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Dr.Bedlam

Bad Decisions In Horror Movies

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"Hey! Think I'll check out the basement!"

I was posting over on the Getting To Know You Thread, and thinking about bad horror movies and TV shows. Normally, when I talk about "bad," I mean "so bad it's good," but I was thinking about Fear The Walking Dead, a show where I watched the entire first season and half the second before finally giving up in disgust. What IS it about this show? Why did it irritate me so much?

After considerable discussion with people I know, I decided it was because the protagonists are idiots. Notably, they make a variety of EXTREMELY questionable decisions.

*Travis goes to check out the abandoned church after his stepson sees a zombie there. Travis finds no zombie, but he finds considerable gore and a corpse. He tells no one and doesn't call the cops, despite the fact that the zombie apocalypse hasn't begun yet. Hah?
*The family becomes aware that a creepy man is wandering around in the side yard. They all go out to see him, leaving the sliding door wide open. They can't find him, and reenter the house, to find him munching on a dog in the living room? Hah?
 

I WAS gonna keep listing bullet points, but... nah. But I can think of any number of shows and movies in which SOMEONE apparently thinks they're building suspense, when in fact all they're doing is making their audience go "WHAT? How could they do THAT? What kind of idiot, in this situation, would do THAT?"

In the movie Cabin In The Woods, an excellent deconstruction of horror movies that works both as a horror movie and a PARODY of horror movies, they actually explain this: our protagonists make odd decisions that don't make sense because they're under the effects of drugs and subliminals, administered remotely by the science team observing and influencing them. Why ELSE would someone go into a daaaark vampire infested basement without bothering with a flashlight or light switch, much LESS a gallon of garlic aftershave and a fully automatic crucifix launcher?

TV Tropes has a word for it: the Idiot Ball, a plot device that requires a character or characters to behave in a brainless way because the plot requires it; the jock HAS to go in that vampire infested basement without turning on any lights and die horribly screaming, despite the fact that he seemed bright enough earlier in the movie... because he's carrying the Idiot Ball.

In honor of Halloween, I invite any and all to record their thoughts about those brave redshirts who not only get offed by the killer or the monster, but do so in the dumbest possible way.

Takers?

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Here's the thing - viewers often look at stories with a unique perspective. We have no stakes, and so we have significant clarity. We have a more perfect point of view than the onscreen or on-page characters. And we have the luxury of being able to THINK about the situation, free of the need to react and live in it.

 

So we see the characters leave the door open and go "what idiots! Who leaves their doors open?". The truth is, WE DO. People sometimes leave their doors open. I've accidentally left my front door open and looked over in the middle of making dinner to see the door wide open. Who goes to the basement to look for the source of the scary noise? WE DO. In the real world we have no concept of zombies as real, and so while some of us might feel anxiety about the dark or confined spaces, we go. When the power goes out, we trudge into the basement using our phones as a flashlight and we do what needs to be done.

 

Few things bother me more than Media Critics who point out that, given the situation, intelligent protagonists would not do X. Few protagonists are as universe-and-situation aware as the viewer, so choices that appear illogical to us are perfectly reasonable to them. And few humans in the entire world behave 100% rationally. Frankly, Doc, I think we can all find posts YOU have made about times you did boneheaded things. So suggesting that it's bad writing to have the Protag do a boneheaded thing - that's disingenuous.  We can sit all day and argue about whether we'd leave doors open or whatever, but honestly, the truth is that in a situation where you don't know there are zombies, eventually you will fail to close that door, and the zombie will get in, and the ONE time you fail to close the door, that's the time the *interesting* story takes place.  The stories don't include the 400 families that closed the door, the interesting one is the family that didn't.

 

Star Wars doesn't follow Jek Porkins life, because he's the one that FAILED to blow up the Death Star. it follows Luke, the one who succeeds. Because the Story follows the ones who made the choices and took the (boneheaded or not) actions that make the story interesting.

 

Not that the Protagonists MUST X because X is interesting, but that the Protagonist is Interesting *because they did X*.

