Horror · Top Posts

Horror Clichés: the Ghostly Tropes that Never Die

If there’s one thing that my years as a horror fan have taught me, it’s how to survive in the event of a massacre, zombie apocalypse, or demonic possession. Yep, horror clichés are so unanimous that they can only be based on a set of universal truths! Put it this way: if any of the above scenarios were to actually occur, the presence of someone like myself could prove useful. I’ve gone through so many dry runs that I feel at least partially prepared for the real thing.

Image courtesy of Fred Goldstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image courtesy of Fred Goldstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos

However, acquaintance with the horror genre can be something of a disadvantage when you’re actually trying to write the stuff. Clichés, by their very nature, spring to mind all too readily, and make their way out onto the page with equal ease. Horror writers have to work hard if they want to avoid the usual tired old tropes. This is no less problematic in the haunted house sub-genre; while I was writing The Quickening, I’d often read the story back and find it saturated with clichés.

Well, never let it be said that I’m lacking in philanthropy. Here, to help other ghost story writers, is a list of the most common haunted house tropes – most of which were ruthlessly expunged from the final version of the book. For the sake of fairness, though, I’ve indicated those instances where they slipped through the net. There are always a few…

1. Holidays with a difference

Why go on holiday to Disneyland or the Costa del Sol when you can head off to the creepiest, nastiest, most dangerous place imaginable instead? All right, Demon’s Creek or Mass Murder Canyon probably didn’t get their names by chance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a perfectly relaxing stay there! Hilariously, this is often especially true when the holiday in question is meant to be an opportunity to mend a fractured marriage or get over a crushing personal tragedy.

Image courtesy of Stefan Ciesla | Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Stefan Ciesla | Wikimedia Commons

“It’ll be a chance to start again,” is sometimes said. No, it won’t. It’ll be a chance to pit your wits against supernatural forces and/or serial killers, with death the certain price if you lose.

2. Climate change (guilty)

It’s a feature of Planet Horror that, when the chips are really down, even the weather will conspire against you. Axe murderers and monsters are curiously picky in this respect, and rarely strike on sunny afternoons. Instead, they time their attacks to coincide with thunderstorms, snowstorms and hurricanes.

Image courtesy of Greg Lundeen (public domain) | Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Greg Lundeen (public domain) | Wikimedia Commons

Ghosts are a little more flexible, and sometimes appear in bright sunlight. The cliché lives on, though. In one haunted house novel I read, the dénouement just happened to coincide with a thunderstorm, gale force winds, AND a flood! I’m guilty of this, too: the end of The Quickening is accompanied by snow. Not quite as dramatic, admittedly, until you consider that the lightest dusting of snow is enough to strike terror into British hearts.

3. Sex and death (guilty)

These two fundamental human experiences have a strange and tortuous relationship, and never more so than in horror. If two characters in a horror film dare to have sex, it follows as night follows day that they’ll soon be dead. This is less evident in the haunted house genre, but it still occurs occasionally, if rather less obviously. Well, I suppose there’s a reason why they call orgasm “the little death”…

4. Mirror, mirror…

Ghosts and ghouls are truly the vainest of entities. They certainly spend enough time staring at themselves in mirrors. You know the score: the unsuspecting protagonist, bumbling around in a seemingly empty room, just happens to glance into a mirror, only to see a ghost staring back at him. Quite why the spirits of the restless dead would want to do this is unclear, but why let logic ruin a striking image?

5. Animal magic

A sure-fire way to find out whether your house is haunted is to examine the reactions of your dog. If there’s a ghost or similar entity within a mile of the place, he’ll whine, growl, whimper and howl. Don’t despair if you don’t have a dog; a young child can perform much the same function, by means of…

6. Imaginary friends

Many children have imaginary friends, of course, but really, if your kid’s new invisible chum is a seventeenth century tobacco merchant called Josiah, it’s time to move house.

7. Sticking it to the man, part one: never, ever rely on authority figures

There’s a strong anti-authoritarian streak in the horror genre. Authority figures – be they teachers, doctors, policemen, priests or parents – are at best incompetent and at worst malign. In ghost stories, this often translates to…

The sceptical patriarch (guilty as charged)

Yes, no matter how much weird stuff starts happening, this sensible-but-stuffy father figure will tetchily insist that there’s nothing wrong with the house that a good plumber couldn’t fix. Ghostly figures may keep appearing in the bedroom, and blood may start dripping from the ceiling, but the sceptical patriarch, showing admirable tenacity, will stick to his guns: there’s bound to be a rational explanation, if only the hysterical women and children around him would stop letting their imaginations get the better of them. “Pull yourself together!” (or words to that effect) is often uttered.

