Horror Clichés in need of an Exorcism

People who know me, should've suspected my demon nature for some time.
People who know me, should’ve suspected my demon nature for some time.

(This article was inspired by a conversation in Red Letter Media‘s review of Deliver Us From Evil, check it out)

In film, certain paranormal plot devices have overstayed their welcome: exorcisms, found footage movies, forbidden objects sold at the mall, and the claim that there’s a true story behind them all. We used to find these themes intriguing, until we did our research.

Now we know that sleep paralysis causes hallucinations that look like ghostly visitations, that sleep deprivation turns shadows into forms, and that night terrors are a product of neurology not demonology.

We know that the regression techniques used to uncover alien abductions relied on leading questions. A hypnotherapist would ask, “How high is the light off the ground,’ and their patient imagined it in the sky, based on the implication.

We know the same techniques caused the Satanic panic that had patients crying “Cultists!” at their family and friends. In the 1980s, many women claimed they were forced to sacrifice their children, until medical examinations proved they were still virgins.

Our suspension of disbelief has dropped. Our intellect has adjusted to scare tactics. Our tastes have become too refined for cheap thrills. We want to be scared, but our bullshit filter keeps catching everything Hollywood throws at it. That’s why these clichés must be upgraded if they’re going to frighten us again.

I'm available to design your cover art if you ask nicely.
I’m available to design your cover art if you ask nicely.

Exorcism Stories

When The Exorcist premiered in 1973, audiences were fainting in the aisles, forty-one years later, audiences are falling asleep for other reasons. The mystique is gone. We’ve seen so many demons get dispatched, we’re questioning their intelligence. Why break out of hell, when they can be sent back with a few measly blessings?

As Hollywood keeps telling variations of the same story, we keep piling on the questions.

What if the demon isn’t allergic to holy water and crucifixes? What if it doesn’t speak Latin? What if Catholicism isn’t the cure every time? What if it responds to protestant prayers? What if the Kabbalah is its kryptonite? What if it takes a Wiccan spell to send it back to hell? Would polytheists call on a pantheon of Gods to deal with it? Would Scientologists audit the evil out? Would Buddhist’s even bother?

NBC’s new show Constantine gets around these questions by having the hero recite the ‘co-exist’ bumper sticker of exorcism prayers, name dropping elements of all the world religions. It’s a solution that doesn’t address the real problem.

The problem is assuming the rite of exorcism still resonates with audiences. Not everyone wets themselves at the mere inclusion of a demon, we weren’t all raised to believe in possession, we expect our scares to come from better storytelling.

In The Exorcist, the demon Pazuzu tricks young Regan into texting him through a Ouija board. After a month of flirting, he moves all his stuff into her brain. Soon Regan’s dropping F-bombs on her mom and directors on the pavement, practically begging for an MRI scan. Crab-walking down the stairs, coughing up blood, levitating furniture about, Pazuzu wants to get found out. He wants Mrs. MacNeil to call on the clergy. Pazuzu’s insidious goal is to consume a holy man’s soul.

The Exorcist works by humanizing these confrontations. Father Damien isn’t just reciting verses, he’s grieving over his dead mother, he’s finding his faith again. The director gives the audience the feeling that it’s not Damien’s words hurting the demon, it’s his newfound belief in their meaning, and the lesson he’s learned through the course of these events.

Recent exorcism movies abandon the message in favor of the creeds. They put symbology over substance. These are films that started strong but ended with the same tired chant.

The Rite spends so much time setting up Anthony Hopkins’s possession, but when his student figures out what’s going on, the demon is dispatched with a quick round of tongue-fu. The Exorcist: The Beginning does the same thing. In The Conjuring, the demon flings things at the Warrens, to keep them from getting through the exorcism. The tension comes from how fast they can read before they get hit with something.

After seeing the same scene play out so many times, it loses its impact. Yellow contact lenses, flaking skin, and dated obscenities just don’t have the same effect on me. Possession could be a frightening theme, but these incantation evictions have gotten underwhelming.