 

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Well, that's kind of what I'm talking about, actually.

I leave my door open all the time. So do you. But if you were aware that people were acting funny, there was a riot at the hospital earlier because of people acting funny, and now there's somebody in your side yard acting funny, would YOUR first impulse be to run outside and leave the door open?

I've done plenty of boneheaded things. Often for reasons that boil down to "What was I THINKING?" But my point is that there is a difference between "making a bad decision, even a dumb one," and "carrying the Idiot Ball, because the plot demands it, particularly in a horror movie."

That's what I was talking about. 

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8 minutes ago, Dr.Bedlam said:

Well, that's kind of what I'm talking about, actually.

I leave my door open all the time. So do you. But if you were aware that people were acting funny, there was a riot at the hospital earlier because of people acting funny, and now there's somebody in your side yard acting funny, would YOUR first impulse be to run outside and leave the door open?

I've done plenty of boneheaded things. Often for reasons that boil down to "What was I THINKING?" But my point is that there is a difference between "making a bad decision, even a dumb one," and "carrying the Idiot Ball, because the plot demands it, particularly in a horror movie."

That's what I was talking about. 

Sure. But the dramatic tension in the story doesn't come from the people who didn't make mistakes.

 

Using the Star Wars example again - ten thousand soldiers are in the rebellion. Hundreds of pilots. Over a dozen are involved in the assault on the Death Star. But the action follows the ONE. not because he's got "plot armor" as people call it, but because he's the one who succeeded, the one who was lucky and didn't get killed, the one who did action X

 

So your TV show there is as omniscient as the viewer. The camera and the writers know *everyone*. And they pinpoint the ones who did Action X, because those are the people that we need to see. We spend an hour watching the family who stayed inside and never did anything to escalate the zombie incursion, we spend a boring hour.

 

On TV Tropes they like to call it Plot Armor when the Protagonist survives unharmed. But Maybe it's the other way around - the camera was on HIM and not THEM because HE was the one who survived. 

 

Ready Player One features a billion people trying to win a contest inside a game. But it's about the guy who WON. He didn't win because the story was about him, the story was about him because he won.

 

And in FTWD, the story is about that family because they, unlike you and I, did the boneheaded thing and made the Zombpocalypse worse by not taking reasonable precautions.

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Some examples:

Jek Porkins is not an Idiot Ball carrier. He made no obvious mistakes, and did nothing wrong except go up against Darth Vader. His role was of Spear Carrier Who Gets Killed And Demonstrates The Stakes. He could have been any of us, and we are meant to sympathize with him to some extent.

But to get back to horror movies:

No one, with the possible exception of law enforcement, starts the day thinking, "Welp, gonna get in a chase with a knifekiller today, better wear sensible shoes." Consequently, Bubbles the Cheerleader might well decide that four inch stiletto heels are the way to go.

Later, when the knifekiller shows up, we all realize that heels are a liability. This leaves Bubbles with the option of trying to run in them, or taking them off and going barefoot. Both are dangerous options with bad possible consequences. So Bubbles ditches the shoes in favor of speed; she is, after all, on a golf course; how bad could it get? Well, actually, Knifekiller busted some bottles earlier, and sprinkled broken glass in her path, with the prescience that seems common to spooky knifekillers, but she certainly didn't know this.

Bubbles is not carrying the Idiot Ball, although she did make a mistake.

Later, the Knifekiller is ten feet away, and approaching at a slow pace. Bubbles is flat on her back. Rather than rise and run, she scrambles backwards, trying to keep as much distance between her and the Killer as possible. Arguably, she has the Idiot Ball, as anyone with a lick of sense would jump up and run like hell. On the other hand, she's ten feet away from the guy who killed the whole Varsity Team half an hour ago, and he's approaching at a slow, but inexorable pace. She's terrified beyond capacity for rational thought. THIS is an example of the use of a situation for suspense, not necessarily the Idiot Ball, although I've heard it argued otherwise, usually by people who were sitting in the safety of a living room on a sofa with no knife killers for miles...

