Many theorists believe that there exist a set number of possible plots for any given story. The number of possibilities will vary somewhere from 7 to 20, but the main idea is that every novel or film inevitably follows one of these core concepts regardless of how they re-arrange the details.
Logic dictates that to attain any semblance of originality in storytelling today, one is better served focussing on their unique perspectives rather than trying to re-invent the proverbial wheel. This is perhaps the reason why modern storytelling seems to have veered significantly toward character-driven plots where the individual perspective/experience may provide a far fresher canvas of possibilities than the continual revisiting of man vs nature, man vs man, and other redundant scenarios.
That is not to say that we don’t crave the classics; if the track record of cinema and art in general has proven anything it’s that nostalgia never goes out of style. We love to see the medium challenged from time-to-time, but audiences will generally want a steady stream of the kind of stories they already know. There is a warm, fuzzy feeling we get from knowing that the next hour or two will be spent alongside a rugged hero that will be put to the test, but ultimately send the bad guy tumbling into a chasm with a well-placed one-liner and a devastating karate kick. It offers a kind of satisfaction akin to booting up a video game you’ve already played through a dozen times; it’s really about being in control.
Horror films, perhaps more than any other genre in cinema, rely on a very fundamental and repetitive set of directives that haven’t changed very much since their inception. The formula has been played with considerably, but the basics remain strikingly the same; the key is addressing mortality and the fragile nature of the human body/spirit. This is a prime example of a type of storytelling that does not need to be re-invented so much as infused with more character-driven plots that surprise and challenge the medium.
Horror films have unfortunately been in decline for some time now, mass-produced and diluted into tween exploitation schlock cinema with endless sequels and prequels. Even good exploitation horror in the tradition of Wes Craven’s The Thing or Hellraiser has been supplanted by hollow, mediocre franchises like Paranormal Activity and SAW that do little beyond serving up the same tepid soup of tropes and cliches with few discernible elements of originality or substance.
All is not lost however; the advent of the HBO-led television renaissance, that has been yielding potentially the most worthwhile storytelling in recent memory, is breathing life (or death?) back into the horror genre with breakthrough series like American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, and host of other chilling series that seem to be getting back to basics. Many of the tropes and cliches can be found in these shows as well, but the style and finesse of some of these programs proves that you can go home again, hit up all the familiar spots along the way, but somehow discover entirely new frontiers of terror and entertainment.