tracy mathews by april greer

Five Ways Being a Creative is like Being a Character in a Horror Movie

October 31, 2019

It’s Halloween. The deadline to choose a costume, find the perfect pumpkin, decorate your lawn with foam tombstones and buy bags of treats for the neighborhood children is here. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve been watching horror films in your free time all month…more than the regular amount you watch during the other eleven months.

The other night, as I was watching the 1987 flick Evil Dead 2, (for the twenty-ish time in my life), I let out a fake scream with every jump scare, just to play along with the intention of the director (long live Sam Raimi). I mean, you KNOW jump scares are coming. It’s a classic trope! So, you expect them, and you embrace them…even if you hate them.

That’s when I realized: horror tropes are metaphors for what it’s like to be a career creative sometimes.

Not a fan of horror? It’s okay, I’ve got us both covered. So, open up that bag of candy corn, get comfy under your covers and allow me to explain. (Cue the howling wolf.)

1. Ignoring the foreboding local is ill-advised.

Road trip! A pair, trio or larger group has ended up far from their hometown. Their destination: a weekend of partying, relaxing, swimming or all of the above at a remote location. They stop off for gas and ask for directions. The wise, but often disregarded townsperson knows the area well and tells them to avoid route 666, for that road is dark and full of terrors (for you GOT fans). Instead, he tells them the best path, outlining how long it should take and ensuring them that, if they take the correct turns, they should be there safely by nightfall. Do they listen? Again, there wouldn’t be a story if they did!

I’ve always loved this character in horror films. To me, they are the perfect metaphor for the creative who knows creative roads like the back of their hands. The travelers are well-meaning account managers or project execs. At times, the wisdom of the creative is either tossed from the window or forgotten as it slowly fades away in the rear-view mirror, with the hope to get to the destination faster or to figure it out, turn by turn, on their own.

Never fear! It’s a scary and dangerous path without a proper scope, budget or timeline and we know the way. To take “short-cuts” usually means going over budget in the long run and to move along without a well-established timeline could mean the journey never ends. Avoid that path at all costs!

2. Technology will always fail you when you need it the most.

In the age of technological advancements, surely everyone can call for help in horror movies…right? Well, not if you want the movie to be over quickly.

Protagonists in horror films are often up against the most treacherous of times when they find themselves isolated and without reliable service. Maybe our beloved hero is driving down a winding back road, hiding in a basement, running through the forest, hiking remote mountains, or spelunking the deepest of caves. Either way, when it’s most important for her to make a call or send a text, technology will ALWAYS fail.

If you have ever needed to present visuals to a client, you know exactly what this feels like. Terror. Anger. Shame. And then by the end, you may find yourself laughing out of sheer emotional distress.

It goes something like this:

“Hi. Tracy is on the line. Can you hear me?”


“Okay, let me talk closer into the mic.”

“That’s a little better.”

“Perfect. Well, let me start by saying that I’m really excited to share this work today. It’s been the culmination of our work together over the course of the last six months and I hope you find that it’s really what you need to meet your business objectives. I’m sharing my screen. Can you see the presentation?”

“Oh, shoot. I’m dialed in by phone from the train, so I’m not looking.”

“Okay! Um, I’ll send you the presentation right nowwwwww thennnnnn.” [Stalls a bit by dragging words out] “Once you get it, if you could try to look at it on your phone screen, that would be awesome. Or, I’m happy to describe all of the details of the design and you can just try to picture it in your mind.”

“Hello, Tracy? Are you still there? I can’t hear you.”

“Let me move to this side of the room and hold my computer in the air…like this.” Loudly asks, “Is this better?”

[Signal is lost.]


Listen, friends. If there is something important to present learn from horror films. Technology is not always your friend and you shouldn’t rely on teleconferences for visual presentations. If something can go wrong, it will. Meet in person. If the audio doesn’t work, improvise. If the HDMI cord won’t work—pull the backup prints out and work the room.

The only time you should use your cell phone in this scenario is to send the Beyonce “I SLAY” gif to your colleagues after you “killed it” in the meeting.

