Haunted Tropes #006 – The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

People are afraid of a lot of stuff. That’s normal, it’s just in our nature. Do a search on your favorite search engine for “most common phobias,” and you’ll get a. lot. of. results. A whole. lot. Including some of these elements in a haunt to unsettle people is a very good idea, but these are spices and seasonings to be sprinkled around strategically, not the crux of the matter. When a haunt consists entirely of a series of mildly unsettling images one right after the other just because they’re unsettling to a certain subset of the population in general, it becomes a Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.

So, hypothetical scenario. You’re setting out to build a local attraction where you’re hoping to bring in a whole lot of people and get them so scared that they need a change of pants. You know that people get scared of different things; in addition to the crapload of phobias and fears out there, people love horror movies too. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most talked-about horror movies in years, and the latest Saw movie made something like nineteen bazillion dollars.

You could try to do the same thing those directors did, and make a creepy, psychologically frightening experience from beginning to end sure to lull your audience into a deep sense of foreboding, but to hell with that! How about we just pick the most iconic, goriest scenes from those legendary films and just throw all them in? Brilliant!

I’m sure you’ve guessed where this is going by now if you’ve watched the video (and if you haven’t, you ought to, it’s pretty hilarious). In summary, it’s a trailer done by Saturday Night Live imagining what a horror movie would look like if it were directed by the magnificent Wes Anderson of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel fame. And while it’s a great mashup of horror cliches and Wes Anderson’s remarkable one-of-a-kind style that made me laugh out loud repeatedly, it is most assuredly not scary in the slightest. Thus, it illustrates the point perfectly: a series of frightening images one after another without paying attention to the tone of the setting overall is a recipe for disaster, or at least un-scared patrons, which is basically the same thing in a social media driven world where people can be tweeting about how not scary your attraction is before they’ve been chased to the parking lot by a chainsaw wielding nut-job.

In one particular scene from the sketch, Owen Wilson (as portrayed by Ed Norton) peers through binoculars at the crazy people on the lawn as an upbeat, jaunty Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard by Paul Simon plays in the background.

“Yeah, look at ’em all!” he says. “There’s a guy with a meat cleaver, and an old record player. One’s carrying a falcon, there’s twins in matching track suits… hey, look at that! Why, that’s Danny Glover!”

Danny Glover

“Hello.”

Look through the review archives and you’ll see this played out over and over again. We want experiences, not cheap scares, and the ones that deliver on that are the haunts that score a lot better, every time.

A lot of newcomers seem to think the best thing they can do is try to induce terror by tapping into these primal fears – snakes, spiders, darkness – with just a dash of whatever the most iconic movie creepers happen to be at the time. You’ll probably scare a lot of people doing this. You’ll probably get a lot of screams. But you won’t get people to remember you. You won’t be the experience people are still talking about years later, that they keep returning to year after year after year. If that’s what you want to achieve, do something new. Wow your audience with original ideas, things that they have never seen before, and that they can’t find anywhere else.

Or as Richard Gere said in the movie Chicago,

Razzle Dazzle ’em, and they’ll make you a star!

Haunted Tropes #005 – The EPA Is Going To Tear Us Apart If They Find Out About That

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

“Hey what’s that green crap? What is this? Jesus Christ, look at this place! This is a disaster! That’s gotta be toxic. God, the EPA is going to tear us apart if they find out about that. Well I’m not saying anything. I don’t wanna get called into court as a witness on this once the cat gets out of the bag.”
-Gordon Freeman, Ross Scott’s “Freeman’s Mind”

Haunted Houses are the most disgusting places on Earth.

I could just end the article there, honestly… I mean, what more do you need? You’ve got a GIF of a giant robot cleaning up nuclear waste, and a statement about grime that leaves nothing to the imagination. What more do you want from me? I don’t want to think about it again. If I envision the kind of grime we’re talking about, I’ll have to wash my brain out with Purell again, and I’ve never been the same since.

Alright, fine, you want me to go on? I will, but on your own head be it.

