining, The Omen
6. Car Won’t Start
Rather than fight, your protagonist fled the scene and is on the run. They make it out of the house and jump into their car, ready to make a getaway. No such luck, Chuck. The car’s dead, just when you needed it to save your life. Guess you should have replaced that battery 2 months ago.
Offenders: The Hills Have Eyes, 28 Days Later, House of Wax
5. Phone Not Working
Your best friend just got murdered, there’s a homicidal monster on the loose and you need some help. You pick up your phone, and try to dial 911. No signal. The line is dead. Try your cell phone. No signal, even though it had always worked here before. That’s strange. Better run.
Offenders: Scream, When a Stranger Calls, The Human Centipede
4. He’s Not Quite Dead Yet
It doesn’t matter how you killed him; gunshot, explosion, stabbing - the antagonist isn’t dead yet. Look at your watch, there’s still 20 minutes left in the movie. He’ll show up again, just when the main characters start to relax and laugh at what they’ve just been through. Those poor souls.
Offenders: Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien, Halloween
3. The False Alarm / Cat
It’s a horror movie, but nothing gory, violent, or supernatural has happened yet. Suddenly, the pace of the movie slows down, and you expect all hell to break loose. Out pops the cat and everyone laughs. They had you going there.
Offenders: Alien, Friday the 13th II, Halloween II
2. “Let’s Split Up.”/”I’ll be right back.”
It never fails; the characters are in an unfamiliar place, it’s probably dark, and chances are someone is missing or dead. If it’s a horror film you can almost bet on the fact that someone will suggest that they split up. They’ll even come up with some sort of reason why it’s a good idea. Well, it’s never a good idea, at least in the land of Hollywood.
Offenders: Cabin in the Woods, Halloween, 30 Days of Night
1. The Orchestra Crescendo
Did you notice that the music changed? Or maybe that there was no music a second ago? It probably means something scary is going to happen. It’s the oldest trick in the book, yet it always seems to work. Even if it’s a movie you’ve seen a million times, you hear the violins and you move to the edge of your seat.
Offenders: Jaws, Friday the 13th, Psycho