Bubbles is an example of A Person Who Made Mistakes And Now There Is Suspense, as you have described. This is common. There's nothing WRONG with that.

Meanwhile, Fumbles the Quarterback is back at the cabin, examining the bodies of the rest of the team, all of whom have double punctures on their necks. "Vampires?" he wonders aloud. And then he cautiously walks down the steps into the open basement, which is pitch dark. He carries no flashlight, and does not reach for a light switch, apparently content to stumble blindly through a lightless basement in which there could be ANY durn thing. Even in the absence of vampires, he could bang his head on a floor joist or trip over a cymbal clashing monkey. Perhaps there will be a Cat Scare, in which a mmeeeEEEOOOWing feline startles him as it flees.

Fumbles has been passed the Idiot Ball, and is chuggin' away for the zero yard line, even if there are no vampires. Or even a cymbal clashing monkey.

A non-horror example is TV cop shows where Hero Cop tells his partner to go round back while he kicks in the front door... in a situation where the bad guy is in a house, and there are no lives immediately at stake. What, your cop car is RIGHT THERE, you have a RADIO, you can't at least call for BACKUP? A mistake? Sure. A career-damaging one for Real Life cops, who invariably would not MAKE this mistake; the bad guy's alone in the house, no innocents nearby, he's cornered, CALL FOR BACKUP! But the cop has the Idiot Ball, and the writer wants to crank up the suspense, so...

THIS is what I was talking about. Although you've definitely opened up room for discussion!

Edited by Dr.Bedlam
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8 minutes ago, NomadZeke said:

Whenever I see horror movies, I think of this...horror movies would be far more amusing then: http://thelawdogfiles.blogspot.com/2006/05/lines-id-really-like-to-hear.html

 

Stuff like this is why I tend to prefer horror monsters of the supernatural spirit variety.  Like, nobody imagines they can actually shotgun their way out of a confrontation with the creatures from Pulse or the ghost from The Ring or The Grudge.  I did appreciate the scene in Monster Squad where the werewolf regenerated after being blown to smithereens with a stick of dynamite, showing that you can't necessarily laterally think your way around some creatures' arbitrary mystical vulnerabilities.

 

I think I also like ghost stories because the ghosts are often operating by rules that are just wholly and completely unfair to the protagonists.  There's no "smart" or "dumb" thing to really do, except avoid whatever mysterious trigger gets you targeted in the first place.

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23 minutes ago, VitM said:

 

Stuff like this is why I tend to prefer horror monsters of the supernatural spirit variety.  Like, nobody imagines they can actually shotgun their way out of a confrontation with the creatures from Pulse or the ghost from The Ring or The Grudge.  I did appreciate the scene in Monster Squad where the werewolf regenerated after being blown to smithereens with a stick of dynamite, showing that you can't necessarily laterally think your way around some creatures' arbitrary mystical vulnerabilities.

 

I think I also like ghost stories because the ghosts are often operating by rules that are just wholly and completely unfair to the protagonists.  There's no "smart" or "dumb" thing to really do, except avoid whatever mysterious trigger gets you targeted in the first place.

 

Well, yeah, aside from "being made of tasty stuff."

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Horror movies and events like @Dr.Bedlam and @Reaperbryan describe bother me less than "smart person acting like an idiot" tropes. The door open? Yeah. Careless mistake. Looking around to see what happened? Yeah, that's fine. 

 

Very smart characters deliberately doing something dumb and against their logical nature? That's bothersome. Hogarth in Jessica Jones deciding to tamper with the Kilgrave experiment? That was annoying; she did that deliberately and stupidly, and she's supposed to be very smart. The premise of a lot of super hero movies? Smart scientist does something wildly stupid, creates Bad Thing. Books? Kvothe in The Name of the Wind? Supposedly brilliant: constantly does stupid things.

 



Heck, last season of GoT had a lot of suffering for a DUMB idea. Seriously, Jon thought it was a practical thing to do, catching a white walker? Tyrion I understand - he hasn't seen them. Jon and the others? C'mon, they'd have been better off just not burning a dead guy and leaving him near the wall then going off on that dumb-as-broccoli mission. 

