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!”
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!