Horror/Slasher is a hugely popular genre, which people just cannot resist watching. This article will break down the genre, it’s codes and conventions, narrative structures and more. Be sure to check the hyperlinks for sources and examples!
Let’s Play: Name That Movie!
Let’s Set the Scene:
There is a killer on the loose. Tension is high in the college and students are dropping like flies. A girl and her best friends begin to investigate and find out about the killer, as the police are following cold, near dormant leads. On the other hand, it becomes apparent that the more they learn, the more danger they’re in. The girl and her best friends go to a dangerous situation due to the circumstances, like a party. This becomes a bloodbath. The protagonist’s best friend is killed brutally in front of her. The killer is revealed to be someone right under our noses the entire time. A motive is given and with the help of some information given earlier in the film, the girl manages to escape the killer to tell the tale,
Worked it out yet?
Well, of course, as you probably guessed it was a bit of a trick question. This synopsis, with a few discrepancies in the stories here and there, generally applies to a chunk of the horror/slasher genre. This is a very formulaic, general and cliché set of codes and conventions which can be spotted, at least in part, across a variety of horror films.
Unfortunately, the conventions of Horror/Slasher movies have become so overplayed that they’ve become a set of tropes, a set of shortcuts that crop up time and time again in movies. Rather than being the defining thing of a genre, or a baseline, as conventions should be, some movies take these conventions as a script written for them and their work entirely consists of them. Generally speaking, there are a few common baseline conventions which tend to crop up to set the scenes.
Helplessness is key to charge any sort of emotion in the horror genre. Without the characters being in a state of peril, simply put, it isn’t a horror movie. There are a lot of ways this is done, mostly through characters’ physiques – i.e the protagonists not being as physically strong as the enemy, for example in the cases where the lead characters consist of smaller teenagers, usually girls in horror movies (as you’ll learn as this article goes on) against a larger, brawny brute, or even a highly functioning psychopath who has every step the protagonists take mapped out before they even take them. Another way this is achieved, and this one applies to nearly every horror movie, is through the use of a secluded location. A burning question that if left unanswered will ruin a horror movie is: ‘Why didn’t they just call for help?’. Use of a secluded location is the easiest wrap up to that question and all of its stems. Whether it be an abandoned city, a spooky cabin in the woods, even space. As long as they’re trapped alone with noone to save them, peril is much easier to create. Conveniently there is no cellular service in these kinds of places, which helps tie up that loose end too. Another classic convention is that characters don’t treat the situation seriously. There will always be a character who laughs off the danger, or maybe the characters will decide to turn up to places where they could be at risk because they’ve put the situation out of their mind. Also, the idea that locking oneself in a room is apparently safe. Usually a protagonist will jump to the conclusion that they must hide somewhere instead of running away or trying to escape. Either that or they will willingly walk towards and investigate a strange incident.
Another trope that crops up very often is a fake scare- the tone will be set and the audience will expect a scare, but the scare is just a perfectly normal event, like someone making the protagonist jump, etc. Another classic is the stereotypical use of pathetic fallacy – i.e a dark and stormy night – OooOOOoOoOOoh!
The most notorious stereotype of all is the ‘Final Girl’ trope. The ‘Final Girl’ stereotype states that someone has to live to tell the tale, that it’s most likely the protagonist and that it’s most likely a young woman – hence, ‘final girl’. Theres also a clear correlation which shows that these girls have to be chaste in a good count of cases. Laurie Strode from Halloween, Alice Hardy from Friday the 13th, Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street – hell, even Ellen Ripley from Alien to some extent even shares this. The ‘final girl’ theory, written by Carol J. Clover in her books Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film and Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film is defined by a few characteristics, which are described rather eloquently here:
“The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified.” – C.J Clover, Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film
Not only is this a convention of slasher/horror films, it also is an extreme example of stereotyping and representation of women, and arguable sexism that the filmmakers choose to use simply for the sake of following a ‘satisfying’ narrative.
Other stereotypes include the alpha male jock character, who always takes charge, the whore, who is an ‘impure’ popular girl who is far from chaste and for some reason always dies first because of this, the misleading character who ends up being a villain the whole time and finally the stoner/pervert character.
