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.
6. The mirror scare
The mirror scare rivals “it was just the cat” in terms of its rampant overuse. You know what it is, even if you think you don’t—the protagonist rummages around in the medicine cabinet and the readjustment in the mirror reveals that someone or something is now standing behind her! It can be played straight, or combined with a case of selective protagonist stealth. Likewise, it’s not always the bathroom mirror. Variations can be found with door mirrors, hall mirror and even car mirrors.
Examples: The above four-minute supercut stitches together no less than 35 instances of the mirror scare. It’s an incredibly common device, but none of its uses have ever quite matched the effectiveness of 1979’s Phantasm, which bookends this compilation.
7. Universal weapons expertise
How much practical experience do you have firing guns or using bladed weapons? If you’re anything like me, your answer is “approximately zero.” And yet, hand the protagonist of a horror film a pistol, assault rifle or rocket launcher, and his or her survival instinct immediately manages to override a basic lack of knowledge about how these weapons work. When’s the last time you saw someone die in a horror movie because they couldn’t figure out how to turn off a gun’s safety?
Examples: It’s almost universal in zombie movies, where “regular people” are routinely pitted against the walking dead. Just look at a film like Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, which is rife with it. Sure, there’s always one or two characters who are police officers or military, but the school teachers and nurses prove just as adept.
8. Das horror auto
Cars in horror movies are subject to an entire sub-universe of tropes, but one thing is certain: None of them has received regular maintenance and/or tune-ups. Another cliché intended to keep protagonists from easily escaping danger, there always has to be a reason the car doesn’t work. With the more clever villains, the car has been deliberately disabled, whether by tire slashing or spark plug removal. But even in the case of unthinking monsters, the mere presence of danger is easily enough to make the stoutest of car batteries suddenly fail with no warning. Trying to start a car within 100 yards of a horror villain is like trying to kick a football held by Lucy van Pelt—it seems totally plausible, but it’s not going to happen.
Examples: The Evil Dead series is classic when it comes to this particular cliché, as the characters are stranded in the woods and that car is the only way they’re getting home. For some reason, I always think of the first Leprechaun movie for this one as well, when their truck won’t start due to its cords being gnawed on by Warwick Davis.
9. Peripheral vision? What peripheral vision?
The protagonist creeps slowly into a room, alert and scanning for danger, cradling a knife or gun. He or she takes a couple of steps and then pauses, when a single drop of blood, saliva or other fluid drips onto them from above. Slowly, the protagonist looks up to see the cocooned body or drooling monster attached to the ceiling, all of four feet above them. But no, I get it, that kind of thing is probably easy to miss when you first walk into a room, right? I mean, who notices a corpse when it’s on the ceiling?
Examples: The Alien series loves this stuff, but I always think of the non-horror bit in Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones’ cigarette is snuffed out by dripping mucous from the suspended corpse just a few feet above his head. Really thorough scan of the room, Agent K.
10. Your actual blood volume may vary…
In horror movies, the amount of blood contained within a single human body is entirely dependent on a film’s budget and the context in which someone bleeds. When a slasher is trying to be secretive and picking off people one by one, he can walk around lopping off heads while somehow keeping things spick and span. When it’s time to send a message, though, one victim suddenly has enough blood to paint an entire gore fresco up and down the walls of a hallway, and the killer turns into a veritable Jackson Pollock.
Examples: Look no further than John Carpenter’s original classic, Halloween, for a slasher with a decent body count but almost no blood to speak of. Even when Myers pins a guy against the wall with a knife, it leaves no blood behind. Contrast that with an early Peter Jackson horror movie like Dead Alive, where fighting a crowd of zombies results in so much blood that the entire room is flooded. (Yes, this is the same guy who made The Lord of the Rings.
None of these clichés are going anywhere. They simultaneously encapsulate what we love and hate about the horror genre. For every clever subversion, there are a dozen cats locked in closets, lying in wait for the approach of some hapless soul and an accompanying scare chord.