The perks of being curious in horror films

Feature Mark Harrison 26 Oct 2012 - 06:45

Curious characters are a familiar horror staple. Mark explains why such characters are so important to the genre…

If there's a quality for which characters in horror films are seldom rewarded, it's curiosity. Fortitude and practicality are boons to anyone who's dealing with the zombie apocalypse, paranormal activity, or rampaging serial killers, but if there's one thing that's bound to either get you killed, or fail you at a crucial juncture, it's curiosity. 

It's a trait that formed a major part of the early marketing campaign for The Cabin In The Woods, a film that exploded character archetypes and the horror genre, launching a number of teaser posters with taglines that offered snarky advice for horror movie situations. “If an old man warns you not to go there, make fun of him.” “If something is chasing you, split up.” “If you hear a strange sound outside, have sex.”

Of course, it's not like the young heroes of the film itself had curiosity in mind, because their ordeal is largely being orchestrated by greater forces. The taglines speak to specific problems with horror movie characters, especially when they're teen-aged. 

No, they won't ever let a cautionary tale from an old bloke put them off doing exactly what they want to do. No, they don't believe in strength in numbers at the moment of greatest peril. And yes, that curiosity will sometimes desert them, when they decide to ignore something unexplained.

Through genre satires like The Cabin In The Woods and the Scream movies, there's a sense that these traits will always have the audience howling with indignation at the stupidity of the inquisitive heroes and heroines. There's a danger that horror characters can become ciphers in the stories, which have a tendency to repeat over any number of genre films.

What's the alternative though? There was another canny genre spoof, Horror Fiction In Seven Spooky Steps, in the third season of Community, which took aim at slasher movie clichés in the section that was dreamt up by movie geek Abed Nadir. Logically tackling the issue of a psychopath escaping custody during his holiday in the woods, he posits that he would lock the doors, call the police and end up standing back to back with his girlfriend, doing nothing. It's simultaneously a jab at horror genre, and a defence of their entertainment value.

The question is, though, if you're howling because these characters are so stupid, then why do you care so much? It's such a big part of character in any type of film that they sometimes do what they shouldn't. There are bad characters in horror movies, sure, but there are also scripts that are knowing enough to show characters doing what they, as characters, would do in their situation, and not what most of us think they should.

One recent example would be the spookily mounted Sinister, in which a true crime novelist moves his family into a house that proves to be the site on which the previous residents were hung from a tree in the backyard. Things only intensify when he finds snuff films of those murders, and others, up in the attic, but even when supernatural forces intervene, he refuses to leave. He should leave, but his character is driven not only by ambition, but also curiosity about what he's unearthed.

Another, upcoming example – Silent Hill: Revelation is coming to cinemas, six years after Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill. In that case, there was little reason to go and explore the otherworldly town of the title, except for the sleeping disorders of young Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). That road leads to demons, attempted ritual sacrifice and run-ins with Pyramid Head, and all of it was far more interesting than if the protagonists had simply sought help in diagnosing and sorting out Sharon's problems at home. 

As cynical as some people may be about the curious characters in such movies, the plot of Silent Hill: Revelation pulls in Christopher Da Silva (Sean Bean) again too, and he stayed home for the first run around. If you're going to be imperiled in a horror movie, you get there faster by being curious, rather than waiting for the trouble to come to you. 

It's entertaining when Joss Whedon and Wes Craven can find something to critique in horror character tropes, and there are certainly examples in which poor writing has contributed to audience exasperation. But there's no character in any genre of film who can be reviled for showing a little curiosity, and driving the narrative forward.

So, by all means, make fun of old men, split up and wander into eerie abandoned buildings and call out “Hello?”

Without curious characters like you, it would be a far more boring genre.

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