 

Maybe some of this is lumped with "high intelligence, low wisdom/charisma" tropes. Still, it gets extremely bothersome when out of the blue, a smart character does dumb things. If bad things happen, let it be by reasonable accident, instead of by out of character idiocy. 

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A friend of ours (the same guy for whom I paint lots of miniatures, incidentally) lets us drop by to watch movies that he gets on BluRay or through whatever video service he's got at the time, and I am TERRIBLE at remarking aloud about whatever we are watching.  I will often voice disgust with how "obviously stupid" the character is in a horror situation, and my friend -- who has a natural disposition toward playing devil's advocate -- will challenge me and sometimes ... yeah, okay, I'm just being too "genre-savvy," and I'll grant it, I was being unfair.

 

And of course, if there are amazing coincidences that happen in the story ... well, maybe this is a case of selection bias.  We are being told the story about the person who DID go into the spooky graveyard, who DID stupidly break the seal holding back the curse, or any number of things, or else there just wouldn't be a story.

 

But sometimes, SOMETIMES, I think stories go a little too far, and it's not merely that people are being "stupid" or "careless," but willfully behaving in suicidal fashion that goes at odds with any observation of their behavior up to this point.

 

Like, say, I'm a security guard.  I have just discovered a withered corpse.  Since I am not a coroner doing an autopsy, I am probably NOT going to bring my face in so close to said withered face that, if this were a romantic movie, and said withered corpse weren't a withered corpse, we in the audience would expect a passionate kiss to follow.  But of COURSE this corpse is actually a mummy-something and is going to spring to life and suck the guard's life force out through his gaping mouth.

 

Now, my reflex is not, "Well OBVIOUSLY a dead corpse is going to spring to life and suck your life force out through your mouth."  It's more, "It is not natural to bring your face within near-kissing-distance to the face of a shriveled corpse, in the muddy dark, where one might slip, or where one might get nostrils full of withered-corpse-stench."

 

Ditto for blundering downstairs in the dark.  Now, I MIGHT do something like that if there were some matter of urgency: I just heard someone cry for help, and I'm NOT logically thinking that the danger is coming from a monster trying to eat someone and who might therefore eat me next.

 

Or, I dunno, zombie apocalypse, and we the main characters have all experienced swarms of flesh-eating cannibal zombies, yet were lucky enough to survive, so let's just drive a short distance outside of the city, and set up in some camping tents.  Surely no zombies are going to come tearing through the -- OH, WHAT DO YOU KNOW?  There goes the neighborhood!  Would have made perfect sense if these are oblivious campers outside of cell phone reception range and they haven't heard that there's an Apocalypse going on, but if you've got what amount to "veterans," each of whom has just lost family members and friends, I expect them to be at least a TEENSY bit more on guard, and jumpy.  It's not necessarily that it's obvious or smart (I mean, even inside a house, you might have zombies breaking through drywall that *seemed* like a nice safe barrier a few minutes ago), but it just seems unnatural for the characters to be this way. 

 

Now, if they've been traumatized and they've tried to kill too many brain cells with alcohol, and hence somebody does something drunken-stupid?  Or everyone is barricaded inside a warehouse, and there's constant zombie-moaning, and someone's wits splinter, and he goes screaming out into the night?  It's stupid, but at least it feels like a more plausible sort of stupid rather than just "Okay, writer needs you to totally not care about the horror anymore."

 

And it's not always horror, per se.  For instance, there was "Falling Skies."  It had a number of problems, but one thing that bugged me was the idea of an alien invasion, where it's demonstrated that the aliens have air superiority (spaceships -- they came from SPACE, after all), civilization is squashed, and yet rag-tag survivors are just sort of camping out in the open streets, under the open sky, sipping hot cocoa around campfires, completely oblivious to the idea that ... hey, I dunno, maybe an alien is going to fly by at night, see all your campfires amid the vast blackness of nothing-burning-non-civilization, and decide that makes a nice target to start shooting at.  And of course, every now and again, death DID come from the skies, but it never seemed to change their behavior.  Why?  I think it's just because the writers wanted some "light" moments of sitting around campfires swapping stories, as part of their emotional orchestration of the tone of the series, and, doggonnit, they're going to HAVE those campfire scenes.  :)

 

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22 minutes ago, Cyradis said:

Kvothe in The Name of the Wind? Supposedly brilliant: constantly does stupid things.