The best way I can illustrate the point is with a side-by-side comparison. So you know what? You can participate in your own mental abuse. Be prepared to wash your eyes out with bleach – I know I certainly did. I’ll probably have to Lysol my internet history as well; I don’t even know how that works but I’ll do it.

[mlw_quizmaster quiz=1]

See what I mean? Disgusting. Nasty. Filthy. I suppose I understand what they’re trying to accomplish here – the kinds of houses that really look this way clearly belong to the 1%… no, not that 1%. The other 1%, the ones who are utterly deranged, totally off their rockers, and I get that’s who you’re trying to represent in a haunt, but for cryin’ out loud, this is beyond a dilapidated building, this is beyond being condemned. This is insanity, pure and simple. How does anything ever get this dirty?

If you’re going to grunge up your haunt to this degree – and that’s a perfectly valid choice, I’m not saying it isn’t – then you need to make your story match. If it’s supposed to be a sanitarium that’s been abandoned for 50 years? Cool, I’ll buy this. If it’s a haunted house in suburbia where paranormal investigators are supposed to be working? Not so much.

If you’ve been reading the whole series then by now it should be pretty obvious that the things that stick out like a sore thumb are the ones that reek of inconsistency – with established story, with the experience at the beginning vs at the end, or just with the basics of human behavior. You can definitely do this if you want a total gross-out experience, and that’s a reasonable thing to want (in this industry, anyway, it’s slightly less acceptable in fields like rock music, auto mechanics, and decreasingly so for psychology, dentistry, and NASA engineers). You just have to make sure the story you’re telling matches with the setting the audience can see with their own eyes.

Haunted Tropes #004 – No One Likes You Here

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

GET OUTIt’s hard to go through a haunted house anymore and not suffer feelings of unwantedness, anguish, regret… The sad thing about this is that it just all feels so… unoriginal. You see, I remember the good old days… the days when ghosts and ghouls would speak terrible things to you, words and images that would chill you down to your bones, and then down to your soul, and then down to the souls of your bones after that. (Bone Souls are real. People have been trying to tell me they aren’t for ages. Don’t listen to them! Trust me instead. I’m a highly reputable source. Osteo-Souls, they’re called. Google it. It’s a thing.)

Those days are gone now, though. Most ghouls, goblins, and zombies that you meet inside a haunt anymore won’t try to terrify you into submission. They’ll simply insist that you get o-

GET OUT

Achem. Get Out. Yes, that’s what I was saying. Look, I understand that I’m a trespasser here. I know I wasn’t actually invited to this crazy person’s house, and I don’t exactly expect to be given a tray of sandwiches and cookies when I barge my way into somebody’s living room. But there comes a point when it’s too much, when every single inhabitant of the place just wants you to…

GET OUT

Look, I’m pretty accepting when it comes to these sorts of things. But it doesn’t help me feel scared or threatened when you’re telling me to…

GET OUT

after every single corner I turn. In fact by the time the 4th or 5th person has told me to…

GET OUT

it starts to have the opposite effect. This isn’t frightening anymore, it’s just annoying. Sometimes I’m trying to admire the setwork, or take in all the details that someone painstakingly put into the room during the build, but try as I might to linger for just a moment and drink in the details there’s always someone there pushing me forward, screaming at me. It starts to make the whole haunt feel rushed.

GET OUT

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just the ghouls or the zombies or the nutjobs either, but sometimes even the voluntary victims start screaming at me to…
Just GET OUT

It’s the phrase I’ve heard inside haunted houses over my cumulative reviewing career more than any other. I’ve been told to…
GET THE HELL OUT

probably thousands of times by now, and it’s never scary and it’s never anything but…You need to GET OUT

OK, seriously? I was in the middle of a sentence that time. That wasn’t even the right cue, you’re supposed to say it when…GET OUT OF MY HOUSE

Look, I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but this is my blog, and I’ll stay here as long as I damn well please! Look, it’s not my intention to offend you. I’m just trying to explain to these nice folks why this particular trend is somewhat annoying. It’s nothing personal, you understand. Really, this is your fault, you’ve been relying on this old phrase for far to many years now. If you can’t come up with something new and original to say, then I’ll have no choice but to…GET OUT NO! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! Do not fight with me this way! Seriously, you need to step back and take a look at yourself. How scary do you even think this is? Come up with something else. ANYTHING else! Anything would be scarier than this. Any single thing you could say would be less trite and overused than “Get Out”. Do you hear me? Literally anything! This is the most utterly generic phrase ever uttered by anyone inside a haunt or out, and if I never ever hear it again as long as I live it will be too soon!

