What Makes A Killer Horror Movie Character? Common Horror Character Archetypes
Horror is a timeless genre — with its roots in the oldest stories ever told. But as film has evolved as an industry, so too have horror films come to realize what works and what doesn’t. That said, some things are so intrinsic to the genre that they become tropes or archetypes. The most notable among them are character archetypes — the people who make horror such an iconic storytelling arena. Whether it’s creepy children, the cat you shouldn’t follow or the person who survives it all, characters make the movie. Take a look at some of the character archetypes that make the horror genre so timeless and that make these movies so great.
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Redshirts and the Cold Open
As the story opens, you may be treated to a cold open and a peek at the monster or killer. When the danger at hand first reveals itself, even if it’s still hiding, there are usually some screams and some poor unsuspecting people who end up getting slashed. Those people — the first to die, who are maybe even nameless or part of a posthumous headline — are “redshirts.” Popularized as a term after Star Trek personnel that generally died off thanks to some undiscovered terror, the redshirt is a classic tool of the horror genre. Only through this kind of encounter can the audience see what’s in store for the main characters before they get to see for themselves.
The Believer and the Skeptic
Usually as a dichotomy, many horrors — especially those involving science-fiction worlds or the supernatural — utilize people who view what’s happening from very different perspectives. Iconically presented in duos like Mulder and Scully from The X-Files, the believer and the skeptic are character archetypes that serve to question the status quo. Is there a real cause for concern, or is there a reasonable explanation? These questions come up with the characters who play this role, and through them, you can try to explain theories that may or may not bring your audience closer to the truth as you write.
The Herald of Doom
People who live to see another day after facing the monster often try to share their stories. The same goes for the townsperson warning someone to leave, the ghost of a victim, the fortune-teller, or the paranoid neighbor who’s seen too much. No matter what the person looks like, they are the Herald of Doom — the person who tells the protagonist that danger awaits them. Generally a creepy experience altogether, the Herald can share the truth in a very upsetting way, or they may only know half the story while their sense of danger is incredibly accurate.
Cats and Other White Rabbits
Enough of humans for a second — animals can totally have their own character archetypes, too. Horror stories commonly use animals to distract the audience or the characters themselves, and cats have become a staple in this regard. Like Alice following the White Rabbit, an unwitting victim might follow the cat, dog or other innocent creature into a trap set by the monster or killer lying in wait. It’s rarely the animal’s fault — just a cat being a cat — but you can bet that something bad will come of paying too much attention to that cat instead of other things going on around them.
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Obviously Creepy Children
Especially in horror stories developed from some supernatural concept, creepy children have made their appearance quite often. These children are always obviously creepy to the audience — but the fun part is the effect they might have on the main characters. Some of the “obviously” creepy children are seen as completely normal by the rest of the characters, who ignore the creepy behavior. Then, of course, there are those that act as omens of something much more dreadful to come. Every now and then, the obviously creepy children even reveal themselves as the actual villains.
One of the most frustrating and horrifying ideas in modern horror is the idea that someone would lie and endanger everyone else. And yet, these recurring archetypes appear in film quite often. Whether it’s someone keeping their mortal sin under wraps — the thing that brought the monster in — or it’s a comrade hiding the fact that they got bitten or otherwise compromised, these resident liars are often the downfall of a trusting group of survivors. If nothing else, that break of trust adds to the horror genre’s impact on an audience. This type of emotional devastation does wonders in stories like these.
The Red Herring
There’s nothing worse than a suspicious or dangerous-looking person showing up at times when they shouldn’t be there. They may be there to help the main characters or to serve their own undisclosed needs, but one thing to remember is they might be a red herring. A red herring is a person or entity who comes across as dangerous, suspicious or unsettling, only for the audience to learn that they are not the villain or a dangerous individual. The red herring may even serve as a Herald of Doom or as an accomplice to the killer themselves. No matter what purpose they serve, the red herring must draw suspicion for a while to give the characters or the audience the wrong idea.
The Final Girl
In horror tradition, someone in a group horror (especially the slasher subgenre) that gets to finally encounter the killer is often known as the “Final Girl.” Coming from an earlier tradition where a typically male survivor had one last stand in the horror genre, the Final Girl was a development that came from an intentional gender swap and a desire to avoid the Damsel-in-Distress trope. Not every Final Girl or last person standing gets to outlive the killer, but each horror does this their own way — and it’s important to have someone to root for.
Horror films have a certain effect on their audiences: We know to expect the worst, and we know what is coming, but we get satisfaction from seeing it done in ways that are fun, surprising or clever. The same goes for these archetypes. If you know what the rules are, you know how you can bend them for your audience to give them what they expect in ways they would never have imagined. Character archetypes are storytelling tools for a reason — use them by getting to know them, and see which ones work best for the horrific tale you want to tell!
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