Thanks to Scream, most filmgoers are familiar with the basic rules of slasher films. Tropes such as ‘don’t go up the stairs’, ‘the minority is the first to die’ and ‘the promiscuous teenagers are doomed’ have all entered popular culture to the point of parody. With the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street dominating the box office this weekend, now seems like an ideal time to revisit things I learned watching horror movies throughout the years.
Warning: videos and synopses may contain spoilers!
1. Always Check Your Backseat!
John Carpenter’s Halloween remains my favorite horror film of all time. The film plays upon very simplistic suburban naiveté and achieves a level of sophisticated terror that has been imitated for decades. The unsuspecting Annie Brackett (Nancy Loomis) has to return inside the house when the locked car door reminds her that she needs her keys. Once back at the car, however, she is able to open the door without unlocking it and is met with a lurking boogeyman in her backseat. Carpenter’s slight-of-hand with the locked/unlocked car door is so subtle that one might not even realize that the door goes from locked to unlocked. Sadly, poor Annie doesn’t notice the car has been unlocked and walks right into Michael Myers’ trap which is why it is always a good idea to stay alert and check your backseat!
2. Avoid Gazing Out Windows and Alleyways
As a kid, hiding under the covers was one of the only ways to protect yourself from the monster under the bed. What you can’t see can’t hurt you, right? One of the very few effective moments in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 invasion film Signs is the initial reveal of the alien creatures via a grainy home movie shot during a child’s birthday party in Mexico. The creature is shown briefly walking through an alley. As a 16 year old insomniac in 2002, this scene taught me to keep my eyes away from the windows because I might not like what I find!
3. Poverty is an Advantage
Apart from The People Under The Stairs, horror films rarely prey on the poor. In fact, poverty is usually reserved for the villain as a catalyst for their reign of terror against the well-to-do masses that never accepted him. So, if you are less fortunate than others and can restrain yourself from exacting revenge on the suburban middle class, you will probably not be worth the time of a horror movie villain. Finally, a hidden advantage to poverty!
4. Don’t Take Baths or Showers
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho probably traumatized the entire United States from being able to take a shower comfortably for decades. The shower is when we are at our most vulnerable (naked, wet, etc) but also secure (we are in our own homes and the doors are locked, right?) and Hitchcock taps into this false sense of security/vulnerability in Psycho wonderfully. Horror films ever since often feature a shower/bathtub scene. Probably the second most famous would be from the original Nightmare on Elm Street where Nancy begins to doze off while taking a bath. This scene has also been revived in the current remake of the classic slasher film.
5. Kids Can Be Stalked By The Boogeyman, Too!
As an avid horror fan in my early years, I was always consoled by the fact that Freddy, Michael and Jason only went after sexed up teenagers and thus being an 8 year old child made me safe from their cross heirs. That was until Halloween 4 and 5 entered my VHS player and Michael spent the entire two movies stalking a girl my age! Perhaps it was naïve of me to hold on to this notion despite massive news coverage about abducted and abused children but it worked against the likes of Michael Myers for a while. I once met Danielle Harris (the actress who played the young target) and shared this experience with her. She laughed and apologized for traumatizing my childhood. I forgave her.
6. You Never Know Who The True Boogeyman Is!
If Halloween 4 traumatized me as a child, it is probably best I never knew about Clownhouse until I was well into my adulthood. The film itself is a mildly chilling tale of 3 brothers being terrorized by murderers dressed in clown outfits but what makes the film notable is the behind-the-scenes wrongdoing that went on at the hands of the film’s director, Victor Salva. One of the child actors in the film was sexually molested by the director and has led to the film being widely suppressed from being commercially available. This horrific backstory makes this film doubly unsettling and serves as a reminder that evil can come in many different forms.
7. Suicide IS an Option!
What is worse than being brutally murdered by a mask wearing psychopath or grotesque creature? Surviving and then being subjected to relentless sequels. Just ask Jamie Lee Curtis or Sigourney Weaver, two stars that have endured countless battles with their onscreen foes. Weaver, however, brilliantly requested her iconic character from the Alien films be killed at the end of the third film. Her retirement was short lived when Ripley was brought back for a fourth film via cloning. Being killed off in the first part of the movie doesn’t seem all that bad compared to a life of repetitive struggle against an unstoppable killer.
8. The Killer is Exactly Who You Think It Is
Before the Scream films ushered in the era of self referential ingenuity and M. Night Shyamalan set the bar for twist endings, horror films were oddly predictable when it came to introducing the antagonists. Take Terror Train or Prom Night for example, where the killers are made obvious very early on in the films yet the rest of the movie tries to get the audience to play ‘guess who!’ By the time of the ‘big reveal’ at the climax of the film where the killer turns out to be the scorned boy from the opening scene of the film, one has to wonder why the films attempted to keep the killer a surprise at all? It would be much simpler (and probably more effective) to establish the villain from the get-go a la Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger. At least Friday The 13th had the inventiveness to surprise us with Mrs. Vorhees after leading us down the Jason route for the entire film.
9. What Do You Do When There Is No Downstairs?
We all know that running up the stairs is a certain death in slasher films but what do you do if there is no downstairs? Ridley Scott’s Alien brilliantly achieves the dead-end setting of being ‘upstairs’ in a scary movie by enclosing the action to a claustrophobic spaceship. Sometimes billed as “Halloween in space,” the spaceship setting achieves the same sense of unavoidable dread as being trapped upstairs in a house and there is nowhere to hide. At least in the suburban setting of most slasher films, the protagonist could at least jump out the second story window to safety but what do you do when the outside is uninhabitable space?
What have you learned from horror films?