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.
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.
“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.
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.