Tropes and nopes in horror

Image courtesy of Throwbacks


With Halloween season drawing near, now more than ever people choose to curl up and watch a scary movie. Whether it be ghosts, underground giants, evil ballerinas or genetically altered snakes, this is the time of year when many horror fanatics decide to get the blood pumping with a good scare. 

It can be even better to share the terror with friends. While some people who watch horror movies year round can get annoyed with the surge of seasonal watchers, some students enjoy this time of year when they can suggest a scary movie and not have it shot down right away. Of course, even though it is that special time of year, some people just will not watch a scary movie. It is not that they are scared, but rather, some find that horror movies are all the same. 

Horror movies, perhaps moreso than other genres of film, can be identified by their tropes — the stereotypical plots and characteristics many movies follow. Some may criticize the use of these tropes, saying that horror tropes are too similar to those used in more successful films, or perhaps filmmakers who use them are unoriginal.

Some of these tropes can be considered trivial or outdated, such as the suggestion that characters who have sex will die, or scenes depicting a character saying, “I’ll be right back,” when they, in fact, will not be right back. Another notable horror trope often depicts a character closing a door to block off the killer … but the killer is right behind them! Many horror directors know these tropes; in fact the first two listed are explicitly stated as “rules in horror movies” by characters in the iconic meta horror movie “Scream”. 

Some audiences may not appreciate meta comments in films addressing horror tropes. Sophomore biology major Murdoch Macdonald considers “Scream” infamous rather than iconic. 

“I’m not a fan of ‘Scream’ just because I’d like it to stay serious, although ‘Scream’ did have some good jumpscares,” Macdonald said. “I want it to stay scary … I don’t want it to be scary and then have a [tonal shift] again. That doesn’t feel like a horror movie anymore.” 

Ironically enough, pointing out horror movie tropes has become in and of itself a new horror movie trope — one that the “Scream” franchise has a death grip on, often including an explanation of horror tropes in each installment of the series. Often in this meta filmmaking style, rather than letting the movie play out, some filmmakers may feel the need to wink at the audience and show they understand the genre tropes in their work. 

However, many horror tropes hold true to their outdated origins, especially the ones that pertain to female characters. Some horror fans have reconsidered the use of the Final Girl trope. One of the most famous of all horror tropes, the Final Girl trope refers to the last female character in a horror film standing, who, in the end, will either best or escape the killer. 

Many horror fans identify the first Final Girl as Vera Miles’ character Marion in “Psycho”, and the concept was solidified in another early case with Sally Hardesty in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Although Marion dies, Sally and her later counterpart Laurie Strode in 1978’s “Halloween” both survive the whole movie. This leaves audiences to ask what makes these characters Final Girls. 

Unlike their friends, the Final Girls are not overtly into sex, drugs or rock and roll, and throughout the movie they maintain a sense of innocence resulting in the reward of survival. With the inspiration of these characters, many films following them also featured well-behaved Final Girls of their own. 

However, by presenting women as fragile objects worth only their purity, the trope undermines any heroism by demonstrating that success can only be achieved by moral action for women alone. It is a misogynistic outlook in which women are not heroes because of circumstance, but because they have conformed to a patriarchal view of what a woman should be. In the same vein of purity leading to survival, the movies make the effort of displaying that unlike the other female characters, the Final Girl is “different,” be it through interests, mannerisms and more. Moreover, the actions of Final Girls are held with scrutiny in that they are not so much decisions, but the results of the characters’ passivity

This trope almost exclusively applies to women — very few movies feature a male character being rewarded for maintaining virginity or otherwise purity. The closest example can be found in “Trick ‘r Treat” wherein many men are tempted by sex to go into the woods only to be eaten by werewolves. 

While the stereotypical usage of the Final Girl trope has declined over the years, mainly relegated to slashers that put a meta spin on it, its presence as a trope is worth acknowledging. 

Senior marketing major Bekah Kinworthy has researched this trope for a class on rhetoric and themes in horror movies, and has thought critically about the depiction of women in horror. 

“I actually wrote a 10-page paper critiquing how women are portrayed in horror movies, [specifically] women as villains,” Kinworthy said. “I get [the Final Girl] as a trope. I just think that it’s really outdated and overused. If you look at where it came from, that’s not something we want to promote.” 

Even with the presence of outdated genre tropes, horror still maintains relevancy. While some elements have insulting if not outright cruel origins, or can be a little cheesy at times, there are plenty of newer films that want to change the bad and keep the good. 

Senior political science major Nick Durst expressed not only his love of the genre but his hopes for it as well. 

“There have been plenty of characters that engage in any sort of vice whatsoever, then boom, they’re unredeemable,” Durst said. “But there have been a lot [of characters] that have been surviving. Take one of the more recent movies ‘X’ where the main character, the only survivor, is literally a run-away-from-home daughter of a pastor [who is a] porn star, who still found a way to redeem herself.” 

In the current state of the genre, many horror movies can have stories with flawed characters who go through all sorts of difficulties and trauma and still come out on top — stories where the main character lives through redemption, not inherent purity. 

All in all, while the genre might have a history of tropes, the future is still unwritten. With more directors telling unique stories, some tropes are evolving, and some are dying like the kids at a summer camp, but at the very least not all horror movies will be the same.


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