GET THE HELL OUT

UGH! FINE! I get it! I’m going!Now, GET OUT I PAID THIRTY DOLLARS TO BE HERE DAMNIT!

Haunted Tropes #003 – Voluntary Victims

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

Some people are just asking for it...

Some people are just asking for it…

At some point, someone decided that it didn’t make sense that a serial killer or a group of cultists or a camp of cannibals would have just one group of victims. After all, if you, the haunt-goer, are meant to be walking through the home of a mass murderer, there should be some evidence to support the claims of their psychopathic murdering ways. And so, whether it was to lend credibility to the stories the haunts were trying to tell, or just to add a few more screams and chills to your wanderings throughout the haunts, actors started being cast in the role of fellow victims instead of just crazy people and monsters.

This was a great idea, or at least it was on paper. The problem, as is so often the case, came in the execution. Haunt actors are very commonly left to their own devices when it comes to creating their own parts, relying heavily on improvisation, perhaps with some occasional dialogue written for them. This is usually good, as haunt actors have a passion for what they do. Very few people, as it happens, are willing to show up at 5 PM, have 10 pounds of makeup slapped on with a trowel, and stay out until the wee small hours of the morning looking more and more hideous as the hours wear on (well, very few people who don’t hang around on Colfax Avenue, anyway), and haunt actors have a tendency to be very creative with their characters as a result of being given a lot of control.

On the other side, there’s one thing that haunt actors who aren’t given a lot of direction tend to be notoriously bad at, and that’s interacting with audience members. And the point at the intersection of improvised characterization and bad audience interaction is the unholy portal from which springs an endless slew of voluntary victims.

Picture it. You’re slowly inching along through a haunt that purports to be the home of a serial killer who’s been skinning and eating his victims. Alright, it’s a good backstory, but how does the haunt owner make you believe that you really are in the home of such a deranged person? Corpses and missing persons posters are a great idea, but someone who can speak for themselves is even better. So it’s not uncommon for actors inside a haunt to play the role of a victim instead of one of the sociopaths. Usually these people will beg for assistance when the audience walks through their scene. Maybe it says something about our society, but the general sense I get is that haunt actors never expect a shred of decency from any individual human being, ever. The entire worldview must be based on one singular idea:

People aren't chocolates. Do you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard coated bastards with bastard filling.

If you offer to help one of these poor people, their response will usually be to ignore you. They haven’t prepared for the eventuality that someone might actually offer to do something heroic or self sacrificing and help. The really unfortunate thing is that this singular act shoots any single shred of credibility the haunt had right in the foot. At point blank range. With a bazooka.

The mildest cases of this trope occur when the victim is seemingly locked in a cage or shackled to the wall or floor, with heavy hardware to which the audience does not have the key. The very worst offenders, on the other hand, will have a poor tortured individual run screaming into the room, begging the audience to, “Please, take me with you!” and then staring like a deer in the headlights when someone actually stretches out a hand and says, “Come with me.”

Here’s a nifty scientific chart that I designed to show just how bad some instances are based on others, because as we all know charts are the hallmark of a scientific publication (forget all those people who try to tell you “peer reviews” mean anything – they’re probably just trying to sell you something). Charts prove things, damnit, and I’m about to prove the hell out of this point. Check this graph out!

CONTINUUM OF VICTIM TRAPPED-NESS

As you can see, the more genuinely trapped a person is, the closer we get to the smiley faced side of the graph, showing that I’m happier when… uh… I mean, that isn’t to say that I’m happier when people are stuck in tragic situations from which there is no escape. I’m not some kind of weird pervert or anything, but then again I did stay up late on a Sunday night making an obnoxious chart in Photoshop, so you be the judge of my sanity level.