 

 

OMG Don't get me started on Kvothe. Now don't get me wrong, I am thoroughly enjoying the books and anxiously await book 3. But Kvothe does not nothing but do stupid things.

 

Now, to be fair, the smartest people I know are complete goobers in real life. Anything outside of their field, including normal everyday "being a grown up" stuff like gassing up your car or wearing a jacket, and they stuff it up like Kvothe before the council. SO that's fair, i guess

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...and that's exactly what I was talking about in the OP: Reasonably intelligent people doing surprisingly stupid things with no real explanation other than "well, the plot required it."

I had loads of arguments about Fear The Walking Dead, particularly about Travis' questionable decisions. "Well, maybe he didn't want to get the cops involved with that slaughter at the old church because his stepson was there and he didn't want to get his stepson in trouble." Um... but his stepson didn't kill anyone, and by GOING there, Travis just implicated himself in an apparent MURDER, yes? And he felt that just shutting up and then LYING about whether he saw anything was the best move? Why? We get no explanation of this, now or ever.

The first zombie Madison sees up close is her boss, who has become a zombie. This is before the zombie apocalypse happens; as far as she knows he's just gone crazy and wants to eat her. She kills him, right there in the school where they both work... and then leaves. She contacts no one, tells no one. Now, if Reaperbryan becomes a zombie, right there at Reapercon, and I accidentally off him by whacking him with a fire extinguisher, well, he WAS a zombie... but considering there isn't a zombie apocalypse yet, and in-universe, I've never heard of such a thing... at the VERY least, I feel obligated to call his WIFE, if not the cops, yes? Even if it's just to tell her "Uh, about Bryan... uh... some guy hit him in the head! Yeah! Some guy! A foreigner! And he hit Bryan in the head! And then he jumped out the window and ran away!" SOME damn thing! But no, Madison goes home and neglects to tell anyone that her boss tried to eat her, so she bashed his head in and left him in the main hallway of a high school.

Things that go beyond "well, I'm an engineer but I'm a goober when it comes to zombies." More like "My actor argued like hell, but the director threatened to fire him, so my character stuck his head into the bleeding hole in the wall, and then..."

 

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yeah, in Kvothe's case I wonder how much the author is trying to make a flawed hero because everyone under the sun tries to make near perfect ones and end up irritating the audience with melodrama.

That may be some of what bothers Doc in terms of plot in the above examples. Writing people just being people is surprisingly hard, much less when you throw in the supernatural where we as normal peeps can't accept the written/acted reality. It's easy to fall back on melodrama to make stuff happen. It's hard to take a flaw and use it to drive plot. Well, at least for me, but I'm learning.  But yeah- I give movies and books a lot of leeway because I'm a forgiving Corporea and know no one is perfect.  However, I truly do appreciate a well-written script and will be more likely to want to see said movie again...

 

speaking of which, who's with me for Nano?!!  We can conquer!!!

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Well, in all candor, ONE cheerleader or jock or stoner who does ONE idiotic thing in a movie doesn't spoil the movie. It's when the writer basically moves the characters around like pawns with no regard for any sort of common sense or sense of self preservation that drives me nuts.

The one exception was Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, but that was a parody of your typical Spam In A Cabin movie. And Cabin In The Woods, of course, but you get a complete explanation of all the questionable decisions as you go.

SHERIFF: "Now let me get this straight... he ran up and JUMPED into the wood chipper?"
DALE: "He did! He really did! I know how it SOUNDS, but..."

 

 

 

Edited by Dr.Bedlam
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