8. Sticking it to the man, part two: out of the mouths of babes

If educated, level-headed professionals are doomed to be humiliated in horror stories, then the reverse is true for the people you’re least likely to trust in real life, especially children and eccentrics. Children will cotton on to the truth long before their dullard parents, but the local eccentric is the person you really need to listen to. He/she is not deranged after all, you see. In fact, he/she knows exactly what is going on. If he/she tells you not to go near that house in the woods, then man, you’d better pay attention.

9. Why walk when you can skulk?

Even if you’re one of the good guys, that doesn’t mean that you can’t make a contribution to the sum total of terror. If you’re planning to pay a friendly visit to your new neighbours in their haunted house, don’t just ring the doorbell! Why not loom menacingly at the window instead, preferably in the dark, with your features obscured? Or better still, why not sneak into the house and appear unexpectedly in the hallway or on the stairs?

10. “I’m going to investigate!” (guilty)

Closely related to those other horror tropes, “Let’s split up!” (let’s not; there’s safety in numbers), and “I’ll be right back!” (er, no you won’t). Yes, those weird sounds in your cellar or outside your lonely cabin in the woods could be a monster or an axe-wielding maniac, but why barricade yourself in your bedroom or call the police when you can grab a torch and go to take a look yourself? Happy hunting, feeble human!

And last, but not least:

11. Never-ending story (guilty)

Once you get caught up in a horror story, you will never thereafter be completely safe. The ghost might have been exorcised, and the vampire might have been staked, but one thing may nevertheless be counted on with absolute certainty: THEY WILL BE BACK. This is the most important survival lesson provided by the horror genre. Never, ever let your guard down. The moment you think it’s all over will be the precise moment when the evil reasserts itself.

*

Oh, dear. Five out of eleven: must try harder. In my next ghost story, a family will go on holiday to the least threatening place imaginable (Barry Island? Bognor Regis?). The local eccentric will assure them that their bright, pleasant holiday home is not dangerous in the slightest. When odd things start happening, the sceptical mother will insist that all is well, backed up by her matter-of-fact children, but will be unable to calm the fears of her hysterical husband. The dog won’t give a damn either way. When the ghost appears, it’ll be in bright sunlight. All will be well, however, thanks to the timely intervention of calm, competent policemen and priests. The ghost will be banished to the afterlife, never to return – no, not even when somebody has sex.

Do you think I’m onto a winner? Leave a comment.

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27 thoughts on “Horror Clichés: the Ghostly Tropes that Never Die

  1. I loved this blog! Oh dear, I hope I’m not too guilty of this in my ghost stories, although I probably am. Very funny post and I loved the ending, can’t wait to read your completely cliched expunged ghost story 🙂

    1. Glad you liked the post, LK! To be absolutely fair, I don’t think I’ve ever read a ghost story that didn’t have at least a couple of clichés, and sometimes they really help to crank up the tension. A completely cliché-free ghost story would probably be either boring or just funny. I’m a big fan of your ghost stories!

  2. I think you’re on to something. I’d read it!

    P.S. I think we’re too hard on cliches. What story isn’t a cliche in some form or another?What makes a great book is what you do with cliches and how you write and whether underneath the cliches the author’s truth is uniquely felt. The Quickening had some cliches (as you guiltily admit) but oh, what you did with them!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Francisco! I think it’s probably true that all stories, however original, contain elements of clichés. There are only so many basic storylines! And I agree that whether ‘the author’s truth is uniquely felt’ is indeed a good measure as to how far the book transcends its own tropes.

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. I have somehow managed to be guilty of many ghostly tropes in a book that had no ghosts in it! That makes me smile, although perhaps it shouldn’t! The new blue background for your blog also makes me smile.

    I think you could make your hypothetical story quite creepy by inverting all of the tropes. It would be challenging. I know you’re up to it, though. 🙂

    And, as someone who read and loved THE QUICKENING, I wasn’t bothered by, nor did I actively notice any clichés. There is nothing in your writing that feels like warm leftovers of other genre stories. I think the greatest skill is to tell an old story in a new way, and you handled your haunting story with aplomb.

