Sunday, November 10, 2013

Horror Movie Clich s

A timely guest post from Alan Donahue analyzing horror movie clich s:

Every screenwriting genre has it's collection of tropes or clich s and none may be more true than horror. While writing, it's easy to fall into a pattern. Hundreds of horror movies have done the same thing. The key thing about using clich s is embracing them and then flipping the story around to deliver something surprising to the audience.

October is always about horror movies to me and that's why I wanted to focus on the some of the most common clich s within the genre. Along with examples of the clich , I will provide movies that twisted it, delivered surprises and were ultimately a success.


The simple device has been used in countless movies as a way to bring fear and dread to audiences. Here's a short list of horror movies that have utilized the phone: Scream 1 - 4, When a Stranger Calls, When a Stranger Calls Back, When a Stranger Calls (2006), Black Christmas, One Missed Call, The Ring, The Ring 2.

However, this isn't including the countless number of horror movies where a character's phone has no service.



A Nightmare on Elm Street: It's bad enough hearing scary voices on the other end of a phone line, but classic horror villain Freddy Kruger took it one step further. After telling Nancy "I'm your boyfriend now!" the phone transforms into Freddy's mouth. A tongue protrudes and licks her face.Freddy's infamous tongue phone makes a return in Wes Craven's New Nightmare where it licks her face again. Both are equally creepy and used plot devices to really shock audiences.

The Ring: Most evil phone calls involve some type of killer/monster engaging in scary conversation. Apparently the ghosts in The Ring were short on long distance minutes. They get straight to the point: "Seven days" was all the caller needed to say to build up the dread and suspense for viewers. The simple tactic was set up early on and brought new scares every time a phone rang.



It's what you cannot see that is truly scary. This is why the mask has become a tool for horror screenwriters. It's easy to just have a character wear a mask, but the reason "why" can add more depth to your screenplay. In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it's made from the flesh of his victims. Other horror films with masks include: Halloween, Scream, Friday the 13th Part 3, Saw, The Purge, Strangers.


Ghost movies have to do as much as they can before revealing the big ghost or showing anything at all. This is where the false scares come in. Growling cats, random phones ringing or even a slight gust of wind are all it takes to insert a false scare. The best false scares build up on each other, add extra suspense and then lure the viewers into a false sense of safety.


Scream: In the opening scene, viewers are captivated by the intense phone call between Drew Barrymore and her eventual killer. Writer Kevin Williamson added even more into the scene with a simple pan of popcorn. The popcorn grows and eventually bursts into flames amidst all the other action.


Good slasher movies are all about the kills. Writer's love to get inventive with this stuff. Almost every type of power tool has been in a horror movie and some weapons have become as signature as the masks that the villains wear.

Knives are commonly a weapon of choice for attacks or killer. While guns create instant death, the knife is more intimate and brutal. Allowing the pain to linger, the fear is set in for viewers and gives the writer more room to add an emotional punch.


In Dead Alive, Peter Jackson helped create one of the coolest ways to kill zombies: with a rusty old lawnmower. It allowed for some great action, nice gore and something different from the usual gun blasts or knife stabs.


One of the biggest ways to draw fear through a story is with isolation. A characteralonein the darkness. Works every time. Viewers place themselves within the scene. With today's technology, it seems impossible to every truly be alone, until we lose that dreaded cell phone signal. The best way out of the "no phone signal" scene is to write some type of period story or eliminate the need for cell phones early on. The Conjuring and The Woman in Black both worked well because they were period pieces with a modern feel that kept audiences intrigued.

An extension of isolation is with the classic clichsimply known as The Cabin in the Woods. This trope has been used so many times (Evil Dead, Blair Witch Project, Cabin Fever) that it took a movie like The Cabin in the Woods to really reinvent the premise.



One thing that has seemingly watered down horror movie writing are the endless sequels that come out. The formula quickly becomes tired for audiences and it isn't much better with remakes. One of the biggest issues with a remake is writing the origin story again. Fans know what to expect, eliminating several of the scares and forcing writers into a corner most of the time. Rewriting an origin story is like reheating last night's dinner. It has the basic idea, but is missing a lot of the flavor.

Another way to get away from the basic sequel is by doing a mash-up. Freddy vs. Jason took two franchises into one and delivered a fun ride for fans of both genres.


Horror films are notorious for shocking viewers with the twist ending. Movies like Psycho helped pave the way future franchises like Saw. Aside from the gore factor, a huge appeal in every single Saw movie was waiting for that "wow" moment that would really shock audiences.

In many slashers, a common clichis the dead eyes flashing open. Kane did it in See No Evil, Michael Myers did it in Halloween: Resurrection, and there have been countless others.


Scream 4: Fans that watched the previous three Scream movies knew how they typically ended. The killer(s) would pull off the mask, explain their motive and then try to kill Sidney. This time, Kevin Williamson brilliantly gave a false ending. Scenes extended into a hospital where the final battle took place, gave a few more scares, laughs, and made you wonder if the "original three" would finally see their demise.

SOUND OFF: What are some other great horror movie tropes and movies that completely went against them effectively.

Join us in comments for other horror clich s. How can we go against type? Or conversely use them to our advantage in writing a story?

Thanks, Alan, for your guest post.

If any of you have an idea or subject you would like to explore and analyze like Alan did here, get in touch with me via email and we can discuss that as an option.
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