Tropes on the ropes: things I avoid

How I often feel about today's horror movies.

When I was a kid–and my kid-hood stretched well into my twenties–nothing in the horror genre bothered me. Some things made deep impressions, of course (the climax of Night of the Living Dead, for example, introduced me to nihilism), but it didn’t trouble me or give me the kind of nightmares that make you swear off things. And I was up for anything, from the various Friday the 13th slasher murders to the lascivious decapitated head in Re-Animator. My absolute favorite horror film, Dawn of the Dead, remains one of the genre’s goriest even now.

I’m not sure when that changed, or why. I only know it has. There are simply some emotions I have no desire to feel, especially in my “entertainment.” I won’t read or watch anything that I know includes them, and I’ll turn something off or close the book if I encounter them with no warning. And I’m wondering if it’s just me getting wimpy in my middle age, or if other people also experience this.

Not all of them are inexplicable, though. A big one for me is anything that focuses on the terror, pain or deaths of children. The source of that is easy, and I can hear it banging around downstairs as I write this. I’ve heard from other parents that that they’ve experienced something similar, so I know I’m not alone. It’s a visceral, emotional response that I simply don’t want to feel. I still get queasy thinking about a scene from American Horror Story where a doctor was sewing pieces of his dead baby together. If it makes me a wimp, then, I can accept that.

This year's model of the smug, petty villain.

A much more personal thing is the handsome, smug, petty villain. This one is new, and has manifested only in the past ten years or so. Watching Downton Abbey with my wife, I was totally unprepared for my reaction to Thomas the scheming footman: absolute, full-on rage. And while I understand that I’m putting his face on people from my own past, and that the rage is really directed at them and not the character, it doesn’t help me “enjoy” the show. In fact, it sort of makes me dread watching it, much as I’d dread running into those same people. It’s also kept me from enjoying many ostensible comedies, which often feature this sort of character as the main bad guy.

Getting back to horror, I also don’t enjoy lingering shots of people in pain, which means I avoid the whole “torture porn” subgenre. The horror films I grew up with may have featured high body counts and outlandishly gory death scenes, but they didn’t include lingering, almost pornographic shots of people (usually women) in agony. This started, in my view, with Wes Craven, whose cleverness goes hand-in-hand with his sadism, and became a genre of its own with the first Saw. Whenever I see one of these films advertised, I picture a bunch of twenty-something young men in a film editing room, drinking, farting and laughing hysterically at their own cleverness. It’s the frat boy approach to horror, and as an adult, I have no interest in exposing myself to any more of it. (Whether horror even counts as an “adult” genre is something I’ve long pondered, and still haven’t resolved for myself.)  I’m also reminded of something Mike Nelson wrote:

“[It] makes one wonder how, with movie making being such a formidable task, requiring so much drive and vision, how could an individual choose to put so much ugliness on screen?”

I also don’t enjoy creators who get readers/audiences emotionally attached to characters they plan to capriciously kill off. It’s one reason I’ve avoided, and plan to continue avoiding, A Game of Thrones. It’s not really a criticism, since this doesn’t bother most readers and viewers, and of course drama must be able to include death. But I’ve lost enough real people in my life that I simply get no pleasure from losing fictional ones due to a creator’s arbitrary decisions. And honestly, I feel this sort of thing violates an unspoken contract between creator and consumer. Real life is capricious enough; one reason I like fiction is the security of knowing that events will make sense. When they don’t, at some level I feel betrayed.

I get less visceral reactions to some of the trite and obvious (not to mention unrealistic) tropes in more general forms of entertainment: the fat schlubby guy who wins the hot girl, sex scenes where the actress keeps her bra on, the whole Manic Pixie Dream Girl concept, the idea that immaturity is something to be treasured, and so forth. Part of it is simply that, as a writer, I recognize how false these concepts are. The rest is weariness: have you got nothing new?

And now, I’m asking you. What tropes/plot points/thematic elements do you deliberately avoid, and why? Leave a comment and you’ll be entered to win a copy of the Burn Me Deadly paperback, which includes a sneak peek of Wake of the Bloody Angel. Deadline is midnight, April 2.

12 Comments on “Tropes on the ropes: things I avoid”

  1. I also hate torture porn. It makes me feel disgusted more than scared. And half the disgust stems from the fact someone thought it was something people want to see as entertainment.

    A rather personal one is my hatred of cancer or lingering illness being used as a cheap way to introduce drama and emotional tension. I’ve lost too many friends and family members to want to see it portrayed realistically and most of the time in books or television I find it sensationalised which just angers me.

    Then there is the ‘Grease’ moments where a character suddenly decides that their whole personality up until this point is unsatisfactory and changes everything about them and we are supposed to believe it is genuine and positive.

