Welcome, class.

Due to a variety of reasons stemming from trending, blatant cash-ins, and all-too-frequent voids of creativity, the horror genre is particularly prone to repetition. Yet individuals such as myself (and quite likely you) crave the fruits of the horror tree all the same. What others would call clichés, we call conventions. A cliché is something that has become trite with overuse; something we are tired of seeing. A convention is a customary practice, a rule. To us, horror films are like episodes of a favorite TV show. We tune in week after week specifically to bask in these familiar tropes, traditions, and archetypes. Here in Horror 101 we shall turn an academic eye on this vast world of horror movie conventions.

So come journey with me into the haunted recesses of one of cinema’s oldest genres. Don’t be chickenshit. No one has disappeared in here for years. Plus, I found this dusty old Ouija board we can get drunk and play with…

Horror 101
(Lesson 1 of 9)

The Solo Hero

As long as there have been stories about monsters, there have needed to be champions to vanquish them. And vise versa. What is a knight without a dragon to slay? For our first class it only makes sense to start with that most basic of horror movie components, our much beleaguered protagonist – the Solo Hero.

There are three basic classifications of Solo Hero:

•    The Proactive Hero
•    The Reluctant Hero
•    The Once Was Hero

The Proactive Hero (PH)
Under the Proactive Hero heading there are two sub-classes of PH: the Ass Kicking Hero (AKH) and the Detective Hero (DH). These characters can cover a wide spectrum of personality types, but they all share the same base Proactive Hero trait: they actively seek the villain out.

The Ass Kicking Hero must not be confused with any Hero who kicks ass. Ash kicks plenty of undead ass in Army of Darkness (1992), but he falls into the Reluctant Hero sub-class of the Uncooperative Hero (see below). An AKH feels it is his/her job to kick that ass from the get-go. They doesn’t need to be backed into a corner to prompt their fight reflex. Sometimes the AKH is protecting a family member; other times it is pure “somebody’s gotta do it” badass obligation.

It is because of this willingness – sometimes eagerness even – to battle, that the AKH generally has to appear in films that have more than a single monster villain (a horde of zombies, a throng of alien invaders, a whole kingdom of spiders, whathaveyou). Our AKH can’t exactly decide to kill Jason or Freddy in Act I – the movie will end. Capability is a primary trait from an AKH. More often than not, the AKH has the fortuitous (often suspension-of-disbelief-testing) ability to wield any weapon he/she comes across regardless if they’ve ever used or seen said weapon before; not to mention the ability to masterfully weaponize non-weapons. Reggie Bannister in the Phantasm sequels, and Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series, are both AKH.

Despite the name, the Detective Hero doesn’t need to be a detective. The DH doesn’t need to be in law enforcement at all for that matter. He/she can be a reporter, a doctor, or just some schlub. The difference between the AKH and the DH is that the DH doesn’t have immediate access to the villain(s). So while the AKH is battling zombies from Act I onwards, our DH is attempting to solve a mystery or simply locate the damn monster for a majority of the film. The DH wants to kick ass, but first they gotta find it.

Let’s say our horror movie is called, Baboon Holocaust

Our AKH would be the sheriff in a small mountain town – ironically named something like Quiet River – which is suddenly invaded by a horde of killer baboons that escaped from an experimental underground government lab that was breeding them to send to Afghanistan. Our AKH’s daughter is trapped at the ice rink, so he’s got to fight evil baboons all across town, slowed down by various plot elements and set pieces.

If Baboon Holocaust were starring a DH, it would play out with less action for our, let’s say, female reporter. She would either know or strongly suspect that killer baboons have escaped from the nearby government lab, but she has no proof and the mayor won’t believe her! “Shut down the Harvest Fair?! This town needs tourist dollars to make it through the winter, you know that!” She might have encountered a baboon at some point early in the film, or maybe just “all signs” point to an eminent baboon disaster. Either way, she won’t see any real baboon combat until the final portions of the film. David Carradine in Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) was a great DH. William Katt in House (1986) is a good example of just some schlub acting as DH. Those examples also give a good contrast to the variety of areas the DH can be investigating – all of New York City, or just a single home.

The Reluctant Hero

Like the Proactive Hero there are two sub-classes of Reluctant Hero. The base trait they both share: they don’t want to fight. They are the Coward Hero (CH) and the Uncooperative Hero (UH).

