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Why the Horror Trope of the Hard-Boiled Detective Protagonist Needs to End

Why the Horror Trope of the Hard-Boiled Detective Protagonist Needs to End

I typically only write when I feel like I have something meaningful to say – a specific insight into a movie, a humble suggestion to make a franchise more interesting or relevant… Rarely do I write hundreds of words simply to express my own personal beef with something as trivial as a horror trope that desperately needs to die.

Buckle up, buttercups, this is one of those rare occasions. What I’m about to say is my personal opinion. You aren’t required to agree.

So help me, if I ever again read a horror plot synopsis that begins with “A detective…” or lord have mercy in the case of Hellraiser: Judgment, “Three detectives…” I will put my hand through my laptop screen.

It needs to stop.

There are very specific instances where this sort of set-up has worked, and even those will almost certainly be debated over in the comments section regarding whether they are ‘real horror.’ Se7en worked. If you want to expand into the realm of the FBI, The Silence of the Lambs worked. But those were very specific tales of law enforcement agents hunting serial killers. Telling the story from the perspective of law enforcement made sense.

What makes less sense to me is taking the Hellraiser franchise and turning it into a police procedural. Or even the Saw series. The first installments of these franchises are considered classics and one of the reasons why is their embrace of one the basic tenets of good horror: relatability. Kirsty Cotton was an every-person whose weird uncle and stepmother brought Hell into her father’s home. Lawrence Gordon was a doctor, which most of us are not, but he didn’t have to be. Anyone, from any walk of life, seen as sufficiently ungrateful for their existence could be a Jigsaw target. You could imagine waking up with a bear-trap on your face because you dropped out of college or don’t call your Grandpa enough and that was what made the premise scary.

Movies use the protagonist as an avatar for the viewer. Michael Myers is scary because any one of us could be Laurie Strode, sitting in a house, babysitting a couple of kids, with a masked maniac standing outside holding an oversized steak knife he inexplicably wants to place inside you multiple times. Anyone can be Nancy, because we all sleep and we’re all one nightmare away from Freddy. The Freelings. The Lutz family. Even the crew of the Nostromo were working stiffs more interested in getting home and getting paid than anything. Almost any of your favorite horror movies have one thing in common and that’s a horrifying threat encroaching on familiar people. It’s not that hard to picture yourself in their shoes, the subtle message being drilled into your brain where it lies in wait for you to crawl into bed at night and stare into the dark – It could happen to you. And while we’re on the subject, that’s another reason Get Out was so effective at doing what it was intended to do – the black community doesn’t see a lot of protagonists in horror so excruciatingly relatable and the white community rarely gets such an opportunity to empathize with one.

You know who I have a much harder time empathizing with? Hard-boiled detectives. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they don’t exist. Not in the way they’re typically depicted on film. These brooding, hard-drinking, unshaven dudes who say things like “I’ve gotta catch this scumbag” below a normal conversational volume. I don’t know that guy. You don’t know that guy. You want a truly relatable detective? Watch Zodiac. David Toschi’s job is tedious and frustrating and it never leads to any fulfilling answers. Now that’s a guy people can relate to.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and some rules were made to be broken. Again, see Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs. But if you’re trying to pull off horror by placing the audience in the shoes of a character like Mills or Starling you damn well better make them as relatable as Mills or Starling, both of whom were grounded in their respective backstories and greenhorn statuses. If you don’t, no matter how interesting your premise is – like say a puzzle box that acts as a figurative and literal gateway to pain and pleasure beyond your most perverse imaginings – it’s dead on arrival because we have no reason to care, and thus, no reason to be scared.



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