When done right, horror is one of the most exhilarating, and even artistic, cinematic genres around. Rosemary’s Baby, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining, The Babadook — these are just a few of the universally acclaimed horror movies out there. They never get old, and they never lose their impact. A great fright flick has originality, style, three-dimensional characters, and a story that you can really get caught up in. That’s a potent mixture.
Bad horror movies, on the other hand, rely on cliches. If we’re being honest, good horror movies oftentimes incorporate them as well. Cliches can be found in any genre, of course, but horror seems particularly susceptible to them. If you see a lot of horror movies, you’ve undoubtedly noticed a bunch of them popping up again and again. (And again and again.) You probably get tired of seeing them. We do, too. That’s why we’re here to point out some of the most prevalent and tiresome cliches out there. These tired genre standards have been done so many times that it’s positively baffling that anybody still uses them.
Here are the 15 Worst Horror Movie Cliches That Just Keep Being Used.
15. Movie Google
Horror movies often strive to incorporate modern technology. We’ve seen fright flicks based around cell phones, computers, home video, and other present-day conveniences. Sometimes, this sort of thing is effective, helping to bring horror into the 21st century. Other times, it can come off as silly. One of the more frequently-used technology-based cliches involves the internet, specifically Google (or a generic version thereof, because the search juggernaut wanted no part in the film).
You’ve seen this many times. The characters discover something creepy going on. Maybe there’s a killer of some sort on the loose, or perhaps they’re looking into why paranormal events are occurring at a specific location. What do they do? Conduct a Google search, of course! Naturally, the popular search engine provides them with all the information they need in mere seconds. While it’s true that info is literally right at our fingertips these days, “movie Google” feels like a convenient way to cut corners in advancing the plot or providing exposition. Some of the recent movies where this cliche has come into play are The Darkness and Unfriended.
14. Mental institutions and orphanages
If you’re making a list of inherently spooky settings, you may find that there aren’t a whole lot of options. A good writer and/or director can theoretically make any location scary. Still, there’s a challenge involved in turning, say, a daycare center into a place audiences will tremble at. Consequently, the few settings that are eerie in and of themselves tend to get used repeatedly onscreen.
Two of the most popular of them are mental institutions and abandoned orphanages. They are often old and decrepit, and generally made of cold, uninviting brick. Mental institutions in movies almost always have that room in the basement where outdated psychiatric procedures — think shock treatment or trephining (the act of drilling a hole into someone’s skull) — once took place. Orphanages, meanwhile, typically house the spirits of children who were abused there. The appropriately titled The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone are just two horror films set in orphanages, while the list of notables set in mental institutions include Shutter Island, Session 9, The Ward, Gothika, and Stonehearst Asylum. There are many more. So many, in fact, that the locations are starting to lose some of their effectiveness. Audiences have simple grown a bit tired of seeing them recycled so often.
13. Falling female protagonists
For reasons that are, depending on your perspective, either misogynist, psychosomatic, or both, women are the most frequent targets in horror movies. They’re constantly in grave danger. On the bright side, a number of recent fright flicks have at least made them strong and resourceful. Don’t Breathe and Lights Out are good examples. Still, the “damsel in distress” idea has become part and parcel of the genre.
Even the shrewdest, most fierce female protagonists have a way of succumbing to a horror cliche that’s practically as old as horror itself: falling down. You know the drill. The woman is being chased by the killer, monster, or creature. For some reason, this often happens in the woods, although such clumsiness can really happen anywhere. She’s running to get away (which she should have no problem doing, since serial killers aren’t often known for their extensive cardio regime) when suddenly, she trips and falls. This allows her pursuer to catch up a little bit, theoretically heightening the tension. That may have been true at one point, but the gimmick has been used so many times over the decades that now, whenever we see a woman fall, we’re more likely to think “Not again!” than we are to experience any sort of fear for the character.