I’d love to see more demon possession movies where the traditional methods don’t work, where the demon has a calculated goal, a long con revealed in a third act twist, and an ending that favors an emotional encounter over a dramatic reading. (See The Exorcist 3 for a great example of this).

Demons clearly use yellowing strips.
Demons clearly use yellowing strips.

Found Footage

Found footage movies are a guilty pleasure of mine. While most film critics have given up on the genre, I always find a few examples that redeem it. VHS showed me the direction grind house movies are going, Afflicted showed me what turning into a vampire is like from the vampire’s point of view, and Trollhunter showed me just how serious Norway is about pest control.

If you’re making a found footage movie, commit to the bit. If you want wide shots, have your characters place those cameras in the location, don’t cut from crane shots back to hand cams and expect us not to notice. If the characters can’t see from that perspective, then we shouldn’t either.

If you want to sell us on the idea that this footage was discovered, then leave it somewhere where it can be found. If all the camera operators end up in the belly of a demon, then how are we even watching this film?

Soundscapes can be used to great effect, from the chorus of babies crying in The Blair Witch Project to the thunderous footfalls in Paranormal Activity. Don’t break the suspension of disbelief by adding a score. Linking the look of cinema vérité with mood music is like making a chicken omelet, the pairing feels funny.

The Last Exorcism did this, opening as a talking head documentary, before devolving into series of low droning strings and chord stabbing jump scares.

Anyone who sets out to make a found footage movie needs to deliver on their promises. If you mention the possibility of a ghost, alien, or cryptozoological entity, show us something by the end of the movie.

"Is the demon in this mug shot the one who attacked you?"
“Is the demon in this mug shot the one who attacked you?”

Forbidden Objects

Ouija, Hasbro’s spiritual sequel to Battleship, follows a group of teens who try to contact the ghost of their friend with a spirit board. The trailer cycles through a switchboard of stock horror movie sound effects, filtering every shot through the same old color palette. The only new thing it brings to the table is a toy that has been debunked over and over again.

We know how spirit boards work when tested under scientific conditions. With a stack of chips tied to the planchette, we should see them lean away from an invisible hand, instead we see them lean from the direction of the living participants. This is a trick of the subconscious. Ideomotor actions cause the participants to push the planchette without even realizing it.

Just watch the experiment in action.

(If you want to see mentalist Derren Brown take this Ouija board scam to a whole other level check out his Seance Special).

Still, Time magazine says, “the terrifying seance-conducting game will finally be getting the starring role it deserves.”

Does it deserve it? For me this Parker Brothers plaything is just as frightening as a Magic 8-Ball, or a pile of fortune cookies. How scary can something filed between Apples to Apples and Yahtzee really be?

The smart way to make a mystical MacGuffin work is to draw attention to the evidence against it. Say what you will about M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, but the film points out that crop circles could be made by hoaxers with boards and string.

The X-Files did this all the time, hanging a lantern on a dispelled myth, only to reintroduce it with a sophisticated new bag of tricks. Agent Mulder gave the audience a refresher on an urban legend, while Agent Scully explained it away with science. What they were looking for was always something in between.

Maybe this new Ouija board movie does just that, but judging by the trailer, Jumanji was scarier.

Officer Ouija is on the case.
Officer Ouija is on the case.

Based on Actual Events

Every trailer ending with the words “based on actual events” needs an asterisk beside it, followed by a screen full of annotations.

The Strangers claimed to be based on actual events citing the Manson family murders as inspiration. That’s insulting to the victims, their families, and the audience’s intelligence.

The Quiet Ones ends with a still shot of the real researchers the film is based on. Turns out the people in the photograph are actors. Everyone involved in the study that inspired the story is alive and kicking.

The Fourth Kind ends with footage of a talk show that happens to be hosted by the film’s director.

Though the caption “Based on actual events” brings in box office revenue, the phrase itself has become worthless. If I can dismiss your premise with a quick Wikipedia visit, then you’ve lost me before the opening credits.

