The horror genre and clichés go together like—let’s just wallow in it—peanut butter and jelly. Or peas and carrots. Or spaghetti and meatballs, whichever is most trite. And although one might think of the Halloween season as the home for clichéd horror releases, that isn’t always the case. January is historically a favored dumping ground for crappy horror movies that studios have little to no confidence in. Just look at this month, which already saw the release of the (surprisingly successful) Paranormal Activity spin-off, The Marked Ones. There’s still a couple more horror-tinged releases on the way as well, with Devil’s Due and I, Frankenstein, neither of which has had positive buzz.
Luckily for filmmakers, though, horror has a tendency to embrace its own conventions. Ever since the 1996 release of Scream in particular, no genre has supported a more self-aware fan base. Although innovation and originality will always be prized over everything else in the frequently blasé horror genre, plenty of fans have come to realize that clichés have their place. Seeing them pop up in film after film becomes a comforting endeavor, in many cases. Each one is like an old friend.
With the fandom becoming educated in those specific units of storytelling, certain horror clichés become so universally recognized that there’s literally no point in even acknowledging them in a list. Thanks to films such as the Friday the 13th series, everyone knows you can’t have sex in horror movies. Thanks to Scream, we know you should never claim that you’ll “be right back.” And thanks to Def Jam stand-up routines, you undoubtedly know that life expectancy for black characters is, shall we say, not bullish. Here, then, are a few slightly lesser-known clichés that are nevertheless likely to remain with the genre forever.
1. “It was just the cat.”
In all fairness, this is as universal as it gets. All horror fans know that in the first 20 minutes or so of a film (excepting an opening kill scene), any mysterious noises the protagonist is investigating will end in a screeching cat being thrown at them from off-camera by some hapless grip, whose job description apparently includes “cat-hurling.” The real mystery is why cats are overwhelmingly the animal of choice for this stock jump scare. And who exactly is going around, stuffing housecats into closets that have been steadfastly closed?
Examples: Pretty much every horror film of the last 40 years. Check out this three-minute supercut that samples 25 different variations on “It was just the cat.”
2. The unreasonable parents/unhelpful villagers
If parents implicitly believed the dire warnings of their teenage offspring, most horror movies would be about 15 minutes long. Storyline convention dictates, then, that horror movie parents be the most thick-headed and stubborn characters ever devised. They could stumble onto the spring-loaded corpse of Grandma in the family root cellar and still claim that there’s a reasonable explanation for everything that has happened. Eventually, they’ll accuse their teenage protagonist of being “on the drugs,” which is the unreasonable parent’s bastion of last resort. Unhelpful villagers, meanwhile, are essentially the period piece equivalent to this cliché. They’re the huddled masses found in every corner tavern, seemingly stationed there for the sole purpose of making idle threats to the stranger passing through town, looking for his uncle’s haunted mansion/castle.
Examples: Perhaps the greatest-ever example of this cliché can be found in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, when Krueger somehow (I have no idea how) “causes the family’s parakeet to go berserk before exploding”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PR7WW6200mg into a fireball. After suggesting explanations that range from “bird rabies” to “that cheap seed you’ve been buying,” the teenage protagonist’s father turns his suspicion directly toward his son. “What did you use, firecrackers?” he asks. “He used a goddamn cherry bomb.” Sure, that sounds likely. His son, in full view of the entire family, somehow inserted a lit cherry bomb into the family parakeet on a larf. That’s some fine detective work, Dad.
3. In it ’til the end!
The very conventions of moviemaking and storytelling essentially forbid horror movie protagonists from attempting certain survival strategies. Chief among them is “running away for real.” Large groups of teens in horror movies always conclude the best option for survival is banding together as they are slowly picked off one by one. What they never manage to consider is this: With a solitary killer, all they need to do in order to ensure the survival of most of the crew is simply split up and run in opposite directions. Perhaps the killer will get one of them, but he can’t follow five people going different directions at the same time.
Examples: In the underrated 2006 horror gem Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, a veteran killer offers this advice on how to survive an encounter with someone like him: “The simple answer is run like a motherfucker and don’t stop till the sun comes up.” Later in the film his advice is ignored, with predictable results.
4. Selective protagonist stealth
When stalked by a killer, protagonists stomp around like automatons, crunching through broken glass and generally being as loud as they can possibly be. But oh, how things change when the killer isn’t around. How else would they be able to soundlessly creep up behind their friends and clap a hand firmly down on their shoulder, while the soundtrack blasts the audience with a shocking scare chord? Cue a startled scream and “Oh my god, Robbie, you scared me!” Note: Nobody asks “Why didn’t you respond 30 seconds ago while I walked through this house loudly calling your name?”
Examples: A stock trope of slasher movies in particular, this a human variation on “It was just the cat.” Almost every entry in the Halloween or Friday the 13th series is replete with instances of it.
5. Walking Wikipedia
Every band of teens needs a resident nerd who also happens to be oddly well-read on the subject of local legend. This character’s sole function is to provide exposition regarding the killer or otherwise dangerous situation before then dying himself. One of Scream’s great inversions was in making this character (Randy) an expert on the genre itself who actually survives. Of course, it eventually self-corrects in Scream 2 when Randy is killed off.
Examples: This cliché is “knowingly satirized”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eavEYG1j-BI in 2009’s Thankskilling by the resident nerd character, Darren. After they stumble into killer turkey country, he regales them with the region’s entire history, which includes such subtle connections as the modern characters having the same last names as the Pilgrim settlers. He later has his heart ripped out of his chest by an irradiated turkey (naturally).