The Coward Hero is usually a female (hey, don’t look at me, I just watch these movies). She isn’t necessarily a coward is the despicable sense. She is simply very afraid. I mean, how would you react if you opened your door to find a werewolf? I bet you’d run and hide and hope the police arrive before the thing eats too many of your friends. But that, in a nutshell, is the Coward Hero’s reaction. She just wants out of there. She’ll spend the entire movie trying to escape and evade the villain, until she’s finally cornered and forced to make a stand. This could also be called the Rite of Passage Hero, since by the end our CH will be forced to flip 180-degrees and prove herself. Often the CH’s actual arc (as it pertains to the villain) is very brief, as she will be completely oblivious to the fact the someone is murdering all her friends/dormmates/co-workers right up until the climax, when she finds their corpses strewn about the house/sorority/camp. Of course, there is a reason I didn’t go with Rite of Passage Hero, and that is because sometimes the CH never redeems herself, never rises up and personally defeats the villain. Sometimes our useless CH is saved by a supporting character, like a boyfriend, father, or sheriff. 

The CH is also almost always in high school or college (especially on the occasions that the CH is a male). Once the character becomes too old it starts to seem a little embarrassing that they’re such a pussy, even if it is 100% realistic. Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978) seems to be the quintessential, and certainly most routinely referenced Coward Hero. Dee Wallace in Cujo (1983) is an example of an adult CH, and Bruce Campbell in The Evil Dead (1981) is the greatest of the rarer male CH.

The Uncooperative Hero doesn’t want to help, not cause he’s scared, but because he just doesn’t give a fuck. He doesn’t want to get involved. Let the town die – what does he care? This guy has a chip on his shoulder, and now he’s only looking out for #1. Maybe a drifter: “Not my town.” Or a criminal or lowlife that people normally look down upon: “So now you need my help? Well, tough shit!” Of course, by the end of the film it’ll turn out that our Uncooperative Hero has a heart of rainbows and he’ll spring into action, likely finding new purpose in life now that he’s given the opportunity. Kevin Dillon in the 80’s remake of the The Blob is a UH. I would argue that Vin Diesel in Pitch Black (2000) is not actually a Solo Hero (the film has a dual-Hero structure), but simply as a characterization, Riddick most certainly follows the UH arc.

The Once Was Hero
The Once Was Hero (OWH) was at some point in his/her life a Proactive Hero, and then gave it up, now becoming a Reluctant Hero and usually a recluse (he most likely lives in shack in the woods or an old house in a quiet neighborhood). Even worse, the OWH also has been downgraded from a protagonist to a supporting character. Despite this, I think
the OWH deserves classification here because his/her mere presence in a film dramatically
weakens the status of the actual Solo Hero; the OWH almost always has the more interesting character arc of the two. It is like the filmmakers accidentally
chose the wrong character to focus on.

In the film, our young Solo Hero will seek the OWH out and ask for help. The OWH will say “no,” muttering about how he’s too old or it isn’t his problem anymore. Our SH will then try to convince him that he’s still important/relevant/badass. At this point the OWH will either get cranky and send the SH away, or get cranky and begrudgingly go with the SH. If he sends the SH away then later in the film, when our SH is about to get axed by the villain, the OWH will show up and once more return to glory. Even if the OWH begrudgingly agrees to join the SH’s mission, the last-minute return to glory structure generally holds true regardless, as the OWH will be drunk most of the time, making our other characters question how helpful he’ll ultimately be. Quite often the OWH dies after he’s done saving everyone (maybe a martyr death where he takes the villain with him), but he survives the movie just as frequently.

In a horror franchise the OWH was often the Solo Hero of an earlier chapter, or a supporting character the filmmakers have decided to expand upon when they couldn’t get the lead to return (like Burt Gummer in the Tremors series). Over the course of her franchise, Ripley went from Reluctant Hero in Alien to Proactive Hero in Aliens/Alien 3 to Once Was Hero in Alien Resurrection (a perfect example an OWH confusing the SH issue. Who was supposed to be the protagonist in that film? Winona Ryder?).

A very rare but extremely fun subset of the OWH is the Presumed Once Was Hero (POWH), who was never actually a Solo Hero in the past, our dumb young current SH just erroneously assumes he/she was. Roddy McDowell in Fright Night (1985) and Bruce Campbell in My Name Is Bruce (2008) are two examples of POWH.

Well, that is it for today. Class dismissed. See you all next time, when we will discuss… The Couple!

Many of the concepts for this series originated from contributions to the magazine, Penny Blood (2004-2007).