As with all movies, mise-en-scene is not usually something you can spot all of across loads of different movies. No one movie is exactly identical to another, though there are some clear things that tend to carry across into plenty of movies.
Colour is a common toy to play with in most genres, and most genres have a conventional scheme. With horror movies, it’s green or blue. Blue being cold and harsh and causing the audience to feel more sad and off, green being dirty, eerie and unnerving and giving the audience a feeling of unease. This also ties into Production Technology, as it is nowadays mostly pushed through the use of colour grading.
Another common colour convention is high contrast. A high contrast image with a low-key light tends to make darker details completely invisible in darkness but also makes richer details much more prominent. Things from eyes all the way down to deep wrinkles are far more accentuated and this can be an incredibly powerful effect because of it. Even something as harmless as Teletubbies looks scary in high contrast.
This is mostly used when something needs to be shrouded in darkness and needs to be intimidating. This was used to great effect with the spooky nun lady in The Conjuring 2, with her deep black robes, stark white face and deep blood red mouth.
(I don’t know about you but I find that proper scary.)
Low-key lighting is another classic horror convention when it comes to mise-en-scene. It really sells darkness effectively without the screen being pitch black. This low-key look is done in almost every horror movie at some point in the darkness. One of my favourite usages is in The Exorcist as the Priest arrives (one of the strongest and most memorable images in the entire movie). The lighting is so low-key it reaches a chiaroscuro type effect, giving off a strong noir vibe and really adds creepiness to the scene.
A more contemporary lighting effect that crops up in modern horror films mis-en-scene is the use of lighting in reverse of what is expected. A usual use of high-key lighting implies safety and purity. Warm colours give you security and make you feel comfortable seeing what is going on in full and as if you were in a tungsten lit house. It’s a cosy feeling. Modern horror rather predictably plays on this thought and turns it on its head, throwing your subconscious mind off by throwing horror into a warm scene. Once again The Conjuring 2 comes to mind with the very same shot shown earlier.
Due to the hallway of the house being incredibly well lit and warmly toned, the stark contrast of Valak at the end of the corridor is quite jarring. It’s a super effective scene and hits harder this way, than if it were just another jumpscare. The setting of horror films is very similar to lighting. Conventionally, a horror film will be set, as aforementioned, in a secluded location where no help is available, for example The Woman In Black‘s setting of a fairly stereotypical spooky old house. However, once again as the years have gone on horror films have slowly started bringing the spooks all the way to your front door, throwing terrifying experiences into a nice house and playing with the viewer’s senses of security. A very good example of that – which isn’t quite as in-your-face as something like Paranormal Activity – is Sinister, setting itself in a quaint little house not too different from yours or mine and stereotypically spooky.
Once again delving back into the more Production Technology side of Horror but a genre convention, one of the most classic things to do in a horror is use the camera to your advantage. Cinematographers of horror have a few tricks up their sleeves that they capitalise on across nearly every single horror movie. One of the most common tricks is a simple Dutch angle, or titled frame. This helps sell unease to the audience because the scene isn’t as straight as it used to be so it really pushes this feeling that something is just slightly off about a scene. Here’s a classic use in The Twighlight Zone.
Another classic cinematography technique in horror movies is lining a scare up on the left third. There are countless examples of this in Western cinema, as we read from left to right, which draws our eye to the left naturally. This means the first place you’ll look when it cuts to a scene is the left hand side of the frame and 9 times out of 10 that’s where the scare will be. This is further pushed by the cinematographer’s use of phi, trying to force the viewer to look in that golden direction where the scare seriously hits them. Another way this is achieved is through racking focus. Essentially, any way a cinematographer can guide the viewer’s eye, you’ll see crop up in horror.
Semiotics, or enigma, is nice and eloquently put here by Nick Lacy when talking about Barthe’s Narrative Codes:
To put it in short, an audience will see sign or enigma in a text (or in this case a film) and fill in the blanks using intertextuality. They’ll associate a feeling, image or sound – a sign -to another thing through the context brought from other texts in the genre or even other life lessons in general. Blaringly obvious signs are things like knives, indicating that there’s a killer on the loose, pentagrams – specifically upside-down ones – implying the religious imagery of perversion and evil. The same goes with crosses/crucifixes and upside-down crosses/crucifixes, tending to convey a demonic attachment or an attachment to the antichrist. More recently Ouija boards have become a symbol of poltergeists and once again demons. These signs are chosen because people take this fear of the unknown and take the religious associations very seriously. Even if you don’t believe in such things, a sense of dread and unease certainly comes with these items.