    Then there are the ones I just laugh at now. For instance, the orphaned, virgin farm boy with a prophetic destiny. 😛

  2. I’m (attempting) to write a horror novel now. I’m trying my damned best to avoid a few things, but my biggest concern is with the characters doing exactly what the reader might expect. As I’m writing, a part of me is suggesting something that I know would be satisfying on a certain level (“of course he goes into the scary room alone instead of getting help”) but I keep correcting myself, thinking, what is the least likely thing to happen in this situation? I also want to avoid stereotypical characters. I remember you writing that villains should think of themselves as the good guys, and that’s really stuck with me.

  3. I agree with the ones you listed, especially anything that portrays torture — especially if it lingers on it. I never could get into horror … never could “get” fear and pain as “entertainment.” I also avoid anything that seems to normalize mistreatment of children or adolescents. The trite and stereotypical annoy me, but sometimes they can be tolerable (like in the recent “Good Deeds” movie. And treating the vulgar, immoral, or profane as acceptable also just rubs me wrong.

  4. I’m not a big horror fan, but in general terms, I truly cannot enjoy those lingering torture things, either. Or mistreatment of children or animals. And I truly hate when they use an animal as a sympathy grabber or plot driver, and then just drop it, so you never know what happened to the animal. I remember a movie a long time ago (have no idea what it was now) where you saw two cats in carriers being loaded into a plane. The plane (oh, surprise) crashed. Never saw the cats after that first scene. That bothered me for days!

  5. I used to read a fair amount of horror but a couple of short stories written by Stephen King did me in, the worst being “The Mist” – later re-titled, I think. I avoid “entertainment” were good does not win out in the end. If I want an unhappy ending to a story, I can read/watch just about any news outlet, any day of the week. There are plenty of perfectly dreadful, real life dramas that never end well.

    And speaking of purported “real life” dramas, I despise “reality” TV shows. Whoever came up with the shows like the The Bachelor/-ette, Survivor and the like should die a slow and painful death, in my opinion.

    Ideally, I prefer interesting characters who perform in somewhat unexpected ways and despite their flaws manage to rule the day.

    Oh, and no Twilight type crap, ever. If I ever meet that woman, I plan to kick her in the shins on behalf of girls, women and non-sparkly non-humans everywhere!

  6. I still love horror, but do find myself cringing more and more about more realistic horrific events. I cannot watch realistic car accidents – especially the trend in the past few years to show them “real-time” (as opposed to slowmo, off screen) – and even more so since I recently had one. I’m with Star on the “reality” tv fodder, as well – what a crock.

    On the other hand – bring on the zombies! 🙂

  7. Anything that puts children in realistic danger. There was a very popular book some years past that dealt with the kidnapping of a child, and I could not read it. Even though I was assured “it came out okay.” No such thing.

  8. 100% agree with disliking torture porn. I much prefer the psychological thriller to the blood and gore stuff. Lately, my least favorite trope is the reluctant messiah. Seems the books I’ve read recently portray him as a sniveling, fearful or selfish wimp. And I am absolutely sick of the ordinary person who discovers they are the last surviving/heir to a dynasty of powerful magical/alien/whatever.

  9. Having read, and being a big fan of, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels, I have to badger your assessment. I think part of what makes his stories so compelling is knowing that these characters you grow to empathize with so thoroughly are not necessarily going to make it to the next chapter. I would not characterize any of these major characters’ deaths as capricious. Each of them has been firmly motivated by events in the story and has far-reaching after-effects. You may not expect them to happen when they happen, but they are very well set up, and usually quite powerful. Killing a beloved character for shock value is a rotten idea, but so far I’ve not felt that to be the case with Song of Ice and Fire. These deaths carry hard-earned lessons with them. My two cents. Also, I hate Saw, but I love the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

  10. Good stuff, Alex. I myself can still tolerate damn near anything in the way of horror tropes, but I am with you on the smarmy handsome villain thing. Those guys drive me crazy. More in keeping with my personal experience (and putting faces on people) is the female counterpart, the which I cannot tolerate one iota. Weeds? Not for me.

    But I have to disagree on the MPDG point. I see a lot of people railing on this character archetype, and I find it frustrating. I have known quite a few Manic Pixie Dream Girls. The first I can recall was literally manic– Ultradian Bipolar Manic, to be exact. I met her in a psych ward (and if that’s not getting personal, I don’t know what is) and found it a very rewarding experience. Of course, I connected with her, which no one else there was able to do.

    Since then, working in theatre and meeting people in day to day life, I’ve met some less iconic examples, and largely enjoyed knowing them. I find that there’s very little innocence and undimmed excitement in the world, and I’ll take it where I find it.

  11. I love to watch a good scary movie. I prefer ones that make you think as opposed to the ones with the in-your-face blood and guts. Give me a plot line that makes me think, not one that will make me sick! Some of my favorite thriller/horror movies: “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Black Swan,” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

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