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Why It Matters that Horror Protagonists Make Bad Decisions

Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

Leah Rachel von Essen reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

The muscled, strong guy with military training turns to the other characters. “I can make it,” he insists, or, “I’ll take the guy down,” or, “It’s just some guy.” He dashes out, he runs at the murderer. And he dies.

There’s one girl in the group who is a shivering mess. She’s been screaming a lot. She’s on the edge of panic.

And she’s probably the one who is going to survive this.

Is that trope just a silly horror film construct?

I argue that it isn’t. The man doesn’t fully believe he’s in danger and vulnerable. The damsel does. The damsel doesn’t know she’s in a horror movie until she’s in it, but now she has to learn to adapt to its rules. She’s not arrogant enough to think she’ll survive. She’s making a desperate play against something she knows is evil, that she knows she can’t face, in a world where nothing makes sense. And, I should note that she isn’t left unchanged by that. No good horror films leave the survivor unscathed by their experiences.

We all enjoy when arrogance is cut down, and yet when reading the plot ourselves, we feel very confidently that it couldn’t be us. We’ve all screamed at the page, or at the movie screen, when the protagonist leaves the house when they shouldn’t, or forgets to lock the door, or drops their phone, or goes to investigate the weird sound in the basement. Or something else that has us screaming at the TV believing that we could do better, we would be less foolish, we wouldn’t make such silly mistakes. I wouldn’t forget to lock the door. I wouldn’t drop my phone. I would never recite the creepy thing written in ancient ink in that old book we found.

But if we’re honest, most of us walk through life assuming that people won’t attack us. Our everyday instincts that get us through the day aren’t meant for a horror situation — and shouldn’t be, as anyone with trauma or a panic disorder could tell you.

And ironically, our confidence is exactly what ties us up. At a certain point, a certainty of safety turns into a privileged arrogance. I grew up in a privileged suburb on the east coast where there was an epidemic of car thefts because homeowners kept leaving their keys in their unlocked cars. I once vacationed in a small town and discovered the 1st floor porch off my room didn’t lock properly — when I told the manager of the hotel, he scoffed and said that no one locked their doors in his town, because “It’s safe here.” (I didn’t sleep great that night.)

Every horror story begins with a similar illusion of safety. With the new house where everything will finally go right, or the cabin where the characters sleep peacefully or meet to make out. It begins in what is a normal, rational world for many of us, that is then punctured by a man with an axe or an uncanny cult or an undead monster. It shakes our world around. It changes the rules.

For example, the supernatural Amityville Horror draws on the story of a real house and a real man who really murdered his family, suddenly and seemingly without regret. But in a normal world, people don’t just become murderers, right? Right? People would have seen the signs. He would have had to have a reason. There would have been something that someone could have done to stop him. I mean, something, right?

We want to believe that agency is involved, and that there’s some predictability to what will happen to us. We want to think that it doesn’t come down to luck, and that we could somehow prevent these situations from happening. But one of the expert jobs of the horror genre is that it breaks our perceptions and shows us instead a corrupted world that doesn’t always have good reasons for why our safety is not ensured.

It exposes a chaos that we don’t like to think about: violence is sometimes not preventable, predictable, or logical, and as much as we like to think that in those situations, our responses would be cautious, practical, and intelligent, in truth, the majority of us have no idea what our reactions would look like in a traumatic situation.

Panic is the real, physical response to such danger. Your body will enter a fight-or-flight state. When you enter this mode — a physical phenomenon powered by chemicals in your body — your focus narrows, your pupils dilate, your heart starts to race, stress hormones can make you twitchy or tense. Anything that isn’t needed for immediate survival is placed on the back burner.

Which isn’t always helpful. When you’re running it is, but when you’re trying to lock your door and your hands won’t stop shaking, not so much. You may run out the front door and not close it behind you. You may make involuntary gasping noises when you’re trying to hide. You freeze when you should bolt. You scream when you should be silent. That is not just some person in a horror film. That’s how the body reacts to fear in the moment.

It’s easy to think you could do better when you’re a person sitting on a couch sipping red wine or chamomile tea. Your brain in this state is, at most, agitated from the tension in the book or film, but is mostly still running on normal and capable of rational, complex thinking rather than surging with adrenaline and a need to flee.

If we paid attention to the horror genre, there’s a lot for us to learn about ourselves. If we open our minds and realize that the panic and seemingly irrational choices or mistakes are real and true responses to danger and horror, then empathy can in turn make us better and more capable people.

Because it is possible to vanquish evil, to escape the axe murderer, to defeat the evil spell you unleashed on the world, but not easily and not without mistakes. And one way that we definitely won’t survive to the end of the movie is by pretending that all the violence is far away and that it can’t come for us, defeat us, get to us.

You might notice that we’re falling into something that feels awfully applicable to real life. Because we are. The illusion of safety, the arrogance of privilege, and the ignorance of what trauma and panic responses look like, can blind us to the real-life horrors of our world and the real-life experiences of it.

“Why wouldn’t you scream?” “But she didn’t call 911.” “She shouldn’t have gotten so drunk.” “But he was a strong guy, why didn’t he fight back?” “Why didn’t they just leave?” “Well, they must have done something.” “No, that kind of thing can’t happen here.”

There is real value to understanding that the real response to horror is not rational. That horror can be anywhere, that the person who was shot might have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, that there might have been no reason that girl was attacked, that a person you thought seemed normal was plotting something awful, that someone we trusted to help protect us may have ignored all the signs that danger was lurking.

In some of these horror scenarios, there might not have been anything the characters could have done, so anything they did do is an understandable and real response. Because panic and terror have a wide range of responses, all of them legitimate, many of them seemingly irrational.

What I’m saying is much more likely to be a surprise to white, cis, rich people, particularly men, and is unlikely to be a surprise to many BIPOC, poor, queer, disabled, and immigrant people who are aware — or at least more aware — that the safety we are promised is nonexistent or constantly liable to break.

If we open our minds to what the horror genre and its tropes really tell us, we’ll be better people. Because, like in the case of the big muscled guy and the damsel, we have to learn that we’re only going to be able to fight evil by understanding it and facing it for what it is — not by pretending that it can’t get us.

Want more horror story analysis? Check out my essay on why horror is so obsessed with mushrooms. Or for some recommendations, check out this list of exciting 2022 horror books, read a list of queer horror books, or check out our list of the 25 most influential horror novels of all-time.