Another piece of imagery that has forever stuck with the horror genre is simply the imagery of eyes. Eyes hold most of the expression and have become a strong symbol in the horror genre. The gaze can tell a story for itself, whether it’s menacing and unnatural, like in The Ring:
Glaring and simply uneasy, to show the intent of the character, like in Psycho:
Or even, pulling from Psycho again, vacant and lifeless, like the eyes of a dead person:
Punching in on a close-up of an eye is not only a convention in the mis-en-scene of the horror genre, but has at this point become a staple piece of symbolism in it too.
Soundtrack is another classic example of semiotics in horror, but also the production technology side of horror. When rising strings kick in, you are to expect a scare from your brain’s desire to know what’s next, through intercontextuality. When a droning sound holds, you are to feel uneasy for the sake of the character. When a large orchestral hit sounds, the scare is ramped up by 10 because you feel threatened by the sound. A contemporary and intriguing use of soundtrack used in Paranormal Activity, particularly is the use of low frequency rumbling tones. This triggers the brain to expect something bad to happen, as it is a similar frequency to waves that accompany natural disaster and also believed to accompany real paranormal activity. This has been dubbed as the ‘Fear Frequency’ and it’s worth looking into if you’re interested in sound design. The movie also plays with this by not only putting it in in times of peril, but also taking it out in times of peril too, leaving the audience completely unsuspecting of any scares without this pre-warning that they eventually become accustomed to.
Narrative structure is fairly similar across all lines of horror. Usually, we can apply some extent of Todorov’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ theory onto them.
Take Scream, for example. The film begins with a prologue, with Drew Barrymore’s infamous death scene, but past that we enter the Hero’s Journey for Sidney. The film starts with an ordinary world and the Call to Adventure is the spark of the killings and their ties to our protagonist. At this point we sort of jump ahead in this case, reaching the the point where our protagonist crosses the threshold by being thrown into the situation by the killer phoning her. She makes an enemy fairly early – Gale, the reporter. Thus begins the many tests of the movie. One of the more in-your-face tests is the test of Sidney losing her virginity. Scream pokes fun at the final girl trope throughout and this is one of the most obvious ones. The first time around is played off, but in the second time, when Billy tries again at the Party, there is an outright narration of the virgin trope. Literally immediately after, Billy is stabbed in the back by the killer and thus presents the Ordeal – the final test, if you will. After gathering the information she has, Sidney now has to defeat and escape the killer, in order for the story to be complete to the final girl trope. Not surprisingly, she finds the motive of the killer(s) and then works to defeat the enemy. Afterwards we reach back to the ordinary world as Gale reports the news in the closing scene. You could argue that the film has a multi-strand story, as Gale undergoes a more selfish Hero’s Journey too, with the Call to Adventure being the return of the killer and with her strong belief that the killer of Sidney’s mother has been falsely accused. The tests are the many attempts to uncover the true identity of the killers, the ordeal is finding them and ultimately saving Sidney’s life and obviously the closing of the film is the resolution for her story too.
Generally speaking, Horror as a genre closely follows this Hero’s Journey format, but with slashers and more conventional horror films switching up the ending for a Final Girl format. Overall I’d state that a closely bonded multi-strand story line, like with the case of Scream is very common in horror as a genre. The strands are very tightly intertwined throughout, which may not be the case in other genres. Even in the most basic group slasher movies, the characters all have their own story branch, but are all incredibly tightly intertwined throughout and you could interpret the killer as another strand as usually a motive is presented throughout the film and obviously while linking with the other strands, it’s usually a very separate story, or side to the coin, that the protagonists are following. Horror movies are fairly closed off narratives. Even films with sequels end pretty straight up and wrap up all the loose ends and don’t leave it open for a sequel that maybe an adventure movie would. We always finish the Hero’s Journey in each film – nothing is left half-way to be closed off later.