3. Jump scares can happen at any moment.

Safe in the cabin on a much-needed weekend getaway, the protagonist unpacks her bags when suddenly a bat flies into the window, creating a thunderous bang on the glass. (GASP!) At some point, the ghost of the previous owner appears in the bathroom mirror as the protagonist pops back up from washing her face in the sink. (AHH!) Later, she walks down into the basement to reset the breaker when a lively skeleton reaches through the stairs and grabs her ankle. (SHRIEK!) Finally, the last fight has been fought and the protagonist triumphantly limps away. It’s over. Right? Nope…not before one final scare. (SCREEEEAAAAM!)

In the real world, here’s how this translates: You’ve worked on a brochure design for two weeks or more, gone through three rounds of revisions and sent the final pdf by the deadline. You get confirmation that it all looks good. You cross this project off the list with your favorite pen. Accomplishment settles in.

But then, three months later while you’re at your cousin’s wedding without your laptop, you get a high priority email with a subject line in all caps that says BROCHURE CHANGES NEEDED ASAP. (AHHH!)

Before you know it, three more months and 14 rounds of revisions later and you’ve just exported Brochure_V17-b_final-final3_final-for-real-this-time_this-is-the-last-round.pdf. Victory! And while a sense of fatigue washes over as you hit send, you know that you’ll return to that cabin desk again, because it lovingly beckons you back.

Next time though, you’ll be better at mitigating unlimited change requests.

4. Splitting up is always unsafe.

“Let’s split up” is frequently heard in horror films and it’s always a bad idea. But there usually comes a moment where a group of people makes a terrible decision to either “cover more ground” or to separately find the “best way out.”

The fate of the group is now in the hands of the many. And often, nobody is following a single plan. One by one, each person meets their demise. It’s painful to watch, and not in a squeamish way, but in a “if-only-there-was-a-leader-with-a-plan-and-they-all-worked-together” kind of way.

In the real-life version of this trope, if a creative team breaks off after a kickoff and separately creates multiple versions for a client to review without a solid plan, usually the output is scattered and is formed by the subjective views/tastes/styles of each person. Sure, you’ve covered more ground…but to what end?

Sheer quantity never wins the day. And while there may be different ways of getting to the best output, without a creative brief that outlines the objectives, audiences, appropriate tones and themes, brand elements to use, etc., well, let’s just say, each version will get slaughtered; or worse, you’ll be asked to “Frankenstein” them together (see bonus at the end).

Stick together. Follow the brief. And while one victor might emerge ahead of the rest, everyone survives and can celebrate success together.

5. The final girl makes it out in the end.

Whether a horror movie starts with only a few characters or a spaceship full of them, the further you get into it, the higher the body count rises. But the “final girl” is one of the most ubiquitous themes used. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, Halloween, You’re Next, The Descent, Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street and Cabin in the Woods (which pokes direct fun at this stereotypical role) all use this trope to put a softer, hopeful ending, on an otherwise terrifying story.

We need these characters. She is the emblem of courage and bravery. She’s a quick thinker and remains logical under pressure. She looks out for the other characters and doesn’t try to save herself at the cost of leaving others behind. She’s empathetic and understands what motivates others. She can solve problems that seem impossible to solve and maneuver out of the trickiest of challenges.

And funny enough…she shows up in the sequel and does it all over again, getting wiser and bolder each time.

It’s not always easy being a creative. You want to come up with the perfect solution and make sure it’s produced the best way possible. But there are always challenges along the way, from moving deadlines to mixed opinions. Staying empathetic, bold and confident while keeping sight of the true objectives is the key to the best outcomes and output. Reach your final destination. Be a final girl (or guy). And always come back for the sequel!

Note: I am intentionally ignoring the layer of this trope that says the final girl must be “pure,” “wholesome” or any other characteristic that falls into misogynistic territory.

Bonus: Don’t be Frankenstein

There are many iterations of this story, and while not a trope, it’s a story and metaphor worth nothing, since we often refer to mashing different versions of something together as “Frankensteining.”

Generally speaking, Frankenstein created a monster by piecing him together and through a little chemistry and magic, a giant creature comes to life. From there, the monster is quickly rejected by its creator and eventually horrifies society, leaving him to retreat in grief and isolation.

This one is simple. Just don’t make a monster. And resist others’ requests to do so with reason and rationale in order to come up with a better solution. You can do it!!!

Happy Halloween!

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