12. Generic paranormal activity
Horror is very cyclical. A movie comes out and is a big hit, then a whole bunch of other horror movies try to do the exact same thing. For example, after the success of The Ring, Asian-inspired horror was all the rage. Then Saw hit, and “torture porn” became the big thing. These days, paranormal chillers are where it’s at, thanks to the massive success of both Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring.
A good old ghost story is always welcome, but we wish those pesky poltergeists would find a new bag of tricks. In films ranging from Annabelle to the Insidious franchise to the indie hit We Are Still Here, spirits from the Great Beyond always tend to use the exact same means of frightening their victims. They slam doors, make lights flicker on and off, abruptly move furniture, create static on TV screens, and so on. That last one is especially weak, since static isn’t really even a thing anymore, thanks to cable television. We have to say, movie ghosts have become wildly unimaginative. If they want to up their game, they’re going to need to get some new material.
11. The cat scare
Cats. They’re cute. They’re cuddly. There’s nothing scary about them, right? Unless they pop up in a horror movie, that is. One of the oldest, creakiest cliches is something known as the “cat scare.” This involves a main character walking around the house or yard to investigate a weird noise. You think that maybe there’s someone there, ready to jump out with a butcher knife or some other stabby weapon. Everything gets quiet, and then a cat leaps out, scaring the you-know-what out of the person, and possibly the audience. No killer, just a cat!
The late film critic Roger Ebert used to call these felines “spring-loaded cats” because of the way they always seem to enter a scene airborne. Jones the cat scares Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) in Alien. A security guard is startled by one of these kitties while patrolling the grounds of a hospital in Halloween II. A woman in a car jumps when one runs across the hood in Darkness Falls. Demon Knight, When a Stranger Calls, Drag Me to Hell, and Friday the 13th: Part 2 also use some variation of the cat scare. (The recent Shut In substituted a raccoon for a cat, for what it’s worth). There are so many littered (no pun intended) across the horror movie landscape that we’re leaving out a few dozen additional examples. You can doubtlessly think of a few more, but we think you’d have a harder time coming up with an example that actually frightened you.
10. Shower scenes
In 1960’s Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock pulled off one of the most shocking sequences in movie history. The film’s lead, Janet Leigh, steps into the shower. As she washes herself off, we see a shadow on the other side of the curtain. A hand abruptly flings the curtain aside, and a knife-wielding maniac begins mercilessly stabbing her to death. The scene ends with a shot of blood swirling down the drain. The sequence is shocking for two major reasons. First, it was incredibly graphic for its time (even though you hear more than you actually see). Second, no one expected the lead actress to die so soon into the movie.
Since that time, a lot of films have included shower scenes. When you take a shower, you’re naked and vulnerable, so it’s kind of a natural attack zone in horror. Last year’s The Forest has a fake-scare version of the Psycho scene, featuring Natalie Dormer showering obliviously as a man approaches her fogged-up shower door. The Evil Dead remake has a female character getting scalded by a shower that inexplicably starts pumping out boiling water. In The Grudge, Sarah Michelle Gellar is washing her hair when a pair of fingers start protruding from the back of her head. Quite frankly, the shower is losing its impact. As soon as someone steps into one, you just sit and wait for something freaky to happen. There’s no surprise anymore.
9. The cell phone excuse
Cell phones have made it tough on horror movies. In the old days — which is to say pre-1995 — characters could be stranded in the middle of nowhere and there was a vital sense of helplessness. Plunk them down in some remote location and they were stuck. There was no way to get help once the story’s villain started pursuing them. These days, all someone in that situation would have to do would be to use their cell phone to call or text for help.
For this reason, lots of modern horror stories have to stop and find some kind of explanation for why they can’t do this. Oftentimes, this is accomplished via a throwaway line about how “my cell phone doesn’t get a signal out here.” By establishing this early on, the films are trying to remove a serious inconvenience to the plot. The problem is, cell phones have made life so much easier that way too many horror films now have to get them out of the way just to tell their story. This has become such a prominent cliche that The Cabin in the Woods played it for laughs.
