We all like watching movies in one form or another, but not everyone likes the horror genre – per se, and if you travel back in time to witness the birth of motion pictures, you will find that even back then among the very first features there were horror films. In 1888 people watched with mouth agape as Louis Le Prince demonstrated the world’s first official moving picture. As with all new inventions or technological advances it didn’t take long before people jumped on the new age band wagon and developed Prince’s initial prototype machinery into what we now know as the movie camera: a device to record and capture moving images. Eight years later in 1896 George Melies made a film “House of the Devil,” which is now widely recognised as being the very first horror film ever to be made.
The idea of exploring the darker side of the human psyche was easily facilitated by movies and soon, across the world, the idea caught on that it was good idea to frighten cinema audiences simply because they wanted to be frightened by something outlandish and creepy. In 1922 the silent horror film “Nosferatu,” the most terrifying horror film to date was unleashed upon unsuspecting cinema audiences. It might be an easy thing to scoff at such films today, but it has to be viewed in the context of the time it was made, and in 1922 it was a truly scary experience for the susceptible cinema goer.
By the mid to late 20’s the horror genre firmly established itself as a viable cinematic product and people flocked to the cinema in droves to see the latest fright flick on offer, and films such as Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, to name but a few, became iconic movies in the era in which they were made. Today, if you ask any adult movie goer to name a couple of horror films from the early 20th Century it is likely that they will name either Frankenstein or Dracula. This would not be surprising at all because even today they are as popular now as they were back in the day, and in the 21st Century new TV and film productions featuring these iconic characters are still being made; they have endured and withstood the test of time which in itself is testimony to the longevity of the horror genre.
So far so good, but for one irritating caveat.
I am referring to what has come to be known as the horror trope, a plot device mainly used to isolate a victim so they can fall prey to whatever monster, ghoul, demon, or anything bestial that is the main focus of the horror movie in question. Unfortunately, it was mostly the female character that had to undergo the terror brought about by this overused and predictable device.
A few bog standard examples of what I mean. . .
A walk up a dark staircase with only candle light as a guide because all of a sudden the electricity blew out for reasons unknown.
A panic situation when a car is the only escape, but as soon as the key is turned in the ignition the car will not start – which is strange because at all other times before this event the car worked perfectly fine.
An ignored warning not to walk home via the forest route because dangers lurk there – ignored because the writer couldn’t imagine a more plausible method for which the intended victim would decide to ever do that.
A group of people all running away from something frightening which is chasing them, when suddenly, the girl in the group stumbles and falls over, then gets gobbled up by whatever was pursuing them.
The fumbling then dropping of a bunch of keys when trying to get indoors for safety.
Using a flashlight to light the way which suddenly stops working despite several thumps in an attempt to get it to turn back on.
A small group of people – usually three, and one of them deciding it’s a good idea to split up in their search for a friend or colleague; the isolated person of the three ends up paying for their poor choice or course of action with their life.
A monster is loose in a small town and the first person to see it is a woman who is on her own, she lets out a blood curdling scream, but by the time help arrives the monster has gone which leaves everyone wondering what the hell is going on.
A strange event happens amongst a group of people (usually in a house) but only one person is witness to it and then suffers the incredulity of all those that didn’t see it. . .how convenient.
There are tons more I could give an example of, but suffice to say you get the general idea of the mechanics of a horror trope. It was the notion of isolation and the fact that no one wants to be alone in a terrifying situation which inspired the pioneers of horror movies to play on and then develop this device to an extreme. Back in the day, and cinema being relatively new, the feeling of novelty was strong for cinema goers and their expectations were far removed from what they are today. Despite their existence, plot devices were unheard of back then and people just wanted to enjoy the cinematic experience and would sit through anything without giving much thought about the construction of the story and how it played out. It wasn’t because they were stupid or undiscerning – far from it, it was because the depth of their appreciation was just as raw and new as the films they were watching. It took decades before the content and quality of script writing came under closer scrutiny by more discerning cinema audiences; they had grown up, matured, just like their expectations of what made a film plot feasible despite the required suspension of disbelief on their behalf.
Protestations such as – that wouldn’t happen, she/he wouldn’t do that, were becoming common place statements from the mouths of audiences whose appreciation, now finely tuned, would recognise a trope just as soon as they saw it. But even with this newly evolved knowledge of the audience the horror film maker persisted with the cheesy installment of tropism in their films. Apart from one shining movie triumph in 1968, “The Devil Rides Out,” (taken from the Dennis Wheatley novel) Hammer Films fell victim to poor script writing with an over reliance of the horror trope which resulted in their films being laughable at best. During the 70’s new horror film makers emerged who had better sensitivity that belonged to the same evolved generation of movie goers, and for the first time we saw more intelligent script writing with little or no tropism included. Writer/directors such as David Cronenberg proved that horror films could be truly visceral without any need for cheese or tropism. At the end of the decade in 1979 Ridley Scott’s “Alien” saw the horror film come of age with a ground-breaking science fiction tale about an alien life form who gets onboard a space tug then wreaks havoc among the crew. The film had a couple of cheesy moments but in general it was well executed, and for the first time a woman played the lead role who wasn’t a shrinking violet, but a woman prepared to fight for her own survival. The female lead role scenario has been copied multiple times ever since.
Through the 80’s and 90’s to the present day, horror films are still popular and continue to draw people to the cinema as they did way back in the 1920’s. You have a right to think that tropism as we know it has been totally eradicated from modern film making, but in thinking that you would be wrong. Tropism is as alive today as it was back when cinema was born, it is hard-wired to the horror genre for reasons known rather than unknown, and this reason is simple to understand – when you can’t think of a better or more intelligent way to further develop your story or plot, use the trope because it puts the character exactly where you need them to be at any given moment so you can produce the cheesy scare for your audience.
A couple of years ago I went to the cinema to watch “Alien Covenant,” a film I had high expectations of, But I was appalled at the level of tropism Ridley Scott had made a conscious decision to include in his film. I came away from the film knowing it was glorious to look at with all the digital colour grading and camera angles, effects etc, but the film was seriously let down by the use of cheesy tropism which as we all know by now is as old as the Hollywood hills themselves; the very place where this dubious device was first conceived. My suspension of disbelief is incapable of stretching that far in this modern age of cinema, especially now when intelligent script writing should be prevalent.
On an ending note, and in line with female characters in peril scenario, my mock-up photo composite (above image) harkens back to the early days of black & white horror films when everything was grainy and moody; a time when cinema was in its infancy and unwittingly invented a plot device which would endure through the decades, and which would eventually plague most of the horror films that followed.
And I would just like to add that, no female characters were harmed during the making of my photo.