The true claims these films make aren’t always harmless, especially when they further superstitions that impact people with mental illness. The Exorcism of Emily Rose altered the facts to make its Priest more sympathetic. The impression it leaves the audience with is that epileptic seizures might be caused by something demonic.

Adds a whole new meaning to the phrase "bright eyes."
Adds a whole new meaning to the phrase “bright eyes.”

Before you go writing that found footage based on actual events exorcism picture with the prominently placed Ouija board, ask yourself: how long will these elements frighten audiences? How could you upgrade them to work in this century? How could you scare skeptics?

We want you to psych us out, to subvert our expectations, and give us something more terrifying than we could possibly imagine.

For more on horror clichés, check out my articles on overused monsters and how to reinvent the jump scare. To see how I’d reimagine the classic exorcist scenario, check out my short story Eviction Notice.

Feel free to completely disagree with me in the comments, or better yet, suggest horror movies that use these themes right.

21 thoughts on “Horror Clichés in need of an Exorcism”

  1. I agree with your suggestions on revamping the horror movies that are constantly being recycled. You are right, we see the same thing over and over. We’ve become desensitized to the horror these tropes once held (okay, maybe not me so much, lol, I scare easily and I always watch in between my fingers).

    I like the movies that gain inspiration from reality. I always think it’s fun to research and seperate fact from fiction and uncover the underlying events/figures that inspired Hollywood. My favorite example of that is Ed Gein and Psycho, Leatherface, and Buffalo Bill.

    And loved the graphics! Haha, you make a great demon, eeeeep! 😉

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    1. Full disclosure: these images are what I look like without make up on. 😉

      I love when horror thrillers and true crime movies get their inspiration from real events. I do that myself, but when I warp them into something different, I never claim the events happened that way. I guess that’s the difference between borrowing and stealing.

      I’m really happy you of all people got a kick out of this.

      I still remember your epic horror movie monster mash story. It was so brilliant. I hope you do something like that again this Halloween.

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      1. So Drew reveals his au naturel look. It’s, um, very…charming. You look great. Lol 😉

        Oh, yes, of course, the Seriously Misunderstood Alliance of Creepers Coalition must come together for their annual meeting 🙂 Thank you, you are too kind. And actually, now you have me excited for Halloween! Teehee, I lovvvvvvve scary movie marathons and popcorn and candy corn and pumpkin farms.

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      2. I love scary movie marathons too. Every year I breeze through the Evil Dead series, or The Exorcist: Dominion, The Exorcist: Directors cut, and The Exorcist 3. Also, the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror specials are a must watch for me.

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  2. You got it right, Drew. I love horror; I love to read it, write it, and watch it; but these days there is nothing to watch. The movies are cliched. All themes over-exploited. I was surprised the other day that they still make vampire, ghosts, haunted houses, and zombie movies in this age.

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    1. I’m a sucker for the tone, the far fetched themes, and the atmosphere of horror. I’m happy to see it enjoy a newfound presence on TV, even if that means every show requires a vampire-werewolf love triangle.

      I think writers and producers can do better, but Hollywood is so caught up in brand recognition that it refuses to to take a chances.

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  3. I’d like to suggest a film called “Mister Frost” (1990) as an updated exorcism film that works. Jeff Goldblum plays the title character, which helps, but the main twist is that it is a secular exorcism. Kathy Baker plays a psychiatrist who is trying to convince Frost that he isn’t the devil, not trying to cast out the devil.

    “Quarantine”(2008) worked, I thought, as a found footage film because the story was about a camera crew, and it actually made sense that they would keep recording while the weird stuff is going on. I need to dig up “[Rec]”, the film that it was based on.

    One day I am going to put a “forbidden object” in one of my books. My main character is going to be given this mysterious box and told that he must never open it, and I’ll have him stick in it the back of his closet and then never mention it again. Not in that book, not in any subsequent book, just totally ignore it forever.

