Ah, horror movies. They are, hands down, the best part of October. Costumes, candy, and colors complete the picture, but let’s be real: if you’re not trembling from at least a dozen horror movies this month, are you really celebrating Halloween?
But as fun and awesome as horror movies are, the genre has some issues. No genre is free from tropes or cliches, and Hollywood as a whole has several representation problems. Having said that, I’d argue that these tropes are more harmful when they manifest in horror movies because of the violence associated with them.
I am all for watching people get brutally murdered over the stupid decisions they make. But when I see an assorted cast and can predict with almost laser-like accuracy who is going to die, why, and in what order simply based on race and gender, then it sucks the fun right out of it. (Looking at you, Life.)
Because I don’t want this post to be a complete downer, I’m going to add a Buck the Trope section at the end of each part, where I mention a movie that doesn’t have that specific issue. Feel free to add more such movies in the comments!
This might be a weird one for me to get huffy about. Who doesn’t love chivalry and heroic sacrifice? Especially when it has the added bonus of ensuring that a woman makes it to the final showdown, if not survive the movie.
But this trope goes too far in glorifying that sacrifice. Which, considering the fact that suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young and middle-aged men in America, is really something we don’t want to do. (Stats for that little fact here and here).
Buck the Trope: Lights Out (though that one has its own issues) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil.
Virgin vs. Whore
We all know this one. The 80s tried to turn horror movies into threatening sex ed talks that are at least more entertaining than the coach in Mean Girls. Despite being unable to convince teenagers not to bone, the trope has remained. In fact, it’s worse now, because the guy can usually survive the encounter, if not the movie, while his girlfriend is one of the first victims.
This one has a very old flavor of sexism in that it equates sex outside of marriage (or at least long-term relationships) with immorality in women. As such, it pairs the two archetypes with appropriate personalities: the “whore” is a bitch, the “virgin” a sweetheart. While the “whore with a heart of gold” trope is old in crime movies and thrillers, she’s practically non-existent in horror movies. Which is a shame, because that’d be pretty cool.
Buck the Trope: not a movie, but Stranger Things kills off the virgin while the female lead has sex in the next room.
Hoo boy. Where to start.
Mental health conditions have long been used as a scapegoat for the horror genre. The lazy, ignorant writer’s way of justifying the terrible actions of the villain. Because surely, if you’re going to commit murder, you have to have some appropriately scary diagnosis, right?
Do your fucking research. People with mental health disabilities rarely turn violent. When they do, it’s usually self-inflicted (re: self-harm like cutting or suicide). They’re not going to start plotting to stab the neighbors if they miss a medication. As a matter of fact, they are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than its perpetrator. (Have an article from Harvard and the AMHCA).
This trope is the equivalent of writing a Muslim terrorist in an action movie. It’s overused, mostly inaccurate, and very harmful.
Bucking the Trope (sort of): Lights Out portrayed mental illness very well, but fumbled in a different way. The main character’s mother suffers from a variety of mental health issues, depression being one of them. She’s also haunted by a ghost/demon thing. She realizes that if she dies, the monsters dies with her, and so commits suicide.
This promotes the very, VERY dangerous idea that suicide is a viable–if not downright honorable–way to “beat” depression. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
Bad movie. No cookie.
Cross-dressing & Queerness
This one has the added bonus of getting queerness and cross-dressing mixed up with mental health issues, promoting the old belief that if you’re not adhering to strict gender roles, you ain’t right in the head.
This one is less common today as queer rights and awareness gain traction. But it does happen, and when audiences see cross-dressing/queerness go hand-in-hand with murder, it hurts. It encourages the idea that trans and nonbinary people are morally wrong and harmful to society, both justifications used by people who hurt them in real life. (Here’s a report on hate crimes done to the queer community if you think I’m bullshitting you.)
Bucking the Trope: the only time I’ve seen a trans person or cross-dresser portrayed in a positive light is Ann Taylor from American Horror Story. While she has the major issue of being played by a cisgender man (peddling the belief that trans women are actually men, a problem in this genre and Hollywood as a whole), the character herself is very well-written, making her one of the strongest protagonists in the entire show.
The black guy may not be the first to die in a horror movie anymore, but they still don’t get to survive to the end.
Sometimes the token POC will get a really cool death, either because they do some damage to the villain on the way down and/or they sacrifice themselves to save another (whiter) character. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if the reserve ever happened. If anyone knows a horror movie where a white character sacrifices their life to save a character of color, please let me know.
Other movies side-step that specific problem simply by not having any characters of color. It’s usually a movie where the cast is very small (re: A Quiet Place or The Witch). Again: not an issue in isolation, but when it happens again and again and again and again…
Bucking the Trope: Jordan Peele’s movies specifically put black people in the center. And we can’t forget that Deep Blue Sea is the first horror movie to have a black survivor, and it somehow wasn’t Samuel L. Jackson.
Know any more horror movies that buck the trope? We want to see them! Drop them in the comments below. Happy Halloween!