We recommend that some variations be put on this trope, like having a character who (gasp!) doesn’t own one. Or a young person who got his or hers taken away by Mom and Dad. That would at least put a slightly different spin on the trope.
8. Creepy kids
Children are sweet and innocent, and horror movies love to subvert them. The trend of creepy kids goes back at least to 1960’s Village of the Damned, which featured a gang of blonde-haired, dazed-looking children terrorizing an English village. Since then, they have made repeated appearances onscreen. Movies like The Exorcist and The Omen make particularly good use of them. And let’s not forget those twin girls in The Shining.
Creepy kids remain a staple of the genre. They pop up with regularity, whether it’s the bloodthirsty girl from Let the Right One In, the deceased little boy Toshio from The Grudge, the psychotic adopted child in Orphan, or the possessed girl in Ouija: Origin of Evil who gets some nasty revenge on a school bully. Even when you don’t actually see children in a movie, their presence is often felt. More than a few horror flicks utilize kids chanting on the soundtrack. Although creepy kids are generally effective, they get used so frequently that they are starting to wear out their welcome.
7. Cheap jolts
Good horror movies build tension and suspense, pulling you into the story so that the scares emerge organically. You jump or scream because you care about what’s going to happen; you’re invested. Bad horror movies, meanwhile, have to manufacture cheap jolts just to keep people from dozing off. One of the most ubiquitous ways of doing this is to have everything get very quiet, then have an abrupt loud noise blast out at the audience in digital surround sound. (See The Bye Bye Man, The Boy, or The Apparition for some clearcut examples.) This startles people. Poor filmmakers hope that the crowds will attribute their physical reaction to the movie being scary, as opposed to recognizing that it’s just the equivalent of jumping out and screaming “Boo!” at somebody.
Another cheap jolt is the old “bathroom mirror” gag. A character opens the medicine cabinet, and when they close it, there’s someone standing right behind them, reflected in the mirror. Sometimes it’s the killer, other times a loved one that’s just popping in to provide a fake scare. Orphan, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, What Lies Beneath, and The Unborn are among the movies that have hauled out this old chestnut. Cheap jolts are an overused measure of desperation, and honestly, they’re not fooling anybody these days.
6. Consulting with a paranormal expert
Just as the activities of ghosts and demons have become a cliche, so has another paranormal chiller element. There is always a point at which the main characters turn to an outside expert for help in solving their problem. This cliche goes back to the original Poltergeist, where Zelda Rubinstein played Tangina, the expert who helps the Freeling family get little Carol Ann out of the TV set.
The paranormal expert can come in many forms. It can be a professional ghost hunter (The Conjuring, Insidious), an occult bookstore owner (Annabelle), or a demonologist (Paranormal Activity). Many times, it is a Catholic priest. (For some unknown reason, clergy members of other religions are rarely asked to help in these matters. Presumably, this has to do with the inherently cinematic nature of Catholic rituals.) Whenever there’s trouble of a supernatural nature, you can bet good money that someone is eventually gonna call a ghostbuster. It’s all a bit “been there, done that” at this point.
5. “Kill me before I turn”
Zombie fiction has enjoyed a massive spike in popularity over the last decade, thanks to a bunch of extremely well-made undead flicks, plus AMC’s ratings blockbuster The Walking Dead. The “rules” of such stories were largely established by George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, and were later refined by its sequels. Consequently, many zombie stories play by the same handbook. The best ones find new twists or fresh ways of presenting the core elements.
That said, we’re really tired of one particular scene that almost always makes its way into any undead drama. It entails a beloved character getting bitten and then begging a friend or family member to “kill me before I turn.” Sometimes, the hero/heroine simply does the killing without being asked, because they realize what’s coming is worse. The gimmick, used in Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, among many others, can certainly be emotional. We’ve seen it so many times, however, that its ability to generate an emotional response is rapidly dwindling.