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    1. I love both Mr. Frost and Quarantine. You should check out Rec, the film Quarantine is based on. Rec 2 is probably the best high action found footage movie I’ve ever scene. Its the Aliens to Rec 1’s Alien.

      I love forbidden objects when they’re a product of the author’s design. The puzzle box from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser is a great example of this. I’m dumping on the Ouija board movie, because we know how it works, it’s going to be difficult to scare us with it.

      Thank you so much for checking this out. I really appreciate the comment.

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      1. I binge watched about ten Hellraiser movies one night (“Bloodlines” is kind of interesting, but they go downhill fast after that) which is where I got the idea of someone getting that damned box and just leaving it alone and forgetting about it.

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      2. I’m pretty sure after Bloodlines every Hellraiser movie is just a horror script that’s been repurposed to include Pinhead. Notice how he just dips in at the end to the moral of the story before gutting the protagonist? I’d love to see the series return to Cliver Barker’s design in The Hellbound Heart.

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  4. I found this especially interesting since I’m currently working on a story that involves demon-possessed people. In my story, there are ways to expel the demon from a person’s body, but that results in a free-floating demon spirit that can take any other body it wants. The only way to actually stop the demon is to kill the host body while the demon is still inside, thus killing the demon as well.

    Obviously if the demon is in someone you care about, this option won’t be very pleasant.

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    1. I’m kicking myself for not mentioning Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series in this article. In Carey’s box exorcisms are performed by people born with a talent for them. They’re not bound to a religious institution, though many of them seek them out. Carey’s hero Castor uses a whistle to exorcise demons. Turns out, in his world it is belief, but a powerful trance that gets the job done.

      I believe a lot of these dated devices can be upgraded. Your story sounds like something very different from the exorcism movies I keep complaining about.

      Thanks for sharing it.

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  5. Horror has never been my thing, because it’s too far fetched for my tastes, but I do believe you are right when you say audiences have become de-sensitized to what is on offer now. This is why you’re social media style horror is so interesting, because it breaks from the norm and the idea really does send shivers up your spine.

    Great photos by the way! Just fantastic!!

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    1. That’s the trick when writing modern horror, its finding new places to put monsters. There’s too many of them packed into the closet, too many claws under the bed, I know, I’ll put them in a direct message. 😉

      I’m glad you liked the photos, I’m having way too much fun with Photoshop this year. I should do a piece where people send me pictures of themselves and ask to be made to look like their favorite characters.

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  6. Great article, Drew! I think you’re quite right when you say that there’s still life (death?) in the older concepts if they can be updated, and agree that too often the “Horror Story brand recognition” factor is favoured over story.

    Incidentally, on the subject of scores in found footage? In Diary of the Dead (2007) the filmaker/narrator actually says something like, “I’ve added scary music, because I want you to be scared by what happened to us.” I’m undecided if it’s perhaps the clumsiest thing I’ve ever seen or one of the most brilliant examples of lampshade-hanging ever 🙂

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    1. Thank you so much! I’m really glad you liked it.

      Given my first impression of Diary of the Dead, I think the addition of music didn’t really help. It works for a movie like The Tunnel, because it’s a combination of found footage and talking heads, so it feels more like a rounded documentary.

      Found footage movies present filmmakers with the opportunity to create soundscapes. For better or worse, Willow Creep had a continuous 15 minute shot, in a tent, with a couple listening to creepy noises in the woods.

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  7. I liked The Exorcist even long after the special effects were outdated, because the story was well-done. As for found-footage films, you could do worse than The Devil Inside, which I actually found pretty creepy. I also really enjoyed The Bay, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s done by the same director who was in charge of the awful Paranormal Activity films (as well as Insidious and The Conjuring). I’m very picky with horror films, and as much as I am a fan of the genre, it’s difficult to find good ones these days. The Fourth Kind was a letdown, and I skip almost all exorcism movies. I want more originality and less horror-that-works-more-as-unintended-comedy. I’ll take The Crazies over Oculus, and 1408 over Ouija. Also, enough with the remakes. How many times do we need to see Amityville Horror?

    Like

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