What Would You Do in a Horror Movie

So, term just came to an end over here, which means two things.
One, amazing amounts of writing time.
Two, going to the movies.

The second, I think, will become a tradition for me.  Going to the movies has always been a bit of a special treat for my family.  I was at the movies last week, however, and there were a couple of guys talking a couple rows back and to my right.  Not obnoxious – they didn’t talk at all during the movie, nor were they talking loud enough to grate on the nerves.

But one of them said one thing, and that just made me want to turn around and explain why he was wrong.  I needed a little moment to calm down.
No, this is not a logical hatred.  It’s not even a pet peeve, per se – a pet peeve still implies a little too much rational thought and attempted justification.  This is just a thing that hurts me inside.  It really, really shouldn’t.  But it does.

“If I were in a horror movie,” this probably quite lovely person said, “I’d just run out of there as soon as I realised.  Just get out.  Movie over.”

My answer to this is: No.  No, you wouldn’t.  THAT’S THE ENTIRE POINT OF A HORROR MOVIE.

Now, let me preface this with a quick disclaimer: I am not really a horror fan.  I’ve not seen very much of it.  I’ve read a couple of books in the genre, I’ve certainly read some dark fantasy.  I’ve played games that could count.  But for a lot of the true horror classics?  Not my area of expertise.  I’ve heard a lot of people talk about them, though.  And here’s what I’ve started to piece together.

Horror is about feeling small and trapped.  A lot of the advice I see given to horror writers in any medium is based around making the monster feel insurmountable, inevitable.  A monster is not scary if the audience is not convinced that it is a legitimate threat.  This goes for horror where the antagonist is a person, too.

Conversely, this bleeds into the characterisation of the protagonist.  It is very difficult to make a horror film whose protagonist is, say, a soldier with full weapons training and access to an arsenal.  If you have a protagonist like that, you need a monster against whom these methods will not work.  Maybe it’s ethereal and immune to bullets.  Maybe it’s Cthulhu, and lives in disgusting mockery of your puny mortal weapons.  Either way, you’re disempowering the protagonist.

The guy who says he’d “just run away”?  If the horror writer has done their job well, and usually even if they do it badly, there is a reason why that will not work.  Very prominent in sealed-can-of-evil stories.  You popped the lid on that can, the monster has earmarked you for death.  And it follows you.  Everywhere.  Maybe it really is that the monster is tied to a specific place (like a haunted house), but it’s physically keeping you from leaving.  Corridors that don’t lead where you thought they do, doors locked shut from whichever side you’re not on.

Yes, there is a great expanse of mockery of horror tropes where the protagonists are clearly idiots for the choice they’re making (Let’s split up!  Let’s go back into the house we were specifically warned not to enter again!).  If your horror author is relying on stupidity to cause the plot to happen, you’re not consuming good horror media.  The reader should never be able to say “Why didn’t they just…?”  No.  Bad author.  No biscuit.  
Let’s just address the actually good examples of the genre.  You know, what all those bad examples were aspiring to be.

The point is, by the time you realise you’re in a horror movie, IT SHOULD ALREADY BE TOO LATE.

So, to conclude, dear person at the movie theater:
I have examined your statement, and present to you two options.
First, actually think about the genre you’re mocking, rather than just allowing yourself to feel superior to characters because you’ve got the distance to rules-lawyer your way out of the situation.  Wouldn’t have walked into a creepy house?  Well, first off, I bet you would, because normal people don’t automatically assume they’re in horror movies.  But even if you wouldn’t have, don’t pretend like the characters now have an option of escaping.  If your plan for escaping a horror situation involves leaving before being given evidence that it’s a horror situation, then no.  You aren’t smarter than any of the characters.  You’re just on the other side of the screen.
Two, damn well read better books.  Watch better movies.  Consume something that requires you to actually use your brain.  Don’t just paint the whole horror genre with the brush of Chucky XXXVI or whatever number.  That just makes you look more stupid.

A random person whose opinion

7 thoughts on “What Would You Do in a Horror Movie

  1. Pingback: The Legacy by John Coyne | Excursions Into Imagination

  2. I know I’m a little late on this. I just came across this article while researching and want to say thank you for writing it. This is what I’ve been trying to make people understand for years.

    Personally, I think part of the problem is that people like to believe they’d make the same rational decisions in the face of danger as they would in their comfort zone, despite the fact that real danger and chaos have proven repeatedly throughout time that people often *don’t* make rational decisions in those situations. So even if you can see a better choice a character could have made, you still can’t expect them to do flawless problem-solving in extreme distress. Nobody would. Even in inferior horror, characters’ actions are pretty consistent with what people would do in real life, and there’s almost always a legit reason they can’t get out or fight back the way the audience might imagine they would.

    I think you summed it up best when you said, “You aren’t smarter than any of the characters. You’re just on the other side of the screen.”

    • Thanks for commenting!
      I think that there are still a lot of times where character do things that, while excusable by distress, still feel pretty contrived in plot terms, and probably best to steer away from those. Everything else you said is spot-on, though.

      • YW, and yeah, I agree 100%… I’m not trying to excuse stupid behavior in horror, just explain the behavior I think people often misinterpret. Oddly enough, I see much more complaining about it for movies than books, which could mean horror fiction is smarter than cinema, or it’s because books just have that freedom to explain a character’s logic without sounding like it. I like what you said: “If your horror author is relying on stupidity to cause the plot to happen, you’re not consuming good horror media.” It’s very true, and I think there’s a lot less bad horror media than people have mythologized. They just won’t look at horror the way they would any other genre because general pop culture decided it was all stupid…

        Okay, I’m an inch away from ranting now, so I’m gonna leave it at that, lol. Take care.

      • No worries – I’m basically constantly ranting while on this blog.

        I agree entirely – I think some people just like to say this stuff for the sake of saying it, like being not in a horror movie makes you somehow better as a person … *shrug*. But that’s a whoooooole ‘nother topic.

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