    -aniko

    1. Hello, Aniko! These ghostly tropes are for the most part also general horror tropes, so they do tend to crop up in non-haunted house horror. I could devote another (very long) blog post to more general horror clichés…

      Despite this post, I’m not really bothered by horror clichés, as long as they aren’t overly used. Many of the clichés exist for very good reasons – namely, that they help to up the tension. It wouldn’t be nearly as tense if the protagonist’s car started first time, or their cell phone reception was perfect… 🙂

  4. Thanks for encouragement, Mari!
    I remember when I did a writing course, the tutor complained because I’d written a ghost story set in a haunted old mansion. ‘Nobody wants that sort of thing any more’ except – I was brought up in haunted old mansions my parents were rennovating (it was less fashionable then, you could get them cheap)! The ghosts would not have been happy. That was a few years ago, maybe the tide has turned about the old mansions and they’ve come back into fashion for ghost stories?

    1. I honestly don’t know what the current fashions are, Lucinda, though I’ve a vague idea that at the moment YA and erotica are the ‘in’ genres. I don’t pay much attention to that, as I’m pretty sure that if I set out to write a crowd-pleaser it would end up being terrible! I think you have to write what is meaningful to you, fashionable or not. Speaking personally, however, ghost stories in creepy old houses will always be much in demand with this reader! 🙂

  5. A very funny blog, Mari. Purging cliché from one’s work is enormously important, I think. George Orwell’s exhortation to avoid unoriginal combinations of words seems excellent advice to me. So a cry should never be ‘blood curdling’ since it adds nothing to our actual understanding of the sensation, but merely reconvenes words that have become all too familiar with one another. This calls upon the writer to work very much harder, though. As for narrative devices, it’s much more difficult to be original, and all the more so when working within a genre, which by its nature is governed by conventions. Your anti-horror story sounds like it has great scope for undermining lazy writing and thinking!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Paul. I think some clichés are almost certain to slip through the net, but I agree that it’s very important to try to trim them away. Easier said than done, of course: reading through my first drafts, I’m often horrified by how many clichés there are, both in terms of language and narrative devices. I’m beginning to think that the anti-horror story would be an excellent writing exercise if nothing else!

  6. Loved the picture of the ‘holiday’ house, Mari – exactly as I pictured the house in ‘The Quickening’, but coincidentally the same visual I have for ‘Turn of the Screw’.

    Your idea about an alternative horror story could work well. In ‘The Shining’ many of the best scenes occur in tungsten lighting and wouldn’t have worked half as well with ‘horror’ lighting.

    I have a novel completed in 1995 which has nearly all of your tropes, so my feeling that it should never be published has been confirmed by your post!

    1. Thanks for the comment, J.D. The picture of the house is from the latest film adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’, but it could be from just about any other classic-style ghost story!

      Never say never – perhaps your 1995 novel just needs a bit of re-working!

      1. I remember my then agent saying ‘this is quite disgusting’. I never found out if he meant the standard of writing or the somewhat visceral content, since we parted company shortly afterwards.

        But… I think you should write the anti-horror story, if only as a short. It could be both comic and horrific. It might turn out to be genuinely frightening.

  7. Mari, I am here to grumble. As an official “sensible-but-stuffy father figure,” I must “tetchily insist that there’s nothing wrong with the [post] that a good plumber couldn’t fix.” You have not numbered “The sceptical patriarch” section. In these days of rampant feminism, are we older patriarchal males of so little value that bestowing even a single numeral upon us is regarded as waste? (Be quiet, Lucinda!) Or is it the case that you harbour residual fears of male authority figures and blanch at the thought of pasting a number on the mere mention of them?

    Perhaps there are the makings of a horror story somewhere in this. The Haunted Post: “a hapless young woman is plunged into a desperate life and death struggle to keep half-mad patriarchs from commenting on her blog.”

    Great post, I really enjoyed it.

    1. Brilliant! 🙂 You’re right, of course: I should have assigned a number (7.1?) to the sceptical patriarch, but mentally I just lumped him together with all the other inept figures of authority. Not that I’m saying patriarchs are necessarily inept, of course … by no means … I’d better stop digging here.

      I like the idea of the horror story, but everyone, including patriarchs, is welcome to comment here!

      Glad you liked the post!

  8. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d certainly donate to this outstanding blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to
    my Google account. I look forward to brand new updates and will talk
    about this site with my Facebook group. Talk soon!

    1. Hello, jasonoruairc, and thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found the post helpful. Your ghost story sounds very interesting, so let me know how it goes. And thanks for following my blog – I’m just about to pay a return visit to yours!

  9. Hello Mari! Ha,ha! Great post! I’m a huge horror fan and I’m aware of the clichés, but it’s awesome seeing them listed like this. You did a great job. As a horror writer I haven’t written a ghost story yet, but I do plan on it. I’ll be using this list as reference 😉 I’m going to pin it to my writing board on Pinterest. Thank you! 😀

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