The saddest part of all this is that it can be so easily avoided, but nobody ever takes the opportunity to fix it. A person barges into a room begging me to help her escape and then refuses to come with me? Bad acting. A person barges into a room begging me to help her escape but is dragged away by a psycho before I can do anything? Authenticity!

Another actor who got this right a couple years back was a ghost wandering around a cemetery, wailing about how much he wanted to leave. When I suggested that he do exactly that, just go, he replied that he couldn’t, his soul was bound here. Simple, effective, and it added characterization to him – not only could nobody help him, but it instantly made his story that much more tragic.

The thing that’s most surprising to me about this one, is that it’s even an issue at all. Just find some way to prevent your victims from just walking out the door. It’s what a responsible serial killer would do anyway.

Haunted Tropes #002 – I’m Going To Try Science!

Tropes are not clichés, which are dull and uninteresting. These are common scares that come back year after year because they work, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re highly repetitive. Join us every Thursday as we explore these Haunted Tropes.

It's not going to be anywhere near as funny when that red bell pepper comes alive and eats his face off. Well, I mean... not as funny for him, anyway.

It’s not going to be anywhere near as funny when that red bell pepper comes alive and eats his face off. Well, I mean… not as funny for him, anyway. [Pictured t-shirt at XKCD]

 Science… is evil. That’s the only conclusion I can come to after spending several years crawling through haunted houses. Forget the wonders of the modern world we live in, the fantastic advances in technology and medicine. It’s not worth remembering the ways we can all breathe easier and, in general, have a nice, simple life due to the absolutely incredible advancements we’ve made in science and technology. The internet, smartphones, Twitter, modern cancer treatments, better farming… no, none of those things matter.

Pay no attention to the man behind the laboratory curtain, whenever anyone tries to do anything sciencey, all hell is bound to break loose. But this isn’t just a trope about mad scientists getting into trouble – that’s totally expected. Mad Scientists have been wreaking havoc, whether intentionally or due to sheer stupidity, in science fiction and fantasy for ages. We’ve had this kind of thing since before Gordon Freeman slotted his first carrier into the first analysis port, since before Cyberdine systems first brought Skynet out of beta, since before the Initiative started keeping vampires and demons as pets deep beneath Sunnydale. It’s been since the beginning of the modern monster story, in fact, when Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein zapped his first corpse back to life.

The thing is, it’s pretty easy to believe that an abandoned hillbilly town, abandoned theater, abandoned mental hospital, or whatever it is that’s abandoned that you, the haunt-goer, are about to enter into, is otherwise isolated from society and able to go unnoticed, to become nothing but a blip on the radar of the history books, never mentioned by anyone again. Scientific research facilities… don’t have that option. They have grants and funding to secure, they provide regular progress reports. And they document the hell out of everything because they’re scientists. Every single example we’ve seen – zombies made from mad cow disease, insane plants made in an attempt to produce super-farms and end world hunger, sketchy doctors doing experimental procedures, animal testing… all of it ends the same way. Dark, flickering corridors with dodgy lighting, cages that have been torn asunder from the inside, trails of blood, dark hand prints all over the walls, the floors, the ceiling… basically your average disaster area.

Scientists, especially researchers, seem to have a very poor track record when it comes to figuring out that this is a bad idea, because these labs with terrible working conditions continue to crop up, time and time again. That’s the real problem. The people in the world who are supposed to be really good at learning, drawing conclusions, and understanding trends can’t wrap their head around the idea that messing around with some freaky science stuff that nobody understands is not going to turn out just peachy keen. I mean, how does this all pan out? There has to come a point where everybody knows that this is going to turn out to be a terrible idea, but they have to do it anyway, whether because of arrogance or bullheadedness, groupthink or nepotism, financial obligations or government contracts, and they plow right ahead. At this point, what’s a lab assistant to do, other than shrug and scream, “Stand Back! I’m going to try science!