4. Spooky attics and basements
When you were a kid, were you afraid of your attic or basement? Attics are usually a lot of plywood and fiberglass insulation, while basements (unless finished off into a nice home theater or something) tend to be cinder block walls and cement floors. Or, if your house is older, they can be stone walls with dirt floors. Either way, they’re not places you necessarily want to hang around in for long periods of time — especially when the light are out.
Relatable as they are, horror movies really need to stop having their characters go into them. If we had a dime for every fright flick that incorporated a dingy basement or attic, we’d be super rich. Besides, nothing good ever happens in these locations! Just ask the characters from The Blair Witch Project. Two of them got attacked by the witch in one! The Innkeepers, Stir of Echoes, Signs, The Conjuring, and Don’t Breathe have all had horrific events transpire in basements. Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, found some old home movies that opened up a Pandora’s box of supernatural destruction in Sinister. The lesson: basements and attics should be avoided at all costs!
3. People scrawling on walls
Delusions, hallucinations, and possessions may not be common occurrences in the real world (thank goodness) but they’re a part of everyday life in the world of cinematic horror. One of the surest signs that something freaky is going on is seeing somebody start to act in inexplicably strange ways. Since this is a mental process more than anything, filmmakers have to find a manner in which to visualize it. And the most common method they use is to have the afflicted characters obsessively scrawl nonsense all over walls or in notebooks.
In The Bye Bye Man, a person scribbles in a book and inside the drawer of an end table. In The Number 23, Jim Carrey fills walls with mathematics and assorted bizarre ramblings. Patricia Arquette prefers doodling ancient religious symbols and words from dead languages in Stigmata. There are plenty more examples. Somewhere along the way, a clever screenwriter conceived such scrawling as a way to convey mental disturbance. Others seem to have simply copied and pasted the idea since then, leading to one of the most overused cliches in all of horror.
2. Found footage
Found footage is not just a cliche, it’s a cliche made up of many little cliches. You’ve got the whole phony-baloney pretense that the movie is real, often achieved through on-screen text telling you who “found” the footage you’re about to see and that the people in it have disappeared. You’ve got the part where the characters come up with some lame justification for why they leave their camera on all the time. And found footage movies all seem to devolve, at some point, into a shaky-cam mess when someone runs in terror with the camera in tow. This renders you unable to discern what you’re looking it. It also tends to involve characters screaming tried and true lines like “Oh my God, what the hell is that?!”
To be sure, there have been some very good found footage movies, with the original Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and The Blair Witch Project among them. There have been way more terrible ones, though. Just remember Apollo 18, The Devil Inside, The Gallows, Devil’s Due, and As Above, So Below. (Toss in the later Paranormal Activity sequels while you’re at it.) In those and others, you can really tell how played-out the whole found footage concept is, because the films all feel exactly the same. Enough already!
1. “Based on actual events”
In 1979, The Amityville Horror became a box office hit, thanks in part to the idea that it was a cinematic retelling of a true story. Was a family really chased out of their home because of malevolent spirits? Well, they certainly claimed they were, and a best-selling book perpetuated that idea. The possibility that the terrifying events depicted might have actually happened was enough to propel the movie to an $86 million haul. (That’s $297 million in today’s dollars.)
In the last ten or so years, filmmakers have borrowed the Amityville concept. The words “based on actual events” or “inspired by true events” appear on at least one or two horror movies per year. Sometimes there’s a basis for this. The Conjuring films, for instance, are based on real people — Ed and Lorraine Warren — and real cases they investigated. Other times, the claim is pure nonsense. If there’s a grain of truth at all, it’s minuscule. The 2016 chiller The Forest, to cite an example, took place in a real Japanese location where people go to commit suicide, but everything else in the story was pure fiction.
Other supposedly true (but not really) examples are The Rite, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Strangers, The Possession, and Annabelle. In each case, the link to reality is spurious at best. There’s simply no way the outlandish things that happen in these movies can be possible. We’re not buying this hokum anymore.
Which of these tired cliches annoys you most? What other horror movie standards are you sick of? Sound off in the comments.